Inside the Mind of Award-winning Makeup Designer Lesley Vanderwalt

lesley vanderwalt

Last year, I had the pleasure of spending quite a bit of time with makeup designer Lesley Vanderwalt. I had a chance to peek behind the curtain at a woman who commands respect in her industry and gives 100% of herself into everything she does. A swipe of red lipstick combined with an eternal fervor and modest character is what fuels her spirit and contributes to her success. Graciously, she agreed to feature on the blog today and talk to me in more detail about her life’s work.

Initially, Lesley dreamed of being a fashion designer, but the world of makeup quickly found its’ way to her when she left school at 15 and took up a hairdressing apprenticeship in Germany. It was at a salon one day that opportunity came calling.

How did you get your foot in the door?

“While working at the salon one of my clients was in New Zealand from the BBC and was training people in hair/makeup to work at the new WNTV1 studios in Avalon. She thought I had the right skills required and asked if I would come out to do some tests. The rest is history.

I had always loved art. I did makeup and hair for friends and dolls, made all my clothes, painted walls (much to my mother’s horror) and did anything else creative I could get my hands on. There wasn’t much I didn’t attempt.

I started on news readers and weather girls and progressed to soap operas. Following that, I loved doing the music shows and comedy shows where you could do some funky, creative things. It was the 70’s after all! Then I did my first Period drama, Governor Grey. We learned wig making and made the wigs required. We made our own blood, tattoos were hand-drawn, and there was very little available in NZ then. No internet, mobile phones, digital cameras, etc. Everything had to be ordered by mail and then shipped by sea. You had to make do with what you had on hand or ‘make it up’ with whatever you could find.”

lesley vanderwalt

Looking back on over forty years of work in the film industry, Lesley has done it all. Her career is long and illustrious, spanning multiple continents and countless projects. Winning an Academy Award in 2016 (for Mad Max: Fury Road alongside Damian Martin and Elka Wardega) certainly thrust her into the spotlight, but it’s the decades of work prior that are equally worthy of recognition.

What has been your favourite job to work on over the span of your career?

“There have been many jobs, many fond memories of people and locations. Sometimes the smaller ones are more fun and you have to stretch yourself and your budget more but every decade brings new things. My first film in Australia was Mad Max: Road Warrior in 1981 which started my now 37-year collaboration with Kennedy Miller Mitchell. Talk about a lucky break! I loved the desert, which I had never seen before. The wonderful Bob McCarron recommended me to George Miller after I had worked with Bob in NZ on a film called Bad Blood in 1981, so I have him to thank.

In the 80’s (aka the decade of the miniseries) I did things like Return to Eden, Bangkok Hilton, and then moved on to small Australian films in the 90’s. Strictly Ballroom was another favourite and the beginning of my journey with Baz Luhrmann and Catherine Martin.

I loved working with Martin Cambell on Penal Colony and it was probably the first of my more significant films with big crowds and crazy looks. Penal Colony then led to Beyond Borders, where I looked after Angelina Jolie and Clive Owen.

Then there was Mad Max: Fury Road with George and a wonderful team from all around the world. The film earned us some accolades and truly unforgettable experiences. I could never pick a favourite because I love anything from musicals to science fiction. All that time I was learning and working with incredible artists and legends.”

lesley vanderwalt

(Damian Martin, Lesley Vanderwalt & Elka Wardega holding their Oscars, which they won in the ‘Makeup & Hairstyling’ category for Mad Max: Fury Road in 2016. Image belongs to: The Academy) 

At the top of her profession, Lesley is now a mentor to many. One of her most endearing qualities is her willingness to share her knowledge and wisdom. It’s a trait that’s hard to find in other artists, but Lesley understands that the next generation will take over the reigns someday, so she gives back as others once did for her.

Lesley encourages young artists to take advantage of the training and courses now available, especially short courses run by industry professionals. People at all levels can brush up on their skills this way.

‘You will never stop learning in this industry. Always focus more on the skill and less on the products. Everything has to be useful otherwise it is just taking up space you will have to pay for.’

Lesley Vanderwalt is not just a master of makeup and hair. She is the teacher you never had and the friend you always wanted. Simply being in her presence motivates you to do better and even at the top of her game, she remains humble. Her advice may be short and sweet but her work and career speak for themselves. One thing’s for sure: she’s not going into hiding anytime soon.

Lesley’s Advice for young artists?

‘Persistence is a good word often used in our industry, but good people skills and listening skills are a major requirement. A lot of knowledge is passed on if you are listening. Surround yourself with the best and choose your jobs carefully. Quantity is not always quality. Have some savings behind you so you can make career choices wisely, then put 100% into everything you do and help as many people as you can. We all learn from each other.’

Have a read of these other Industry Interviews:

+ Sean Genders

+ Kym Sainsbury

+ Jac Charlton

+ Chad Atkinson