Cover Ophelia Liu (Photo: Brodie Sián Taberner)

Ophelia Liu, rule-breaker, make-up artist and winner of the second season of Netflix series 'Glow Up', tells Tatler how she’s exploring different definitions of glamour, embracing imperfections and expressing what diversity really looks like in the beauty industry today

“My art is an escape—it doesn’t always come across as pretty,” says Ophelia Liu, regarding her unique approach to artistry in her field. The make-up artist says the looks she creates and photographs on herself often explore “the uglier side of things”.

It makes her feel like she’s doing something different, which is important to her. This need for variety is reflected in how she is building her career: in addition to creating looks on herself, she does make-up for clients such as the English National Ballet, and last year she launched a clothing and accessories venture, 18 Levels Of.

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“People tend to have prejudgements about influencers, and if I can break that perception, I will,” Liu says. “I like doing things that surprise people—I hate being a one-trick pony."

Originally from Hong Kong, London-based Liu’s pursual of a creative path did not align with her family’s traditional Asian values—but the 27-year-old eventually won their approval after winning Season 2 of Glow Up, the Netflix reality show to find the next big name in make-up art.  She grew her Instagram following to over 600,000 , and now Liu’s bread and butter is regularly posting photos and tutorials of complex looks.

 

Liu’s view is that beauty is ultimately about what one feels comfortable with—although she has a unique level of comfort. “I’m intrigued by the grotesque, the dark and the disturbed,” she explains, and encourages her followers to challenge their own perceptions of beauty.

Her looks can be intense, often incorporating prosthetics—she’s created textured gargoyles, moody deities and electric masks. But they are all softened with a touch of femininity, although Liu says it isn’t intentional. The addition of a winged eyeliner, lined lips and a bit of gloss help her audience to see the potential of “a beautiful story behind the ugly”. 

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This femininity extends to the idea of glamour, albeit her version of it. “Glam stems from drag, South Asian beauty and even goth. Glam has been taken to a place where it’s a just look, but it’s an identity, a lifestyle.” Liu says. “People assume that I can’t do glam looks, but that’s because many shy away from an alternative glam look. People are stuck with one idea of what’s pretty.”

An Asian woman in the beauty industry, she acknowledges the recognition she’s received since winning Glow Up, but admits, “I still feel quite left out. All the comments and messages I get on Instagram are so supportive, but I’ve noticed that plenty of companies will still use an Asian model rather an Asian make-up artist.”

Liu spends much of her day preparing and applying her designs to be photographed—once spending five hours on a single look—only to take it all off after getting the shot, as it’s not practical for her to walk around in such an intricate look. “I take all photos on my phone, and I edit them myself,” she says, and only alters the contrast and shadows of her selected images. While Liu admits that much of the detail can be lost in a photo, she believes the photo becomes art in own right.

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She notes that the rise of beauty filters and other editing tools has created toxic expectations of beauty, particularly the illusion of flawless skin. “I don’t know where everyone got this idea that when you put on make-up, your skin will be perfectly smooth, with no wrinkles or texture. Skin moves! I have seen the most beautiful skin, but there’s still texture and there’s always going to be some level of imperfection.”

Liu has also noticed that while creative expression is becoming more acceptable in beauty, there are more conversations about what’s not acceptable. “I’d worn braided hairstyles before, but after the Black Lives Matters movement surfaced, I realised how important it is to respect culture,” she says. “It’s a similar thing with the appropriation of Asian eye make-up styles; the problem is that Asian people are still being judged.”

Since the boom of beauty influencers in the last decade, Liu has seen more young people take the lead on platforms such as Instagram and TikTok. While they’re bringing a new perspective on beauty, creators tend to gravitate towards certain looks in an effort to become popular. Recently, it’s been adopting Asian make-up trends without acknowledging their origins, including straighter brows, ink-stained lips and the ubiquitous fox eye.

“I’ve been creating ‘fox eye’ looks far longer than they’ve been a thing. It’s diffused eyeliner,” she says of the viral trend that has piqued the interest of many influencers. But following suit goes against her personality and intent, and she says, “The last thing I want to do is what’s trending!”

The difficulty so many millennial artists face today is authenticity—and maintaining it. With only so many original looks one can create, Liu feels a duty to share her point of view as best she can, saying, “I feel like my youth is so short-lived, and that I don’t have a lot of time to make my mark, but there’s no way around it. As an artist, I have to say what I need to say.”

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