MAKEUP ARTIST Kay Montano On the art of navigating creative freedom

Kay Montano headshot selfie courtesy Kay Montano copy v2

London-based Kay Montano has worked on fashion and beauty campaigns with globally renowned photographers from Helmut Newton to Steven Meisel and for publications such as Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and W Magazine. Today, she collaborates with A-list Hollywood actors like Julianne Moore and Rachel Weisz, creating their looks for premieres and red carpet events. Alongside a successful career as an artist, Montano has written for magazines including Sunday Times Style, had a weekly beauty column in The Daily Mail, and ran an online beauty and lifestyle zine celebrating diversity with actress Thandie Newton for five years. These days, she shares her insights on philosophy, social issues and relationships on social media. In one Substack post, she explores how Pamela Anderson took charge of her public persona, going from ‘hot babe’ to barefaced, elegantly dressed star, and what that means for women and beauty standards today.


I enjoy the challenge of making the work look beautiful under the unforgiving flash photography of the paparazzi

Sascha Behrendt: You started as a makeup artist at sixteen, which is really young. One is so in love with fantasy, glamour and transformation at that age. Did it feel like the perfect career for you?

Kay Montano: At that time, it absolutely was. I got into fashion in the eighties, when everything was constantly moving, I was never bored. With what I do, you get results instantly. Like, putting a big load of pink colour on an eye, it gets photographed, then suddenly evolves into something different, more amplified — the way you want things to look. The fashion industry, unlike now, had many separate areas commercially, and was less globally centralised. The incredible subculture that existed up until the nineties greatly influenced fashion from the ground-up, with designers, stylists, models, makeup and hair artists all coming from underground clubland. We were so free then. There were no mood boards, no predetermined ideas of what the shoot would look like. We made it up as we went along, and you were chosen because of the vibe you brought to the shoot. 

Kay Kate Moss ph. Mario Testino
Kate Moss wearing makeup by Kay Montano, photographed by Mario Testino, 2022; courtesy Kay Montano


SB: How did you get to work with such top photographers early on?

KM: It was all because of the subculture I was drawn to. Via a school friend, I was introduced to Kate Garner who was in a band called Haysi Fantayzee. We started hanging out with her, and through her I met the photographer Jamie Morgan, who, along with stylist Ray Petri, had a whole style vibe that they called 'Buffalo'. They took me under their wing and my first makeup job was for a cover of The Face magazine. That was a maverick, generous move by them; I wasn’t ready at all, but they guided me. I quickly learned the hard way by making a lot of mistakes, and by closely watching the way my chosen mentors worked, plus their aesthetic, and tried to replicate it. 

You need to put in the time to become really good at what you do. I believe you can be born with raw talent, but you only become excellent with what Malcolm Gladwell calls in his book Outliers, the ‘10,000 hours’ that you put in, and for me, you never stop refining it. The job is similar to being an actress in that, to a certain extent, you’re at the mercy of those who interpret your work. You could do the most amazing makeup, and if the photographer’s lighting is bad, it can just make your work look like shit. But working with challenges teaches you so much, it helps you get better. We didn't have digital retouching, so you really had to be a good makeup artist as you could see everything. So now, when I'm working on the red carpet, I enjoy the challenge of making the work look beautiful under the unforgiving flash photography of the paparazzi. I’ve learned to work with their lighting and its visual inconsistency. 


SB: You’ve created an umbrella term for your writing across different platforms called The Space Between, where you share raw feelings and thoughts on beauty, identity, love and politics. Can we talk about that?

KM: Because at first Instagram was just about filters, we were all like, wow, we can make something look like we're in the 1970s! Then we realised it was actually a space to post whatever you like and use any words with your pictures. After having no creative control outside of making up a model’s face for decades, where hairdressers stay hairdressers, makeup artists stay makeup artists, the internet gave me the freedom to expand, just as I had experienced as a sixteen-year-old girl who liked wild makeup and going to clubs. 

There’s a hierarchy on shoots and on set, and however brilliant you become within your area, you can never be more than that within it. As you gather more knowledge and experience, you want that to be reflected in your work, and I’ve struggled with feeling restricted by a ‘role’ that doesn’t evolve. When people ask, “Why don't you put more of your makeup work on Instagram?” I'm like, “Guys, you've got to understand — are you doing the same thing that you did when you were sixteen years old?” I didn’t go on Instagram to replicate my portfolio; I went on it to express myself in a way that used my creative mind in full.

Kay Montano with Pamela Anderson Ph.Bruce Weber
Kay Montano with Pamela Anderson photographed by Bruce Weber; courtesy Kay Montano


SB: It’s easier to romanticise the process of manufacturing glamour when young. After many years, there is not much mystery left. But red-carpet actresses and celebrities can still look incredible and be very inspiring for women. However, the reality is that they are performing a role very consciously; they are aware that it's not them. It's a temporary persona they're stepping out as that’s constructed.

KM: It becomes a job. As a young person when I started, it was very much fun and games, and so exciting! You have mythical ideas of the world; you could say I was often spellbound. As I’ve grown up, I’ve required more substance than from images alone. 

I often think about my visual influences, and they really did come from being a nerdy kid who was often left on her own with the TV. I had to create my own world. Classical and independent movies on TV in the seventies and eighties accidentally taught me about complex, nuanced narratives and how to create a whole atmosphere using lighting and makeup. It gave me a window to the arts in many ways (I was introduced to James Baldwin via TV). I was being influenced by cinematic aesthetics and ideas. So, when I began doing makeup, I had all of this visual knowledge of great cinematography without knowing what the hell that even was. Everything we hear, taste and see influences and forms us on some level, and that's why it's so important to be mindful of what social media you allow in. 


SB: Yes, absolutely.

KM: What I was trying to create with the makeup was the atmosphere I saw, which I guess was a simulation of the lighting and grading in the film. Imagine if the lighting guy on the Flora margarine ads in the seventies did the same lighting for Ridley Scott's iconic film, Blade Runner. It wouldn't be Blade Runner, would it? 

So, with makeup, I was drawn to replicate the tones, softness and shadows from these kinds of films, because I was entranced by the other-worldly, hyperreal imagery of it all.


SB: Amazing. Moving on I would love to talk now about your Trinidadian roots.

Kay Harpers Bazaar Rachel Weisz
Rachel Weisz wearing makeup by Kay Montano, photographed by Tom Craig, Harper's Bazaar 2015; courtesy Kay Montano

KM: My father was a journalist and very well-connected in his younger days. He came over to England to write for the Trinidadian Chronicle. I find it fascinating that a black man travelled alone to London as a journalist in the fifties and sixties. The best man at my parents’ wedding was a guy called Learie Constantine a famous West Indian cricketer who became a lawyer, politician, Trinidad and Tobago's High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, and the UK's first black peer. Another old friend, Jan Carew, was an author and leading scholar in pan-African and Caribbean studies. I only lived with my dad until I was eight, then, when my parents divorced, he died one year later from his second heart attack, and I barely knew him. There are none of his family here, and he lost touch with his own when he left Trinidad. The thing that haunts me in life are the things I will never know about his journey from Trinidad as a highly educated and skilled man. The how, why, and many interesting people he’d met in his life.


SB: Did having a dad born in the West Indies have an influence on your outlook growing up?

KM: Yes, and it always will in profoundly mysterious ways that I can only be subjective about. I was different in every single way – the mix was just one more thing. My mum was bipolar, I was the only ‘only child’ around, I wasn't black like the black kids, or white, or Irish like the others. I'd be with the Irish nanny listening to her singing her funny old Irish songs to the kids. I experienced a wonderful cross-section of society, both posh, working class, and from everywhere. That was amazing. I love the access that I had, and the ability to be able to be among black culture as well as white. Of course, I was ‘different’ in both of them, but it depends on which way you look at it. Because they're both correct. You could either say, I don't belong anywhere, or I belong everywhere. 

Kay working Lady Gaga
Kay Montano behind the scenes with Lady Gaga for the 35th anniversary of Hello Kitty; courtesy Kay Montano


SB: You straddled two different consciousnesses...

KM: Many of the women that I saw on TV who were gorgeous, didn't appear just in white form. As I got older, there were those that were cool, like Annabella Lwin from the band Bow Wow Wow, who was mixed Burmese and had a Mohican haircut, Grace Jones dressed like a man, and Michael Jackson was the ultimate popstar.

I saw this and was like, Hmm, okay, this works, you know?  

I’ve always loved the people who come from the dark side, those who didn't fit, like the artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, and designer Vivienne Westwood. They weren’t schooled into becoming who they were, it came through their raw talent and self-education. I guess that's what I always aspired for myself. I never wanted to be taught to do anything. It’s because I don't want to be influenced by others and instead, do what’s not been said or done before. 


SB: Are there other key inspirations for you?

My ultimate creative love would be film. I watched classics growing up, my favourites are Black Narcissus, directed by Powell and Pressburger, and as mentioned, Blade Runner, which had a profound influence on me, both in its existential narrative, and the extraordinary cinematography of Jordan Cronenweth. I loved seventies sci-fi like 2001: A Space Odyssey which blew my mind as a child. Movies by Terrence Malick, Joseph Losey, Peter Weir’s early work, Stanley Kubrick, and Nic Roeg. There was just so much great weird back then!

I’ve always loved the people who come from the dark side, those who didn't fit

With books, I read much more in my twenties. Novels by Martin Amis, such as Money were a revelation, as was Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of The Vanities, Ian McEwan’s weirdly dark, short stories First Love, Last Rites, and Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. I adored the irreverent, yet witty depths of Tom Robbins’ joyful novels like Jitterbug Perfume, and film director Sarah Polley’s memoir Run Towards The Danger. I resonate deeply with her unusual upbringing and how she has navigated the bizarre, the incredible, and the horrible in her life. 

With so much reactive, binary noise out in the world, I often watch old footage and interviews on Toni Morrison, James Baldwin and bell hooks. hooks’ book All About Love, has so much wisdom about the way women and men ‘love’ in a patriarchal world. I’m not sure exactly why some of us have such a need for storytelling and narrative, but personally, I need artists for their ability to speak of things directly and to acknowledge the elephants in the room. I find great comfort in those who are without moral compromise. They’re like my posthumous adopted ‘Aunties and Uncles’. 


SB: You are a true writer. Your thoughts on your Instagram are very fluid and flow beautifully. It's quite hard for some writers to consciously achieve that.

KM: Thank you. I used to enjoy writing at school. Later, I’d write lyrics when I was in a band, between the ages of nineteen and twenty-three, with my friend Michelle; we had a record deal. I gave up makeup completely for four years and didn’t miss it at all!


SB: Were you singing?

KM: Yes. That was fun for a while. But then I realised, my god, I just couldn't be a starving artist. We had a great record deal, lots of press, but after a few years, I thought, I could be sitting here trying to write forever in this room in my friend's crazy halfway house. I couldn't live like that for long. I realised I am somebody who needs money. 


Kay Vogue China ph. Laurie Bartley
Sasha Pivovarova wearing makeup by Kay Montano, photographed by Laurie Bartley, Vogue China, 2005; courtesy Kay Montano

SB: Your work as a top makeup artist, which in contrast is well paid, is not just about makeup techniques, it’s also about the relationships and how you perform with a team on a shoot.

KM: Yes, you are there for your vibe as well. You're there for your skills to make people feel wonderful, and to be ‘a giver’ all day. It’s not always easy to create magic in a picture, and hair and makeup artists have the unsaid role of keeping up enthusiasm with a sense of ‘fun’. I was very good at that. Makeup artists are often people pleasers. You’ve been chosen over ten other people for the booking, so you’re kind of expected to perform at a hundred percent, facilitating everyone else's vision for a photoshoot each time. But you do have to be careful, because being like that, you can get burnt out, which I have been. I now avoid studio work, and only do it if I feel it’s really necessary.


SB: Do celebrities suffer that too?

KM: Yes, but they have a power over certain things, like levels of comfort, what they eat, etc. They may facilitate directors on movies, but with press work, it is hair and makeup who have to facilitate what celebrities want. Though to be fair, the successful actors I work with work really hard and are very gracious. Besides money, the reason I do my job is to get to hang out with amazing women like Julianne Moore, Rachel Weisz and Naomie Harris, who are all highly intelligent, respectful  and self-aware. 


Everything we hear, taste and see influences and forms us on some level. It's so important to be mindful of what social media you allow in

SB: You bring all your experience and grace to your work as a makeup artist, but you also make space in your life for writing. What made you decide to share it with the public via social media?

KM: Writing has always been something that I have done. Now because of my age, I just don't care what other people think, which is really healthy. I got onto Instagram to express myself. People aren’t seeing me doing selfies, living my best life and all this facade. I have no interest in displaying that. 


SB: It's noticeable how frank you are. You're a pioneer clearing a path for others in that way. Do you have future projects that you are working on?

KM: I am working on a podcast series that is a reaction to the binary world that we live in. Through conversations with guests, I’d like to explore the idea of finding the insightful spaces between commonly stuck, opposing narratives.



Follow Kay on Instagram @kaymontano and sign up to The Space Between

Kay Loves

click here to check out more features...