Marissa Gimeno: Meet the woman who smashes make up for a living
Oct. 25, 2016
On a recent phone call, Marissa Gimeno tells a story about riding the subway after work one day. A man asked her in an alarmed tone if she was okay. “I didn’t notice, but right in the middle of my stomach I had a big red dot, and it was dripping down and it totally looked like I had been shot,” she says.
Gimeno, 41, is a self-described “cosmetics still life stylist.” In a nutshell, this means she smashes, smears, splashes, and stacks makeup and other cosmetics in appealing ways for photographers to shoot for beauty ads, retail catalogs, and magazines. A good chunk of the glossy makeup ads you’ve seen over the last few years were likely styled by her. “I’m kind of like a makeup artist without the models,” she explains.
Gimeno has done ad campaign work for Nars, L’Oréal, Maybelline, Bobbi Brown, Clinique, Estée Lauder, and many others, as well as catalogs for Bloomingdale’s, Macy’s, Saks, and Lord & Taylor. She has a monthly gig at Oprah’s O magazine, but otherwise doesn’t do much editorial work anymore, since she says advertising pays better.
A typical shoot day for Gimeno always involves lugging around her 55-pound kit, which contains different papers she uses as backgrounds, palette knives, acrylic cubes for propping, tape, tools for making different shapes, and her glue gun. “That’s my baby. You’ve got to have a good glue gun.” She says she’s discovered some of her best tools at dollar stores, toy stores, and Home Depot. “I like being a bit of a MacGyver and trying something new to get a different look from everyone else.”
If Gimeno has a styling signature, it’s her stacks. When you see a picture of a pile of perfume bottles defying the laws of physics, there’s a good chance it’s the work of her beloved glue gun. “I love doing stacks. The higher, the better. I love a good challenge,” she laughs.
A lot of makeup styling involves deconstructing the actual product. Gimeno has a heat gun that she uses on the underside of eyeshadow palettes to melt the glue and pry pans out. Acetone also works to dissolve glue, and she’s become an expert at using an X-acto knife to slice product out of pans. She says she loves to make lipstick smears and eyeshadow compositions. Working with nail polish, however, is harder. She now wears a mask because it “gets a little toxic. I probably have sparkly lungs from inhaling stuff over the years.”
While there have been some trends in makeup styling, like shooting product on mirrors or using mannequin parts, generally companies vary widely in how they want their product presented. “Sometimes it’s already completely been put through 50 rounds of marketing and this is what they’ve landed on,” Gimeno says. “Then there are [companies] that just show up with the stuff and say ‘Make beautiful art.’”
Gimeno says Laura Mercier’s team likes things to be “painterly, messier.” Marc Jacobs Beauty likes doing “explosions” with powders. “Then there are clients, like Estée Lauder, that like everything super clean. They don’t want to see their product gooed or crushed,” she says.
Gimeno says she usually asks companies for five units of any one product to experiment with, but sometimes she only has one sample and a thimbleful of product. To make small amounts of powders or liquids last, she’ll work with them on glass or acetate, which makes it easier to scrape up and reuse.
There is definitely some illusion involved, too. Gimeno admits that she sometimes has to mix in paint or glycerin to make liquids “oilier,” and sometimes she uses materials that aren’t the actual products. She’s quick to note that she never does this for ad campaigns, though. (There are truth in advertising laws that forbid this. In the past few years, makeup companies have gotten into trouble in the US and UK for misleading images.)
Then, of course, there’s photo retouching. “Everything’s touched with Photoshop nowadays. Even the simplest [image],” Gimeno says. “Sometimes you get the perfect splash on the left but not the right and that’s pieced together.” She also says occasionally an arm holding something needs to be erased from the final image.
Gimeno’s never been worried about losing her job to someone skilled in computer graphics or retouching, because photographers always need something to physically shoot. “I always try to get as much as I can in reality in order to make the photographer’s life easier.”
Styling was not Gimeno’s first career ambition. She majored in math in college and says she was on track to become an actuary until she met a fashion stylist when she moved back to her hometown of Miami after graduation. She says her aesthetic was “crazy club kid,” and he said to her, “You’re fabulous. Come work with me.” He worked at MTV Latino, where he did styling.
“I worked with the VJs. It was interesting, but I was applying to Merrill Lynch and thinking, Should I go back and get my PhD and become a professor? I didn’t know where I was going,” Gimeno says. But her styling career took off from there.
After moving to New York City in the late ‘90s, Gimeno got a job assisting a celebrity stylist, but found herself more drawn to prop styling on set. “Even as a kid, I loved a good scavenger hunt. The math brain helps. There is a tie between the two in a really weird way,” she says. “As a kid, my favorite part of school was making dioramas. My favorite thing to do on a weekend was for my mom to let me loose in a craft store. It makes sense now.”
A still life photographer took Gimeno under his wing, and her first editorial jobs were styling still life props for Wand FHM. For the last eight years, she says about 90 percent of her jobs involve makeup. Her first cosmetics job was writing on a mirror with lipstick.
As you can probably guess, there aren’t that many people doing this for a living. “It’s really the same five people that come up all the time,” Gimeno says. She’s met a few at parties, but doesn’t know any of them well because there’s generally just one makeup stylist hired at a shoot.
There are some definite pros and cons to the job. Gimeno laments not being able to wear nice clothes. “I feel awful because I’ll have to go to the Hearst building and everyone looks so fabulous and beautiful and done up. I can’t. You’re on your feet, you’re on your knees building stuff, ” she says. She does try to match paint splatters, though, and has specific brown-hued jeans she wears for days when she’s working with foundations.
Then there’s holiday fatigue, since everything is shot six months in advance. She notes that she just finished a Valentine’s Day campaign for Avon and was scrambling around to find heart props. “Three weeks before that, I did all my holiday catalogs. By the time August is done, you’re so over Christmas. You’re sweating and covered in fake snow.”
But for a makeup lover, which Gimeno says she is, there are obvious upsides. The freebies are great, for one, and her extended family are frequently beneficiaries of her beauty bounty. “Actually, I’ve become so jaded that sometimes at the end of jobs, you’re so over it. They’re like, ‘Here, take some!’ and you’re like, ‘No.’ I always find myself using the same five things that I’ve used forever, like my Maybelline Great Lash or the Clinique Black Honey lip gloss that I’ve used since ninth grade.”
But in the end, Gimeno says it’s fun to play with it all. “I’ve touched every product out there in the last 10 years. I know makeup so well, just from getting to its core.”