Francesca Sorrenti in conversation with Alex Babsky and Declan Sheils

Francesca Sorrenti: Okay. Let’s start introducing ourselves. I’m Francesca Sorrenti, and I am going to do this interview with both Alex Babsky and Declan Sheils. My first question is going to be, it’s not about how the shoot was, but about your lives and how you both got started. 

Alex Babsky: How did I start? Good question. Well, it was never a plan. I never planned to be a makeup artist. One thing just kind of led to another. I had always, as a kid, had been interested in art and drawing and painting at school. As I got older, I guess I applied that kind of interest in art in different areas. And looking back, I realize I became pretty interested in the idea of applying art to appearance through, not necessarily makeup, but also hair and jewelry and clothes and all those kinds of things. So I applied to St. Martin’s in London to study fashion.

I went there for awhile. I was very interested in all that, but once I was on the course, the thing that I wasn’t so interested in was the fact that fashion, although it’s about appearance and being artistic, is actually incredibly mathematical. It’s about cutting patterns and seams and getting this measurement into that color measurement and all those kinds of things. That kind of numbers work or that math stuff didn’t interest me at all. I guess unconsciously, I started looking at kind of other areas of fashion that were more immediate art based in a way.

Francesca Sorrenti: Perfect. Let’s hold that thought. And now Declan, let’s start your thought.

Declan Sheils: It’s actually quite a very similar story. So in school, I went to school in Ireland, I’m from Dublin. I originally wanted to be an architect. So I used to do subjects like technical drawing and art. But I found it very technical, and same as Alex, I found it very kind of mathematical and physics based. So I actually ended up going to study design after I finished school. I went to art school in Ireland and I was studying design. And then at the weekends, just as a part time job, I started working in a local salon where I used to just shampoo hair, just to make minimum wage. When I graduated from university. It was really difficult to find work in Ireland at the time in graphic design. It was that kind of catch 22 situation where you needed to have experience, but you couldn’t get experience without having a job. I just started working full time in a salon, and that’s how I started doing hair, I guess.

Francesca Sorrenti: Okay. And you, Alex. When did you start, right after school? Because you said right after school.

Alex Babsky: It was kind of at the same time. As I was at fashion college when we’ve made a garment you photographed it on a model. I started making up my models, how I wanted them to look while I was at college doing fashion. Then other students started asking me to make up their models. So I started picking up makeup brushes while I was still studying fashion. It wasn’t like one ended and the other began. It was quite a kind of neat segue from one into the other.

Francesca Sorrenti: What was your first job, Declan? Did you start off as an assistant?

Declan Sheils: Well, I moved to London and I was working in a salon and I never really thought about working in fashion. I kind of went more into the salon route and the education route. So I worked for companies like L’Oreal, Wella. I used to work for a company called Toni & Guy where I was an educator there.

Francesca Sorrenti: Yeah. But how did you get there? How did you go from being in the salon and getting work, working for these companies? I mean, what was your first experience getting into a company?

Declan Sheils: Well, I guess I was working within the salon group as their educator and my background is actually colorist. I’m a hair colorist. So that’s how I started working with brands like L’Oreal. I used to go around to different salons training these apprentice hairdressers how to color hair essentially.

Francesca Sorrenti: Basically by working in the salon, you learned how to do color.

Declan Sheils: Yeah. I learned to color and at the same time, cut hair, style and dress hair.

Francesca Sorrenti: And how long did that take for you to…

Declan Sheils: I did like an apprenticeship. So it took three years where you’re working as a salon assistant and also training at the same time. Then you qualify after three years. Then I worked as a stylist and the colorist in the salon.

Francesca Sorrenti: So this is how it works in the UK basically.

Declan Sheils: It’s one of the way it works. You can go to beauty school and do it that way. But another way is to do like a full apprenticeship where they teach you your trade.

Francesca Sorrenti: Right. And you, Alex?

Alex Babsky: How did I begin?

Francesca Sorrenti: Did you get any training for makeup?

Alex Babsky: No. No traditional training. I suppose the nearest I came to proper training really was assisting. Shortly around the time I was finishing college, a friend of mine was having a show and she said, “Oh, will you help out doing the makeup for my show?” So I said, “Yeah, sure.” She said, “Another friend of mine called Pat McGrath is doing the makeup.” It was before Pat had become Pat McGrath.

Francesca Sorrenti: Yes.

Alex Babsky: So I was like, “Yeah, sure.” So I did that show with Pat and I guess she must’ve liked what I did. Because she said, “Oh, would you do the rest of my shows with me for this fashion week?” So I said, “Yeah, sure.” And then that fashion week ended, I forgot all about her and carried on with the rest of my life. Then six months later was when Pat blew up and her agent called and said, “Alex, Pat’s got Prada in Milan on Wednesday. You’re going.” So that was that.

Francesca Sorrenti: What year was that?

Alex Babsky: Oh my god. I don’t know. ’97 maybe. I couldn’t tell you.

Francesca Sorrenti: That sounds familiar.

Alex Babsky: Yeah, about that time. Around there. And shortly after that, I got another call from her agent saying, “We want you to do this job in Brighton. It’s photographing this group called the Spice Girls with a photographer called Francesca Sorrenti.”

Declan Sheils: Wow.

Francesca Sorrenti: Oh my God. The good old days.

Alex Babsky: Do you remember that?

Francesca Sorrenti: Yes, I do. That was 1998. No, ’97. It was the fall of ’97. We were just children.

Declan Sheils: You guys have history.

Francesca Sorrenti: Yes. But Declan, I met you once before, haven’t I somewhere?

Declan Sheils: Possibly. I started assisting Sam Mcknight probably nine years ago. I worked on his show team for a few years and then I became his first assistant. So I was traveling with him and working on all the shows for about three years with Sam.

Francesca Sorrenti: Okay. Both of you, let’s start with Alex. How long did it take you to really solidify your career?

Alex Babsky: I can’t really say. I feel like I’m on the way somewhere now. I don’t really feel like I ever got to a point where, “Okay, this is it now.” I feel like I’m still in the process of evolving it really. So yeah, I can’t really answer that. I feel like I’m still doing it.

Francesca Sorrenti: Well, could you get any higher than the Spice Girls?

Alex Babsky: What is left after that? It was downhill after that. Even the Spice Girls was the pinnacle.

Francesca Sorrenti: Right. And you, Declan. Who is the most famous person you’ve ever worked on? I mean styled.

Declan Sheils: Lady Gaga

Francesca Sorrenti: Wow.

Declan Sheils: Pretty iconic.

Francesca Sorrenti: How was she? You better watch what you say. 

Declan Sheils: She’s amazing. I love her. I’m actually a big fan. So I was trying to not show it and just be really professional. But yeah, I think she’s amazing. And after working with her, I think she’s more amazing.

Francesca Sorrenti: Right. And you, Alex?

Alex Babsky: Well, it’s difficult to say who’s the most famous because people are famous in so many different fields to different people. But in terms of, to myself, I did two days once with Barbra Streisand and she kind of represents a kind of fame and star that doesn’t really exist anymore, kind of intergenerational person that my mum was enamored with and my grandmother. She represents a kind of icon that is singular in my opinion. So yeah, I kind of hold that job in very high regard in my memory.

Francesca Sorrenti: Well, I have a Barbra Streisand story, and my Barbra Streisand story is, when I was in high school, my mother went over to a friend’s house and met a woman who was Barbra Streisand’s mother. And she said, “Your daughter should meet my daughter, she has an amazing voice. One day my daughter will be very famous.” And this really stuck with me because the years go by and you realize that, wow, there have been so many people that have crossed my life, who now are very famous. And I’m sure both of you have gone through that also, but I’d like to know, were there any hardships, Declan, in your path to becoming a hairstylist?

Declan Sheils: Like personally, or professionally?

Francesca Sorrenti: Well, across the board, something that’s, what’s the word, impeded your work or a difficult moment, whether it be political, social or personal?

Declan Sheils: Well, I’m not from England, so I think moving to London. And I’m not from a particularly wealthy background, so kind of moving to London with no money and trying to just work in a salon during the day and then working in bars, in gay bars in the evening, just to try and survive, and then doing that. And then kind of also when you move into fashion, you have to exist for a while. I think that’s quite… You have to be available all the time, but at the same time, the work is not consistent. So it’s hard until you finally get to a stage where you’re getting a regular income. So that was probably quite difficult, I guess.

Francesca Sorrenti: Right. And you, Alex?

Alex Babsky: Well, I’d say, yeah, really the biggest impediment is a financial one, isn’t it, at the beginning. And luckily that impediment comes at the beginning, so when you’re too young to know any better really. So yeah, there were plenty of months of kind of no money, or years even, right at the beginning, and kind of eating junk food and spaghetti every night and that kind of thing. Otherwise difficult?

Declan Sheils: Taking yourself to Paris for the shows, and sleeping in dodgy hotels with bedbugs.

Alex Babsky: Yes. Sharing it with four other makeup artists. Absolutely. I remember in those days, going to Milan and having to get up for super early shows at like 4AM to start at 9AM dragging my kit along those cobble stones every morning in the dark and then opening my kit up and all the eyeshadows had crumbled to dust because I’s pulled it across so many cobbles.

Francesca Sorrenti: You know what, Alex? That is an amazing thought because everybody thinks that being in fashion is so glamorous and so easy. And as you said, I mean, as a photographer myself, getting up at four o’clock in the morning and getting everybody together and hoping everybody shows up, and then having all this equipment, and I’ve always been a type of person of helping my assistants lug equipment. And you shoot, people need to understand that you’re shooting all over the place. You’re not only in a studio, you can be in the snow, in the rain, in a jungle. And so that experience, it’s not always glamor, am I right, Declan?

Declan Sheils: Absolutely.

Francesca Sorrenti: Did you have an experience where it was very trying for you?

Declan Sheils: I think when the photographer wants to catch sunrise, it means that hair and makeup have to start about 2 AM. So that can be quite challenging.

Francesca Sorrenti: Especially if you have two or three, four models to work on, and it’s very exhausting.

Declan Sheils: Yeah. Kind of the lack of sleep. It’s just traveling. I remember I worked in London, Paris and New York in one day, which again, sounds really glamorous, but it’s quite hardcore.

Alex Babsky: Yeah. I often say, when someone says your job is so glamorous, I often say, you’re right, it is. Their aspect, it is very glamorous, but the glamorous bit is probably 2 or 3% of it. So if you’re living for that glamor, that’s great. But you have to accept there’s this probably 97% of other shit that you got to get through to get to that 2 or 3%.

Francesca Sorrenti: Right, right. It’s when they’re on the set and you click the camera and then someone says, “It’s a wrap,” it’s over. And then somebody else calls you and you got to go somewhere else.

Declan Sheils: For me, it’s seeing the final image in print or the final video or film, and then whatever experience you had making it was worth it. Yeah.

Francesca Sorrenti: Right. So let’s start with you, Alex, what was the most difficult shoot you’ve ever been in? You don’t have to say who, but you could say just where, and most trying in your career.

Alex Babsky: Most difficult. I think I’ve probably blacked it out, whatever it is. I do remember very early on, working with a pop group. At the beginning of my career, I did a lot of kind of music stuff because for makeup artists, it was a very easy way to make money in those days. Not anymore. And I remember working with a group who were very famous at the time and I thought, okay, this is going to be great.

Francesca Sorrenti: Are you talking about me?

Alex Babsky: I’m not talking about you, and I’m not talking about The Spice Girls either. And so I got to the job and then it became apparent that they all hated each other. And I was in this position where, as a kind of passionate behavior, I do makeup on one, and another would pick on this girl’s makeup, so then she would feel paranoid about what I’d done. They all were sabotaging each other and me, and it was a total nightmare.

Francesca Sorrenti: So how did you deal with that?

Alex Babsky: Well, I kind of almost wish it was much later in my career because now that wouldn’t be a problem, but at the time it was awful. Like I said, I was juggling plates trying to please this person who’d been made to feel bad because this person had said the lip wasn’t right and vice versa. And so it was a total nightmare. At the time, I didn’t know really how to cope with it. I was too young. I was not experienced enough, but now.

Francesca Sorrenti: You didn’t know how to say chill?

Alex Babsky: Yeah, I just wasn’t experienced enough. I couldn’t say, “You’re talking rubbish, you look great. Let’s drop it,” you know?

Francesca Sorrenti: Right. And Declan, now it’s your turn.

Declan Sheils: I always struggle when the photographer wants one thing and the stylist or creative director wants the opposite, and you’re kind of stuck in the middle of trying to please both people. So I worked in a job where the photographer wanted volume and big hair and crazy. And then the stylist wanted grungy and flat. So you’re trying to like, what do I do, polar opposites. Little things like that. I mean, little practical things like you do the hair really curly and it’s raining.

Francesca Sorrenti: And how about location-wise? What was the most difficult location you’d ever shot in?

Declan Sheils: I’ve never had really bad locations.

Francesca Sorrenti: Dry locations?

Declan Sheils: I’m not great with heat, so just real hot, would probably be what I struggle with the most. Morocco was quite difficult. Nothing really bad.

Francesca Sorrenti: But how does that make you feel? How do you feel in this situation, because I remember one of my very first important shoots turned out to be working with, I hate to say this at the time, was fur in 105 degrees Fahrenheit. So as an individual, how do you feel? Do you feel like you’re not going to succeed or this is the last time you’re going to be working with that client?

Declan Sheils: I mean, these things do cross your mind because I think all creatives have some sort of self doubt. So when things don’t go perfect on shoots, you kind of do start going, Oh my God, is it me? Was it something I did? Do you know what I mean? And I think that’s quite normal, and it’s kind of only in the last few years I’ve kind of managed to trip that switch and not let myself go into that place.

Francesca Sorrenti: Right. And how about you, Alex?

Alex Babsky: Yes. There are times when you think the circumstances are such that I can’t deliver this in a way that I would like to. But with experience and time, you feel, or I certainly feel differently about things and I’m calmer about them. And I have a greater appreciation of what’s possible under the circumstances and what isn’t. And I perhaps don’t let it get to me in the way that I would have at the beginning. If are in a kind of super, melting hot desert like Declan described, makeup-wise, less things are possible than in a more temperate climate. So I just am more confident in my work and being able to say, “I can’t do this in this scenario. Let’s do this instead.” Or kind of think creatively about how to deliver in a different way, perhaps.

Francesca Sorrenti: It’s very interesting because, as I said previously, the glamor of the work and the passion, but the reality is, it’s a job. A working situation. And my advice, what I would like to hear is, what is the reality of your work? So the reality as a job, what are the perks? What is the downside? We’ll start with you, Alex.

Alex Babsky: Well, the reality is that it is problem solving really. The idea might be glamorous, but often on the job, what you’re doing is problem solving. We want this girl to do it like she’s got icicles hanging off her eyelashes. Okay, well then how am I going to create that? Is it too hot to create that in this way? Can I do it in the other way? Is it going to work well under the lights? The idea of being a makeup artist is a kind of ethereal, glamorous idea perhaps. But the reality is you’re trying to fulfil a client’s brief. So it is problem solving really. I’m not saying you should let go of the idea that you’ll be just indulging yourself and doing whatever you want, but the stuff that you’ll make your money at is not that. The stuff that you’ll make your money at is problem solving and delivering a client’s brief in the way that they want. I think it’s a good idea to, if you’re thinking about becoming a makeup artist, to have that in your mind, the idea that expressing yourself creatively, there is space for that. But that’s not all the time. You also have to leave a lot of space for commerciality and delivering what a client wants and that’ll pay you the kind of money which you then will be able to use to indulge your more creative side.

Francesca Sorrenti: Well, yes, of course. Because there is the side of it where there is a lot of money involved in a photo shoot.

Alex Babsky: Yeah.

Francesca Sorrenti: It goes into the thousands of dollars and pounds of course, or euros. And if it doesn’t work out, it could be a disaster. And Declan?

Declan Sheils: I think it’s about dealing with different personalities and communicating with people. There can be a lot of big egos. And I think my advice to a hairstylist starting out would be to remember that it’s not just about you. It’s a teamwork effort. Yeah, you can do something really self-indulgent, but is the client going to like that? Is the photographer going to like it? So it’s about working as a team rather than just doing what you want to do.

Francesca Sorrenti: Well, you had a good point there about egos and especially when you’re working with people who unfortunately have big egos. Do you feel that you have to have a strong sense of how to act with that person, Declan?

Declan Sheils: Yeah. I think you do have to be strong. You have to be assertive and you have to be confident. I think that only comes with experience and to deal with some big egos to make sure everyone’s feeling included to work well with your assistance. Because essentially they’re the ones that are making it possible for you to do your job. So it can be a challenge, but I think it’s people skills essentially. Right?

Francesca Sorrenti: Right. So last words now. Alex, what do you say to the readers out there? Who, or the whoever’s listening to this zoom, what would you give? Very short and sweet.

Alex Babsky: To people wanting to become a makeup artist?

Francesca Sorrenti: Yes.

Alex Babsky: Be prepared to work hard. Yeah. There is an element of glamor to it. But, like I said before, the element of glamor is minuscule compared to the rest of the work that goes into making that moment happen. So be prepared to put in time and effort and a long time to get to where you want to be, really.

Francesca Sorrenti: Right. And you, Declan?

Declan Sheils: I think do it because you love doing it. And because you love fashion, beauty, imagery and transformation. If you’re doing it because you want to be Insta famous or you want to travel and do all the glamorous side of it, I think it’s the wrong reason to do it because it is hard work and you have to really love what you do, I think.

Francesca Sorrenti: Well guys, it’s been great talking to both of you.  Lots of kisses from New York.