The world-renowned makeup artist transforms the media star into a modern-day Cleopatra.
Photography By BEN HASSETT
Makeup By PAT MCGRATH
Hair By JIMMY PAUL
Nails By BERNADETTE THOMPSON
Styled By JENKE AHMED TAILLY
Written By ANNE STRINGFIELD
Take a close look at the photographs you see here. Does the woman seem familiar? Does the style? That’s Kim Kardashian West channeling Elizabeth Taylor channeling Cleopatra, as designed by Pat McGrath. The images, shot by Ben Hassett, are the first installment in a series for VIOLET GREY in which Ms. McGrath will reimagine paragons of old Hollywood glamour with new faces. Ms. Kardashian West—the most scrutinized woman of our time, as Elizabeth Taylor was in hers—is the model for a re-examination of the Cleopatra tales from 60 and 2,000 years ago. “I love Elizabeth,” says Ms. Kardashian West. “Pat and I have had conversations about how iconic she is, and how iconic Cleopatra is.” She adds, laughing, “I would have done anything—I would have trusted Pat’s vision no matter what she wanted—but I was really excited that it was the Cleopatra vibe.”
A word or two on Ms. McGrath for the uninitiated: she is the single most important force in the world of beauty today, its beloved and revered presiding genius. She has produced an astonishing body of work – there is perhaps no other artist who has such an extended influence over her field (to give an idea of her wide-ranging influence: last year Queen Elizabeth II granted Ms. McGrath membership in the Order of the British Empire for her contributions to the beauty and fashion industries). As creative design director of Procter & Gamble Beauty, she oversees the lines for CoverGirl, Max Factor, Dolce & Gabbana, and more; as the fashion world’s go-to first choice, she’s given us the faces from the runways and ad campaigns of Prada, Dior, Alexander McQueen, Gucci, and innumerable others. Her archive of magazine editorials is a primer of every major idea in beauty over the past 25 years. Even though she had never met Ms. McGrath, Grace Coddington hired her for a 1994 Vogue shoot with Helmut Newton: “All the models I was working with at the time, they all said there’s this amazing makeup artist—you’ve got to meet her, both personally and for her talent.” Ms. Coddington was smitten from that shoot onward, and works with Ms. McGrath whenever she can, “though not enough—it’s never enough. I just absolutely love her. When I get her on my team, I know it’s going to be brilliant. She has that confidence that’s not cocky and not annoying. You just let her do what she wants, and it’s always better than anything you could have imagined.”
Ms. McGrath’s other collaborators echo the sentiment. “I have always felt that Pat is more of a creative director than anything else,” says photographer Ben Hassett. “She is an extraordinary makeup artist, but her vision far exceeds that.” VIOLET GREY founder and chief creative officer Cassandra Huysentruyt Grey observes, “Working with Pat McGrath is like being lucky enough to get Brad Pitt or Leonardo DiCaprio to star in your movie. She is simply the best at what she does.”
Ms. Grey first approached Ms. McGrath and Ms. Kardashian West with the idea for the shoot, inspired by a 1963 Bert Stern photograph of Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra. “VIOLET GREY is named after Elizabeth Taylor’s violet eyes, and her spirit has always been an inspiration point for our core DNA. "I was thrilled when both Kim and Pat responded to the Bert Stern image, inspired us to commission the first of a series we intend to be a study in lost glamour and iconography,” she says.
In the photo by Mr. Stern, Ms. Taylor’s hair is tousled, and her famous eyes—double-lashed, violet, unflinching—are framed in kohl and isis-blue shadow. Her chin is tipped back, putting the delicate tracery of a recent tracheotomy scar in the center of the frame. It’s a tiny flaw that underlines the perfection of her face and form, and reveals a warranted confidence. Then on the cusp of 30, Ms. Taylor was an Academy Award winner, the best-paid actor in the world, mother to three young children, and widely considered the greatest beauty of her time. Who else would one ask to play the legendary queen? Ms. McGrath is working with one of the world’s most well-known faces, and one of fashion’s most familiar tropes, and yet she’s come up with something revelatory.
“Elizabeth Taylor’s makeup in Cleopatra has been re-created countless times, but for Kim I wanted to create an interpretation that has never been done before, a futuristic 3D version,” Ms. McGrath explains. “I wanted to portray a luxurious decadence by using elements of ornate facial jewelry constructed into shapes that pay homage to Egyptian culture, and of course to the rich exotic character that Taylor portrayed in this role.”Ms. Kardashian West’s skin and mouth are left bare, and her hair is pulled back, all earthy simplicity; the gold wings around her eyes, though, point toward something otherworldly. Constructed from wire, Swarovski crystals, gold metal leaves, wax, paint, kohl, gel, and glitter, they simultaneously evoke the feathers of Cleopatra’s patron goddess, the gold phoenix cape that was Ms. Taylor’s most memorable costume in the film, and an armored warrior from a sci-fi future. They also recall the decadence of the original Cleopatra’s toilette. “Her eyeshadow was made from ground lapis stone and gold pyrite flecks,” notes Ms. McGrath. “Incorporating three-dimensional gold metal into the makeup design explores the concept of makeup as jewelry. I wanted the images to be luxurious, evoking a modern take on the opulence associated with Cleopatra’s makeup.”
Cleopatra herself was not just a beauty. She had ambition, charm, political acumen, a melodious voice, style, erudition, sex appeal—an array of qualities that compelled first Julius Caesar and then Marc Antony to neglect military campaigns, political obligations, and marriage vows. When the motion picture age arrived, filmmakers were similarly obsessed. Plenty of wan attempts were made to re-create that charisma on celluloid, but none have touched the 1963 film or Elizabeth Taylor’s allure. In this new take on the Cleopatra saga, Ms. McGrath reveals the plumb lines that connect ancient and modern ideas of beauty, and she shows us a woman maturing into her power. She has collapsed millennia of history into seven images, not only bringing an old tale up to date, but also catapulting it into the future.