For Makeup Artist Pat McGrath, These Are the Keys to Success

Whether on the runways or in the aisles of Sephora, Pat McGrath has become a powerful force in the beauty world. The makeup artist revisited her rise to superstardom with E! News.

By Samantha Schnurr Dec 09, 2021 3:00 PMTags
Tales From The Top, Pat McGrath, GIFBen Hassett, Getty Images, E! Illustration

Welcome to E!'s Tales From the Top, our series on women who are leaders in their fields and masters of their craft. Spanning industries and experiences, these powerhouse women answer all the questions you've ever had about how they got to where they are today—and what they overcame to get there. Read along as they bring their resumés to life. 

Of her many titles—CEO, founder, icon, dame—Pat McGrath is known to the world first and foremost for what she does best: Killing it as a makeup artist. 

Named by TIME as one of the most influential people in the world and widely considered the most prestigious in her industry, the trailblazing British artist boasts an incomparable résumé packed with thousands of runway shows, hundreds of magazine covers, an array of makeup products and a few supermodels who consider her as more than just a trusted member of the glam squad. Just ask Naomi Campbell, who once gushed on Instagram, "Pat is my chosen family and an undeniable creative force in the beauty business who has been in my life since the early stages of my career."

Campbell has served as a face of McGrath's eponymous makeup brand, Pat McGrath Labs, which she launched in 2015 with one mesmerizing—and swiftly sold-out—item: the Gold 001 pigment that could be applied to the eyelids, lips or in practically any other way creativity sparked. Much like the hypnotic looks of art she's famous for sending down the runway (red pouts topped with Swarovski crystals and feather lash extensions to name just a few), her makeup products are akin to candies far too beautiful to consume. 

Still, customers and fans gladly gobble them up, and fortunately McGrath has shown no signs of stopping any time soon. As she teased in an exclusive interview with E! News, "All I can say at the moment is…something MAJOR is coming!"

While those were the only words she was able to offer on the matter, she divulged far more on her rise to makeup superstardom, including her first foray into the business, the striking career advice her mother gave her and the legend she still wants to work with. 

Supermodels' First Runway Shows

E! News: How and when did you decide you wanted to be a makeup artist?

Pat McGrath: As a teen, I was electrified by the London scene—punk, New Wave, goth, Blitz Kids—thatʼs where I discovered that makeup artistry was a career that I could pursue. I used to go to an amazing club in Soho and met Kim Bowen, who asked me what I wanted to be and I said a makeup artist. Iʼd go with her on the very early i-D Magazine shoots and watch how everything came together and pick things up as the shoot went along. It was being on set with Kim that my obsession with beauty, fashion and makeup became real.

E!: Describe your first big break. When did you realize you had made it in the beauty industry?

PM: In the early days of my career, I worked with the incomparable Amber Valletta, who spoke to me about the man whose images had once wallpapered my walls: the legendary Steven Meisel. Meeting Steven was a definitive turning point in my life—I knew when I got the call in January 1996 to fly to New York from London to shoot a Vogue Italia couture story that it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity; it changed everything. In 2015, launching Labs with Gold 001 in the Jardin des Tuileries was a milestone in my career—I canʼt begin to tell you how shocked I was when Gold 001 sold out immediately! We announced the launch on Instagram and within 60 seconds, all the units had sold out. In the fall of 2017, I launched my permanent collection and Pat McGrath Labs was truly born.

I met Naomi Campbell in August 1994 at an i-D Magazine shoot with Kate Moss. It was one of my first shoots in New York and the set was late at night in the Meatpacking District. Between looks, weʼd pop into a deli for snacks and order noodles and diner food. It was just the three of us South London girls. Over 20 years of friendship later, Naomi became the face of our Divine Rose Collection and it was truly like we had come full circle. She is the ultimate Divine Rose and has been such an incredible muse to both me and the brand. 

DAVID X PRUTTING / PatrickMcMullan

E!: Youʼve spoken about the impact your mom had on your love of makeup. What was the most memorable career advice she gave you?

PM: My earliest memories are of watching my mother apply powders and shadows. She was so glamorous, absolutely impeccable. If she couldnʼt find the perfect shade, she would mix it herself. She is my ultimate muse in the way I approach everything in life. Why wait for someone else to create something you want when you can do it yourself. Iʼll never forget the moment she told me to "Choose a job in the arts, dear. That way no one can ever tell you you're wrong."

E!: Being a makeup artist is not often lucrative in the beginning. What is your biggest piece of financial advice?

PM: Listen to your heart. Trends are there to inspire you, not dictate to you. Makeup is about self-expression. I want everyone to feel uninhibited about experimenting with makeup. Makeup artists, makeup obsessives, anyone and everyone, can connect and support each other, share ideas and inspirations across borders and time zones. At Labs, we often say "Use without caution" because there is truly no wrong way to experiment with makeup. Donʼt be afraid to reach out to the people you admire—our connection to the world and each other is more accessible than ever. Join a makeup team, be backstage, be on shows—it will teach you so much about the industry.

E!: What has been a memorable business mistake youʼve made and what did you learn from it?

PM: The creative briefs from the major fashion houses can be elaborate, so there are times one gets swept away by the creativity they envision. The next thing you know, youʼve purchased 87,000 Swarovski crystals (Givenchy Spring/Summer 2014), have flown 75 assistants around the world and traveled 167,000 miles in a year with 84 trunks of makeup! To me, the only mistake is not working hard enough or being afraid to take chances—being creative and resilient is key.

E!: Youʼve been called the most influential makeup artist in the world. Why do you think youʼve made such an impact and in what ways do you think the beauty industry still needs to grow?

PM: When I was younger, it was nearly impossible for me to find the right shade of foundation. This was literally the reason I created my brand. It was important to me to create products and colors that would work on everyone. No matter what your age or skin tone. What matters is that the color is consistent on all people no matter what your shade.

When I founded Labs in 2015, I was thrilled to have an unprecedented opportunity to elevate the people whose confidence, individuality and character inspired me, regardless of gender, sexuality, size, age or skin tone. My intention for Labs was to create a line of products I need on a daily basis to streamline and simplify the often complex looks I am asked to execute for designers, photographers and celebrities. Powerhouse pigments and groundbreaking formulations in universally flattering shades for all skin tones allow me and my team to do what we need to do in a way that works for runway, red carpet, editorial and real life. I donʼt release anything that doesnʼt perform to the best of its ability at every single use and celebrate diversity.


E!: When people look at your career, it can all seem very glamorous and easy. Whatʼs something you think people donʼt see that is crucial to your success?

PM: The team and I engage in rigorous testing—on set, on the red carpet and on the runway to ensure that our high-performance formulas and fabulous formulations deliver every single time. In addition to being the CEO and Founder of Pat McGrath Labs, Iʼm also a working makeup artist. All the formulas I create are intended to streamline the process and allow me to achieve the creative results at the highest level as efficiently as possible.

MatteTrance Lipstick came into being because both backstage and on set I was always asked for a major matte mouth. Before MatteTrance, it took seven steps to create a matte lip that lasted. Now, with MatteTrance, I can achieve that seven-step look in one swipe, which makes our backstage efforts far more efficient.

E!: While your career has been jam-packed with incredible moments, what do you still have on your bucket list?

PM: Thereʼs so much to do! I am constantly obsessed with new, creative ideas. I am forever inspired by so many beautiful faces, extraordinary places around the world, color, texture and art in all mediums. There are still countless looks to create, products to develop and McGrath Muses to unveil. Iʼve been so blessed to have worked with so many incredible people! But it would be so thrilling to have a chance to collaborate with Grace Jones. Now that would be major! We have had some truly exciting collaborations! Star Wars and Supreme just to name a few. All I can say at the moment is…something MAJOR is coming!

(This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)