Since getting her start as a makeup artist when she was still a schoolgirl, Kay Montano has built a career unlike any other. From the cover of The Face magazine (which was her first ever makeup job) to shooting with Steven Meisel and Mario Sorrenti in New York in the 90's, and now onto her current incarnation working with Hollywood actresses and as a CHANEL makeup-artist, Kay is a legend in the industry.
Words by Christabel Draffin. Portrait by Billie Scheepers.
Starting your makeup career with a cover of The Face magazine is quite an extraordinary debut, so I asked Kay how it came about. Kay was launched into fashion makeup when she was 16, through a chance meeting with a pop star. Kay had a friend who had a way of dressing that people might have called 'alternative' at the time, and through her she met Kate Garner, who was in a famous pop band called Haysi Fantayzee. Kay and Kate soon became friends, and Kate arranged for her to do her first ever shoot for the cover of The Face magazine with model Nick Kamen and photographer Jamie Morgan. They were part of London's Buffalo collective, founded by the hugely influential stylist, Ray Petri. This is where her makeup career began, in the extraordinary melting pot of 80's West London, where youth culture collided and mashed up with club culture, art, design, music, in a blending of race and gender, that created a style no-one had seen before and that has been endlessly referenced ever since.
"I was at school and I was really a child, but a child with big dreams in my bedroom. The difference between me and many other children dreaming big in their bedroom was I lived in West London and for that I am eternally grateful, because it meant you weren't that many degrees away from possibility."
This influential cover then launched her into the first wave of her career. At an age when most of us would have been happy with a job in the local bakery, Kay was working on shoots with the likes of mega stylist Grace Coddington and legendary photographers like Helmut Newton. She worked every day between the ages of sixteen and a half and nineteen on magazines like Vogue and Harper's Bazaar whilst she honed her craft. After working constantly for years between London and Paris, eventually New York beckoned in 1992. This is where she started working with photographer Mario Sorrenti, including shooting the instantly recognisable Calvin Klein Obsession campaign with him and his then unknown model girlfriend, Kate Moss.
"Working with Mario Sorrenti was amazing because we were both learning together, and we were so young. I was 23 when I met him, and he was 20, so four years younger than me. He taught me so much because he was working from the inside out. And in a way, just a few years of working in the industry had made me start working from the outside in. Because I'd started to learn rules again. How it was supposed to be, as opposed to the way I'd learned first, which was guerrilla style where I was just thrown in and had to figure it out. Which is much more organic. I had that precocious sense of youth where I saw things boldly from my map, my mind's eye. And then Mario came along, didn't know how to technically take pictures, but had pictures in his mind."
"So, I learned a lot from Mario because it was about starting all over again in a way. We created, because I worked with him constantly for about a year and a half, and as he was learning he was distilling his vision, in a stronger way, every day, every time we worked together, just as I was working to distil the use of products to accentuate the lighting that he was using. So, over a year and a half, I had a very special relationship with him I will never have again with any other photographer, and I can't imagine that kind of thing ever happening again. Because he was using film and natural daylight, available light, and when you look at available light, you're working with the light that you're seeing, not what it looks like on a computer afterwards. So, I was actually working with what it looked like, and there was that sense of liberty. We created really great images which are iconic. I'm very proud of that time."
Working in fashion in the 90's was a seismic shift with what had gone before in fashion:
"It was a very interesting time, and the backdrop is that it was the deconstruction of what had gone before. Everything is like a pendulum, all trends are, whether they be societal trends, makeup trends, fashion trends. Everything is a reaction to something else, so for years we had had the glamazons in the 80's with the shoulder pads, and everything was opulent and decadent and so about power and money, and in the 90's there was a reaction to the extravagance of Versace and the heavy natural makeup. It was a reaction against that, so absolutely everything was stripped down and deconstructed, from the makeup, to the application of the makeup, to the way the hair was done, to the clothes, to the way the girls stood, to the way that they modelled, and the way things were photographed in absolutely every single medium. It was deconstructed as if the 80's had never happened."
She attributes part of her success as a makeup artist to growing up as an only child in 70's London: "It was a world in which I was really, really enriched culturally from watching TV as a child and watching and reading magazines. I would say that's why I'm a good makeup artist, because If you're an artistic person and you do anything like hair, decoration, or whatever it is you do creatively, you have to be very, very good at imitation and when I say imitation, I mean your eyes look at something and you imitate it and you get better via practice. You get better and better and better at that imitation and you get closer and closer and closer to the thing that spellbound you, whether you're a singer, or a musician, whatever it is, you make it your own, because you've been influenced by the things that influence you, and they are not the things that influence somebody else. The things that influence you have their own melting pot, their own individual recipe."
The best images are the ones where you've established the girl and it's all happened organically without a mood board, and the light captured her and then the photographer zoomed in to get the beauty shot.
The list of photographers she has worked with over the years includes pretty much every fashion luminary of the last three decades: Helmut Newton, Steven Meisel, Patrick Demarchelier, Ellen von Unwerth, Mario Testino, Bruce Weber, Annie Leibovitz, Peter Lindbergh, David Bailey, Mario Sorrenti, Glen Luchford, Steven Klein and Corinne Day to name a few. Obviously having worked with the best photographers in the world Kay must have some images she has been part of that she will never forget: "My favourite images I've done are because of the photographs themselves. The irony is that I had the most eyes on me as a makeup artist when makeup wasn't fashionable. So, some of my favourite images were with Bruce Weber, and he doesn't like makeup. But in terms of quality and execution, I go for image first, not makeup. I'm the first to say that 'this will look the most modern if she hasn't got any makeup on at all.' The best images are the ones where you've established the girl and it's all happened organically without a mood board, and the light captured her and then the photographer zoomed in to get the beauty shot. It does not happen on mood boards."
This is a piece's extract. Find out the full version in the Spring Summer 2021 Issue 6.
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