Makeup artist Tina Turnbow on why perfection is overrated

  • TINA TURNBOW: How she went from punk bars to Vogue credits

Long before I met Tina Turnbow, I’d admired her creativity from afar. The makeup artist has tons of celebrity clients (Keri Russell, Mary-Louise Parker, Amanda Peet) who consistently look gorgeous and modern — but never like they’re chasing trends or trying too hard. Tina’s makeup always has a little unexpected detail or two, but it’s never overly trendy. Pretty, yes, but equally intriguing.

That description fits Tina, too. Not only is she a highly in-demand makeup artist, she’s also a writer and photographer for the likes of T Magazine and Nylon. (Most recently, she did the makeup, writing, and photography for a profile of actress Emily Kinney.) And she’s totally humble about all of this! Here, we talk about following your own path, being on set with Kate Moss, and why perfection isn’t as sexy as you might think.

TG: Before you were a makeup artist, you were a student at the Art Institute of Chicago.
TT: I took textile design because I loved drawing. But I floated around to different schools because I didn’t feel like I had any specific direction; I wanted to get out and start working. I’ve always been very independent, and I was on a path of self-discovery. I’m also from this heavily family-oriented Italian heritage of men being dominant. Somehow I was very much like, “No, I’m going to show them that a woman can do something.”

So you started working.
I was working in punk rock bars like Neo and Exit. I was big into music and style, and I would do my friends’ makeup all the time. Going out was fun for me, like, “What are we gonna look like tonight?” Through that [scene], I met a girl who managed a photographer’s studio. I went by the studio and there was a makeup artist there. It all fell into place. I knew where I wanted to put my interest in makeup, which was doing it on models. A light went off.

People can open doors for you, but from there it’s up to you.

So before that, you hadn’t known that it was a viable career path.
No idea. Didn’t know. There was catalog work in Chicago, so that was where I ended up. Then I started making a portfolio, but I was about 24, 25. I didn’t move to New York until I was 34, so it was a late start. For most people, it’s better to come here at 24, but that’s the way it went. You can’t compare yourself; you have to do it in your own time. So I was starting from scratch. I wouldn’t have it any other way, though. I thought better late than never.

When you got to New York, how did things change?
I had a book that was good enough to assist Pat McGrath, and she was working with Steven Meisel. So what changed was the level — just to have one of the first shoots be Kate Moss, Naomi Campbell, and Christy Turlington. I still remember the feeling of just, like, “Oh my god, I can’t believe it.” All of that came together because of timing. So much has to do with timing and perseverance.

Everyone has their insecurities — everyone.

How has your idea of beauty changed over time?
It’s become more about the person I’m working with and their personality and quirks and insecurities. Everyone has their insecurities — everyone. When I moved to New York, I was thinking fashion, creating a “painting,” being more conceptual with beauty. Whereas now it’s come to be more about bringing out the best in the person and helping them feel good and look their best.

For your own day-to-day routine, what’s your skin care and makeup like?
It’s really simple and fast. I focus on skin care and health. That’s my idea of beauty. Everything goes hand in hand: the way you take care of yourself, your health, stress level, sleep, traveling, water. There’s so much that goes into it. I have to do more to take care of my insides for the outside to look better. I think it’s worth spending money on skin care, and it’s worth it to try to eat well. It all pays off.

Where do you see our cultural ideas of beauty going in the future?
It’s all-encompassing, not just, “This is the ultimate ideal of beauty!” and having one face. It’s many faces, many colors, many features. It’s become so much more open in that way — instead of the “rules” about what makes someone supposedly the most beautiful.

I feel like we see that with trends, too. It’s almost like we’re trendless in the way people are focused on individuality.
More than ever. Even with color trends in makeup. An orange lip — people know that doesn’t work on everyone, but it’s good to have the choices and different selections out there. It’s about embracing your own unique taste and look, and being more free to express yourself. I have tattoos, and I feel like all of that — fashion, jewelry —  it’s all adornment. It’s what makes you feel good about yourself. It does really come down to confidence and making the most of what you have. We all need that little lift sometimes.

Someone asked me, “How do you make the perfect eyeliner line?” I’m like, “Does it have to be perfect?”

If I were to look into your kit, is there anything you consistently rely on?
I had this big tube of Laura Mercier Radiance Primer that I use on people. And then I was like, “Wait, I need to use this on me!” So I’m using that. Caudalie Beauty Elixir, I have to have that. I’m into skin-care products that have glycolic acid; as you get older, you want to polish your skin and take the dead skin off. Oh, and Aveeno Positively Radiant facial scrub is awesome and it’s at the drugstore. I use it in the shower and I let it sit on my skin for a minute. These days, I’m not going for facials or massages. I’m trying to do everything myself. There are so many things you can do at home without spending the money to go out. With skin care, the more religious you are about it, it pays off.

Consistency is key.
Yes. And at this point, with so many anti-aging procedures, injections, and Botox, some of that can be distracting, too. I’ve experimented with some of that. It’s amazing how it can change your face so much — like it’s not me anymore. Overdoing anything is not good, either. The aging process is inevitable, and there’s something to be said for embracing what time does. As a woman, so many things change and evolve — your body, your hormones. A lot of us are perfectionists and so hard on ourselves, and I learned nothing is ever going to be perfect. There’s a time when you have to soften up and give in a little and accept that. Learn from mistakes and the flaws and try to just do the best you can.

I’m a recovering perfectionist.
Me too. But everything will be okay! After a while, you’ve gotta live and let live. Let things be and focus on what’s more important, the bigger picture. We get very detail-oriented. As a makeup artist, when someone asks me, “How do you make the perfect eyeliner line?” I’m like, “Does it have to be perfect? Can the eyeliner smudge, can it live, can someone look like they’ve been out? Do things have to be airbrushed to death? Is that real?” No, it’s not. This is real life, this is what beauty is — it’s not always perfect. To me, what’s sexy isn’t perfection, either. It’s a little bit imperfect. Maybe there’s a flaw, and that’s sexy. Maybe the idea of beauty is starting to relax a little.

Photographed at Rheanne White salon in NYC.

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  • Gloria Yang

    Great interview! I love her philosophy on imperfect beauty, especially on smudged eyeliners. 🙂

    • Annie

      Thank you! I’m also a big fan of smudges. It’s, uh, intentional! Yeah, that’s it…

      • Gloria Yang

        Totes McGotes! That smudge under the eye? Intentionally going for a messy smokey eye.. yea!

        • Annie

          There you go. Embrace it — I’m going to!

  • Ona_in_Barcelona

    What a cool lady!

    • annie

      Agreed! If you follow her on Twitter (@tinaturnbowMUP) you’ll see what she’s up to on set, with her clients, and so forth.

    • Annie

      Indeed. Follow her @tinaturnbowMUP on Twitter if you want to see her behind-the-scenes photos. I do and always find something inspiring!