'A Make-up Artiste Sees Stars At Their Most Vulnerable': Mickey Contractor

The MAC make-up legend shares some incredible stories from his eventful life
'A Make-up Artiste Sees Stars At Their Most Vulnerable': Mickey Contractor
Mickey Contractor

Aishwarya Rai Bachchan

Read more about Aishwarya Rai Bachchan

Mickey Contractor travels light. His favourite line might as well be ‘There is a good and bad to everything’. Perhaps that’s what makes him so non-judgmental. Surprising, considering he has every excuse to stand in judgement – be it of make-up trends, media stories or stars he works with. His life, for the past 40 years, has been dedicated to making women look beautiful. His brushes have worked on some of the most beautiful names in Indian cinema – from Nutan to Aishwarya Rai Bachchan to Kareena Kapoor. If you have ever fantasised about their looks, chances are that it was Mickey’s magic wand that has transformed them. His collaboration with make-up giant MAC has taken his legend to greater heights. But the man himself remains remarkably unaffected by it all. He has stories galore but will share only a few. And just those glimpses were fascinating as he chatted with us at length during his recent trip to Dubai to launch his latest collection… 

 Let’s begin with your new collection. What’s it all about?

This time my collection is all about my old classics and new favourites. Instead of Ruby Woo, I have promoted Relentlessly Red this time as this is a new colour for me. It’s a modern way of doing red lips. It also includes things like waterproof kohl pencils and waterproof mascara… stuff women need on a daily basis, to make life simpler.

How, in your opinion, did MAC change your life?

I have learnt a lot of generosity at Mac. Here people share their experiences, tricks and techniques whereas others outside still very possessive and hold on to techniques. We have learnt our techniques over a period of 20 years because we didn’t have internet access back then! But we are all generously giving away all our secrets. I feel the more you give, the more you get.

After being in the business for four decades, how do you constantly reinvent yourself?

God is on my side (smiles) and I have been at the right place at the right time. MAC came into my life when I felt I was going to stagnate. Having travelled with the brand and seen and interacted with so many artistes, I feel invigorated. More than anything else, I keep my eyes and ears open. Today at the click of a button, you have every information you need. So I keep in touch with the latest.

Technology has changed things around a lot. For instance, how do you view make-up tutorials on YouTube and Instagram?

There is a good and bad side to this. There are people who know all about make-up and there are those who teach you c***. But I feel even something nasty can teach you something new! See, there is no right make-up or wrong make-up. I just feel there is good or bad make-up.

How would you define good make-up?

Good make-up is what a woman wears to make herself look her best. When you step out, you have to feel most comfortable with yourself. Bad make-up is one that people follow blindly without understanding what they are doing. Or maybe there is nothing like ‘bad’ make-up. Frankly, it’s easy to be judgemental. What is there to stop people from giving their point of view?

Mickey at work

Mickey, these days there is a lot of awareness about and campaigns against body shaming. What is your opinion on this pressure on women to look your best at all times?

Yes, there is a lot more pressure today than earlier. Back in the day, there were four people looking at you but today you post one pic and there will be thousands of people telling you that you are fat! If you are putting yourself out there, be prepared for this judgement. Stars have undergone this all their life, now a commoner knows what it’s like. I feel people should give each other some space and respect privacy a bit but these are the times we are living in.

Let’s talk movies. Which look that you have created recently have you liked the most?

The last movie I worked on was Ae Dil Hai Mushkil for Aishwarya Rai Bachchan. Fortunately, she was playing a character that was very glamorous and age-appropriate. And when you work with Aishwarya, you don’t have to think too much because she has such a stunning face that takes on any kind of make-up. Moreover, she believes in the artiste’s vision. She’s like, “I am your canvas, now paint away.” When someone has that trust and faith in you, it’s an added bonus. Of course, Karan (Johar), as a director, gives you a lot of space. Karan, Manish (Malhotra) and I have done so many films together, we understand each other well.

Aishwarya Rai Bachchan in Ae Dil Hai Mushkil 

Does your vision with that of the director clash at times?

Small things can happen. Sometimes I feel an actress’ hair can be in a ponytail while the director may want it left open because he wants her to look glamorous even if she’s crying! Ultimately, the director is the boss so I put forward my point but go with what he wants.

Bollywood stars are often accused of focusing too much on make-up and looks and less on performance. Your take?

I don’t mind! Let the actress look great at all times so long as it doesn’t take away from the performance or emotion depicted. Heroines are meant to look great. As a make-up artiste, my job is to make the heroine look the part she plays and the make-up helps in conveying the emotion she’s portraying. So if the role is that of a glamorous beautiful woman, I will make her look glamorous. However, if there are emotional scenes, I should feel her emotions and not wonder, ‘hey I like that shade of lipstick’.

What is the most ‘real’ film you have done?

Karthik Calling Karthik for Deepika Padukone. I barely did any make-up on her face so it’s as real as she looks personally.

What are your earliest memories of working with stars?  

I had done this period film called Rajmata in the late 70s, which never released. It was the first outdoor of my life in Jaipur and the star was Nutanji.

Nutanji was gorgeous. She had a stunning bone structure and a beautiful face. She used to have this huge mirror on the set because she didn’t like small mirrors. My job was to hold the mirror. I was scared to put it down thinking somebody might kick or break it! She would observe me from the corner of her eyes and one day she said, ‘It’s okay, put it down.’ But I insisted on holding it! Nutanji’s last photoshoot that she did before she passed away was with Gautam (Rajadhyaksha, the famous photographer) and me.

The legendary Nutan

How do you look back at your association with Gautam Rajadhyaksha? You were quite a team…

Gautam and I started our careers at the same time. We were very compatible and open with each other. If I didn’t like the way a certain frame was lit, I would tell him honestly. Or he would tell me the lipstick I used was awful. There was no ego between us. We used to go shopping for clothes. Those days there were no stylists and designers did not give clothes for photoshoots for free. We have done hundreds of photoshoots with just pieces of cloth draped around an actor or actress… those were creatively fun days. Today you have everything. The stylist or the jeweller comes with hundreds of options But back then we didn’t even get even credit for our work.

I know of make-up artistes who have been around for 50 or 60 years and they have not got due recognition! We had to fight for our credit lines. I used to work for free so that they would give me credit. I was the first make-up artiste in the country to demand for credit lines. If nobody knows who’s behind the look, what’s the point?

Do you think excessive commercialisation has taken away the passion from work?

Again, there is a plus and minus to it. There is so much more available at your disposal these days. Those days we used to work with fewer things. I call myself a frugal make-up artiste. Though I have the access to the entire MAC store, I value every eye shadow or lipstick. If I can use it in three different ways, I will do it.

Is it out of habit?

Not really. These are middle-class values that you don’t waste anything you have. Also, when you have everything, you are happy with little. When you don’t have everything is when you are vying to get more. My task is to make the actress look beautiful, I don’t need the whole store for it. I will only use those five things I need.

I came from a very, very modest background. Today, with the grace of god, I have got a lot for which I am grateful.

Which period in your career was the most defining?

I would say, 1992 because I returned to films after moving away for a long time. It was a conscious decision to move away as I felt there was just not enough respect or money. I concentrated on advertising where I made my name. Films back then were all about heavy make-up while the younger generation in advertising wanted to do something out-of-the-box, aspirational and natural. I used to a lot of commercial work for Lux and I was stamped as the guy who does make-up that doesn’t look like make-up. That’s also how my connection with stars started because the topmost ones were endorsing the brand.

And then Rahul Rawail gave me Bekhudi (Kajol’s first film in 1992) and I started coming to films on my own terms. Until then, till the time you did not join the stars as their personal make-up artistes, you were a nobody. Make-up artistes would do their job and stand outside the room. That was not the kind of life I wanted for myself. So when I chose to come back, I came back on my terms and I have managed to stick to those terms till date.

When you took up make-up as a profession, what was the reaction of your friends and family?

I couldn’t care about society or friends. But I had to convince my mother; she wanted me to be a doctor. I first started doing hair styling and my mom asked me if I wanted to be a hajam! Then I said I didn’t want to do hairstyling, but I wanted to do makeup and she told me to make up my mind. But she was forward thinking enough to give me a year to make it. If I didn’t, I would have to go back to studies. I agreed and then the rest is history.

How old were you then?  

I was 17.

At 17 did you know exactly what you want to do?
I knew it at 10. I was a huge Hindi film buff and I was the hugest Helen fan. And Helen has played an important role in my life. Things have just moved further from there.

Have you ever thought of writing a book with all your experiences in the industry?

Hundreds of people have suggested it but some mysteries are best left as mysteries. I am willing to share my techniques, not willing to share my life because it is connected to a lot of other people. All the stories that are interesting are shared stories. I might be okay to share them but what if they are not? I share an intimate relationship with stars. A make-up artistes sees stars at their most vulnerable. You see them in their worst space at times – either when they are having tiffs with their lovers or when they are having bad day at work. You see them first thing in the morning as they wake up, when they are happy, when they are sick. I don’t think it’s fair to put their lives on the table just to make a book.