The ultimate trendsetter: Stylist and Pixiwoo retrace the steps of Marilyn Monroe

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Joanna McGarry
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Lip contouring? Dewy skin? Today’s biggest beauty trends can all be traced back to Marilyn Monroe. Stylist joins Pixiwoo on a road trip to retrace the steps of an icon

Marilyn. Those three syllables alone are enough to stoke up images of beauty, glamour, art, sex and of America itself. To this day, no other Hollywood star has endured in quite the same way as Marilyn Monroe. Not Ava Gardner’s sultry gaze, nor Bette Davis’s doll-like eyes, not even fellow platinum blonde – and Marilyn’s own personal icon – Jean Harlow could hope to achieve her level of posthumous glory. It’s Marilyn’s face that appeared in Andy Warhol’s seminal screen print series and Marilyn’s make-up that is routinely replicated by the raft of celebrities that followed (Madonna, Lady Gaga and Rita Ora, please stand up), such is her endurance as global beauty savant.

With numerous Instagram fan pages, (‘marilynismysunshine’, ‘eternalmarilyn’ ‘weadoremarilyn’, to name a few), and over 2.4 million images labelled with her hashtag (compare that to current-day film stars Charlize Theron with 97,000 or Jessica Chastain’s 61,000), clearly there is still immense fascination surrounding this befallen icon and as she remains an unwavering source of inspiration for the beauty looks we see across catwalks and, ultimately, our own faces.

Not only that but, quite extraordinarily, she still shifts product. In 2012, Mac launched a make-up collection named after her, channelling her “lustre and sex appeal”. It sold out. And earlier this year, Max Factor (the late Max himself hand made many of her make-up products) launched a four-piece lipstick collection in homage to Marilyn’s signature red lip. And she’s more bankable than ever. Next week, the famous flesh-toned dress she wore in 1962 to serenade President John F Kennedy will go under the hammer. It’s expected to reach $3million – a world record for an item of personal clothing. Quite a feat for someone who would have been celebrating her 90th birthday this year.

In her life – and since her death – she’s never dropped out of the beauty vernacular, not once. Just how did she manage to immortalise herself in this way? What is it about her look that defies trends, eras and fads? I’ve travelled to Los Angeles with beauty vlogging powerhouse, Pixiwoo – Sam and Nic Chapman – to find out. The sisters are here to film a new BBC documentary Hollywood Icons, out on DVD later this month, which will see them unpick the history of make-up through the lens of their favourite Hollywood beauty icons, from Clara Bow to Elizabeth Taylor. And I’m tagging along for Marilyn’s section: visiting her favourite haunts and meeting a handful of experts in the hope of identifying her unfathomable staying power as the most referenced beauty icon of our times.

Luminous beauty

Our journey begins, fittingly, on Sunset Boulevard. “She had her first date with Joe DiMaggio, literally just over the road at the Rainbow Bar,” says Sam Chapman, recalling Marilyn’s chequered romantic history. “Her look is sheer femininity, with an element of sex. Her slightly parted lips, that smile, those teeth, her hair: it’s all pretty knockout.” If you had to pinpoint one thing? “Well, Marilyn had that kind of peach fuzz because she used Vaseline as a moisturiser and primer, which stimulated hair growth. It created this incredible kind of soft-focus halo effect where the light hit it.” Indeed, it was her other-worldly complexion that shone apart from the other actresses of her time. Monroe’s skin beamed and refracted light, crucially, before cosmetics had birthed the sea of highlighters and brightening creams on shelves today. “She was the pioneer of the dewy look,” agrees leading make-up artist and Monroe superfan Georgina Graham. “That’s why she looks so modern today, because the trend for a luminous, flawless complexion has come back.”

Indeed, it was her other-worldly complexion that shone apart from the other actresses of her time. Monroe’s skin beamed and refracted light, crucially, before cosmetics had birthed the sea of highlighters and brightening creams on shelves today. “She was the pioneer of the dewy look,” agrees leading make-up artist and Monroe superfan Georgina Graham. “That’s why she looks so modern today, because the trend for a luminous, flawless complexion has come back.”

We arrive at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, where Marilyn lived for two years (her ghost is said to haunt the hallways) to meet America’s leading Marilyn Monroe impersonator, Susan Griffiths. She is, quite simply, phenomenal. Sam, Nic and I watch as Susan peers into the mirror. It’s like the real Marilyn has entered the room and is hovering somewhere above us. “I can’t stop looking at your face,” whispers Sam. “This is like watching Marilyn do her make-up,” adds Nic. I ask Griffiths to define Marilyn’s unique appeal. “There are people on this earth that channel brilliance and Marilyn channelled a life force. It was the light that shone through her: it’s ethereal. People like that, they burn bright but they burn fast. She was like a meteor,” she says in her soft, breathy Monroe-esque lilt.

Ahead of her time

While Marilyn glowed from her head to her toe, she famously eschewed a sun tan, despite it being the new symbol of well-to-do leisure. According to biographer Lois Banner, she was warned against sun damage when she went for regular facials at Elizabeth Arden, a habit she formed some 40 years before facials became de rigueur for women of means. “She said she wanted to be blonde all over,” adds Griffiths.

In fact, Monroe unknowingly birthed almost every key beauty trend reigning today. Take lip contouring, for example. “Everything was very cleverly contoured back then,” Sam explains. “You could contour a lip for a really full mouth and it was all done with make-up. Marilyn used three different shades of red to create her signature red lip.”

“People tend to think these trends are all new and game-changing but they’re not,” adds Nic. “Baking – the powdering under the eyes – Marilyn would have done that too. These trends are just regurgitated and made to look new, but actually they’re from Old Hollywood and it’s important to respect where they came from.”

Indeed the catwalk – that arbiter of endless beauty trends – has always borrowed from Marilyn. “Jean Paul Gaultier referenced her in the Eighties with his corsets and cone bras, and last season Ashish did those different coloured Monroe-style wigs,” says Graham. “These days, Millennials are referencing her without even knowing it.”

Dissecting glamour

Marilyn’s make-up was a piece of carefully constructed geometry that still beguiles make-up artists today.

“It was built on really soft, natural shadows,” says Sam. “Then, of course, there was the eyeliner and the lashes. A lot of people try to emulate Marilyn’s liner with black, but she used a dark brown to complement her blue eyes.” And it’s all about the eyes, according to the UK’s leading Marilyn Monroe impersonator, Suzie Kennedy. “That’s the difference between a good impersonator and a bad one. I use a pale cream base across the eyes as powders tend to look heavy. Then, I trace white eyeliner across the eyelid on the upper lash line,” she says. “Marilyn’s eyebrows were important, too. They were natural and feathery, and they moved when she talked, so the arch is crucial.”

Next, we head to The Way We Wore, Los Angeles’ most prestigious vintage clothing store, for filming. This two-storey treasure trove is stacked with rare pieces from Dior, Ferragamo and Pucci’s past. Nic slips into a black Hepburn-esque shift dress. I fall hard for a pair of pink Chanel dancing shoes. It’s heaven. Here, we meet renowned author and fashion-in-film historian, Kimberly Truhler. “It took a village to create Marilyn Monroe,” she says, when I chat to her between takes. “Allan ‘Whitey’ Snyder [legendary Hollywood make-up artist] started working with her on the film Niagara in 1953. They locked themselves in a room and tried different looks until they found the one that became known as Marilyn.”

Still, away from her make-up artist and the looming influence of the studio, Marilyn was still an expert on the subject of make-up. Snyder once said she knew about certain techniques that she kept secret even from him. In her vanity case, which was revealed after her passing, lay an edit of luxurious and carefully selected make-up – from Revlon nail polish in Cherries à la Mode to a set of half-strip false lashes, Shiseido perfumed lotion, Elizabeth Arden cream eyeshadow and Max Factor lipsticks.

Perhaps most iconic of all, though, was her head of platinum-blonde candy-floss hair. “The world was obsessed with blonde hair at the time, because so few people had it,” says Sam, as we pull in to the Hotel Bel-Air, in the heart of Beverly Hills. It is here, in front of the hotel’s white patio doors that Marilyn danced for Andre De Dienes’ lens in 1953. “People often don’t realise that she changed her hair colour a lot throughout her film career. In The Prince And The Showgirl it took on an almost peachy tint.” Washing in a pastel hue over pre-lightened hair – sound familiar? The current sway towards pastel washes is just one of the myriad ways Monroe continues to inspire legions of micro beauty trends.

In her autobiography, Nostalgia Isn’t What It Used To Be [1975], Marilyn’s close friend Simone Signoret wrote, “[Hers] was a very pretty widow’s peak, which divided her forehead neatly in half. But she detested it, despised it; it was her personal enemy. She hated it because, curiously, the roots of that hair didn’t take the platinum dye as well as the rest. The lock that fell over her eye so casually was a shield protecting those darker roots.” Still, once she had created that platinum persona, Marilyn was loathe to let it go. “She said she wanted her hair ‘pillowcase white’,” adds Kennedy. “She got away with the damage for most of her career, but by the time The Misfits came out [1961], she was wearing a wig.”

All that blonde, her pale blue eyes and a final imprint of red lipstick has sealed Marilyn in the canon of beauty for eternity. “The combination of all that was so striking,” says Sam. Clearly it was also powerfully reminiscent of another timeless, globally recognisable icon: the American flag itself. “She’s part of American folklore,” adds Kennedy. “She represented every section of American history; her connection with the most famous ever President [John F Kennedy], the best playwright ever [Arthur Miller], the most celebrated American sports star ever [Joe DiMaggio]. She was clever. She associated with the right people. She represents the American dream and that will never die.”

Art of the pose

Which brings us onto her other associations. Though spectacular, her beauty alone wouldn’t have made for such an enduring make-up inspiration, were it not for skill of the photographers who sought to capture it. “The photographers she chose to work with are celebrities in their own right,” says Griffiths. From George Barris to Bert Stern, to celebrated war photographer Eve Arnold, Marilyn formed an unspoken language, a fluidity of movement, with the photographers of her day, in the same way Kate Moss does with Mario Testino and David Bailey today.

“She was a fantastic photo subject,” says Truhler. “She started her career as a swimsuit model so she had learnt her angles and was used to being in front of the camera. She would literally sit in front of the mirror for hours to figure out how to move. It didn’t just fall into place.” Marilyn demonstrated a masterclass in posing that would blow modern-day Instagram starlets out of the water.

“When she tilts her head back and looks down, it’s amazing. Apparently she used to do that because she thought her face was too long,” Sam says. “Her bone structure was epic,” reasons Nic. Although let’s not forget she tinkered with her facial proportions until they were perfect for the lens. “She had a chin implant,” confirms Kennedy. “And they corrected her two front teeth. It’s likely she had a nose job, too. Everyone had surgery in Hollywood, even then.”

It’s tempting to imagine how Marilyn would have navigated the world of social media and the selfie were she alive today. “If you think about it, she was the originator of the naked selfie with all those images of her draped in a white sheet. She knew how to play with the camera. Kim Kardashian does that today, but in a much more manipulated way, it’s not with a sense of fun,” says Graham. “Marilyn would have been the queen of Instagram selfies today. She’d know the angle from which to take it and the filter to put on it.” And in many ways, Truhler says, Monroe was a beauty influencer long before the term was ever coined. Marilyn remains – in an age of photo-mania – one of the most photographed women in the world, with new, unseen photographs being unearthed all the time, which only adds to her longevity.

“She was just an exquisite beauty,” reflects Sam. “Not a threatening beauty, there was a really lovely, breathless, childlike quality to her. And that vulnerability – people are drawn to it because they wanted to look after her.” And yet she was the ultimate contradiction. Behind that ostensible fragility lay a marketing genius, a woman who knew how to manipulate her image to seduce the entire world. She was the ultimate architect of her own beauty. Hers wasn’t a perfectly geometrical face, but she possessed an acute knowledge of how to work it. “I’ve been invited to places to sort of brighten up the dinner table,” Marilyn said of her beauty in an interview shortly before she died. “It’s sort of like being a musician, you’re invited so you’ll play the piano.” And I’d put money on the fact that Marilyn will be playing it long after we’ve all passed on to the other side, too.

Watch Pixiwoo recreate Marilyn

Watch Pixiwoo use Marilyn Monroe’s beauty secrets to transform Stylist’s Joanna McGarry into a modern Marilyn at

Photography: Nars for Creatures Of The Wind, Cloud Nine for Charlotte Olympia 
Pixiwoo Present: Hollywood Icons, £14.99, is out on DVD on 21 November from
Kimberley Truhler (