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Interview: Matin Maulawizada, Celebrity Makeup Artist (Part 1)

We got a special chance to sit down with one of the world’s top studio makeup artists, Matin Maulawizada! From his life growing up in Afghanistan, to becoming the celebrity makeup artist for A-listers like Angelina Jolie, Matin gave us a glimpse of what life for him is all about. What we love about Matin’s journey is his resilience throughout his multifaceted life experiences as a former refugee, molecular biologist, celebrity makeup artist, activist, and beyond the different labels: a deeply compassionate human being. Matin generously and transparently welcomed us into the rich and colorful memories of his life and perspective. We hope you’re as captivated as we are by this interview!

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How did you become a makeup artist?

I grew up with six sisters, and they were all glamorous and loved makeup and fashion, so growing up in the 70’s in Afghanistan, it was amazing to watch my sisters get ready, and one of my sisters even participated in Miss Afghanistan. As a kid, I’d sit by their feet and watch them get ready and they’d say, “ok, are my brows even?” And I would say yes or no. I was always involved in their getting ready process. Also, my mom would take me to the salon with her and she was really fashionable as well. So, I was always somehow involved and I always liked the entire process and what women went through because it was such a ritualistic thing.

When I came to America, I had to work to support my family. I tried to apply for jobs in restaurants, but because of the language barrier, and I couldn't carry any trays; bussing tables was out of the question. So I worked at a fast food place and at the same time I kept applying to jobs in department stores in San Francisco. And the more I applied, the more rejected I got, and then finally I got a job in the European designer section at Macy’s. So that was my first proper job in this industry. I sprayed perfumes for a few months until I was able to move out and live on my own, and my roommate was a makeup artist. She told me to come and help her do an event and I said, “well I’m a guy, what am I going to do at the makeup counter?” She said, “just come in, you'll do well,” and that's how I got my first job at the counter as a freelancer. I sold makeup throughout undergrad, and in graduate school I had a scholarship and I was doing my master's so I didn't do makeup for a while, but I kept getting calls to do events and that's how I kept in contact with brands. At one point, Laura Mercier and Bobbi Brown had called me within a week to do a full-time position for them. Within a couple of weeks Dior called me for the same position and I was like, “okay this is a sign, I cannot ignore this” and that's when I decided to move to New York and assist Laura Mercier- that's the brand that finally came up with a position for me. I worked out of San Francisco for about six months, then moved to New York and properly assisted her in the studio, and that's how I got exposed to my job, which is now as a studio makeup artist.

How have Afghans reacted to your career, especially as a male makeup artist?

When I first started, I never ever thought that you could do makeup professionally. I thought it was only a salon thing or people did it themselves. When I go back to Afghanistan and women ask me what I do for a living, they look at me puzzled, “don't they do their own makeup?” “Thankfully not!” In Afghan culture, as an Afghan man, I have no business being in this business. I mean, we don't even shake hands in traditional settings let alone put lotion on people's thighs! So it's been a journey. I didn't follow my dad's footsteps of becoming a doctor, which disappointed my mother. I became a scientist so she was okay with that, but when I quit my “proper” job and became a makeup artist she was very disappointed. She just couldn't believe it and for a year she literally didn't tell her friends what I was doing. It wasn't until I got written up a lot in magazines and got some serious press, and then an Afghan magazine wrote a cover story about me, that she accepted it and was proud of it. My dad, on the other hand, was a doctor and he was very happy that I didn't follow his footsteps. He basically said, “Look, you're of a different generation, you know what you're doing, you cannot wait for our approval, you just do what feels right for you.” And that was really important to me that at least one of them accepted it. My Afghan friends were supportive, but they came from the fashionable world. I wasn't very connected to Afghanistan at that time because of the war, so I don't really know how the Afghan community would have reacted, but from the direction of my mother I'm sure it wasn't very favorable and it was considered feminine as a job.

The Afghanistan in the 70's that you grew up in is so fascinating because the society that they describe was so vastly different from Afghanistan today. It was elevated, and there was culture, history, art, free thinking.

Growing up in Kabul in the 70's the way I did was, I have to mention this: it was a bubble. There was only that [kind of] Kabul for a very small percentage of people. It was the one percent that lived in Kabul or Mazar or Herat, but they had money and education and they had access to the West, and that was a very different Kabul than a 20-minute drive from the center of the city. So it was the privileged Kabul; those were the only ones who had access to education, arts, music, freedom, western clothing - all of it. The rest of the country was illiterate, still farming, like absolutely was in a different century. So I take offense when Afghans talk about how proud they were in the 70's and how wonderful the country was. It was wonderful, but only for a very privileged part of society; the rest of the country was hurting. I mean this: it's no wonder that we have this kind of unrest in war and everybody's taken advantage of it. It's because we lived for ourselves and only for that one group of people that have the freedom. That was the reality of Kabul and that's something that really should be discussed.

Can you share about your work with Afghan Hands?

When the civil war was at its worst, I remember reading about women being raped and committing suicide and that's when I decided to become an American citizen. And I would actively refuse to look at news in Afghanistan because it destroyed me. I lost my faith, I lost my country, I lost everything. In 2004, I wanted to go back to Afghanistan when the Taliban were kicked out and it was very hopeful because everyone was going back. But they were going on tour buses, and I was so offended by that. I can't just go in and say, “I’ve been gone for 20 years but I’m just back sightseeing and eating food and then I’m gonna go back in two weeks.” I wanted to go to Afghanistan, but I just couldn't go empty-handed. So I took what I saved, a little bit of money, and thought “I'm just taking this with me and will see what I can do.” But the one thing I knew about at that time was the plight of women. They didn't have any way of fending for themselves. A lot of women were going from door to door, hand washing people’s clothes and making pennies.


The AZ Capsule Collection, launched by Afghan Hands and Zarif NYC

So originally the idea behind Afghan Hands was to educate women in at least literacy, numeracy, and human rights. We could give them a stipend to go to school, and every time they got their results back, we'd give them money because I didn't want to hand out money to anyone. I've been a refugee and I know what it does to your psychology; it destroys you. So I didn't want anyone to go through what my family went through at one point. I went with $40,000 and I was with my cousin, who helped me find Noor Jaan, who became my project manager, and she was a godsend until she passed away three years ago. She was such an amazing, passionate woman. We were going to teach the women embroidery to a point of mastery and then we'd take projects from American and European designers. But we soon found out that the Western designers were extremely demanding to a point of damaging their psyche because these women are not professional workers. I decided that we're never gonna take another order from the West. But Noor Jaan really protected these women. So it became an art project for them; they would do whatever they wanted to do. 

We started with 20 women in two neighborhoods and then by the time I left Kabul we had 40 women and very quickly we grew up to 200 women. We had another idea that they would decide what to do with their skills. If they wanted to open a bakery, nail salon, or a photography business, I wanted to make these little co-ops and provide the seed money until they were standing on their feet and by the time they would pay their loan back, we would give that money back to them for them to expand. Sad to say, the security deteriorated and women were begging us not to send them to school and still provide them education in the little rooms we had because people were throwing acid in female students’ faces. So we couldn't implement those programs because of security and we just kept going with embroidery. We launched a capsule collection a couple months ago with my good friend Zohlay from Zarif Design. And I am talking to different people right now in order to see how I can do Afghan Hands not as a not as a production entity, but as an education program in a way to inspire and educate adults and children. We've faced many challenges, and now I am trying to go back and do something that is a little bit more pragmatic.

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Part 2 of the interview will be released next week! Until then...

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