Posted on May 02 2018
This week, we caught up with makeup artist extraordinaire Lilly Keys. Originally from South Africa, Lilly moved to London where she started her makeup career working for Girls Aloud in the 2000s before moving to LA where her career has soared working for big names in fashion, music and film.In this interview, she talks about how she got started, what impact motherhood had on her early career and what advice she'd give a younger Lilly. Here's her story:
Newnham: What were you like as a kid – how would your friends and family have described you?
Keys: I was actually pretty shy as a kid, surprisingly! I became much more outgoing as a teenager. I was very into art, dancing, dressing up and drawing. Getting lost in a book was and still is a huge passion of mine. I always have a book on the go - I'm insatiable! My family would probably describe me as artsy, ditzy, happy, outgoing, positive and maybe a bit loud!
Newnham; You moved from South Africa to London and you are now in LA? What are some of the cultural differences between the three and where’s home for you now?
Keys: Home for me now is LA, I've always wanted to live here ever since watching Melrose Place and 90201 on TV in South Africa which is hilariously shallow!
South Africa is a beautiful country and will always have my heart but I did always know I wanted to leave and travel the world as soon as I left high school. I boarded a plane a week after high school finished, on my own and lived in Arizona as an exchange student for a year. I would've stayed in America if that was an option but my family immigrated to England in the late 90s and I ended up living there for nearly 18 years.
London will always feel like my second home as it's so familiar to me and my best friends all still live there, but I always knew from the beginning that England wasn't my 'place'. The fashion and pace of London is just incredible and like no other place on earth, and I learnt a lot from living there, I do still miss the community feel of London and that you'd always bump into someone you know while walking the streets of Soho. Funnily enough most of my friends in LA are all from England! I do gravitate towards British people here, I just love them and the British humour just gets me every time. I feel the main differences between the three is that in America there is a feeling that you could do anything, there are so many creative and interesting people here, especially in LA, it really is the city of dreams. I love how positive and sunny everyone's outlook is here in LA and it really fits with my personality. Spiritually I've always felt that I'm from here, it still sometimes shocks me when people assume I'm a tourist because of my accent! I really feel like I belong and have finally found my place in the world.
Newnham: What led you to becoming a make up artist? What was your first job?
Keys: I was always into makeup since high school, I used to do my friends makeup for prom and when we went out. I loved how makeup could transform your face. I always did theatre makeup for all the school plays.
I used to model as a teenager too and I always thought the makeup artist had such an interesting and varied job, but I didn't actually start makeup until I was 27! I didn't think you could make much money from it so at first I wanted to be an illustrator or graphic designer. I studied Graphic Design but felt very constrained by being artistic via a computer and I probably wasn't good enough to be an illustrator!
I started waitressing and moved on to the restaurant's Events PR team when I fell pregnant. After I had my son at age 25, I was made redundant from my job, so I used that money to attend a makeup course at London College of Fashion. When I was still at college, I met a girl at Glastonbury music festival in England in 2005 - she was the lead makeup artist for England's biggest girl band at the time, Girls Aloud - and she offered me the job to be her assistant - so that was my first job! I was petrified and remember feeling very out of my depth prepping these famous girl band faces. I definitely learnt so much from being an assistant though - I assisted different makeup artists for about five years.
Keys: My favorite jobs have always been the most creative ones with teams that I love. I work with Director/Photographer Nadia Lee Cohen a lot and I will always give up anything or move jobs to work with her. She uses the same teams and we are all like family - I adore her work as it's so out there and creative and there is no one like her. The days are long but it's always totally worth it. Recently I did a fashion film with her for Italian brand GCDS Streetwear and we had about 20 models, with Pamela Anderson as the star. It was a crazy 15 hour day in the middle of nowhere and the glam team was huge with me leading as the makeup artist. I was very proud of that one.
Newnham: What obstacles have you faced in the industry/life and how did you overcome them?
Keys: The main obstacles I've faced is to try and not compare yourself with other artists and what they are doing, especially your peers - as I feel this can be detrimental to your own art. There isn't much money in makeup either until you are more established, especially in the beginning - so it can be tough to support yourself at first. I also felt that as I started makeup after becoming a mother, that has been a huge obstacle for me because I do have to put the kids first, and wasn't able to travel on tour or location until they were both in school. If the kids were ever sick I had to cancel jobs at the last minute - so when they were small that was pretty hard and I always felt one step behind everyone else.
Newnham: How has motherhood changed you?
Keys: It's definitely made me less selfish but at the same time having my son early made me really evaluate my life and I wanted him to be proud of me, I wanted to have a career AND a family. I think my job is actually perfect for being a mom too as I can pick and choose my days and I don't work a 9-5 every day, there are times in the year that are always quieter which means I can spend more time with my children. I've even taken them on jobs with me before! Motherhood is tough but extremely rewarding, I think it's made me a more grounded person for sure.
Newnham: Who inspires you and why?
Keys: Alex Box inspires me as a top makeup artist and a mother. Also she is more of an true artist and that always appeals to me. She used to be an Ambassador Makeup Artist for MAC Cosmetics and is now the Creative Director behind her brand Illamasqua. Everything she creates is amazing. She uses clean lines, intense colors and her work is always interesting to look out, she's a whole other level of makeup artist! She has so much awe inspiring work and now that she is a mother too it hasn't stopped her at all - there is a viral photograph of her applying makeup on a model while her toddler is asleep in her arms - I love that. The quote she posted with that image reads: Work will always be there, life won't. Don't miss life.
Newnham: If you could go back in time to a younger Lilly, what advice – if any, would you offer her?
Keys: I would say - don't think you're not good enough, power through with your dreams and concentrate on what you love doing and don't give up so easily. Don't follow the herd and think you need a professional job to be successful, you can live your dreams doing what you love, be creative and get paid for it. Start thinking about what you want to do with your life early on, I wish I'd started makeup as soon as I left school. Don't look at what everyone else is doing and stop thinking that you are failing at life because you've done things differently. Have faith in your ability and your talent. Know that when you get knock backs another opportunity is around the corner, keep trying! You just need to get your head down and push through, don't be distracted by parties and bad relationships, focus on yourself and your art and love yourself. You will get there in the end.