Go Behind the Curtain With Chanel Makeup Artist and Celebrity Favorite, Kate Lee

Kate Lee

In our series Behind the CurtainTM, we get the scoop on the routines, careers, and more of those working so hard behind the scenes to make celebrities look stunning.

Much like Gabrielle Bonheur “Coco” Chanel, who built an iconic brand by breaking the mold, Chanel® makeup artist Kate Lee doesn’t believe in adhering to beauty rules. In fact, she’s on a self-proclaimed “one-woman mission” to eradicate them entirely. The outspoken advocate for doing your own thing — whatever that may be — is also responsible for setting her A-list clients apart on the red carpet. Who could forget Rooney Mara’s blackened berry lip that made her a breakout beauty star at the CFDA Fashion Awards®? Or Tessa Thompson’s vivid violet eyes at the MTV® Movie Awards? Naomi Watts even made a fiery red lip feel brand new at the Emmys® this year.

But long before the 47-year-old Lee was making a statement on Tinseltown’s leading ladies, the precocious pro went rogue with finger paint as a child. “I would always end up painting somebody's face, and the teacher would say, ‘No, no. You have to paint on the paper,’” she laughs. “I just felt drawn to makeup and that kind of adornment at a very young age.” Her rebellious streak only snowballed from there. Lee honed her skills on her next-door neighbor who endured more than her fair share of experimental haircuts and makeup looks. She continued to study her craft at the London College of Fashion℠  before being scooped up by none other than Kate Winslet. Then, the rest of Hollywood came calling . . . as did legendary French fashion house Chanel.

Here, Lee explains why she keeps her makeup and skincare routine simple. Plus, she reveals her 15-minute secret to staying grounded and grateful.

Spotlyte: When did you first become interested in makeup and beauty?

Kate Lee: I was very, very young. I remember deciding what I wanted to do when I was 11. When you're 11 in the UK, you have to make decisions about which classes you're going to take at secondary school. My dad was a drummer and very into music, so we always had music on in our house. It was the ‘80s, and it was [the era of] Madonna, Boy George, The Human League, and all of these great English, New Romantic, post-punk, New Wave bands.

Of course, the way we got our inspiration then was from magazines. I had posters of all these musical luminaries on my wall when I was a kid, and I just remember thinking, “I can do that. I want to do that.” Luckily for me, my mom was pretty glamorous and there was always makeup around. I would sit and watch her put on her makeup every day. My neighbor also worked for Christian Dior® in the ‘80s, which was a good time to work for the brand. There were so many crazy blue mascaras and purple eyeliners! She knew that I loved makeup, so she would bring me the testers home, and I would pretty much paint anybody that sat for me.

Spotlyte: Who served as your beauty guinea pigs during those early days?

KL: I didn't have any siblings. When you're an only child, you make friends really fast, because otherwise, you are kind of stuck with your parents or on your own. My childhood best friend was kind of tortured by me as I tried out new techniques. I shaved off her eyebrows. I cut her hair and dyed it different colors. I got in all kinds of trouble! Once my girlfriends found out that I wasn't afraid to bust out scissors and that I was always good for makeup, I didn't really have any problems getting people to sit for me.

Spotlyte: You went to the London College of Fashion alongside some other very successful students. What was the biggest lesson that you learned there?

KL: The main thing that I learned was how important it is to gather inspiration and to learn your references when you're doing anything creative. There was such a wealth of knowledge: we had access to every Vogue® magazine going back to the very first issue. All of a sudden, I was immersed in all of this information and history. I thought it was very, very important to learn about fashion, because fashion has informed beauty and adornment since the Egyptians. Knowing your references and gathering inspiration helps you be creative, and it helps you bring your clients something extra.

I [also] don't think I realized until I got to college that having career [as a makeup artist] meant I wasn't staying in one place. Obviously, I knew I wasn't going to do makeup in Yorkshire unless I wanted to work at a local TV station, which I definitely didn't.

Spotlyte: When would you say you got your big break?

KL: Once I left college, I worked part-time at Shu Uemura® one day a week. I kept that job for about seven years, because it is a very slow process to start out as a freelancer when you don't have clients. It's all word of mouth, and you're only as good as your last job. I was shooting for Dazed & ConfusedTM, i-D®, and basically anyone else who needed a makeup artist, but I still had to support myself. Working at Shu Uemura was good for me, because I learned a lot about the physicality of makeup, and I worked with a lot of other great artists. We didn't have MAC® Cosmetics back then. None of the artist brands existed yet, and Shu Uemura was really the first, so it helped me build experience and a kit.

I was working part-time and I got a call to do a shoot with a young actress named Kate Winslet. Nobody knew her at that point because she had only just finished Heavenly CreaturesTM. I met her at an editorial shoot, and we got on like a house on fire! She scooped me up and decided I was going to be her friend who did her makeup. She pushed me into a lot of editorial situations that I wouldn't have gotten otherwise. She helped me get my first published work. I did my first InStyle® cover in 1994. I got a lot of great work because I was associated with her and her star was rising.

Spotlyte: Not a bad set of coattails to ride!

KL: That was probably my first break — and I didn't want to work with actors, really. I saw myself as a fashion makeup artist. I worked [backstage on the] collections and that was my focus. I just naturally gravitated in that direction. Of course, once one publicist sees that you're working with a celebrity, they know you have a certain etiquette. I found myself getting phone calls from publicists in the United States who had actors coming to London to work. One thing led to another, and I ended up with a very good little roster of brand new talents at the time, like Rachel Weisz, Rosamund Pike, and Emily Mortimer. That bled into working with Renée Zellweger, Marisa Tomei, and other actors when they came to the UK. It grew very organically from there.

Spotlyte: When you say that you have a certain etiquette that lends itself to working well with celebrities, what does that mean?

KL: When you work with a model, the model sits down, and you talk to the photographer and stylist, and you decide what you're going to do. The model doesn't really have a say in how they're going to look, because they're there to fulfill their purpose, and you're there to be an artist.

When you work with a celebrity, you are working with a personality. They are a public persona, and to a certain extent, you have to be sensitive to how they see themselves. They know how they want to feel that day in order to do their job. It's a lot more personal, because you have to connect to that person. You also have to know when to be quiet and when to get yourself out of the way, because you're privy to a lot of private conversations that cannot be repeated. You have to know when to just do your job. It's not always an open conversation. I don't know if you can teach that — I think it's an instinctual thing. It's very, very different from working with models.

Spotlyte: What is your favorite part about working with celebrities?

KL: You're along for the ride.  You find yourself in company that you never dreamed you'd keep. You're excited for [your client’s] successes, and you're excited for their wins, and you can't help but love that person and champion them.

When you spend so much time with [a client], you just want them to be happy and to succeed. That's my favorite part. I genuinely adore everybody that I work with. I'm also fortunate that I’ve had extreme loyalty from a lot of my clients for many, many years. That is the greatest compliment.

Spotlyte: Are there any downsides?

KL: It's not really a downside, but it's more of a personal cost. I don't just work with one person, so I can go on a tour with someone on and off for eight weeks all over the world. It looks glamorous, but we all know it's exhausting. Regardless of how I feel, or if I get sick, I show up and I do my job. Also, if another press tour backs up onto that, it means being away from home for a very long time. It requires being very selfless.

Sometimes, you miss out on the self-care that you wish you had. If you're in a crazy time zone, you might not get that workout in that you wanted. You miss friends. You miss important personal events — birthdays, weddings, and christenings. I'm going to miss the fiftieth birthday party of one of my closest friends for the past 30 years because I'm on a plane. Sometimes I deeply regret that you can't just miss one day of a three-month press tour. You count on your friends to understand.

Spotlyte: Who inspires you personally and professionally?

KL: Professionally and personally, I am a massive fan of Cate Blanchett. I've had opportunities to work with her, and I've missed every single one, which is devastating. I'm always flabbergasted at her ability to transform into different characters. She takes risks, and she’s staggeringly beautiful. I'm always interested to see what she's wearing and the choices that she makes with makeup. She's got such a solid team around her, and I love the trust that she places in them.

Someone else I'm really into at the moment is Tracee Ellis Ross. I'm loving everything she's doing and all the things she lends her voice to. Also her stylist, Karla Welch, is such a visionary. These are exciting times to look to other people for inspiration and observe how they use their profiles to raise awareness about certain issues. People are recognizing that they have a platform and they're using it.

Spotlyte: What are some of the must-have products and tools you always keep in your kit for every client?

KL: I've been carrying the Hydra Beauty® range since I first started working for Chanel, which is nearly 14 years ago now. It's my absolute go-to. Every day and on every client regardless of their age, I use that line, because I know exactly how it's going to moisturize and leave no residue behind. It gives me the perfect base for foundation.

The Camellia Water CreamTM is just phenomenal. There's not one client who doesn’t ask, “What is that cream?” I'm also very, very particular about brushes, which I obviously can't work without. The new Ultra Le Teint Flawless Finish Foundation TM is super, super lightweight, and also very, very matte. It's almost strong enough to conceal if you use it in a very condensed way, but it diffuses the light. It's really magical, so that's something I can't be without at the moment.

Spotlyte: You work with Chanel, one of the most luxurious brands in the world, but what is your biggest beauty splurge?

KL: One of the things that I'm most interested in is fragrance, for my home or for my body. I collect perfume. My husband calls me the bloodhound, because if there's anything in our house that doesn't smell good, I can smell it the second I walk through the door. I'm very sensitive. If I walk into a store and the scent is too strong, I have to walk out. I’m also weird about any intense food smells, so fragrance is very important to me. That's the one thing that I'm always looking for and splurge on for myself. At the moment, I'm using Chanel’s [Paris]-Biarritz®, which is a very light eau de toilette that almost has the qualities of an eau de cologne. I also realized yesterday at the Chanel boutique that there is a body lotion and body wash in the same scent. 

Spotlyte: What home fragrance are you a fan of at the moment?

KL: I’m a fan of Astier de Villatte's® incense and candles. They also make beautiful ceramic lids that sit on the candles and really nice incense holders, so that's definitely a decadence for me. There is a fragrance called AoyamaTM, which is supposed to smell like the particular area of Japan where they burn a lot of wood-scented incense. It's very light and powdery, but also very woodsy at the same time. I can't be without it. I take [Aoyama incense] with me when I travel. It's my signature home fragrance. It makes me feel like I'm at home, even when I'm in a hotel room.

Spotlyte: You jet all over the world; where is your happy place?

KL: Japan. I've been to Tokyo a lot for work, but I'd never been [there just] to relax until this year. My husband and I went for two weeks. We went to Tokyo and a beautiful mountain town called Hakone. I love the culture. I find it so beautiful. Everything is intentional in Japan. I love the methodical way in which things are done and the way things are built. There are a lot of onsens and natural spas. We were lucky enough to spend a few days there, and it was magical.

Spotlyte: What does your daily skincare routine look like?

KL: I'm incredibly minimalistic with my approach to skincare. Since I’m getting into my late forties now, my main concern is being gentle and respecting the pH of my skin. I use Chanel’s bi-phase eye makeup remover because I always wear waterproof mascara. When you're getting older, you don't want your mascara to start running down under your eyes because it's the most unflattering thing and looks absolutely awful. I use the Inimitable® Waterproof Mascara in Black, and in order to get that off, you definitely need a good eye makeup remover because it does not move. It's my go-to for the red carpet, and I wear it every day myself.

I must wash my face. I actually really like the Le Blanc® Makeup Remover. It's a clear gel when you put it in your hands, and then becomes a milk when you add water. I rub that all over my face and let it sit for a second before I get in the shower and rinse it away. It cleanses without stripping any oils or leaving skin dry. I love the Camellia Water Cream, and I use it every day. There's also a Camélia mask, so if I'm feeling a little bit parched, I'll put that on before I go to bed. If I feel very dry, I'll use the Jasmine Oil. I also use that on my body and in my hair because it smells amazing.

Spotlyte: Besides waterproof mascara, do you use any other makeup on the daily?

KL: I'm using Eau de TeintTM right now, which is Chanel’s new water foundation. It's almost like a serum with tiny beads of pigment in it. It's great for me because it uniforms the skin and provides a glow, but you don’t see it sitting on the skin. It almost becomes a part of your complexion, so it's not very obvious that you're wearing foundation. A lot of the time, people don't think that I am, which is perfect for me. 

I spend a little time defining my eyebrows. I love Chanel’s tinted eyebrow gel — I use the blonde one. I cannot live without an eyelash curler. The Inimitable Waterproof Mascara is great if you're curling your eyelashes because it dries very fast and holds the curl. I add a little bit of Hydra Beauty lip balm, and I'm pretty much out the door. I don't wear a lot of makeup — a lot of makeup artists don't, because we spend a lot more time taking care of our skin. I think people are more put off when you wear a lot of makeup as a makeup artist, because they tend to critique and decide they don't want to look like you. It’s similar to going to an aesthetician, in that if an aesthetician is wearing a lot of makeup, you might have less faith in them.

Spotlyte: In addition to your product regime, how do you take care of your skin?

KL: I have very regular facials with Melanie Grant. She comes to LA once a month and [her team] always gets me on the schedule. I'm very lucky that way. In addition to Chanel skincare, Melanie will sometimes give me a retinol product that I can use if I've had a breakout or I just need to speed up the turnover of my skin cells. She will give me the odd product here and there to try. 

[Editor's note: Retinol shouldn't be used by women who are pregnant, considering getting pregnant, or nursing. Please consult with your doctor before use.]

Spotlyte: Who are your other go-to beauty pros?

KL: Since Melanie is only in town once a month, there's another facialist that I go to in Los Angeles. I've been going to Lena [Bratschi] at Carasoin® Day Spa for years. She has a very natural approach to beauty and a really light touch — she's fantastic. My husband is a hairdresser, so I should say that he cuts my hair, but honestly, I like to go to a salon for all the bells and whistles. I'm very fortunate to be close friends with Chris McMillan, so he has taken me under his wing. I go to him for a cut and get my color done at his salon by KC [Carhart], who is excellent. I go to Jessica at Jackie's Nails℠ on Fairfax. I've been going to her for about a decade, and she's the only person that touches my hands and feet. I'm very loyal!

Spotlyte: What about medical aesthetics?

KL: I think injectables are amazing, but I’ve neglected mine for about a year. I started using injectable wrinkle reducer when I was about 36 to help smooth the appearance of my expression lines. I fully support using them, however, injectable wrinkle reducers need to be administered by someone who knows what they're doing. For me personally, the results also have to be very subtle. I think it's always smart to go to a dermatologist once a year anyway, so if it's something that you're curious about, have the conversation with your doctor for sure.

[Editor’s note: Injectable wrinkle reducers are used to temporarily smooth the look of moderate to severe wrinkles in certain areas of the face such as the forehead, frown lines, and crow’s feet. They should not be used more frequently than every three months. Like any medical treatment, they have potential risks and side effects. Be sure to talk to a licensed provider to see if they’re right for you. Have more questions? Chat with our team of trained aesthetics specialists now.]

Spotlyte: Who do you trust to administer your injectable wrinkle reducer treatment ?

KL: Her name is Dr. Karyn Grossman. She is a bonafide dermatologist, and every time I see her, she maps my moles and gets very upset if I go in the sun. She’s also banned me from getting any more tattoos, because she wants to see where my moles are. She really talks the talk and walks the walk. She wears a rash guard when she takes her kids surfing. I look forward to seeing her because I like to pick her brain and find out what's new.

Spotlyte: When you do have time to unwind, which I know isn’t very often, how do you treat yourself?

KL: A manicure and pedicure are very therapeutic to me. And I do love a massage, but I haven't really had one for quite some time. I have a guy named Antonio [Hendricks] who I book to come to my house for a massage. He’s very instinctive. His hands find the places that hurt, but it’s a very strong massage, so you have to be up for it. Apart from that, I meditate every day. It’s fairly new for me, but it provides a ritual for me wherever I am in the world. I always make time for a 15-minute moment to breathe. I connect to my own mortality before I go and take care of somebody else. It just balances me a little bit, so that's part of my self-care.

Spotlyte: Do you practice a specific type of meditation?

KL: I studied Vedic meditation with a man named Thom Knoles, who my husband introduced me to. That was the inspiration for me to start, but I kind of segued and do my own version now. It’s just 15 minutes of alone time that allows me to breathe and connect to my life and to gratitude. There’s no special technique. I light a candle and some incense, and sit with my dogs — two scrappy rescues named Biscuit and Bear. I usually have one under each armpit!

Spotlyte: You already have an incredible roster of celebrity clients, but if you could do anyone's makeup, living or dead, who would it be and why?

KL: Audrey Hepburn, 100 percent! I just want to get my hands on those eyebrows! I mean, what a beauty. I'm lucky that I have the next best thing, which is Rooney [Mara]. It's really interesting that Audrey was [Hubert de] Givenchy's muse and now Givenchy has chosen Rooney.

Also, my Keira. I've worked with Keira [Knightley] since she was a baby, and I've gotten to see her grow up. I was there when she got married. It's just a wonderful thing to go through those important years with someone and watch them mature, change, and become a mother. Keira’s face is always inspiring to me.

Spotlyte: What is your beauty philosophy?

KL: My philosophy on makeup, skincare, and anything to do with self-care and appearance is that there are no rules. Sometimes, I think the beauty industry uses rules to drive up purchase behavior, but my personal philosophy is that there aren’t any rules. If something works for you, great, no judgment. I'm personally on a one-woman mission to eradicate rules.

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