Body of Work

A conversation with Joanne Gair

There’s a striking portrait of Madonna by the late photographer Herb Ritts that channels her brazen, bad girl attitude right through the frozen black and white picture. A lit cigarette dangles from her saucy pout, dark, shiny bangs zigzag in points across her brow and a fan of exaggerated eyelashes plays over narrow eyes, a tiny black dot highlighting the tip of each lash.

It’s an instantly recognizable image, a tribute to Madonna’s personality and bone structure, but its defining elements – the “exclamation point” eyelashes and bold, unapologetic make-up – are the work of a less known artist, New Zealander Joanne Gair.

“I really call myself an image-maker,” Gair tells me over the phone from New York City. She’s fit me into her busy schedule on this November morning, and talks breezily about her upcoming projects: a photo shoot for Guess Jeans, a spread in the premiere issue of Zink magazine, a tenth year of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue.

Photo with no caption

Jonathan Pilkington

“And of course, I’ve got some interesting things going on that I’m meant to keep hush hush,” she adds with a laugh, her melodic New Zealand accent still strong after more than 20 years living in the United States.

Although you may not recognize her name, you already know Gair. You’ve seen her work on the glossy pages of major magazines and on the bodies and faces of A-list celebrities like Heidi Klum, Demi Moore and Cindy Crawford. If you ventured down to Key West for last month’s Fantasy Fest, you probably saw her work on the cover of Key West Magazine: a gorgeous lingerie set, painted onto a model and photographed by Gair.

Indeed, the 49-year-old body painter, make-up artist and budding photographer has had a hand in creating some of the most famous images of the past two decades, alternately teasing us, seducing us and confusing us with her skilled applications of make-up and paint.

In one stunning piece pictured on Gair’s website a pregnant Elle Macpherson blends seamlessly into an abstract painting behind her done in bright spring colors. Macpherson's legs are bubblegum pink; rough shading and contrasting patches of yellow, blue and turquoise flatten her curved form into the backdrop. A roughly drawn child is painted on her bulging stomach, and her breasts have been swathed in wide strokes of color. If it weren’t for the model’s shoulder, arm and face, left natural and bare, she would appear to be part of the artwork behind her, all three-dimensional quality lost in the layers upon layers of paint.

Although Gair has been doing make-up professionally for over 20 years and photography for the past few, she is best known for her body paintings and, in particular, for a Vanity Fair cover shot that launched her into the top tier of beauty artists in the U.S.

In 1992, Gair collaborated with photographer Annie Leibovitz to create an image of Demi Moore for the August cover of Vanity Fair. The resulting shot featured a stunning Moore completely naked, wearing only an intricately painted on men’s suit and staring provocatively into the camera. The headline in large white letters read: “Demi’s Birthday Suit.”

“It was quite a revelation having someone naked on the cover,” Gair says. “Demi is very natural in her birthday suit. When I did the cover Demi said, ‘Jo, this is going to change your life.’ It really did put me on the map.”

But it wasn’t the first time Gair had used paint to pump up an attractive picture.

In her very first job as a make-up artist in Sydney, Australia, Gair was asked to work on the girl with “the bags that no one could cover. Instead of using concealer I painted sunglasses on just for fun.”

Gair’s sense of humor and the pleasure she takes in her work show up in many of her pieces. In her first book, Paint A’ Licious, published in 2005, Gair employed a technique called trompe l’oeil (trick the eye), painting many of her subjects to look like someone else or vanish into the scenery entirely.

In one of these images both painted and photographed by Gair, two women covered completely in paint become flies on the wall of the men’s changing room. The outlines of their bodies and the towels they’re wearing are barely visible against patterned floral wallpaper as they ogle a visitor fresh from the shower. In another painting, an older woman’s overweight body is transformed into the perfectly proportional hourglass of a sunbathing young woman, her excess inches painted to merge with the beach chair she’s lying on. A copy of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue lying on the chair next to her adds the finishing touch.

“My very first book Paint A’ Licious is all about illusion,” Gair says. “They were real people. They were farmers. They were all shapes and sizes.”

Most of the people Gair paints don’t need an optical illusion to make them look like a supermodel. For magazine covers like GQ and Vogue and ad campaigns like Ralph Lauren and Versace, Gair has had the chance to work with fashion’s hottest bodies and most flawless faces, some, like Heidi Klum, many times over.

“I like plump lips and big eyes, of course. I do love generous canvas pieces,” she says gushing slightly.

But although the end result is often glamorous, prepping, painting and photographing one of Gair’s works of body paint is a lengthy and sometimes grueling process.

“It’s a little bit of educating people about it,” Gair explains. “If a girl prefers to be waxed rather than shaved, I like it to be done the day before so the pores have time to close. You don’t want to have fluffy statues. Priming the canvas is very important and also getting the person prepared for a long day.”

When Gair and her team actually reach for their brushes and palettes, painting a model takes around eight hours depending on the details involved.

But things don’t always go according to plan.

“It has taken twice as long as that. I did a job for Dodge and they chose to do a plaid shirt and a pair of jeans. Well, there’s a lot of weaving in and out that goes into a plaid shirt,” Gair says with a wry laugh.

“I don’t charge by the hour,” she adds.

And while Gair says she comes to her jobs well prepared, she also doesn’t map her work out on paper.

“Instead of a flat white paper product you’re working in a different medium on the human form. In the 20+ years I’ve been working I’ve only had to put it on paper twice,” she says.

When she does need to test something out, Gair often uses her own skin, experimenting with colors, textures or shading on her left hand or trying make up on her own eyes before applying it to the model.

“I just trust that what’s in my head is going to work,” she says.

Recently, after years creating art with lipstick, blush, powder and paint, Gair has taken another step towards bringing her ideas to life by stepping behind the camera.

“The lovely thing about doing my own photography is that I get to take my vision from beginning to end,” says Gair, who shoots with a Canon 5D camera.

In 2006 Gair both painted and shot pictures of Heidi Klum for the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue, transforming the slender Swedish model into a 1950s style pin up girl. For the 2007 issue, Gair once again took on both make up and photography duties, this time painting four models into iconic rock and roll T-shirts and bikini bottoms.

“Without body painting I don’t know if we could put out our issue any more,” Senior Editor of Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Diane Smith said in a recent video on the Sports Illustrated Web site.

Now, after years of success and acclaim creating images for other people, the most difficult image for Gair to shape may, in fact, be her own. Famous for her body paintings, Gair says she sometimes has to remind people that she is and always has been a beauty make up artist first.

“I’m just as happy doing the face as the whole thing,” she says. “If you can do beauty make-up and make some one age really beautifully it’s so much harder than doing a wicked witch.”

Read more about Joanne Gair online at

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Comments » 2

gpaldaz writes:

I love her work. It's amazing to see what she is capable of.

shylohjacobs writes:

The scene that you just described Madonna in, I being a photographer myself I think she would be perfect for my Naples patio furniture photo shoot coming up soon. It is only to add to my portfolio but, that would be amazing. I don't think I could every get her for a shoot though, I would need a better name for myself first!

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