The man with the magic wand: A backstage encounter with make-up visionaire James Kaliardos

James Kaliardos, make-up artist to the stars, explains how he discovered his calling doing his mum's eye make-up and why the bounds of fashion cannot hold him

Backstage at a fashion show is rarely a calm affair: models rush to and fro, hairdressers attempt to style coiffs that have partied the previous night away, make-up artists try to apply mascara to three people at a time without poking any of them in the eye.

But James Kaliardos is the embodiment of calm when I meet him before Julien Macdonald's show at London Fashion Week. With only two hours to go before the curtain goes up on the catwalk, and despite the news that one of the models has only just touched down at Heathrow, he shares a joke with his team, overseeing the action and twinkling gamely. "I don't see the point of screaming at people," he says, briefly faking a convincing diva fit with plenty of expletives. "People don't need nerves in a situation like this. We work with our hands; we don't want them shaking."

Kaliardos' work is legendary within the industry: he works backstage across all the international fashion weeks; he is a famed creative talent on some of fashion's biggest shoots; a publishing mogul, having co-founded the exclusive concept magazine Visionaire in 1991; and to top it all, an actor with his own troupe, the Innocent Theatre Company. He is, I suggest, the modern era's ultimate Renaissance man.

"No! I wouldn't say that," he laughs. "We just came out with an Alexander McQueen tribute for Visionaire, which was fun. But I'm either balancing between L'Oréal Paris and my fashion work, or when I'm doing a play, I just stop. I never really have time off." (In the same way Roman poets needed patrons, every ' exuberant editorial make-up artist needs a commercial backer, and Kaliardos has worked with the cosmetics giant L'Oréal Paris since 2003, on advertising, product development and catwalk looks.)

Born in Detroit to a hairdresser and a tailor, Kaliardos, who is coy about his age, realised his calling early. "My mom wore a lot of eye make-up and I would always watch her. I love colour and drawing – I was, like, seven and I started doing her make-up all the time."

He went on to study at New York's Parson School of Design, revelling in the sense of flamboyance and artistry that came with the city's vibrant fashion scene. "We'd do test shoots," he recalls, "and that's how I made my friends. I met Andy Warhol at Area, this club in New York, and he commented on my make-up. And then I met [photographer] Steven Meisel, and he said, 'You should do this as a career.' I was like, 'Really?'"

Having cut his teeth doing club make-up for his female friends during his teenage years – making them dewy and fresh-faced for their school proms, before progressing to theatrical make-up – it seemed a natural route. "It was great because I have a big, fat Greek dad who is very macho, and he could have really freaked out," he says. "But he just appreciated that I had a good sense of colour and he liked that I was artistic. I never had that stigma put on to it, of 'That's a faggy thing to do.'"

Had there been any resistance at home, it would have doubtless melted anyway, given the calibre of Kaliardos' colleagues: his early career involved shoots with Ellen von Unwerth, the Stevens Klein and Meisel, as well the late, great and legendary photographers Irving Penn and Richard Avedon. "It was just a dream," he says of these collaborations. "I hadn't worked with Avedon but we sent my book over to him and it happened magically. We became really good friends; he was a dear friend of mine and it was just a miracle."

The prolific nature of Kaliardos' work – across disciplines and genres, aesthetics and concepts – is all the more understandable after meeting him. He is a likeable person – engaging but diffident, intelligent and sharp but ever ready with a joke and smile. His contacts book is one of the biggest in the business, bulging with friends such as Madonna (he created her Ray of Light-era boho-tech look), exes such as Balenciaga's Nicolas Ghesquiére, and colleagues such as Stephen Gan and the former model Cecilia Dean, with whom he publishes Visionaire.

The latest issue of the Visionaire "bookazine" – the McQueen tribute he speaks of – comes printed on pages imprinted with wildflower seeds that readers can water and grow themselves. There are only 1,500 editions, each selling for £185. While this may seem indicative of fashion's obsession with hyper-luxury, Kaliardos' personal aesthetic is more grounded in natural realism. The looks he creates for the catwalks can veer wildly between sunkissed and spectacular, but his favourite work is a version of those styles he practised on his mother in the 1970s. "I like emphasising the eyes," he explains. "I'm a theatrical person but I don't like it when make-up looks like it's stuck on someone's face. What turns me on about a photograph is when it's more like a portrait, even if it's a fashion picture. Look at Avedon's pictures of Dovima. It's full, theatrical, drawn-on make-up, but you can still feel her skin and you still feel her."

Kaliardos' muse for the Macdonald show is Roman Polanksi's second wife Sharon Tate – murdered in 1969 by Charles Manson's "family" – whose characteristic dewiness perfectly suits the négligéed ingenue that the collection suggests. "I love that whole era, of women empowering themselves and beauty being all sweaty-looking and natural."

Kaliardos, however, has not broken a sweat throughout our conversation, despite the huge task ahead of him. As well as the models, he has one more body to beautify: Julien wants a touch-up from the man of the moment, and Kaliardos is called away to work his magic.

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