Mary Greenwell Talks Privilege, Power And Princess Diana

The sought-after makeup artist on finding her strength, the birth of the supermodels and the importance of soul-searching

By Rhea Cartwright

2 July 2021

t’s 1972 in New York and after travelling around America with her family for some weeks, a then 18-year-old Mary Greenwell announces to her father that she wants to stay there rather than return to England. “I wanted to escape my very beautiful, very proper and very upper-middle-class upbringing. It was just after the hippie movement and I really wanted to be in California.”

Talking on the phone with Mary now, with her beautifully eloquent and energetic voice, it’s almost impossible to fathom that before becoming the revered makeup artist to the stars, Mary was “very shy with no confidence and no voice.”

Her father drove her down to immigration to get her passport stamped, armed her with £300, equal to £4000 in today’s economy, and said see you in three weeks or so. Needless to say, Mary had other intentions and stayed in America for nearly a decade.

Having put a note in a health food shop in Denver, she hitched a lift to Los Angeles in “a classic white Volkswagen van with this total hippie”. Planning to stay with a friend, Mary quite literally entered Hollywood with a bang as when pulling up to the apartment, the van stopped so abruptly that a Rolls Royce driving behind, crashed into the back of them.

“My friend was a movie critic and took me to breakfast with Clint Eastwood the next morning, so that was my real entry into Hollywood,” Mary jokingly explains to me. “He was dressed really badly in jeans that came halfway down his legs and a mustard-coloured top, very much like Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood.”

Long before her career in makeup, she had brief stints working in Californian antique shops, galleries and restaurants which she admits were not her natural calling. “I was really bad because I’d drop the food and then forget the orders so they put me on the door as front of house instead.”

It is not the start one would imagine from one of the world’s most celebrated makeup artists. “Until about the age of 30, I was so vague and dreamy with no ambition or drive. I was just getting through life, not with any negativity, but always with a sense that everything would be alright.”

‘I’ve never been ambitious, I never thought, I’m going to conquer this or that. I just always wanted to do really well in whatever I did in my life and I’ve only ever done makeup.’

Thanks to her endearing charm, a friend recommended her to run the Fiorucci makeup counter in LA despite “having never worn makeup in my life.” She was flown to New York to work and assisted the esteemed makeup artist Ilana Harkavi. “She was the first person to launch a complete makeup range called Il Makiage. They had every single colour you could imagine; NARS and MAC both based their lines on it.”

She’d landed the job by telling them she’d worked for the iconic Biba makeup in London — “which was such a lie I can’t even tell you but I was really good at selling makeup to these uptown New York women.”

After nine years in the US and with several shoots under her belt, she came back to London and joined an agency. “They took me on immediately because I'd done quite a lot of really nice work and test shoots. I started working with people like photographer Pamela Hanson and Vanessa de Lisle who was fashion editor at Harper's Bazaar.”

“The supermodels didn’t exist yet. Off I went to Paris in the spring of 1984 where all the supermodels rocked up at the same time. I was staying in the same hotel as them and that’s where my career really started. I was alongside Francois Nars and Kevin Aucoin, we became the people that were always ready to go. None of us knew what it meant at the time but it was obviously absolutely massive.”

A chance New Year’s Eve party in London led her to meet the hairstylist Sam McKnight who went on to become her longtime collaborator. “Six months later I moved to New York and lived with him for the rest of my time there which was just really a lot of fun. That’s where I met Patrick Demarchelier and worked with Avedon and Penn and everything just opened up for me.”

Being at the genesis of the supermodel movement, Mary says, was extraordinary. “I remember being at a bar with a young photographer and watching Christie [Turlington] and Stephanie Seymour walk towards us and he said: “Those are the most beautiful girls in the world.” When Linda [Evangelista] rocked up, she was the most ambitious and determined person in the world. She created the supermodel world by her very existence. We had no idea this world was opening but it was unbelievable.”

Although Mary has been on speed-dial for both celebrities and royalty alike, beauty for Mary was never about any particular aesthetic. “My mother was very beautiful but truthfully, I lived such a privileged life that I was surrounded by beauty all the time. I was more inspired by the roses growing in the garden than a person’s beauty. I was a very artistic child and when we had parties my mother would ask me to make the flower arrangements because she knew I could do it. I feel like I’ve always had this trait to recognise balance, beauty and aesthetic and how to put things together.”

Mary and her mother.

“Makeup for me is about the creativity of enhancement. When I look at my work from the 80s, nothing has really changed. The colours haven’t changed, the textures haven’t changed. Of course, everything has got better but it’s all basically the same.”

Of her glittering career both past and present, it’s impossible to talk about Mary without discussing the seven years that she was Princess Diana’s makeup artist. “She was the most amazingly sweet person. She was living a beautiful life, helping us enormously, but she was also the most natural, loving person in the world.”

The pair first met in 1991 when Princess Diana was being shot for the December issue of British Vogue. “I think that shoot gave her the confidence to be more of a beauty. Before that, and also speaking from experience, she hadn’t yet found her strength and worth as a stylish, competent and confident woman that put her on the map. She had this incredible power, beauty and magnetism.”

In an industry that is saturated with egos, Mary is wholly unphased and perhaps somewhat naive to the magnitude of having worked with the most high-profile clients in the world. Her sincere gratitude and appreciation for the sparkling array of opportunities she has had are crystal clear.

“I feel incredibly lucky and think I must have the most incredible guardian angels looking after me. There’s a big difference between being ambitious and being driven. I’ve never been ambitious, I never thought, I’m going to conquer this or that. I just always wanted to do really well in whatever I did in my life and I’ve only ever done makeup. I don’t think that I’m the greatest thing since sliced bread but I feel so blessed; I look back and think, thank you universe.”

Like us all, she admits she is questioning her upcoming moves after a year of so much uncertainty. “Where do I go from here? This is quite a soul-searching time and we’re all at a crossroads. I’m starting to think, what do I really want out of life? How am I going to satisfy my inner self? The most intelligent women I know have all done some soul-searching at one point. Everyone goes through it — everybody.”

One thing that is certain, although she’ll undoubtedly be wearing her favourite MAC Creme In My Coffee lipstick, nobody else will be doing her makeup. “If anyone came at me using brushes with shaking nervous hands, I'd be like: “Oh you poor thing.” One of my powers of makeup, which I feel is very relevant now, is that my hands are really strong and artistic. The power you have running through your body when doing something like makeup is really important — the energy goes from your head to your hands.”

With that dynamic spark still in full vigour, I suspect that Mary’s next chapters will be just as colourful as those that have already preceded. With an abundance of warmth, wisdom and inituitive perspective she is undoubtedly destined for so much more greatness.

“It doesn’t matter who you are, we all think about where we fit in the world,” Mary says. “Whatever path of life you’ve taken, whether it’s looking after your kids or working really hard, you will have this paranoia and fear of the future. I think a lot of people are too fear-driven but we should look at it as a rebirth rather than something scary.”

The Short Stack

After stumbling into her now coveted career, for Mary Greenwell, life is truly about what you make it and enjoying every step along the way.

By Rhea Cartwright

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