Meet Jeanine Lobell, Founder of Stila and Makeup Artist Extraordinaire

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Remember Stila madness in the ‘90s? Well, Jeanine Lobell was largely responsible for the indie cosmetic line’s magic. Here the makeup artist, who’s worked for everyone form REM, Wilson Phillips, Mariah Carey, Natalie Portman to Cate Blanchett, talks about how she got her start and why looking to the future is the only way to get ahead. 

As told to Bee Shapiro.

I was born in Sweden but my parents are from Queens. Swedish was my first language and I grew up in Stockholm. I didn’t have anything to compare it to then but looking back now, it was awesome. It’s super beautiful and the land of the midnight sun, gnomes and fairies. We had like two TV channels, so we never watched TV. I remember coming here for a visit when I was young and being like, “What, you have 32 flavors of ice cream?!” It was simpler there. And it was also super safe. I still go visit Stockholm every summer. I just got back from there actually. I’m still friends with all my friends from childhood.

The moral fiber that you get out of that environment is that people are very down to earth and very loyal and very straightforward. American culture is very competitive and go and get and have. You know, the whole “American Dream.” Swedes, they’re not as fired up. I probably developed some different characteristics than I would have here.

I was always trendy. I was 16 when I started taking an interest in beauty. I was kind of a semi-punk chick. I was into The Banshees and Bow Wow Wow. With my friends, I think we spent more time putting our makeup on than actually going out. Part of the semi-punk thing was having style. I always tease the Rodarte sisters: I made those chain knit punk sweaters when I was 16! It was all about style and having almost a character to go with your style.

My best friend in high school decided to go to makeup school in London. I was a total copycat. I was like, “Hey, that sounds like fun!” I didn’t even know that was a job you could have. I was 17 and living in London and it was incredible. London has always been a hotbed of expressing yourself through your style. Everybody has something going on, whether it’s candy pink hair or the whole Topshop cute thing. Then, people were cutting up their t-shirts and it was about music, like the New Romantics. So music and fashion were super tied together there. It’s all connected.

After school, I moved to L.A. I was American but didn’t know anything about the country. I felt like I needed to come back to America and figure out how to be an American. I was working in stores doing makeup for brands when I had a friend who was a producer who was making the video for that movie Hairspray. It was low budget and she was like, “Come and do the makeup.” So, I did. I was one of the four makeup artists; I was always the person who could get the lay of the land quickly and then imitate what I was supposed to do. When they yell “Rolling!” you shut up. When they say “Cut!” you run in and powder people’s noses. I just picked up things really fast and she started giving me other jobs. Those were the early days, where it was just really easy to just say, “Hey can you come do this video, and oh, by the way can you bring an iron? We need an iron on the set.”

I was lucky in that when I started, there were less people. It was at a time when the industry wasn’t so oversaturated. Now, with the makeup artist brands like Bobbi Brown and Francois Nars, people actually get that it’s a career.  So it was probably easier for me to move from videos to print. In the ‘90s I would do a video and the artist might be doing an album cover and request me. That’s how I started to meet celebrities and work for magazines. It was very organic.

One big break I had was working my first job with Annie Leibovitz. It was a Vanity Fair cover and it also turned out to be the first time I worked with Natalie Portman and Cate Blanchett. Natalie was like 16 at the time!  We shot her on the first shoot day. I ended up working with her for years. We’re super close to this day — she’s like my little sister. I taught Natalie how to do her makeup for prom! I made these little face charts for her and stapled them together.  

The second shoot day, the producer showed me a lineup of women and asked me to pick one. I picked Cate Blanchett out of the lineup! This was before Elizabeth; people didn’t really know her. Doing her makeup is like cheating because she’s so pretty. I also worked with her for years.

With a celebrity, you have to deal with the person’s comfort zone.  It was more emotional and political, and there are definitely things you have to have common sense about. Sometimes you would witness things that are private. The amount of women I knew who were pregnant before they even announced!

There were more celebrities, like Julianne Moore, Charlize Theron and Jennifer Lopez around that time. But at a point, you have to decide what kind of career you want to have. Do you want to have a career where you are almost a fan of the women you work on? Or do you want to have a career based on talent? It’s not that one is better than the other. It’s just a different journey. You have some makeup artists making an entire career off doing one celebrity’s makeup. They don’t actually know fashion or what’s coming, but they just know that one person’s face. I never wanted that. For me, it’s all about the pictures and collaboration with the team, the stylist and photographer.

In 1994, we launched Stila. It was originally not my idea. It was my silent partner’s idea. Initially, she had suggested that we just go with private label, where you just buy the stuff and put your name on it. I said, “No, if I’m going to do this, I’m going to actually make the stuff.” So we went through a grueling process to find a lab because our quantities were so small. It was such hard work, but we showed the samples to Barneys and they loved it. The fact that Barneys wanted it meant that I had done something good. It was the ultimate validation.

There was a lot of creativity to come out of the line. We weren’t doing chunky sparkle, it was about shimmer and shine. We were the first to do the twisty lip glosses. And those cream blush compacts or the packaging that was like little books that opened. Every lipstick color has its own formula. It would be the perfect formula for that color. People freaked out over our eyeshadows. That was because before if you, say, created a plum shimmery eyeshadow, they would use plum matte color and blend in plum sparkle. For Stila, I would physically go to the lab and blend the plum matte with khaki, plum and gold sparkle. It would add more dimension.

We sold Stila about 5 years after we created it. I stayed on for another 5 years under a management contract and then I was pretty much gone. Today, I still do makeup all the time, but in the last 10 years I started doing way more fashion than celebrity. I also launched an app, or really a series of apps with my therapist Jane Reardon. It’s a program called Rx and the first is Rx Breakup and it’s a 30-day program to get over a guy. We also have Rx Dating and Rx Happy. The next one will be about health and beauty. Jane is one of my best friends and I feel like I’m a therapist for my friends. I figure, why not help people? She does the content and I do the creative direction.

I also have a few projects in the air, but I don’t want to do a makeup line. I’m very opinionated and I’m happy to share my opinions, but to do another makeup thing is like going backwards. This whole app thing and everything concerning tech and users — we’re adding a social networking component to it — it’s the way forward.

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