Marla Belt is a New York-based makeup artist known for her expertise in everything from the extreme avant-garde to beautifully clean makeup looks. Her exceptional talent saw her go from her beginnings at MAC Cosmetics to an eight-year gig assisting Pat McGrath on everything from fashion editorials and advertising campaigns to runway shows all over the world. After signing on to the same boutique agency, Streeters, she’s since gone on to make her own mark, collaborating with many of the industry’s most respected photographers.
Marla’s portfolio is filled with captivating images that explore color and texture. Her work has been published in Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and Elle magazines, and in ad campaigns for Vera Wang, Miu Miu, Urban Decay, and Estee Lauder. She also collaborated with us to create some spectacular makeups for our 2018 Alcone Company Halloween campaign. In this interview, she shares the creative inspiration behind these looks, some of her favorite products, and her own personal journey to becoming a successful makeup artist.
The Early Years
Where are you from and how did you end up in NYC?
I was born and raised in Toledo, Ohio and moved to NYC when I was 18 to attend the FIT for Fashion Design. I didn’t love it so I switched to Illustration at Parsons School of Design.
Do you remember the moment that you first fell in love with makeup?
I think I first fell in love with makeup when I was about 4 years old. I would stay at my grandma’s house sometimes, and my Aunt Judy lived with her. Those evenings, when Aunt Judy was getting ready to go out, I would watch intently as she applied her makeup: Pond’s moisturizer, then face powder applied with a big puff, then frosty blue shadow and lots of mascara, pink cheeks and glossy lips.
As she was finishing, she would let me put on some eyeshadow and blush, using my little finger to apply color dots to my eyelids and cheeks. I loved putting on the gloss at the end because it was cherry flavored liquid in a rollerball. I would keep rolling it on until she said, “that’s enough,” and then I would run downstairs to show my grandma how pretty I looked.
How did you get your start as a professional makeup artist?
I started doing makeup while I was still at Parsons. I made friends with many of the photography students there, so I’d do makeup for their fashion and portrait shoots. After graduating in ’94, I got hired at the MAC store on Christopher St. It was one of two MAC locations at the time and, sadly, no longer there, but it was the best place to work as a young makeup artist just starting out.
So many creative people worked and shopped there! I met many of the top makeup artists like Stephane Marais, Dick Page, Pat McGrath and Kevyn Aucoin, and was able to get freelance gigs on the side. The dress code was all black, but I made it as colorful as possible with wigs, 6-inch platforms and dramatic goth makeup. I could work there all day and then go clubbing until 4 am and still be ready to work again by 10 am. It was such fun back then!
Honing Creativity and Inspiration
Who are your mentors in the industry?
I would say my mentors are those artists, living and dead, that have inspired me to be creative with makeup and really push the boundaries: Stephane Marais, Serge Lutens, Way Bandy, Richard Sharah, Kabuki, Val Garland and, of course, Pat McGrath. I assisted her for many years and learned so much about artistry, gleaning inspiration from unconventional sources, and thinking outside the box.
You created four fantastic makeup looks for our 2018 Halloween social media campaign. What was the inspiration for these makeup designs?
When I came up with the looks for the Alcone Company Halloween campaign, I was thinking of classic Halloween characters but also putting a modern spin on them. For the Geisha, instead of the demure traditional style, I wanted an anime, fetish look with Samurai and Kabuki inspired makeup. For Cleopatra, I applied gold leaf, 3D silicone prosthetics (pre-made with 3rd Degree using a mold) to the forehead and cheekbones to give her a mythological warrior appearance. The Skull makeup was inspired by the late, great Rick Genest to pay homage to his inimitable style and artistry, while the Alien was a take on space creature characters from the ‘60s and ‘70s shows like Star Trek and Dr. Who.
Tricks and Tools of the Trade
You’ve been a long-time customer. When did you start shopping at Alcone and do you have any product favorites or staples?
I first started shopping at Alcone in the ’90s when the store was on 19th Street in Chelsea. I loved looking through all the theatrical products and figuring out how I could use them for club looks. I was an art student then with not a lot of money, so I focused on the less expensive lines like Ben Nye, Mehron and La Femme. I loved, and still love, using the Ben Nye Lumiere Palette and Primary Creme Colors, and La Femme Sparkle Dust to create many of my beauty looks. One of my newest faves is Mehron 1927 Liquid Vinyl Makeup. The quality and intensity of these products are insane for the price!
Your imagination seems boundless. What’s your creative process and how do you approach and prep for a project?
My creative approach to any project is research and journaling. Once I get a briefing on the creative direction, I like to thoroughly research by culling images from online and my personal library, exploring similar themes related to the shoot. I also go through my vast collections of makeup, notions, trims, and odds n’ ends to get inspired. Then I start sketching out looks and writing down anything that comes to mind. I don’t edit at this point. I just want there to be a free flow of thoughts and feelings. That’s where the unusual and unexpected comes from, and from there, some of the strongest concepts develop.
How would you define your artistic style?
I would define my artistic style as “classical eclectic.” I don’t compare myself to Picasso, but he was trained in classical art from which he created Cubism, and I feel my foundation in fine art and classic technique has given me the freedom to go beyond those boundaries and explore infinite creative possibilities. I like to start with a classic structure and then subvert or obscure it beyond what I could imagine.
What’s your favorite makeup decade and why?
Not sure I can pick just one favorite makeup decade, but the ’80s definitely resonates with me. I grew up on MTV from the very beginning (1981), so seeing all those flashy music videos by Culture Club, Duran Duran, Madonna, Prince, and Eurythmics inspired me so much. As a 10-year old living in the Midwest, it was a real source of creativity and glamour. I would use my mom’s Mary Kay shadow and lipstick palettes to make myself up like Boy George or Apollonia in Purple Rain and take pics with a polaroid camera. I would also check Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar magazines out at the library and then rip out the pages with the best beauty and fashion looks.
The ’80s were all about excessive glamour and style, so that made it very exciting to go to the mall. For Christmas, I would get a makeover at the Ultima or Prescriptives counter, and my mom would buy me the Beauty Blockbuster chock full of shadows, blush and lipstick. Even though I went to a Catholic school, I would always try to get away with wearing red lipstick!
What advice would you give aspiring makeup artists?
The advice I would give to other makeup artists is to take art classes like life drawing, color theory, or fine art painting. You’ll develop a better eye for balance, symmetry, composition, form, color value, and saturation in your makeup application and be more creative in the process.
“You are never too old to set another goal or to dream a new dream.” It’s a quote from C.S. Lewis, and I believe in it strongly. It’s never too late to start something new.
Thank you, Marla, for sharing your story (and adorable childhood photos!) with us. We look forward to watching you and your career continue to soar!
See more of Marla’s work at Streeters.
Additional photo credits:
Marla’s headshot, photographer Ben Hasset
and Marla’s personal photos
Do you love ’80s makeup too? Then reading Artist Spotlight: Martin Pretorius is a must!