It isn’t every day that a girl makes her way onto the speed-dial lists of Hollywood agents, managers and a-list celebrities, but that’s where makeup artist Leslie Lopez has spent more than two decades hanging out. And, as a result, her handiwork has glossed the covers of Elle, Harpers Bazaar, Marie Claire and Vogue magazines. It has been photographed gliding across red carpets at the Met Gala, Golden Globes and People’s Choice Awards — inspiring a montage of fans and YouTubers to recreate her signature looks.
From lining Sarah Jessica Parker’s trademark blue eyes to perfecting Amanda Seyfried’s come-hither pout, and seeing to it that Kate Hudson’s All-American features stop hearts at movie premieres, Lopez is a sought-after figure behind the scenes.
But there is a singular character trait she possesses that — she swears — set in motion the culmination of her spotlight-worthy list of magazine, television and red carpet credits: she mastered the art of preparation.
It was the late 80s and early 90s, and Lopez was the quintessential “starving artist” living in New York City. She waited tables and worked as a hostess to pay her rent, while honing her craft through collaborations with a photographer friend and his amateur models. She paid her way through school, dreaming of how her “big break” would someday play out. “I had heard of this whole thing where people make vision boards to reach their goals,” said Lopez. “But, before I had any success as a makeup artist, my vision board was always in my head.”
During this period, she had her eyes fixed on a particular agent — Elizabeth Watson, wife of famous photographer Albert Watson — someone whose work she had “admired so much for years.” Elizabeth, she was sure, had the necessary connections to make this imaginary life existing only in her mind a reality. Though aware of the stakes, and knowing others dismissed her plans as nothing more than a pipe dream, she knew she wouldn’t be tying herself into that restaurant uniform forever. So, every three months for an entire year, she phoned the agent persistently, asking for an opportunity to meet. But, with every call, the response was the same: “I appreciate you reaching out, but I’m so busy right now. Call me back in three months, and maybe then I can help you.”
After more than a year of feeling like a hapless beggar — fumbling through her planner, turning the pages to three months into the future and scribbling reminder after reminder, Lopez knew she had to implement a bolder strategy.
The “call me back in three months” song and dance wasn’t getting her anywhere. So, this time, when met with those words, she blurted into the phone, “I’ve been calling you for an entire year, so how about this: If you are ever in a bind with an artist who cancels on you last minute, call me and I’ll stop what I’m doing to get to wherever the job is.”
And, like the stroke of a makeup brush, the hands of fate granted her exactly what she asked for — in a matter of 24 hours.
While sliding into her work attire the following morning, her phone rang from inside her Bronx apartment. But this time it wasn’t a bill collector, her mother or one of her girlfriends. On the other end of the line was the agent’s voice, quivering with panic and offering her a last-minute gig to work on the set of a Prada commercial. Only having one hour to be on location, Lopez croaked an acceptance without hesitation. “I was completely beside myself,” she said.
As though impeccably rehearsed, she reached for two things: one — her makeup kit, which was freshly swiped of dust, fully stocked and organized, and two — the only nice outfit she owned. “I was really broke at the time but, for years, I kept myself prepared to take an opportunity at a moment’s notice, even when nothing was happening at all,” said Lopez. “Even when I had no offers in sight, I stayed invested in this chance I hoped to have, and that’s what saved me.”
That big break she dreamed about for so long? It’s exactly what she got. But not without further obstacles. When she phoned her boss to tell him that she wouldn’t be reporting to her shift that day, he told her to never come back. Then, while racing to catch her subway, a drunken bum in an alleyway spotted her looking uncharacteristically elegant and hurled a vengeful rocket of spit straight for her — making her shirt the bullseye. Panicked, she dashed into a bathroom at a nearby coffee shop to splash her shirt with water. “I was so grossed out and almost ready to cry, but I was not going to let anything stop me from getting to that set, ” said Lopez, laughing.
Once there, Lopez’s soaked shirt was not met with side-eyed glances of dismissal or judgment but, instead, laughter. It only served to create camaraderie. “Their Scottish humor thought my bum story was hilarious, and it helped to break the ice. I swear, I think everything always happens for a reason because it worked in my favor.” And the unknown Lopez impressed Albert with her striking artistry skills and professionalism, she was immediately offered representation. “Right then and there, Elizabeth decided to sign me,” said Lopez.
How wonderfully fascinating — and delightfully funny — are the twists and turns Lopez allowed life to take her through. Her story offers a profound lesson on the transforming power of mere preparation. Almost three decades later, Lopez still reflects on that last-minute move with awe.
Because, in one week’s time, she went from spending her days and evenings busing tables and scrimping together tips in order to satisfy her bills to jet-setting to Las Vegas to work on a spread in French Vogue featuring model Pam Ross. Then came regular trips to Los Angeles, Miami and all across South America where she would carve out cheekbones and bronze décolletages for the most prestigious brands and names in fashion and entertainment. Her working relationship with Albert would stretch on for another 16 years.
But in the midst of her evolving portfolio, somewhere around 2002, she performed makeup for a Kate Hudson photoshoot, while the actress was still floating through the buzz and glory surrounding her Academy Award-nominated performance in “Almost Famous.” Lopez caught the attention of other celebrities — from Cameron Diaz to Catherine Zeta Jones — which then caused a domino effect of opportunities to roll in — for everything from television appearances to award shows to private parties. “I still work with Kate Hudson to this day,” she said.
Parker is another star she has maintained a enduring relationship with. “Sarah Jessica keeps me really busy. I know her so well, and we are almost like sisters now. She loves a strong eye and a soft lip so, while I may play with the eyeshadow colors, I always keep the shading dark because it makes her blue eyes really stand out,” said Lopez.
Gwyneth Paltrow is another of her steady clients, who Lopez says she prefers to keep “really fresh with dewy skin and not much depth around the eyes.”
“From before I had anyone in my portfolio to now working regularly with big celebrities, my feeling about what I do has always been the same,” said Lopez. “When I am doing makeup, I am my happiest self. It is like I find this zone where my focus is on making the face the most beautiful it can be. When I am there, nothing can touch me.”
Ahead are her insights into how anyone can become their most confident and unstoppable version, Leslie-Lopez style (along with an expert beauty tip or two).
Leslie Lopez’s 5 Expert Tips On Life, Self & Makeup
#1 Stop Trying to Look Like Your Favorite Beauty Icon
Lopez thinks you’re lovely in your own right, babe.
“Every time there is a body in my chair, my brain immediately begins to strategize how I can make the face the most beautiful it can possibly be, yet still look like the person,” she said. “I want my clients to be recognizable, yet their most stunning self.
Sarah Jessica’s eyes are so captivating and piercing, so I shade around them to make them pop but, for others, a smoky eye may hide their best features. Keep this in mind. The goal should always be to highlight what you uniquely have to offer — your lips, your jawline or whatever — because everyone has something beautiful about them.”
#2 Be Not Distracted By Expensive Brands & Trends
Lopez wants you to know: Just because it is advertised on a flashy billboard in Times Square doesn’t mean it is worth parting with your hard-earned dollars. The most expensive brands often make splurge-worthy products, but not always.
“I love high-end brands like NARS, Giorgio Armani and Tom Ford because they are quality, and they make products that inspire me. But more expensive does not equal better in every case, and it is true that every face is different.”
Her preferred foundations? “I love the Armani, of course, but I also love L’oreal True Match. It is an amazing foundation that is on the cheaper end,” she said.
#3 Hydrated Skin Equals Beautiful Skin
Don’t get in Lopez’s makeup chair and except to skimp on the moisturizer.
“I always start with a clean face, and layer moisturizer according to the person’s skin type. Everyone needs it. For the makeup to look flawless and blend properly, the skin must be moist, supple and dewy. Thirsty skin is sad skin, so never be lazy with this step,” said Lopez.
#4 Don’t Neglect Your Cheeks!
Bronzer and blush are nothing to fear — she swears. You just have to find the right tone and depth for you.
“I think almost every canvas can benefit from a little bronzer to warm up the face, but there has become so much focus on contour that people forget the apples of their cheeks. I love to use a cream blush because it looks so smooth and radiant. Having a rosy and healthy pop of glow on the cheeks can go a long way to add youthfulness to the face,” she said.
#5 Find Your Inner Joy, Let It Come Forth, and Show it Off to the World
This makeup guru believes that, cliche´ as it may sound, sincere, uncontrived happiness is truly the best-kept beauty secret.
“Happy minds make happier, more attractive faces. Always. Trust me — I study and work on faces for a living,” said Lopez. I can tell you that happiness comes through the eyes and the expressions, and there is no faking that kind of beauty. It is shocking how much a positive attitude and spirit can change a person’s face.”
Follow Lopez on Instagram to keep up with her a-list handiwork.
A previous version of this feature appeared in the Summer 2017 issue of Mirabella magazine.