Molly R. Stern’s love affair with makeup began at the age of 16 when she worked after school for prestige brand Shu Uemura. She later held corporate positions with Clinique, M.A.C. and Trish McEvoy, gaining experience in sales, merchandising and makeup application training. In 1993 she embarked on her freelance career capturing the attention of Hollywood’s A-listers with her work in high-profile advertising and editorials. By 1998, with her freelance career fully established, Molly moved to New York City to expand her career and pursue other creative opportunities. Molly founded the boutique clothing label m.r.s., based on her philosophy that every woman has a unique natural beauty and that makeup and clothing should enhance this beauty. Her success with m.r.s. was reflected when one of her couture gowns was shown at the “Goddess” themed Costume Institute Gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The piece resides in the museum’s permanent collection. As one of the foremost voices in the field of makeup, her advice, wisdom and beauty tips have been published in international beauty magazines including: Allure, Instyle, Elle and many of the weeklies such as People and Us Magazine. Here, Molly talks makeup, influences, motherhood and more with Emily Sandberg and me.
Can you tell us about the impact music has played in your work?
For me, music is the most reliable, relatable and moving art form that exists. On a great day, every song one hears is speaking to them, on a bad day every song understands them. I love to listen to music and I love to play music. It impacts my life, not just my work, in that it speaks to my soul. Listening to music I love makes me feel confident and connected. My iPod is the first thing I set up when I get to work. It creates an environment and vibe that my clients can settle into.
What was working with bassist Melissa Auf Der Maur like and how has she affected your design approach?
I was lucky to have Melissa wear a lot of my designs throughout the time that I was making clothes. Melissa was my first ever muse. Her intense love of rock music combined with her strange meld of Renaissance and futuristic style made her super inspiring to dress. At the time my style was very feminine yet deconstructed. She was my classically beautiful robot.
You have a flair and honed instinct for the theatrics and costume design. How did you tune that into your work as a makeup artist?
My makeup artistry came first. My love of the face and its countenance started when I was 16 years old. I love women and bringing out the strength in their features in feminine ways.
Everything creative you do involves your hands. Can you tell me about the lineage of creativity in your family? Do all the artists use their hands the same way you do?
My father’s side of the family gave me my love of music as my grandmother was a classically trained pianist. My grandfather worked as a tailor for most of his life. I wasn’t close to either of them, but my father and I are extremely close and he plays the violin and guitar and has a deep passion for the arts. His support of any and every one of my artistic endeavors shows no bounds. On my mother’s side, my grandmother whom I was very close to was a total fashionista. She dressed, always, to impress. I think my love of VOGUE beauty and fashion was highly influenced by her. My darling grandfather liked to draw and I have a fantastic piece of dancing girls drawn with a very youthful touch hanging in my baby daughter’s room. My mother is a chef. She is a master in the kitchen. So yes, I suppose my blood line used their hands in the same way that I do.
What kit do you currently use to travel with? Do you check your make up or bring it as carry on?
I can’t bear to pare down my kit. I know I should, because that dang bag is so heavy. I find that anytime I have taken things out to make a ‘travel’ kit, I always wish I had what I took out, or someone inevitably asks me for the exact product I thought I wouldn’t need. So, I bring the whole kit and caboodle. No choice, I must check it…and I pray, hard, every time I get on and off that plane that I will see that kit and all of its caboodles on the luggage carousel.
As an artist what was it that drew you to makeup as your preferred medium?
I like that makeup is a tool used to empower women in their beauty. I like that it can be sheer like watercolor or opaque like oil. I like that my canvas is alive. I enjoy the science of mixing product with flesh and blood. Each face and feature gives me a different point of focus, chemistry and ultimate outcome.
There seems to be two schools of thought when it comes to the application of makeup; to enhance or to make a statement. Can you tell us about your philosophy and approach to makeup?
My goal when applying makeup is to bring out what is already there. I feel like enhancing is making a statement. They are one in the same. Generally, I keep something about the application sheer. If the skin is good, I go light on the foundation, if the skin needs work, I diffuse the shadow or gloss the lip. There is dimension to a woman’s face which in turn requires that I flow with the needs of the individual.
Where do you draw inspiration from and how do you channel that inspiration into your work?
My inspiration comes from all different sources. I live with two beautiful daughters who have the most perfect naturally blushed skin, the most gorgeous colored lips and heavenly streaked blonde hair. I am inspired by their innate confidence. We are born loving ourselves. I try to bring that buried truth back to women’s surface. Women intrinsically inspire me with their strength and will and their ability to manage with tenderness. As far as color goes, I love paintings, classic and modern, nature… I borrow from many surrounding sources to bring creativity and love to what I do.
How have you evolved as a makeup artist?
I feel as though I am constantly evolving. When I started it was how crazy and out there could I be? Then I became very interested in natural beauty. Now I encourage my clients to have fun, get ‘out there’ and know their strengths. I have abandoned terms like cover-up, yet I understand the need to feel like ‘I have my face on’. There has to be balance. I strive to know and love my true self. I hope my energy as a makeup artist does the same for the women I touch.
While promoting The September Issue, Anna Wintour quipped to David Letterman that those who couldn’t afford to purchase high fashion apparel could always “buy a new lipstick.” Do you think the value of makeup is greater than high fashion solely based on its accessibility?
I think the value of makeup is greater than high fashion because it doesn’t have anything to do with our bodies and how any given item of clothing fits. Makeup is an easy and wonderful way to uplift our spirits. When we give ourselves a spruce-up it makes us FEEL pretty. We are emotion based creatures. Naturally when we feel good, we do better, give more, achieve.
Cosmetics brands are releasing products especially tailored for men, and men are using such products increasingly more commonly. There is some controversy over this, however, as many feel that men who wear make-up are neglecting traditional gender roles, and do not view men wearing cosmetics in a positive light. What are your views on this issue?
I don’t subscribe to traditional gender roles. They simply do not exist in my personal universe. I believe humans are capable of amazing things. Man, woman, doesn’t matter. The same concept applies to men as well as women, when we feel good we excel. If using cosmetics inspires men to be more confident and empowered, by all means.
Estee Lauder recently acknowledged and embraced women of ethnic diversity in its global advertising campaigns. Why do you think the market for women of color in cosmetic advertising has gone untapped for so long?
The same question can be applied to the fashion industry as to why women with curves in advertising have gone untapped…forever. It’s time that cosmetic advertisers wise up to not only ranging ethnicities, but also the reality of ranging ages. The cosmetic industry needs to stand for all women, period.
Often we view the world through ethnocentric eyes. How do you adapt your craft when working outside a traditional Western market?
I wish I had more opportunity to work outside of the Western market. I need to branch out more! The inspiration that exists outside of our backyard is endless. Not too long ago I posted on my Tumblr page about beads and their place in fashion around the world. I shot a photo of my daughter wearing a pair of my grandmother’s beads, the same pair I wore as a young girl. There is so much to learn from other cultures about beauty. I long to travel with my daughters to study women around the world.
You work across many platforms: editorial, red carpet and the silver screen. How do you maintain a cohesive look while still maintaining a person’s individuality?
I try to encourage my clients to keep it fresh. That tends to be my cohesive thread. That desire naturally enhances distinctiveness because I am not interested in altering what’s there. I like to focus on elevating the beauty that each individual is willing to embrace.
Have you ever been in a situation when you felt you were compromising your artistic integrity and how did you cope?
More than artistic integrity, I have been in situations where I have had to compromise my emotional integrity. Many times I have cried feeling lost that I was giving my life to making pretty people look prettier. When I come out of those downs I have to remember my goal is to bring out the confidence that is within. That is what ultimately makes these women look the way they do. What I do on the surface is only 10% of my job. How I encourage women to view themselves is what gets me to work in the morning. When the client is only focused on what is skin deep, I know I am not the right lady for them.
How are you able to expand your brand while still maintaining your core values and principles?
My brand represents me and I strive to represent self love, confidence and acceptance. I plan to expand on those beliefs for as long as I exist.
What message do you want people to understand about you and your craft?
I want people to know that self love is pretty much required in order to live a full happy life. I want women to understand that only Angelina Jolie looks like Angelina Jolie and we should aspire to be our most beautiful and sacred selves. Aspiring to look like anyone else is simply a waste of precious time.
Trends come and go; what do you think constitutes timeless beauty?
Timeless beauty is fresh skin, a little dirt on the eye and a bitten lip. It just never goes out of style.
Follow her at @mollyrstern