Picture this: a flame-haired 47-year-old woman stands at the prow of a speedboat, racing toward $1 billion as the sun rises over the Balearic Sea. The hair is real, and the $1 billion is probable. The speedboat trip is unconfirmed.
“Life as a party, that’s what she brings to the room” is how one longtime friend describes Charlotte Tilbury, the exuberant makeup artist who has just sold her eponymous makeup brand to Spanish beauty-and-fashion conglomerate Puig for a reported $1.6 billion, placing her alongside such beauty powerhouses as Jean Paul Gaultier, Carolina Herrera, and Nina Ricci. The deal will likely net a tidy sum for Tilbury; her husband, George Waud; and her two children, Flynn and Valentine.
Tilbury’s party life began on the Spanish island of Ibiza with her British-expat parents, Lance and Patsy. Although the couple weren’t wealthy, they were leading figures on the itinerant, posh-boho scene that congregated on the rocky outcrop. As children, Charlotte and her sister, Leah, would play barefoot and tangle-haired on the terra-cotta floors of marijuana-scented fincas where aristocrats mixed with Rolling Stones and the party rolled 24-7.
It was a childhood that left her both undaunted by fame and money and determined to have her own piece of it. She spent school terms at the Rudolf Steiner boarding school, and by 13 had her makeup epiphany, becoming an evangelist who would never again be seen barefaced. She has frequently proudly proclaimed that even her husband has never seen her without makeup.
Ibiza and its smaller sister island, Formentera, became increasingly popular with the fashion-and-film crowd, among them Mary Greenwell, a favorite makeup artist of both the Princess of Wales and British Vogue, who took Tilbury on as an assistant after she attended makeup school. Greenwell taught her to aim to make her clients look as if they were luxuriating in a post-coital glow.
It was a childhood that left her both undaunted by fame and money and determined to have her own piece of it.
By the mid-2000s, Charlotte was well on her chosen path. Spattering her trademark “Darlings” in a campy upper-class voice, she tottered around on skyscraper heels and long dresses, crystals dangling in her frequently on-display cleavage—the cosmetics world’s whirling Stevie Nicks.
Work and play merged as Mario Testino and Mert Alas and Marcus Piggott, photographers with whom she regularly worked, began to spend time on Ibiza. Her close friend Kate Moss set up summer camp there. Jade Jagger also held court. And Charlotte’s insider knowledge of the scene gave her additional currency.
But while she was always at the center of the nonstop party, Tilbury kept a remarkably clear head, keenly focused on creating her own brand and making connections. Along with those other empresses of beauty—Estée Lauder, Helena Rubinstein, Elizabeth Arden—she shares self-belief, determination, and the ability to sell, sell, sell.
Former British Vogue fashion director Lucinda Chambers, who worked with Tilbury on countless covers, is unsurprised by her success. “It was always going to be that way. She put up with things from a lot of people to get what she wanted and worked unbelievably hard to make sure it was what they wanted, too. But it wasn’t just naked ambition. There was a real duty of care. She wanted to deliver.”
With her gregarious upbringing, Charlotte easily made friends with the movie stars and models she worked on. She innately understood that in the insecure environs of the hair-and-makeup room, everyone was looking not only to be made to look good but to feel good. She dished out reassurance, flattery, and gossip in equal measure. The result was that she gained their respect and trust—which put her in a good position when it came to launching her own line.
After working with companies such as Tom Ford on their makeup, Tilbury embarked on her own first brand foray, alongside Gail Federici and hair impresario John Frieda, who once said admiringly of the younger woman, “I thought I was ambitious until I met Charlotte Tilbury.” The collaboration was short-lived, and the next stop was the 2013 launch of five beauty sets selling stereotypical glam looks in a D.I.Y. kit—the Dolce Vita, the Bombshell, and others. Much of that all-important initial seed financing was from people she had played with on the party island. They were won over by her conviction. When a young magazine beauty editor first saw the range, she shrieked with excitement, “Charlotte, this is going to make you a millionaire.” Tilbury snapped back, “I’m going to be a billionaire.”
She innately understood the insecure environs of the hair-and-makeup room.
Like many of the best ideas, the kits were glaringly obvious—red-carpet style for everyone. But like even better ideas, nobody else had yet done them. And the timing was perfect. In the age of Instagram, there she is, ready to guide women in the art of her favorite eyeliner application, the “feline flick,” which elongates the eyes, and the search for “flawless, poreless” skin. In her online videos and in-store demonstrations, she flutters them with her mix of incantatory mottoes—“Smoky eye till I die,” “Beautiful before. Beautiful after,” and “Magic Cream is magic skin.” They are delivered with the same easy chatter that has made her a favorite with stars such as Gwyneth Paltrow, Rachel Weisz, and Jennifer Lopez. If you ask Charlotte what her personal makeup routine is, this is a taster.
“People are saying she has made a fortune in seven years. That’s bollocks,” emphasizes Tom Konig Oppenheimer, a communications executive who went to the same school as Tilbury, and who worked with her on the launch. “Charlotte has been honing her image and her brand for 25 years. She’s the biggest talent and hardest-working person I’ve ever come across. She started as if she were the biggest brand in the world, and this has happened because she has the biggest balls and wouldn’t settle for anything less.”
Alexandra Shulman, formerly the editor of British Vogue, is the author of Clothes … And Other Things That Matter