Martin Pretorius is a living legend in our industry. As a hair and makeup artist, his talented hands have beautified some of the most iconic women of our time, captured by world-famous photographers for top magazine editorials and advertising campaigns. In addition, his prolific work in the music video arena has influenced not just my own beauty ideals but that of an entire generation. If your heart flutters when you see Annie Lennox’s flawless face and bright orange hair in the Eurythmics Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This) video, or you just can’t get enough of the over-the-top glamour of the Robert Palmer girls in Addicted to Love, then you have this man to thank. To my delight, I had the honor of speaking with him about his extraordinary career and pose some questions that my inner MTV-child had been dying to ask.
Where are you from originally, and where are you based now?
I’m from South Africa, and I lived in Cape Town most of my life. Then I moved to London which was the best thing I ever did. The reason I left was that it’s easy to become a big fish in a small pond, and you never knew if you were really good or not. So I thought the only way to find out is if I move to Europe. I was very lucky when I moved to London because it enabled me to work for all the different Vogues, Harper’s–all the big magazines–which wouldn’t have happened if I stayed in South Africa. Now I’m based in Washington, DC.
Have you ever lived or worked in NYC?
Yes, I lived there three times in my life, and I commuted there for a lot of years because there was a time when I was working between Paris, NY, London, Rome, and L.A. So, you know what the life is like–you just travel a lot when you’re working.
Did you visit the Alcone store?
Yes, for many years. I don’t know how long the store has been open, but I think the first time I went there was in the ‘80s.* It was a tiny little place…a hole-in-the-wall type of place. When it opened, every makeup artist had to go there. I still shop with Alcone for the Makeup Sponges and other things.
How did you get your start?
I went to cosmetology school, but my main purpose was for hair. I never thought of myself as a makeup artist at that time and got into it more by accident. I started as a hairdresser at a salon in Cape Town and we did editorials and advertising work all over South Africa. I saw what the makeup artists were doing, and then sometimes I landed up having to do makeup. So I learned more by trial and error than anything else. But I did go to art school so, you know, if you can draw then you can do makeup. It’s as simple as that.
What was your first big break in the industry?
When I got a job with the photographer Terence Donovan. He’s really the man that started me off in London and got me in all the better magazines and really nice advertising work. He also directed the Robert Palmer Addicted to Love video. I worked with him for about 20 years, and I think we did over 3000 jobs together.
What types of projects have been your focus?
Mostly commercials, music videos, editorials and advertising. For some reason I just never got into film work. There seems to be a dividing line–you either do film work or you do what I did.
My main job was for MSNBC until March when the virus started, so at the moment, I’m working a hair salon part-time.
So the anchors are doing their own makeup?
Yes. At MSNBC, some of the makeup artists get assigned to an anchor, and my people were Andrea Mitchell, Kristen Welker, and Kasie Hunt. And then you do the guests when you have time. You work on a very tight timeline and sometimes you only have 20 minutes to do the hair and makeup, but it’s fun. I actually love working there. You meet so many interesting people. Hopefully, with the vaccine, I’ll be able to get back to work.
What was it like working during the heyday of music videos?
It was just great fun. I was lucky enough to work with a woman called Sophie Muller, and she was the director of most of the videos that I worked on–she and Terence Donovan. There were a couple of other directors, but Sophie and Terence were my main people for doing music videos.
You mentioned Terence directed the Robert Palmer Addicted to Love video. The makeup look on the girls is one of the most iconic moments in beauty history. What was the inspiration?
By that time, I had worked with Terence for about 6 or 7 years, and he only liked black eyeshadow and red lips. All you ever had to do was a little black on the eyes and red on the lips. So when we were doing this video, I just thought, I’m going to see how much black I can get onto the eyes–and that is how it came about. And tons of lip gloss! I had to send out a taxi to get more because I went through my entire supply in half the day.
Did you have an assistant to help you get the girls ready?
Yes, I did have an assistant. When I did the first makeup, she said to me, “Oh, that’s so ugly, I can’t bring myself to do that.” So, she only did the foundation, and then I did the eyes, lips, and all the shading. In those days, the film wasn’t as sensitive, so you had to overcompensate with makeup because it didn’t absorb as much, and then the lighting took out a lot of it. Now the film is so sensitive that you need hardly any makeup, and the application is so different.
Out of all the iconic looks that you created for Annie Lennox, is there a favorite?
No, it was just fun to do them all because it was more to do with the mood of the song, and it was a lot of fun working with her. In all the times we worked together, we never had one argument. She was a great person to work with, and she had great skin. I mean, if you have a great face and perfect skin, then you don’t have to do very much.
Did you have tons of creative freedom or did the video directors have lot of input?
Not really. Sure we would meet and say this is the song, these are the clothes, and it’s a sad look or a colorful look. But there wasn’t much direction, so you just did as you pleased. I was very lucky that way.
Do you feel the work suffers when there’s too much direction?
I think it stifles some of your creativity. I must be honest with you, when I moved to America I found it quite difficult in the beginning because they would always come with pictures and say this is the look we want. In Europe, when you do an editorial, you look around you and get inspired or just do as you please, and it’s fun.
Another iconic beauty, Princess Diana, was also a client. Can you share a glimpse into that very unique experience?
She was like a very normal, ordinary person in a way. She would say to all of us, “My name is Diana” and “please call me Diana” –because you’re supposed to call her Ma’am. She would come first thing in the morning and I’d do the makeup–she liked very little makeup. Then we would do different changes and have lunch, and we would have sandwiches from Marks & Spencers. She liked avocado and bacon sandwiches. She didn’t have any have airs and graces really. She was just very normal and very nice.
Of course, the greatest fun was going through all her jewelry boxes. They would bring all these beautiful boxes and then you’d open them, and the crowns are there and the accessories that go with them. It was a wonderful treat!
Was there a lot of security?
The security was not like in America. She only had two people. Here, they come with like 20 people all around them. She had one person sitting in a car outside and one person sitting inside the studio, but that was it. It was very low-key.
How do you feel makeup products have evolved over the years?
Well, let me put it this way, I certainly wouldn’t trade the new makeup for the old makeup because it was just a thick and heavy product. Whereas now, the products are so light and easy to apply. I think technology has improved it so much that it’s a real pleasure to work with today’s makeup. The older makeup I used when I first started working was not a pleasure because sometimes you would apply it, and if the person touched their face, the makeup would come off–and it wasn’t easy to fix. Now you can go over the makeup, layer it, touch it up, and it stays put.
Where did you shop for professional makeup back then?
There was place in Covent Garden in those days called Charles Fox, and that is where most of the makeup artists got all their makeup. Then there was a company called Cosmetics à la Carte, a tiny little store in Knightsbridge. It was run by two great ladies who were very good at developing new products and colors.
Any favorite shades that you remember fondly and you wish were here today?
Not really. I was never a big “color” person. I always liked to use browns, grays, and blacks because I thought that those colors never date. I prefer things to look timeless.
And yet you’re known for so many colorful makeups, for example Siouxsie Sioux in the Spellbound music video.
That was just fun! We just did things at the spur of the moment. I did Siouxsie’s makeup for almost all of her videos from that time. I worked with her for quite a while.
How did you meet?
It was quite early in her career, and actually, I had to go for an interview with them before I could work with her. I had to go to a theater in London, and I was sh*t-scared because I thought she was going to be a really nasty lady. You know, she had this really hard look; it was not a very friendly look. When I got there, there was a table on a stage, and I sort of stood around. Then she and Budgie walked in. She had just come back from Switzerland with a broken leg from a skiing accident, and she had a walking stick with an ivory skull on it. I thought, oh God! This is going to be terrible! And she turned out to be–well, she and Budgie–two of nicest people you could ever wish to meet. They were just great. I loved working with them. I also did all the Bananarama videos.
Yes! I also saw on your resume that you worked with Motorhead-how was that?
It was LOUD. But it wasn’t really for the band, it was for all the girls in the video.
Have you ever consulted for a beauty brand or wanted to develop your own line of makeup?
I did develop my own line of makeup. I have a friend who is a scientist and, in my mind, he’s a genius. We started manufacturing it by making it in the kitchen with a blender. His big thing was to make something that didn’t feel like you’re wearing anything, and when you applied it to the skin, it felt like nothing– and it stayed. We also tried to keep it friendly environmentally. It was quite challenging sometimes to get things to blend without using certain ingredients, but we succeeded. I’ve always worked in a salon, so I was selling it to my clients who really liked it and kept buying it. The problem was filling the bottles. It would take us about an hour to make ten bottles. Then, to take it from that stage to mass market was very expensive… we just didn’t have the money, so we gave up on the idea. I still have all the formulas.
Favorite type of creative challenge?
Making the skin look flawless; doing a flawless job when the makeup and everything is nice and crisp and clean, and it just looks GOOD.
Do you have a creative process?
I always felt that if you go into a job with a specific idea, you could get there and the clothes don’t work with your idea. I think it’s better to go into it with a blank mind, then come up with something when you see what you’re working with.
Where do you look for inspiration?
I was fortunate enough to work with the great editor and stylist, Liz Tilberis. She was with British Vogue, and then her last job was editor-in-chief for American Harper’s. She would say, “just look around you, and you will see something that will inspire you.” I took that advice. There is always something that inspires you. You can look at buildings and see a color, or pick up a piece of jewelry, or a dress. You always see something, somewhere around you. She did some amazing things. She’s the woman who did the costumes for the Robert Palmer video–the Azzedine Alaïa dresses. She was a great lady.
Are there any other creative partners that stand out in your mind?
I’ve worked with a lot of great photographers–Barry Lategan, David Bailey, Norman Parkinson–the list is endless. They all have their own way of working, which inspired you and made you do certain things at the time because you’re working with that photographer. I was just incredibly lucky to work with all of these people.
To what do you feel you owe the longevity of your career?
Oh, I don’t know… I just kept on working. I was just very lucky I think.
There must be more to it than that…
Well, I’m not a drama queen and I don’t cause problems on a shoot. I look at everything I do as a job and it’s my rent and I must take care of that. So it always made sense to me to talk to the client and find out what they like, and then try and do something that would please them for that particular job. It’s one thing to come in with a lot of fantastic ideas of what you would like to do, but at the end of the day, that client is the person that’s paying for everything. If you want to keep on working with them, it’s more important to keep them happy than to keep yourself happy. If you go to the job and do only what you want to do and not what the client wants, it can become so unpleasant. I just don’t see the point in doing things like that. I think that’s why I worked with so many people for such long times.
Is there a standout moment of your career?
Working with Princess Diana and Margaret Thatcher. I thought it was a great honor to do their makeup. But there were so many things that it’s difficult to say because every time you do a job, there is something special about it.
How do you feel about social media–do you wish it was around back in the day?
Not really. It’s nice to be back in touch with people you’d lost contact with, but I don’t go on Facebook. I like looking at Instagram because I can see what other people are doing. There are many people whose work I admire, and I think some of the younger makeup artists are doing amazing work. But I don’t study it, and I don’t go out of my way or think I must post a picture on Instagram today. Some people live by that, but I just think it’s a hassle.
Aside from your work, do you have any other passions?
Cooking. Mostly Italian, French and bit of eastern influence. Because in South Africa, we have a lot of Indonesian and Indian influences in our food, so it’s sort of a variation.
What would you most like to be known for?
To be known as a makeup artist because it’s the thing that I enjoy the most. It’s a great job. You go and you have fun, and you get paid for it.
Any advice for aspiring makeup and hair artists?
Just go and do your thing and hope for the best!
Thank you, Martin, for sharing your career insights and personal stories with us and for continuing to inspire the artist community.
This interview was conducted over the phone and has been edited for length and clarity.
All images in this blog post are courtesy of Martin Pretorius’ portfolio, Instagram, and personal photos, and are used for the educational purpose of telling his story. All copyrights remain with the owner/photographer. The portfolio slideshow includes images by photographers Terence Donovan, Joe Gaffney, Dan Lepard, Anton Papich, Alexander Hankoff. Anyone not mentioned is unintentional, please comment and I will add. Thanks so much!
*Visit Our Story for a timeline of Alcone Company history.
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