By Tracey Pepper
Harper’s Bazaar, April 2000
It was a gray afternoon in New York, the wind was howling outside Silver Cup Studios, and photographer Steven Klein was having a fit. He had just gotten his first look at the petite, blonde musician Liz Phair, his subject for a Calvin Klein Jeans ad, who had left Linda Cantello’s makeup chair nearly barefaced. “No! No! No!” Klein shouted. “That’s not what I want at all.”
“He was making all of these strange hand gestures,” Phair recalls. “We ran back and piled on the makeup.” The result is a striking portrait of the singer wearing heavy black eyeliner and dark red lipstick — a sharp contrast to her usual paint-free look. “I had seen one of Liz’s videos, and she looked like a housewife,” says Cantello. “But her lyrics are quite radical, so then I tried to capture that essence.” What Klein wanted, and what he eventually got, was a rock star.
Lately it seems that’s what everyone wants. The front row at a Versace fashion show is stocked with them. At Gucci and Anna Sui, rock stars — or at least models who look like them — are on the runway. And now the cosmetics world has taken the fashion world’s cue. By hiring female musicians to pose for ads and promote products, the companies have seized a little of rock’s mystique for themselves.
With the shopping habits and makeup tips of modles and actors now common fodder for countless magazine articles, musicians and performers suddenly feel like fresh faces. Shania Twain, Brandy, and Jennifer Lopez shill for Revlon, Cover Girl, and L’Oréal, respectively. Sephora sponsored TLC’s last tour. Tommy Hilfiger launched a makeup line that includes lipsticks named after up-and-coming female musicians like Vitamin C and Dido. Urban Decay, which has courted rock-star patronage since its inception four years ago, teamed up with Columbia Records for “Girls Who Rock” — a set of mini lip glosses, each named after a Columbia artist. Luscious Jackson has appeared in a print advertorial for the beauty Web site gloss.com. And Melissa Auf Der Maur, former Hole bassist (now of the Smashing Pumpkins), has been photographed as the face of Poole — a fledgling L.A.-based makeup line.
But it was Calvin Klein’s tapping of alternative artists such as Phair, Auf Der Maur, Garbage front woman Shirley Manson, rapper Foxy Brown, Sonic Youth bassist Kim Gordon, and R&B singer Macy Gray for his high-profile CK campaign that established female musicians as the new beauty icons. Strong-minded women like Manson and Phair are seen as “real” artists who exude more authentic raw glamour than models and actresses. “These young people are not afraid to go out on a limb creatively,” Klein says.
They write their own songs, choose their own clothes and makeup, manipulate their own images, and aren’t afraid to speak up about it. “Kim Gordon just walks into a shoot wearing what she’s wearing and says, ‘Make it look good and don’t touch my hair,'” says Phair. These stars enjoy a certain clout because people recognize that they have a personality that is their own, says Auf Der Maur. “Which is always more beautiful than a made-up one,” she adds.
“People are fed up with cardboard cutouts,” Manson agrees. By associating with musicians, cosmetics companies are hoping to borrow some of this elusive personality. Wende Zomnir, Urban Decay’s creative director, says that promotions like Girls Who Rock and the positive publicity the company receives when women like Manson and Gwen Stefani talk about what they wear are invaluable. “Musicians don’t conform to regimented ideas of beauty,” says Zomnir. “They’re not just pretty faces. You listen to the artist and know something about her pain and joy, and you feel more of a connection.”
For a rock star these days, associating yourself with a product is no longer seen as selling out your hard-won credibility but rather as image enhancement and exposure the record label couldn’t buy. “Putting your face up for the use of some company is not so different from doing it to promote your record,” says Phair. With radio and MTV dominated by boy bands and rap-metal, ambitious female stars are embracing alternative outlets. Twain’s Revlon TV ad is expected to be seen by 57 million women. “Magazines are an interesting place to get press because so many women read them,” says Jill Cuniff of Luscious Jackson, which has a Hilfiger lipstick named after it. “A lot of girls don’t even listen to the radio anymore.”
But let’s not forget another important reason a musician might turn to modeling: cold, hard cash. Twain was paid a reported $5 million for her Revlon gig, though a lesser-known artist would make substantially less. “I understand why musicians do it,” says Cunliff. “It’s really hard to make money in the music business.” Thanks to byzantine recording contracts, even the most successful musicians often earn less than their model and actor counterparts.
Exposure, legitimacy, cash — why shouldn’t a musician moonlight? Well, some female rockers think one negative result is that the public will believe these artists are actually endorsing the products. “It may not be deliberate, but kids fall for it,” says Laura Ballance, bass player for the stalwart indie rock band Superchunk. “They’re, like, ‘If Kim Gordon is into high fashion, well, I should be too.'” Another downside is that women musicians report that they now feel more pressure to look perfect in public in a way they didn’t before the mainstream attention. “I definitely feel it,” Phair says. “That’s American, though. Be perfect. Look perfect.” But Ballance says, “If female rockers can resist the urge to feel like we’re supposed to look great all the time, and keep being real, maybe we can serve as an example.”
Of course, there’s risk involved for a cosmetics company when it associates with a musician: “Rock stars cannot be counted on to lead model lives,” says Phair. “And you cannot get the rock star without the lifestyle.” Which is why Courtney Love never graced the cover of anything other than music magazines before she cleaned up her act.
But if publicity nightmares eventually erode the gains female artists have made toward becoming as mainstream as their actor peers, who will become the next wave of fresh faces? Urban Decay’s Zomnir has a novel idea: “I hope to God it’s writers and painters. Wouldn’t that be amazing?”