Having entrepreneurial parents who carved their own careers paths, it’s no surprise that Mary Irwin did the same for herself. Growing up in a rural town in Montana, she always aspired to be part of the rush and excitement that magazines like Vogue would showcase. Today she is a successful makeup artist with clients such as Tory Burch. Neiman Marcus. Ford, Hennessy, Amazon, Saks, NBC, and more!
Tell us about yourself and your business!
I’m a makeup artist! I work on the fashion and commercial side of things, so everything from runway to advertising.
My parents were hippies who met in a cult in San Francisco, and moved to Montana when I was young, but they were also huge on the arts - we all painted, sewed, danced and sculpted and found inspiration in nature. I picked up my first camera when I was 9, and took pictures of everything around me. I would go to the general store (that was so rural, they had a hitching post to tie your horse to!) and look at the one copy of Vogue that they would get and think “someday I’m going to be in that world.” When the Kevyn Auction books were released in the 90s, I was immediately obsessed. Fast forward a few decades, here I am.
What inspired you to start your own business?
My father has run his own business for over 50 years, and my mom has always freelanced, so I grew up watching entrepreneurs and it was just a logical step for me. I’ve had “regular” jobs before but nothing has inspired me like this industry.
Is this your full time job?
It is! I’ve been a makeup artist for 15 years and every day I’m amazed that I get to do this. I absolutely love what I do.
How do you structure your days?
My schedule is incredibly different from day to day. Some days are 14 hour days on set, and some days are purely office work. A typical day for me working on set in studio is to wake up about 90 minutes before I need to leave, make coffee and have breakfast, do some yoga or stretching at the minimum, and give myself plenty of time to get to set. Once I’m there my days can be ridiculously varied from easy and wrapping at 2 pm to getting home at 2 am. If I’m working I rarely plan anything else on those days other than maybe a dinner.
If it’s an office day, I make sure I’ve had 8 hours of sleep, and I enjoy my morning ritual of coffee and silence before sitting down at my desk and planning the day. From follow up emails to clients and reaching out to my agency, to planning social media and updating my website, to working on my side design projects and catching up with friends there’s never enough time in the day.
Self-care is also incredibly important! from taking care of your body with long days on set to taking care of your mind since this is also a surprisingly psychologically taxing industry.
Where and how do you work best?
I love working with crews who understand what my job is and how we all fit together. I can (and have!) worked in crazy situations - from the bottoms of boats to the back of a truck, but when the crew is respectful and we’re all happy to be there and have the same goals then I’m working at my best.
I’m also at 100% when the producer thinks about the things I need to do my job, like a table and chair that are at a good height to work, good natural light or good lighting for the makeup area, and enough time to do what the job requires all also take a day from good to great. Sometimes the people you meet make your year just by being themselves.
Where is your business based?
I’m NYC based but work all over the world. My absolute favorite is Paris.
What were the first few steps you took to get your business up and running?
Makeup artistry has so many facets to it - there’s the skill level and artistic ability part, and then the business part. You’ll spend your entire career working to improve both, though you’ll discover that only about 20% of your time is actually spent painting faces.
On the artistic side, I painted and took photographs my entire life so I already had a good understanding of color theory and balance but needed to have practical, on set experience and time touching faces. I got a makeup counter job so that I could learn while getting paid, and that was 17 years ago. I also assisted as many artists as I could find for the first 6 years.
Oh the business side, taking some classes in how to run a business and reading about attracting and maintaining clients was a big help, along with contacting artist agencies to assist their artists which is 100% a MUST for any makeup artist.
What has been the most effective way of raising awareness of your business and attracting new customers?
Pre social media it was through editorial and word of mouth referrals. Now, I’d say editorial, referrals, AND social media which is both a blessing and a curse. It’s pretty amazing that you can have someone from the other side of the world know all about you based on a device you hold in your hand. Also, the teams I work with tend to refer each other a lot, since we all know each others strengths and work ethics.
What have been your biggest challenges so far?
There’s a lot of over saturation in the industry with tons of artists all going for the same jobs, rates getting lowered, and many clients not understanding the value that a great makeup artist brings to set, so working with all of those factors can be a challenge.
Every day is a new adventure! A few years ago my Mom got incredibly sick and almost died and I took a lot of time off to go be with her, which was difficult both emotionally and financially. It also made me think differently about the kinds of jobs I was doing, and the kind of artist I was versus what I wanted to be. I actually got married AND left my agency of 9 years because of the realizations I had.
Also, a few years ago my husband was offered a great job, but in another state. It was too good an opportunity to turn down, so we commute to see each other and we have households in two states, which can be complicated.
How did you overcome these challenges?
For me, I find that I break adversity down into manageable pieces. If you look at the whole thing as a mountain you’ll never get across it, so it’s truly step by step. I think about the desired end result, and what kinds of things need to happen to get there and work on them one at a time.
I looked at my goals and what might have to happen to achieve them and essentially changed my entire life, from representation to housing to mental health, since this can be a tough industry. There’s a LOT of rejection which can wear on you and you have to learn that it is very rarely personal.
Another thing that was hard for me, and I think hard for a lot of women was realizing that a situation doesn’t have to be abusive for it to be bad. I feel that life should be a constant search for greatness, or at least to be better than you were yesterday.
How do you keep motivated through tough times?
I think about how incredibly grateful I am to have a job I love, that I’m good at, and that I want to do. I feel the same way about this career that I feel about love in general - that it’s a choice. You can fall into a good situation whether personal or professional, but staying in that situation is a choice you make every single day and you’re there BECAUSE of your choices.
I also have an incredible group of friends who’ve been like family to me and we go and do things that spark joy - museums, design shows, film, theater, nature, dancing.. There’s an amazing world out there.
Katheryn Winnick for Real Style - Makeup by Mary Irwin
How do you distinguish yourself from your competitors?
This will sound a bit egotistical, but I don’t really feel that I have competitors. Most of my friends are also makeup artists or creatives - and for me at least, I find great joy in helping them. There’s a million makeup artists out there, and I want to know that if I’m not available, I have a trusted group of artists I can refer to them and know that we have each others backs. I also never, EVER feel that anyone owns a client. That’s a dangerous thought process. If you think you can’t be replaced in a second you’re wrong.
What is the best advice you have received recently?
As an artist, you need your home to be your sanctuary. When you come back at the end of a long day on set, you need to walk in your front door and feel like you have a safe place to breathe, to create, to be inspired and to recharge. Artists have and create vision, and we need to be surrounded by inspirational things to bring that vision to life.
Let me tell you, no one was more surprised than me to find that a new home environment was what I needed to help improve my career!
What do you wish you had known when you started your business?
That you’re going to work harder than you ever thought possible, end up in situations you didn’t know existed, feel betrayed by people you trusted, have people you barely know help you through doors you never thought you could open - but the most important thing is that if you feel like you know everything, you should leave. The journey is really the point.
Three products I love:
Viseart Eye shadows -buttery, pigmented gorgeousness. I know that no matter what situation I’m in, from crazy lighting to bad weather, these hand pressed pigments are going to last forever, show up just the way I want them to, and always have my back.
Golden Door Golden Face Oil - This paragon and sulfate free blend of 19 different oils includes Sea Buckthorn, Rosehip, Squalene and Lavender and absorbs almost instantly on the skin. I love to blend it into a cream foundation to make the skin look like it’s glowing from within.
Surratt Concealer - these little palettes pack a big punch. with a color corrector, concealer and a powder all in one compact, you can do an entire complexion with one. Also, the coverage is adjustable from sheer to full coverage, and the colors are artist developed and you have a kit necessity.