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Emilia Clarke: How my relationship with beauty changed after having brain surgery

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Hannah-Rose Yee
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After two major brain surgeries, Emilia Clarke’s relationship with beauty has changed forever. She now swears by hot baths, sophisticated scents and the power of laughter.

When Emilia Clarke was a teenager growing up in Oxford, she, like most UK millennials, got her style and beauty inspiration from Just Seventeen magazine.

“Which I bought when I was just 13, or just 11,” the Game Of Thrones star tells Stylist. It was in these pages she learnt about tattoo-style chokers – “They’re back now!” she marvels – and blue mascara. “I begged my mum for it,” Clarke recalls. “It had a smell to it, like bubblegum or toffee. It was awful. But I thought it was the coolest thing in the world.” 

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The blue mascara was retired when Clarke left Oxford for London to pursue acting, pulling pints in a pub while she appeared in small plays and auditioned for film and TV roles. At one of them, for a fantasy epic about war and dragons, Clarke danced the robot and the funky chicken. She was convinced she had blown it.

Spoiler alert: she hadn’t. In 2010, at the age of 24, Clarke was cast as Daenerys Targaryen, the platinum-haired, dragon-toting heroine of Game Of Thrones. “Daenerys has amazing hair,” Clarke says, “which, let me say for the record, is seven-people’s-worth of hair on my head. It comes down to my bum. It is so much hair.” 

On-screen with Kit Harrington in Game of Thrones

But while Game Of Thrones was climbing to dizzying heights (129 Emmy nominations and counting) and bringing huge opportunities with it (Clarke was snapped up by Dolce & Gabbana to be the face of their The One fragrances in 2017) she was recovering from a serious health scare. Back in 2011, before filming on the second season had begun, she collapsed in a Crouch End gym, pain shooting through her body.

She didn’t know it at the time, but she’d had a stroke caused by a ruptured aneurysm. She underwent the first of two surgeries to save her brain from the bleeding. The second took place in New York in 2013, between shooting Game Of Thrones season three and four, and before starring in Me Before You and Solo: A Star Wars Story. 

After her second surgery, Clarke was so distressed that there were days when she couldn’t even bring herself to look at her own reflection. “I was so full of drugs from being in the hospital that I had a lot of water retention, and one half of my face was quite swollen,” the 32-year-old recalls. “I felt so deeply unattractive. What I can see now is that I could see the pain behind my eyes. And no amount of anything can cover that.”

It was a long time before she felt confident enough to reach into her make-up bag again, and when she did, she found her relationship with beauty had completely changed. “[Now] I always err on the side of wearing less make-up,” Clarke says. “My face didn’t change, but my feelings about myself changed.”

The beauty message she preaches now is one of self-love and self-care: “When you can look at yourself in the eyes and feel OK with what’s looking back at you, then what more do you need?” With this in mind, we asked Clarke to share with us her life in beauty… 

The smell of my teen years is Impulse body spray. Specifically the Spice Girls edition – I know there is a following of people who agree with me here! It was a limited edition and me and my friends bought 10 each. It smelled like sugar and boys, which as a teenager are the two things that you’re living off. My favourite Spice Girl changed all the time, but I was brunette so I always got Posh. Which is no terrible thing. But in my heart I always wanted to be Baby Spice. 

My mum bribed me when it came to beauty. She told me, “Don’t touch your eyebrows because when you’re 17 (as a kid, you always want to be 17) I’ll get your eyebrows professionally shaped.” I was like, “Oh, I’ll hold out for that, that’s so cool!” And honestly, it never happened. I got to 17 and big eyebrows were coming back, so it was like, what’s the point? And when I wanted my ears pierced at 12 she said, “If you wait, we’ll go to Selfridges and we can put pretend diamonds in,” so that I didn’t do it. I did have magnetic earrings though. 

My mum also taught me how to do ‘no make-up’ make-up. She showed me how to put on my make-up so it looks like I’m not wearing any. If all my friends were doing big eyeliner, which I so wanted to do, she was like, “Why don’t you just put it on the lash line, so it is there but it doesn’t look like it’s there?” She would gently nudge me in a classy direction, so I didn’t go too bonkers with the teenage make-up. I’m still following her today. But a red lip, which I obviously love, is always a red lip. I found a lip pencil recently – Nars Velvet Matte Lip Pencil in Dragon Girl. I was praying with a name like that it would suit me, and it did. I’ll pair with a strong eye - a feline flick using Dolce & Gabbana Emotion Eyes Liquid Eyeliner and Dolce & Gabbana Passion Eyes Mascara .

I always wanted to be grown-up when I was a kid and it was a mark of sophistication if you had a good perfume. It was the thing you’d get for Christmas and you’d do one spray a day to make sure it would last you till next Christmas, when you’d get another one. As kids, me and my friends would spray boys’ scents because, you know, hormones.

Emilia as the face of Dolce & Gabanna’s fragrance The Only One 2

Smell is huge. When I meet someone I love smelling them; if they smell nice it’s a good sign. Dolce & Gabbana The Only One 2 smells really good; there’s a very feminine, sensuous red rose note throughout, but it also has those deeper undertones like patchouli.

I have to wear make-up at the airport because I get photographed. If I wasn’t an actor, I would go onto the plane with no make-up and just put loads of moisturising cream on. I don’t use a sheet mask or anything on a plane because people clock me anyway, and putting a sheet mask on would just result in someone screaming. Probably me. I do go in for sheet masks but I’m not doing that stuff on a plane because it would end up on the Daily Mail. If it’s a long-haul flight, I take off all my make-up, do my normal routine with a bit more cream on and then put my headphones and my eye mask on and go to sleep. Planes are now the place I sleep. I don’t sleep any other time. 

I’m crap at doing my own hair. Hair will always remain a mystery to me. It is the leprechaun at the end of the rainbow. People keep saying to me, “Oh, just pop a bit of cream in there, do this,” and I just can’t seem to do it.

Getting your make-up done for the red carpet is amazing because you get to try everything. Everywhere I go, I’m always asking what make-up artists are using and it’s brilliant because you get to try lots of products and see what works. But the thing is, you’re not going to put that much make-up on yourself to go to Tesco, so it’s a bit of give and take when it comes to lessons. There is a thing you can do – and I heard that someone got this from RuPaul’s Drag Race – you get a lovely highlighter and you put it just at the crest at the top of your lips, which makes them look more plump. Chanel does a really great highlighter, and Gucci Westman does a banging one as well. 

I like rituals. I turn on the radio, do some yoga, have a freezing cold shower, moisturise with Shiseido Essential Energy Day Cream and then drink a strong black coffee with lots of honey in it. That makes me feel calm.

I love a bath. I’m one of those people who likes it scalding hot. I like my coffee and my tea hot, and I like my bath hot, like I’ve-got-no-skin-left hot. And then add loads of salt and lavender oil, light your candles, get a glass of wine or a cup of tea and a really good book. I’ve woken up in a bath a few times, which is dangerous. No bubbles, though. As a kid, I did like bubbles, but I’m a grownup now so I have bath oil. That’s what the purists do. Bubble baths are for Hollywood movies. 

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After my operations, I didn’t want to look at my own face. I don’t normally, but all my emotions were heightened. When I looked in the mirror, I just saw pain in my eyes. I found it very, very difficult. I used to put on make-up without looking in the mirror, which probably made me look a lot worse.

I was brunette for most of Game Of Thrones. We would put the bald cap and the wig on. Everyone told me, “You look so much better as a blonde, you should think about being blonde the whole time.” So for the last season I was like, fuck it, let’s do it. I loved it, but it broke my hair. When you’re peroxide blonde, you don’t want to not be peroxide blonde. You keep thinking, ‘I can do this! My hair will get better!’ But it didn’t. So then I had to cut it all off and dye it back to brown. I feel good. Brunettes have more fun because it’s a lot less hassle.

I will never look as good as I did when I was playing Daenerys. I had the best professionals in the world doing my hair and make-up and costumes, and there is really not much I can do about it. I can’t ever get my hair to look like Daenerys’. It’s a heartbreak, but I’ve had to come to terms with that.

Beauty is laughter. It’s being inspired. If you look emaciated and tired and full of self-loathing you do not look beautiful, no matter how perfect your hair and make-up is. We should be celebrating having a giggle a bit more. Laughter is free as well, which is good.  

Emilia Clarke is the face of Dolce & Gabbana The Only One 2, £74 for 50ml boots.com

Photography: Williams + Hirakawa. Davide Galluzo

Images: Instagram

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Hannah-Rose Yee

Hannah-Rose Yee is a writer based in London. You can find her on the internet talking about movies, television and Chris Pine.

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