In 1995, a relatively unknown Gwen Stefani went to the MAC cosmetics counter at Nordstrom in L.A. She asked Gregory Arlt — then a young, traveling MAC makeup artist stationed at the store — for winged black eyeliner and a cherry red lip. She was playing a show later that night with her budding punk-pop band, No Doubt. Their third album, Tragic Kingdom — which would later go on to sell over 8 million copies in the U.S. alone and feature the massive Billboard Hot 100 hits “Just A Girl” and “Don’t Speak” — was about to come out.
Nearly two decades later in 2012, Stefani, a global pop and beauty sensation, was shooting the cover for No Doubt’s first studio album in 11 years, Push and Shove. Looking for a new makeup artist, her longtime hairstylist Danilo suggested that she try his talented friend, Gregory Arlt. Since then, Arlt has become an official member of Stefani’s glamsquad, working with her on everything from episodes of The Voice and red carpet events to her third solo studio album, This Is What The Truth Feels Like (March 21). Billboard spoke with Arlt about the inspiration behind the new record’s cover look, how Stefani’s makeup style has changed over the years (“With a new love [Blake Shelton] and new music, she’s really feeling very flirty and feminine”), and how anyone can achieve the pop singer’s signature red lip.
Tell us about the first time you worked with Gwen.
The very first time I ever did her makeup was in 1995, right before Tragic Kingdom came out. I had heard of No Doubt because they were super local L.A. band from Orange County and I’m from L.A. At the time, I was a traveling makeup artist for MAC cosmetics and one of my clients who would come to the counter was on Gwen’s record label and suggested I meet her. Gwen came into Nordstrom’s all by her self and we designed a look for her to wear on stage later that night. It, of course, included red lips.
Then about four years ago in 2012 when she was doing Push and Shove, she was looking for a change with her makeup artist and Danilo, her hair stylist who I’ve known for about 15 years, got us together. When I came to the shoot, I sweetly reminded her that we had worked together at the MAC Nordstrom’s counter once and she said, “oh my god I totally remember that! I always wondered what happened to you!” We’ve been together ever since.
Your most recent major project with her was the cover art for her solo studio album, This Is What The Truth Feels Like, which just dropped on March 21. What was your inspiration?
The direct inspiration was the contact sheet from Alfred Eisenstaedt’s portrait session with Marilyn in 1953, and we really ran with that for the record cover. I’m not saying this because I love her, but the album truly is a triumph. It basically tells the whole story about her crazy year. Of course Marilyn Monroe inspired us, but really were interested in the Norma Jean right before she became the bombshell we all know. There’s sort of a known innocence to that look. And with this record she is so raw and vulnerable, so we wanted to achieve that vibe with makeup in a sort of wide-eyed, peaches and cream kind of way.
How did you achieve that look?
We actually did three looks throughout the day. The first was the neutral album cover, the second was a richer version for “Misery,” the single artwork, and the third has yet to be released.
For the record cover, I used extremely neutral shades and colors on her. For the lip I mixed together a peach, coral and nude lipstick and applied it with a brush on her to keep the neutrals warmer rather than cooler. Warmer colors are friendlier colors and sort of invite you in in a way that cooler ones don’t. Her eyes are huge and beautiful, but she loves a good [false] lash, so of course we used a lash and defined her brows, but kept everything kind of soft. I’ve been obsessed with very matte, yogurt-y shades recently, so I used those as a base.
For “Misery,” we evolved the look and went a little bit more bombshell Marilyn, very ’50s, which obviously works on Gwen because she so looks like she was born in the wrong era. I did a little bit of liner on the top of her lid, but then pressed in an eggplant-colored purple shadow to soften it so you see a subtle shadow as opposed to a black line. And then of course we did her classic matte red lips.
And then the third look was the total ’60s look, but that hasn’t been released yet. You can see it quickly towards the end of the behind the scenes video, where Danilo and I are prepping her. Very ’60s, really strong, beautiful look.
Has her relationship with Blake Shelton influenced what she’s willing and/or wants to wear?
Well it’s interesting because whenever someone is in a really exciting place in their life, you just want to kind of show it. And with a new love [Blake Shelton] and new music, and she’s feeling very flirty and feminine and we just went with it. She’s just so happy right now and is willing to try and do fun things, like an orange or a pale lip, both of which are very ’60s-inspired and lighter, flirtier and happier.
How do you do that signature red lip?
Both of us love a bright matte red. Think really 1950s cherry, fire engine red. We stay away from brick reds and dark reds because sometimes they can get too sophisticated, and with Gwen we like to keep it kind of doll-like. Sometimes we’ll do orange-reds, which are a lot of fun, and they actually bring the features forward, especially when you have brown eyes like she does. I’ll stay within the line because she already has such a great shape, and just round out the center a little bit instead of making it pointed. Then I just fill it in with the pencil and seal it with the lipstick. With any red lip, it is all about filling it in with the pencil.
Tips for the perfect eyebrow?
The balance between drawn on and natural is always a challenge. It’s all about the blending. What I like to do with Gwen is use a warm tope-colored pencil and feather that pencil through her brows almost like individual hairs. Then the trick is to take a soft, natural-hair angled brush (like an angled eyeliner brush) and blend through the brow to soften it. To seal it, I’ll take a neutral blondish-tope eye shadow and used the same angle brush and define the brow using shadow. If you do that, it makes the brow look as natural as possible while keeping the pencil on.
Now, if you’re going to be jumping on stage all day, you can definitely put brow gel over it, which I have done many times with Gwen. I’ll take a clear brow gel, wipe the wand through a tissue so there’s not too much excess, and then just sort of lightly go through her brow with it. Or, which works even better, I’ll just grab a can of Danilo’s hairspray and spray a clean mascara wand with it and run the wand through the eyebrow.
Favorite makeup trend right now?
I love strobing and am not a fan of contouring. I’ve always believed in creating depth by adding light. Whenever you lighten something, it stands out, but if you darken something it recedes. I am not a fan of trying to restructure, reshape and basically rebuild a face because I love faces for what they are, you know. Contouring looks beautiful in photography if someone is facing the camera, but in real life if they turn their face, you’ll just see a brown stripe on their cheek, and that’s never going to be attractive.
How do you strobe or highlight?
A few different ways. What I do typically is put on a foundation that’s the same color as her skin, and make that a base so it’s one color all over. Then I’ll take a concealer two shades lighter than her skin tone and tap it on the high plains of the face, her upper cheekbones, a little under the brow bones, a little down the bridge of the nose. You know there’s some makeup artists that highlight in a triangle under the eyes, I just don’t go there because it starts to become architecture and more pain as opposed to beauty. So I set with translucent powder and often times I’ll take a shimmery bone colored shadow and sweep it over the upper cheek bones to bring that little pop of light under the cheek and under the eyebrow. You can also put a little on the eyelid, which is really pretty
What’s the one thing you always have in your makeup kit?
Sponges. Good old wedge sponges are great, but MAC makes a great one called the pro performance sponge. It’s got an edge on one side and rounded on the other, you can wash it and reuse it…it’s great.
So what’s next for you? Is there a dream artist you’ve yet to work with?
Wow…it’s a hard question to answer because I feel like I’m already working with her, with Gwen. I’ve always loved her and I’ve always loved her vibe, and I always knew deep inside that we would reconnect some day, and we did. You’re dealing with someone who is so pretty and so kind, sweet and down to earth, real and authentic. And who’s also a makeup girl! I don’t know how much better it could get. I’m living the dream.