Catwalk canvases

PUBLISHED : Friday, 06 July, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 06 July, 2007, 12:00am

TRYING TO PIN DOWN CHARLOTTE Tilbury is like trying to grasp mercury. Just when you think you will get five minutes with her, she slips through your fingers. One minute a job had been postponed so she would be free the next day. An hour later, not just the next day but the whole of the next week became booked up with fashion shoots. In the end it took three months to confirm an interview date.

The reason becomes clear when she runs off the list of autumn campaigns she has buffed, powdered and glossed since the fashion shows finished in early March. There's been the new Dolce & Gabbana Light Blue fragrance shoot with Mario Testino; a Bottega Veneta shoot photographed by Aron Norman; the latest Scarlett Johansson campaign for Louis Vuitton, which she did with her friends, photographers Mert and Marcus, with whom she worked on the Armani, Cavalli and Bulgari campaigns; and Mariah Carey, who Tilbury made up for the singer's fragrance launch.

The flame-haired 34-year-old possesses great drive and energy (she says it's in a redhead's DNA). 'I love making women look beautiful - make-up is one of the key things that can enhance a woman's beauty,' she says.

Models talk about Tilbury 'giving good chair', chatting and gossiping and putting them at ease while she tweezes, powders and lip-shines them to perfection for the cameras.

'Making people feel relaxed is very important,' she says. 'I also love to chat and have a girly gossip with whoever's in the chair - it's all part of the fun.'

Tilbury is at the peak of her game. In the days leading up to the fashion shows, she works with designers on the ideas for the models' make-up. This season she did 29 shows. For Alexander McQueen, Tilbury was inspired by Elizabeth Taylor in the 1963 film Cleopatra. 'The biggest technical make-up challenge,' she says, 'was getting the eyeliner with a small triangle shape extended out equally and perfectly symmetrically on both sides.' Given how long the show was delayed on the evening, this obviously took some mastering.

At Moschino Cheap & Chic, she chose vibrant fuchsia for the models' lips.

'I wanted the lips to look almost plastic, dripping with gloss, so the challenge here was to make sure that lashings and lashings of lip gloss were applied right before the models stepped out onto the catwalk, to prevent it dripping off and onto their chins.'

When Tilbury isn't running around powdering the noses of beautiful women (Jennifer Lopez, Uma Thurman, Mischa Barton, Kylie and Kate Moss have all been 'done' by her), she's back in her office in west London working on make-up ranges for the big brands. She has just come to the end of her contract creating pots of gorgeous gooey colour for Helena Rubinstein. The Cleopatra look she created for McQueen is part of a new line for Mac, with vivid hues of blue for eyes, black for brows and pearly pale shades for lips, which will be out this year. One of Tilbury's big ambitions is to have her own cosmetics range.

Tilbury is never seen without her mascara. Her marmalade hair (inherited from her Irish great aunts) means her eyelashes are 'so white and fair you can't even see them', so she applies copious amounts of mascara. Her current favourite is Helena Rubinstein Lash Queen for the 'sexy, fluttery lash look'.

Although she was born in London, Tilbury had a bohemian upbringing in Ibiza. She returned to England to go to boarding school, where she was first introduced to make-up. 'All the English girls wore lots of make-up and a beauty editor friend gave me bags of it to experiment with. I couldn't believe how much better I felt and it struck me that make-up is an amazing tool.'

She spent her holidays poring over her mother's copies of Vogue. Then, when she was 11, she was introduced to Mary Greenwell, a friend of her parents who had done magazine covers with models such as Jerry Hall and Marie Helvin. 'She was one of the main pioneers of make-up artists' careers as we know them today,' says Tilbury. Greenwell helped cement the idea in Tilbury's mind of what she wanted to do.

Her school friends were thrilled when she conducted impromptu makeovers, extolling the benefits of Mason Pearson hairbrushes and the virtues of mascara.

'I loved telling my friends that make-up could transform them and get them the boyfriend they wanted.'

Inspired by the posters of Brigitte Bardot and Marilyn Monroe that hung on her dormitory wall, Tilbury applied to go to make-up school. When she graduated, her first job was assisting Greenwell for a Vivienne Westwood show.

Her first campaign was for Joseph Ettedgui, the London designer and retailer, and was shot in Poland. 'Despite what everybody said, I insisted the model wore red lipstick. I always loved being a strong part of the creative process.'

Tilbury has worked with all the big names in fashion. 'I love Gisele for her Brazilian spirit, she talks non-stop and has the most fabulous body,' she says. Photographers Mert and Marcus 'make women look incredibly sexy and glamorous, which is very much my aesthetic. They are great friends and we share a love for Ibiza.' (An ambition of Tilbury's is to buy a private plane and an island off Ibiza.) She describes Kate Moss as 'bright, witty, fun and hardworking'.

A shoot for the June 2002 issue of British Vogue, in which Tilbury smothered Moss' body in bronzer, is cited by beauty schools as a seminal moment in make-up history. 'It set off a huge trend for that super-tanned, sexy beach goddess look, a la Raquel Welch in the film One Million Years BC,' says Tilbury. Other big moments include body-painting Giselle for a Pop magazine cover inspired by the 1960s model Veruschka, and the current Louis Vuitton campaigns for their glamour and femininity.

Tilbury is unstoppable. The only thing that might calm her down is her last big ambition - to have a baby (she got married last summer in Ibiza). 'I would prefer a little girl,' she says, 'so we can play dressing up.'