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Make-up artist Pamela Smyth: How I make stars shine

Make-up artist Pamela Smyth, who has worked with some of the world's biggest stars on shows like The Fall and Game of Thrones, is the Belfast Telegraph Woman of the Year in Hair, Fashion and Beauty. She reveals what it's like working with the famous and shares her beauty tips with Helen Carson.

Pamela Smyth finds herself in some unusual situations, especially as lead make-up artist for HBO's phenomenally successful fantasy television series Game of Thrones. "With Game of Thrones I can be up a mountain in the middle of nowhere putting beards on hundreds of extras," she explains. "Then I can find myself on a film set choosing products for a leading actress with sensitive skin who has sent me a list of make-up she must have - and I'm on a budget."

And then occasionally she can also find herself the centre of attention at a gala awards event like the Belfast Telegraph's Woman of the Year, where she won the Hair, Fashion and Beauty category. "I was totally surprised and delighted to have won this award," she says. "It was such an inspiring night with so many incredible women from Northern Ireland who have all achieved so much. Girls do rule."

They certainly do, especially when it comes to playing a key role on some of our biggest screen productions. Game of Thrones is the global TV hit that showcases the wild and unspoilt beauty of some of the most scenic parts of Northern Ireland, ensuring our beauty spots are sought out by tourists from all over the world. Who doesn't know the Dark Hedges in Ballymoney? And when the Thrones bandwagon is not in a remote part of the province masquerading as the fictional continent of Westeros, it's a quick jaunt for cast and crew to Titanic Studios for more filming.

Talking of TV and film drama, Pamela Smyth's personal and professional success story is the sort of tale that could be turned into a compelling script for a big screen production.

Born in a "two-up, two-down" house - her words, not mine - the east Belfast woman, now 48, grew up in an inner-city terrace and went to Orangefield School. Dad Sandy worked for Ford Motors, while her mum, Lorna, had a part-time job in a shop - when she wasn't running her home and bringing up Pamela and her sister, Valerie, now 50.

Today, Pamela is one of the most sought-after make-up artists in the world, using her skills to transform ordinary blokes into ferocious-looking medieval warriors. She has worked in the film and television industry for more than 25 years, preparing many an A-lister for their close up.

As well as Game of Thrones and The Fall - yes, she did indeed get to make over Jamie Dornan, now better known as Mr Fifty Shades for his breakthrough film role as Christian Grey - Pamela has had many an interesting moment with some of the world's most famous movie stars.

One of her favourite stories is about famous American actor Elliott Gould, who asked her what age she was: "I told him what age I was, then asked him his age - and he said nothing, before adding 'We are all the same age, but some of us have been here a bit longer'. I love the idea that internally people have no age. I was 24 when that happened and I didn't really get it, but I understand it now."

But it hasn't been all star-spotting for Pamela, who began her career as a 15-year-old hair model for local hairdresser Alan Boyce.

"I left school with no set ideas of what I would do or wanted to do," she says. "My mother always instilled in us that it is a big world out there and we should not be restricted by doing some wee job around the corner. She also told us that if you love what you do, it won't feel like a job."

The 17-year-old Pamela quickly graduated from hair modelling to working behind the camera, making over hair models for photographic shoots and other commercial work.

Her big break, though, came when one of the models she had previously made-up requested Pamela to be her make-up artist for a Northern Ireland Railways television advertisement. From here, more work followed to such an extent that Pamela had to turn down a "normal job".

"I was offered a job as a receptionist at Belvoir Park Hospital, but I couldn't do this and continue with the make-up artist assignments. I had to tell my dad that I was turning down a full-time job so that I could take a TV commercial which would provide me with three days' work - he wasn't pleased."

It proved a real turning point - from that moment on, Pamela knew she had chosen her new career. She says: "I told myself 'I'm going to do this'."

The enterprising young woman secured a government grant to the tune of £2,000 to invest in her new business: "I spent all the money on products, brushes, tools and business cards, then I began working as a make-up artist. Thankfully I was doing something right. If I had any extra money I went to London to do courses, then Paul Stafford taught me how to cut hair."

Having learned special effects make-up at Pinewood Studios, Pamela, then aged 27, headed off to Los Angeles with fashion photographer Jim Crone.

"It wasn't that glamorous," she admits, "but it was an experience. I had racked up 600 commercial jobs from fashion photography to pictures on packets of Marks & Spencer tights. Advertising was massive in Northern Ireland during the 1980s and 1990s so I got a lot of work."

One of the most exciting career opportunities for Pamela was just around the corner, though, when a producer she had worked with previously on one of those TV advertisements began working on a film - and offered her the chance to do the make-up. "I have never looked back since," she says.

And for those who think a make-up artist's lot is always a happy one, Pamela says think again. "It's not all selfies with celebs; it's hard work. You have to manage a team and the first thing you do to prepare for a film is read the script, then you have to interpret and develop looks for each character - and this will involve endless dialogue with the director, actors and costume makers. Continuity is also a big issue for a make-up artist. I can be in three different locations over three weeks filming one scene, and you have to get the look right each time.

"I also have a budget to manage so it is important to identify where to spend money. Leading actors will give me a list of products which may be very expensive, so I have to balance out what we need against what will make her happy.

"Meanwhile, the director wants epic and the producer wants everything done for 12p," she adds.

Fortunately, Pamela relishes the pressure of the film business and can manage all the demands put upon her.

And when it comes to the ideal filming scenario, she says: "They are all different. For Game of Thrones it's all about dirt and beards, and sometimes when we are on location I just wish we were near a coffee shop. I love the excitement of it, though."

Pamela has been with Game of Thrones since it first aired in April, 2011: "I really feel part of the whole phenomenon."

Evidently it is a substantial responsibility, with Pamela running the make-up department which is on call for 5,000 man days in Northern Ireland alone.

"It is my job to ensure everyone is where they are supposed to be at 3am when the first 600 people come in. My team has to know exactly what the look is when everyone else is on set by 7am. They have to want to get up at 2am, because I don't do complaining."

Pamela also worked on the movie Your Highness where she was responsible for James Franco and Danny McBride, as well as providing the cast with "300 unsullied spray tans" among many other things.

Aptly, a film set also provided a dramatic backdrop for Pamela's very own love story where she met her future husband, Mark Lowry, who is now a Game of Thrones art director.

Working together is clearly ideal for the couple, who have two sons, Lex (11) and Myles (10). Pamela says: "We wouldn't see each other if we didn't work together. We met in the early 1990s on the set of cult film Korea, which starred Andrew Scott.

"Mark was the art director and the first time I saw him he was coming out of the bushes with a big bundle of branches - all hunter-gatherer - and I thought 'yes ... yes'.

"I told someone I fancied him and they told him, so then I couldn't talk to him for the rest of the film."

Happily, when the cameras stopped rolling, Pamela and Mark did get together, marrying in 1994: "We couldn't be happier. We renewed our vows after 10 years. I don't think working in the same business helps our relationship - it's more personal than that. There are many couples who work together in our business and it doesn't work out."

Currently living in Crawfordsburn, the family are building a new house and life is sweet: "I am so proud to be associated with Game of Thrones - we have won Emmys for make-up and I have an Emmy plaque at home. It is amazing to be part of that."

Pamela agrees Northern Ireland's unspoilt landscape is perfect for the TV show: "There are so many places here which don't even have telegraph poles, and everywhere is an hour's drive from Belfast."

And even when the province's growing film industry produced a demand for make-up artists that couldn't be filled locally, shrewd businesswoman Pamela had an answer for that, too - she opened her own school offering specialist courses previously only available in London.

Her tutors are among some of the best in the world, including Tina Earnshaw, who worked on Titanic and Prometheus. Then there is Conor O'Sullivan, whose film credits include Batman movie The Dark Knight - he created make-up for The Joker, who was played by the late Heath Ledger - Hercules and The Last Samurai. He also got an Oscar nomination his work on Saving Private Ryan. And another tutor is Audrey Doyle, who is Tom Hardy's personal make-up artist and worked on The Dark Knight Rises, a later Batman film.

"The tutors are working on the biggest jobs in the film industry and bringing their talents and expertise to Northern Ireland. They come here and teach my special effects course - no-one else can compete with that."

Interestingly, the woman behind so many special effects and eye-popping beauty on screen is not a fan of Botox: "Each to their own, but injecting your skin with botulism doesn't seem to make sense. Having a few lines doesn't affect your personality."

Even in the world of movies where someone's face is their fortune, Pamela believes everyone should grow old gracefully.

"There are lots of successful older actresses like Dame Judi Dench, Helen Mirren and Maggie Smith. No-one looks at them and says they should get some Botox because they have wrinkles. Gillian Anderson is in her 40s and she is beautiful and sexy. She looks fabulous and she doesn't get anything done, nor would she.

"It is the Director of Photography's job to make actors look good. If someone doesn't look good, then they need to work harder - it is about getting the lighting right."

Pamela is very comfortable with her own appearance - it seems Elliott Gould's words have made a lifelong impact on her. However, her experience in film-making has left her well informed about the importance of good lighting.

"If I'm going out for dinner with my husband I will only sit somewhere where the light is good at a table with a nice white tablecloth for some bounceback. That is all I do in terms of making an effort - and putting my make-up on, of course."

With Pamela's career on an upward trajectory, will there always be enough film work for her here?

"The Northern Ireland landscape can lend itself to many locations - for example, Belfast was used in a film about 1930s Berlin and a quarry for a television show about Iraq, so I think so."

She is also quick to dispel press reports that claimed the Game of Thrones cast and crew found Belfast too quiet: "I have never heard that. HBO and the cast love Belfast. When James Franco was here for Your Highness he would fly over to New York and back in one day for a workshop. All the actors love Belfast; they love the people here because they are real. They don't get mobbed here or pursued by paparazzi like they would elsewhere."

Although she admits she has experienced some prima donna strops from certain actors, their names are to remain a mystery. But Pamela says it absolutely does happen. What she will divulge, though, are skincare tips and products that really work.

She says achieving a flawless complexion is all in the preparation: "I am a painter, so the more beautiful the canvas is the better."

Pamela uses facial massage to detox the skin - both James Franco and Liam Neeson are fans of her treatment - and it also relaxes performers before their scene: "If an actor gets a spot there is not much I can do to completely cover it - it is three dimensional after all. That is why I encourage good skincare for all actors and lymph drainage works a treat.

"Actors often suffer from dehydrated skin because they fly so much, so I use a good hydrating face mask. Sensitivity and pigmentation are also issues I have to deal with.

"I use all products but my favourite hydrating masks are Aveda and Lancome. I also like using products with natural ingredients if I can.

"Great value for money products are Barry M, which has really funky eye shadows, and Max Factor mascaras are great. I love Boots No7 Protect and Perfect Serum - I have never had sensitivity issues with this - it does exactly what it says it does."

When it comes to pricier luxury brands, Pamela loves Dior Perfect Red Lipstick and Guerlain lipsticks, which have perfectly engineered compacts complete with foldaway mirrors - she has one in her bag now.

Despite her huge success, Pamela appears to be something of a home girl, living in Crawfordsburn with her Dublin-born husband and their two boys, not a million miles away from her parents in her native east Belfast.

"My dad Sandy sees my boys practically every day, he does all the school runs. It is nice for him as he brought up two girls. He is amazing with them."

She seems genuinely unaffected by the sometimes starry world she lives in - telling me about how James Franco always listens to his iPod while she gives him a facial massage and calling Jamie Dornan "the lovely Jamie" in an affectionate way.

Still, it's clear Pamela has lucked out when it comes to the man she shares her life with. Her husband Mark pops in while we are doing our interview and she tells me that she calls him the Diet Coke man.

Pamela adds: "He went into a shop to buy me flowers for Mother's Day and the girls there said 'We don't have any Diet Coke' - referring to the dishy man from the TV ad. He does indeed have movie star looks."

Belfast Telegraph


From Belfast Telegraph