Q+A with Celebrity Makeup Artist Suzy Gerstein
Suzy Gerstein on her journey in the industry, how her background in fashion has influenced her work, and more.
Suzy Gerstein is a celebrity makeup artist based out of New York City. Known for being super skin-forward and creating harmony of texture, color, and shape, Suzy is all about creating balance; she knows well that makeup should highlight one's natural beauty and allow it to speak louder than the actual products being placed on one's face. When she's not creating looks for top publications and celebrities, Suzy also devotes her time to teaching customized makeup classes. With this love of sharing her knowledge in mind, we were excited to sit down with her to pick her brain about the industry, self-love, her inspirations, and so much more. Read on below for the whole conversation!
Q: How did you get into makeup?
Kind of a squiggly line — usually is, right? I’ve always been very visual, gravitating towards drawing and painting as a kid. My parents were not in the arts but bless them, were both very supportive and nurturing of those interests, enrolling me in art classes and summer programs and taking me to museums and galleries. I had an art teacher who allowed me to sketch out of old magazines and I remember it feeling so special (and thinking how cool that she makes a living making art!). She was also very real and dramatic which I loved.
As a child of the ’80s growing up one of three kids, I had a little TV set in my room. One night when I was probably around ten or eleven, I was watching one of the home shopping networks (which I still find oddly soothing) and there was a new experimental one that was premiering. This woman came on and did a half-face of makeup, and left the other clean. I sat up in my bed absolutely transfixed by the effects of makeup right then and there.
Several other memories come to mind where makeup started to become a passion even before I knew that’s what it was. Even as far back as kindergarten, I remember passing by a wig store with my mom a lot on our route home and staring through the window at the glamorous and odd wigs on their stands. Finally, after I had an eye operation around first grade, I think she was feeling like she wanted to do something special for me and asked me if I wanted one of the wigs. I said I wanted the stand it came on. The woman in the shop looked at me quizzically. Apparently, it wasn’t for sale, but somehow I went home with it and would paint on it — nail polish, markers, whatever. My sister did the wigs — hair was never my thing. I was obsessed with drawing faces to a point where an elementary school art teacher of mine reprimanded me for not drawing enough different subject matter, but now it makes sense!
I studied English and Spanish literature in college but took lots of art classes and spent time during my junior year abroad in the incredible museums in Spain: The Picasso in Barcelona and the Prado and Reina Sofia in Madrid. When I graduated, I thought either I’ll become a teacher or a makeup artist. Kevyn Aucoin’s inspiring first book, “The Art Of Makeup”, was the spark I needed to be able to let myself explore makeup as a career.
I assisted a lot until I found my mentor, Chris Colbeck, who has become one of my best friends. I was also getting jobs freelancing in salons and department stores, taking all sorts of classes, and doing events to gain experience until I built up my portfolio and decided to go off on my own. It’s also important to note that several negative experiences probably informed my career path as much as the positive ones: bullying bosses, heavy-handed instructors, uncollaborative teams. I think those were as important in shaping my path as the positive experiences. Such a big part of anything, really, is learning to love yourself and allow yourself to belong in the room, to take up space.
Q: How would you describe your style as a makeup artist?
The most important thing to me is creating beautiful, believable, healthy-looking skin. Then I like to add strength or color to certain elements wherever I can and play with the balance, trying to create visual harmony with varying textures, shapes, and colors, always being mindful of letting my subjects’ natural beauty and character speak louder than the makeup itself.
Q: What do you love most about your work?
Meeting and connecting with people and helping them care for themselves. Being a matchmaker, connecting people to the specific products that help them do that. I also love skincare and makeup products. A part of my job with which I will never tire is playing with new green technology — being a witness to its constant evolution.
Q: Where do you find inspiration?
My kids’ vibrant faces, my mind-body workouts (yoga, The Class, Essentrics), the MET, the seasons’ changes, faces and strangers in NYC, the products themselves.
Q: What are some essential products you always keep in your kit?
Skincare is such an integral part of what I do. Some of the heavy hitters in my kit:
True Botanicals and Jenette face mists, Furtuna and African Botanics serums and oils, Augustinus Bader The Rich Cream, Bioderma Micellar Water, Henne Organics and Oule’s balms, La Bella Figura Beauty Barbary Fig Serum, Kypris Antioxidant Dew, May Lindstrom everything, Chanel Solution 10 (the best for sensitive skin), Beautycounter body lotion, Vintner’s Daughter essence, Pai Bioregenerate Oil, Soap Walla Restorative Balm, Weleda Skinfood...just to name a few.
For makeup, I have so many favorites, but the core products for natural makeup would have to include:
Victoria Beckham x Augustinus Bader primers, Kjaer Weis, Westman Atelier, Tom Ford foundations, Tatcha The Pearl, Surratt concealer palettes, Chanel and Westman bronzers and highlighters, Tom Ford cream eye shadows, Charlotte Tilbury, Jillian Dempsey and MAC eye pencils, Chanel mascaras, shadows and blushes, SUQQU brow marker, Kimiko brow pencils, Surratt, Kjaer Weis, ByTerry hyaluronic powder, Jenny Patinkin and Westman brushes, Beautyblender, RMS and Kosas cream blushes and highlighters, Tower 28 cream bronzers, RMS eye polishes, Heir Atelier eye primer, Victoria Beckham lip pencils, so many lipsticks I can’t count which these days end up in Artist Kit Company palettes.
Q: While being a makeup artist, you’re also super passionate about skincare. How do you happily marry the two, and how does your love for one affect the other?
I love being able to not wear makeup and feel good in my skin. It’s not always been that way, and my skin certainly has its moments (hello hormones!), but overall I feel like beauty is a reflection of our inner health and well being. When I turned 40 last year, I started really making daily exercise my priority, I became a vegetarian, and I prioritized mental health more than ever before. My skin started to look better as a result than it did in my 20’s. It also really helps to have fewer f**** to give out. We worry so much about what other people think and are told in various ways, directly and indirectly, by a patriarchal society to be acquiescent and not take up too much space, that it really is a great act of protest to love oneself and to be alright with oneself. So back to makeup — once all that is tended to (and it’s a practice), and once the different parts of ourselves are acknowledged at the party and blown a kiss to, I think that makeup becomes play. It becomes expression and celebration — not out of necessity, but by choice. And that is power.
Q: You recently started offering completely customized, virtual 1-on-1 makeup lessons. What inspired you to do so, and what are you most excited about as you get this going?
My kids are five and a half years apart in age. When I had my youngest, my daughter, I knew how quickly the early years fly by, and I wanted to be around more rather than traveling for shoots. So I started doing makeup lessons. It began as kind of a side project because friends were always asking me what colors to use and what products were good, and it grew into a really solid branch of my career.
Once the pandemic hit, I pivoted to digital lessons. It took me a while to find my footing and figure out how to offer what I do on the screen rather than face-toface, but some trusted colleagues helped walk me through it and flesh out my business. COVID has really brought self-care to the forefront, so it’s such a gift to be able to help people prioritize themselves and their wellbeing, mental and physical.
With Zoom not going anywhere anytime soon, it makes sense that people want to learn how to enhance their features in a way that translates on-screen. It’s also been a great offering for teams that are looking for team-building exercises when social gatherings we used to be able to have are not currently an option. Shop My Shelf has been such a helpful tool in my virtual lessons because I can create private, personal shelves for my clients that they can revisit at their convenience. I can personalize them even further with tips!
Q: What is one mistake people are making when doing their makeup that they might not realize?
Placement. People might see a friend or a YouTuber apply something, say highlighter, to a certain area of their faces and replicate it on themselves. But what it’s doing for you is a question I always tend to ask. Noticing what a product does when you apply it where you do, and what you actually want it to be doing for you, can transform your makeup application. That is why 1-on-1 lessons are such a valuable tool. I can customize products and techniques to my clients’ unique faces and lives to make the very most out of them. That, and blending. People need to take the time to blend more and check their makeup in natural daylight when possible.
Q: You’ve apprenticed with industry icons from NY to LA to Europe. Were there any big differences between what you learned in Europe versus in the United States? How did these apprenticeships and your learnings from them make you the artist you are today?
I think the fashion background I have and the aesthetic of the artists I assisted inform my work in the sense that I’m not applying makeup to cover or to make some kind of a mark. It’s there to bring a point of view, sure. But sometimes, for instance if there is a lot going on with the clothes and hair, it is about restraint. Sometimes the makeup is more of a feeling, and that is a bigger statement than tons of product.
Rapid Fire Round
Q: Product you can’t leave home without:
Olio e Osso Balm No. 11 Fete. It smells like grapefruit, is clear so it doesn’t get on a mask, can be used all over the face as a highlighter or lip balm, and has a fun little sparkle to it.
Q: Favorite drugstore or budget find:
Real Techniques setting brush — so versatile.
Q: Worth the splurge:
Westman Atelier foundation, Superloaded Tinted Highlight, and Lip Suede.
Q: Recent discovery:
Vintner’s Daughter Essence. A friend recommended it, and it’s one of those fascinating products that smooths your skin and somehow makes your other skincare products absorb better. I am addicted.
Q: Brand you wish more people knew about:
La Bella Figura Beauty. It is a minority- and queer-owned bespoke skincare company full of heart and imagination, and made with the finest ingredients sustainably sourced from all over the world. I also adore Soap Walla skincare and want more people to know how magical their lotions and potions — beyond their cult-favorite deodorant — are.
I am also obsessed with the ZIIP microcurrent device designed by renowned electrical esthetician Melanie Simon. First of all, I love the way it is so user-friendly, even for technologically challenged folks like myself. There is an app that syncs up to your device and literally takes you through each targeted treatment. My clients and I absolutely see a difference — from acne to lymphatic drainage, the results are tangible and visible. My favorite thing to do before a big event (these days, a big Zoom) is to layer treatments, so I’ll do a Bright Eyes and an Instant Gratification. I find it very zen to do as well. This device is an investment but when you think of the cost of dermatologist and spa visits, it’s a deal! And Melanie is kindly offering my followers 20% using the code “SUZY20”.
One other product that is a sort of sleeper hit (literally and figuratively) is Frownies. They’re little adhesive paper patches I sleep with between my brows to minimize furrowing and premature aging while I sleep. I find them particularly effective after I’ve ZIIP-ed! They are a fantastic, inexpensive, non-invasive way to discourage premature aging and with consistent use, they really work!
Q: Favorite lipstick:
Lisa Eldridge Skyscraper Rose looks good on everybody, is a surprising alternative to red, and is an entire mood.
Q: Your last beauty empty (product you ran out of):
I ran out of three things today: True Botanicals Renew Face Mist, Pai BioRegenerate Oil, and Susanne Kauffman grapefruit body oil. I will be replenishing my supply of all three.
For more of Suzy's favorite products, check out her shop below: