Writer: Petrina Khashoggi
Photographer: Michael Williams
Makeup Artist: Rose-Marie Swift
Hair Stylist: Raphael Portet
Digital Tech/ Retouching: Hanna Agar
Photo Assistant: Jesse Dreyfus
Model: Dani Seitz
Location: Milk Studios NYC

(Interview follows photo series)


Being a self-professed beauty junkie, I leapt at the chance to speak with eminent makeup artist Rose-Marie Swift for Imagista. Swift has been in the business for over 20 years and has worked with everyone from Mario Sorrenti—“a career highlight”—to Paloma Picasso—“she’s amazing.” Her favorite part of the job is working with models (there isn’t one big name in the fashion industry—from today or yesteryear—that she hasn’t worked with). “They’re like the kids I never had,” she smiles warmly. “I just love them.”

After a health scare revealed that her body contained high levels of toxicity, Swift spent many years educating herself about the cosmetics industry as she rebuilt her health and created RMS Beauty organic color makeup. “My path is to teach people the truth of what’s going on in the world. I like to think of myself as a truth guru. It is important to me that I leave something healthy behind for the earth, and to be respected by my peers.” Launched in 2009, RMS Beauty was the first truly organic color cosmetics brand in the world. Packed with vitamins and enzymes, it is basically skin nutrition—with color.

A raw foodist, Swift is a firm believer that beauty is an inside job. “Your skin is a mirror to your gut. An unhealthy diet means unhealthy skin.” She follows the old adage of less is more, and her pet peeve is to see people wearing caked-on slap laden with chemicals. “It makes people look like if you hit them on the back of the head their face would fall off,” she says.

Having tried her products I am sold, as Rose-Marie says on her website: “The RMS Beauty line works. It’s as simple as that… This is makeup unlike any you have seen before.” It’s absolutely true. Casting all journalistic impartiality aside I’m just going to say it straight: I am in love with RMS Beauty. It really is unlike any make-up I’ve seen or used before. The texture is velvety soft and when I apply it in the mirror, my reflection literally glows back at me. My skin takes on a life of its own—like it’s living and breathing and basking in health.

The best thing about RMS Beauty, and this goes for all you bad gals who commit the cardinal beauty sin of not removing your makeup before bed (ahem – guilty!), is that this makeup is so full of goodness, you can actually sleep in it—guilt free!

Rose-Marie sat down with her old friend Imagista’s founder Michael Williams to share her journey from lead singer in a punk band to natural beauty and health advocate…

Imagista: How did you get into makeup in the first place?

RM: Well that’s a funny story…My sister was an esthetician in Vancouver and she knew this guy who owned a bunch of hotels. Bear in mind this is in the 1970’s when they would have these burlesque performers in all the hotel bars. It was a classy affair though. They had stages and the girls all wore costumes. No one was allowed to touch the girls, the girls didn’t take much off. I’m pretty sure that they all wore tassels to cover their nipples too. The hotels were nice places. Those were the days of beer parlors and cocktail lounges. We weren’t hanging around in hipster dive bars like we might do today.

I was really young. It was about 1975 so I was around 20 years old. The hotel owner wanted the girls to look better, so he asked my sister to teach them about skincare and how to do their makeup. My sister needed help doing their makeup so I went along to help her out and just faked it.

I was already good at doing my own makeup, so it came pretty naturally to me. We became friends with all the girls and ended up doing makeup for all the girls in town. I’d do the morning shift and the evening shift. Then I started selling makeup to them as well. I’d buy makeup from a label-free company for 80 cents then turn around and sell it for $4-$5, so it was a good little business.

Then the magazines started hearing about me. There was this well-known model from Scandinavia that was in town and Vancouver Magazine wanted to shoot her for the cover, so they hired me to do her makeup. That was a pretty big deal at the time.

I stayed on in Vancouver for a few more years and worked with everyone whom there was to work with including Peter Gravelle who later moved to Milan and had a big career there. After a time it became obvious that I’d have to leave if my career was going to continue to grow, so I moved to Toronto.

I’ve always had good luck. It was like the universe was taking care of me. I never really even wanted to be a makeup artist—it just fell into my hands. It started with a suggestion from my sister and I said, “Sure, why not?” And the rest just followed. I was still in my punk band phase.

Imagista: So tell us a little about your days playing punk.

RM: I played in a couple of punk bands and we backed up everybody who came into Vancouver, including the Ramones,The Dead Kennedys, and The Subhumans, basically all the bands that would come up from the US via Seattle, Portland and San Francisco.

I was the lead singer. The first band was called The Generics, then we changed our name to The Insexs, which is what we were called when we backed up the Ramones at the Commodore Ballroom. Then I started another band called Rosa Luxemburg named after the German spy. For our first gig we played in this little bar called The Smiling Buddha where Hendrix had played.

Imagista: Where did you go after your years in Vancouver and Toronto?

RM: I went to Europe. I was about to move to Milan but instead decided on Germany. I was totally fascinated at the time with Nina Hagen and the whole German punk scene—bands like Einstürzende Neubauten, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Crime and the City Solution. There was this great scene happening between Berlin and Hamburg. I was kind of a punk groupie and wanted to be part of that scene.

Imagista: So at the time was music equally important to you as fashion was?

RM: Oh, I never wanted to be a makeup artist. It was just a means to an end, so that I could do all the other stuff. In fact I still don’t want to be a makeup artist! (laughs)

Imagista: Where did you go after your time in Germany?

RM: I moved to Miami as soon as The Wall came down. It was an exciting time, but it was also the end of an era, the era that I moved there for in the first place. So I decided it was time to leave.

Imagista: Why Miami of all places?

RM: Well, I’d had a great time in Germany, but I really only did makeup there to make a living and my portfolio was really bad, so I knew I’d never make it in New York or Paris. So I went to Miami and I just lucked out down there too.

I did everything there that there was to do. And at that time all the European and US magazines were shooting there. Miami was surging, so again I really lucked out. I had no idea what I was doing but my career just kept on progressing.

Imagista: Besides being known for makeup you’re also somewhat known for your interest in astrology. Can you tell us a bit about that?

RM: I have this thing where I just have to know how everything works. That is part of the reason why I have my own makeup line. I just want to delve deeply into my interests. So when I was younger, around 16 years old, if I’d like someone I’d look into their astrology sign then I discovered that I was really good at guessing people’s signs. So I started reading books on the subject and getting into doing people’s charts. I just get it.

Imagista: How important then is astrology to your career?

RM: It plays a really important role in what I do. Every day I’m on set with someone new, and astrology allows me to have an instantaneous connection with that person and to put them at ease. After all who doesn’t like to hear about themselves? Talking about astrology is a great icebreaker and adds some depth to the conversation.

Imagista: What prompted you to start your own makeup company, RMS Beauty?

RM: RMS Beauty arose from a few different things. I was concerned about my health and the health of others. I was also unhappy with the way makeup appeared in photographs: it didn’t sit on the skin the way I wanted it to. At the same time my own health was starting to suffer too, so I got some hair analysis and advanced blood work done. When I went to get the results the doctors asked me if I worked in the cosmetics industry. I was completely freaked when they asked me that. They said that my body contained a lot of chemicals that were commonly found in cosmetics and that these chemicals were quite toxic. So I realized that many of the products I was commonly using were really bad for people. The cosmetics industry really isn’t regulated much, so the companies can put pretty much whatever they want to into a product. Now parabens are becoming a big controversy, as well as phthalate which is an endocrine disruptor and a hormone disruptor. The list goes on and on…

I dove in deep to see what was really in all these products and what their effects on one’s health might be. None of the so-called natural brands, or very few of them, are actually any good. So in 2004, I founded the website which addresses issues of toxicity in beauty products. I got a lot of press from that and suddenly all my clients wanted to know more. So that also led to starting RMS Beauty.

Imagista: When did you begin working on RMS Beauty?

RM: I began slowly developing the brand around 2005. I wanted to get into it slowly and go at my own pace in order to get it right and to maintain control over the products.

RMS Beauty is now in 28 countries around the world including the USA and Canada, and as far away as China and Singapore. We’re in some really nice and influential stores too like Liberty’s in London and Colette in Paris.

I still offer free consultations in my home in NYC, so anyone can contact me and set up an appointment where I show people what products might work best with their skin etc.

Imagista: What do you like most about your job?

RM: Well, I love working with the girls. I really do. I feel like I’m their mom when I’m working with them. I feel like I can teach them about health and how to take care of themselves. You have to remember that I meet most of these models when they are very young (say 18 or 19 years old) and their careers are just starting. Most of them haven’t been away from home long at all when I first meet them. And with the astrology we become quite close. I end up helping them with many aspects of their lives but with a particular focus on their health.

Imagista: Who are some of your favorite models or subjects?

RM: I really love working with Gisele Bundchen and Miranda Kerr whom I both work with a lot. I’m quite close with both of them and they are great girls. I also work a lot with Karolina Kurková, as well as Tilda Swinton who’s got to be one of the most intelligent and intriguing people I’ve ever met. She’s amazing!

I’ve worked with everyone from Celine Dion, who is really lovely, to rappers like Lil’ Kim who is really sweet. But I’m lucky to have worked with so many actresses and models that I don’t even remember them all now. (laughs)

Imagista: What about photographers?

RM: I’ve worked with pretty well every top fashion photographer in the world with the exception of Steven Meisel and Steven Klein. Of my favorites I’d have to include Mert and Marcus, Mario Sorrenti, Glen Luchford, and Terry Richardson.

Imagista: What do you do to keep yourself inspired?

RM: That’s such a good question. I love the “artisticness” of the job but not the job itself. More often it’s really more about what the job could be that inspires me than what the job actually is. It’s the thought “What if I could do what I really wanted to do?” that inspires me and keeps me going. And sometimes I get to do that. But I’m also inspired by health and sharing my knowledge, and being an advocate for health in the beauty industry and in life. That also keeps me energized and inspired. The desire to be creative and the desire to do good.

When I see a lot of published work these days it kinda makes me sad. There is so much retouching going on that it doesn’t even look real. And that’s misleading. I think that it doesn’t have to be that way or look that way to look amazing. The models just don’t look real and even the big photographers who have influence are doing it. Hopefully that will change, but fashion is still a big fantasy so I’m not sure if it ever will but I’m hopeful that it will.

Imagista: Whom do you admire most in your field or in the creative world?

RM: There really isn’t any one person who I’d site as an influence; in terms of makeup though I personally think that Linda Cantello is probably the greatest makeup artist of all time hands down. Pat McGrath and Lucia Pieroni are also really good, but Linda is a true artist and she’s always been my favorite and she always will be.

As far as photographers go I always prefer the ones who make women look beautiful and real, not the ones that are into making them look like drag queens. I guess I’d have to say that Mario Sorrenti is probably my favorite.

I’m lucky to be able to actually work with my favorite models and photographers in a creative industry that I really love. Not everybody gets to say that.