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M.A.C’s Director of Makeup Artistry, Terry Barber, Wants to Change How We Think of Beauty

"A lot of [the makeup on social media] is passive, not empowering."

Makeup artist Terry Barber has been with M.A.C Cosmetics for 17 years. In that time, he has cultivated a reputation as one of the most well-known, experimental and opinionated makeup artists in the industry. He also happens to have the most inspiring Instagram account in the game. No, seriously, take a look for yourself.

Below is a transcript of our entire, unedited interview about the current state of the beauty industry.

Do you prefer creating unconventional, wild makeup looks, or pretty, classic ones?

I think that the best beauty is a combination of both of those elements. I like both worlds, provided the final result is well-crafted and well-styled. As a makeup artist, the fundamental rule of art is to make someone look better and it’s only when you’ve satisfied that basic need that you can experiment with the unconventional. Picasso summed it up best: “We follow the rules to be professional so we can break them like an artist.” I think that even when I do work with unconventional makeup design it’s still somehow anchored in reality with great skin and good grooming. I’ve never considered the idea of “classic” as being something negative. There’s a reason why something’s a classic. It’s because it works. What makes for really interesting beauty for me is when you take those classics and manipulate them.

Here's to Oddity. Happy Birthday Bowie.

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A lot of people consider your Instagram account a source of inspiration when they want to break out of a beauty rut. Is that a motivational factor behind your account?

I just wanted to challenge this idea of “one-face-fits-all” that is so prevalent in beauty at the moment. Prior to setting up my account the beauty that I saw on social media simply offered some false promise of perfection, with techniques completely far-removed from anything a woman would do in real life and devoid of any emotion. It seemed like young makeup artists competing for likes by trying to be as technical as possible, like some crazy beauty Olympics. It’s like beauty had forgotten to absorb women’s desire to be effortless, rebellious, stylish, mysterious, expressive, witty or surprising. I will agree that it’s allowed a woman to be more educated on how to apply products but at the same time it’s taken away her freedom in how she desires the final result to look. I wanted to talk about customizations, imperfections and beautiful accidents, all the things that go into discovering your own style and saying what you want to say. Let’s face it, if there’s one idea of perfection and perfection is all we desire, then style has no future. Some people accuse me of promoting ugliness or anti-beauty. For me, it’s simply about being real and of course, free.

Your captions often speak about “going back to” something, whether it’s the Princess Diana blush or imperfect brows. What are some things about makeup trends today that annoy you? What, overall, do you want to go back to in the makeup world?

The “going back to” in my words refers to restoration rather than the idea of going back in time. What annoys me most about makeup trends is the suggestion of things being corrected when often, the details are most beautiful, like an embarrassed flush of the cheek, a clumpy lash, an untouched brow or the remains of a lipstick. Why are details like this treated as ugly or lazy when they are all part of the process of a woman experimenting, and discovering her own beauty? For me, I’d like to go back to beauty which is respected for its knowing, its subtleties, its nuances and its signatures, with the idea of broken, worn and lived-in as being techniques that excite and individualize. A lot of the beauty being enforced by social media looks like you’re apologizing for your own face by pretending it’s a carbon copy of some celebrity who you probably have no interest in emulating as they have no connection to your own life. A lot of this reads to me as a kind of “please your man” type of beauty. It’s passive, not empowering.

Is nostalgia an important part of your work?

When you talk about influences and experiences from the past, you often get accused of being nostalgic but in terms of how you style yourself, that’s kind of inescapable. If you work in any visual medium, how can you be modern without having a back story? Your style is always pieced together by your experiences. It’s a heritage which tells your story, whether that’s the music you listen to and how it makes you feel, or the subcultures you followed in your youth and the resulting attitude to life that they created. Personally, my early years of style discovery were from being part of the post-punk generation of the late ’70s and early ’80s and all the tribes that sprung out of that movement, which probably explains my lack of fear in dividing opinion. A punk attitude never really leaves you, even as you get older. We were a generation that didn’t give a damn about being liked.

What are your favourite Instagram accounts that you follow?

I particularly enjoy the accounts of the stylist Judy Blame (@judyblame) whom I’ve loved since the ’80s, the beauty PR @superhelder who does intimate still life images of beauty and interiors in fantastic colour stories, the artist/painter Rebecca Russo (@cigarettesandkale), who’s great for painterly makeup references and Beauty Papers Magazine for the type of fashion references that I’m actually interested in.

What type of Instagram posts spark the most engagement on your account?

Usually anything to do with lashes or brows, especially if I’m promoting something quite raw or deconstructed. You end up receiving love and hate in equal measures. To me, statements which open up conversations are perfectly healthy.

Many of your captions are quite poetic. For instance, lines like “colours in between colours tell interesting stories.” Where do you get the inspiration for your captions?

It’s all stored in my head based on what I’ve observed over many years of doing makeup. I think beauty ideas should go along with a thought process. People say makeup is an art form but to me it’s more of a language, a form of communication. The way that people customize their makeup is far more intriguing to me than mere technical prowess. Eyeliner is a perfect example. A grungy line under the eye says something completely different about the wearer than a flicked cat eye. They are both eyeliner but their usage speaks a totally different language. Of course there are those who cannot understand why you would apply a product to a face in a way that’s not perfect and you actually have to explain that the mistake is actually intentional. I do a lot of “wrong but right” and therefore have to explain myself a lot.

A lot of your references are also funny, like ham and garbage bags. How important is it to have a sense of humour in your work?

Well, I’m British, so humour is everything. Also I studied art history at college and always had a fascination with surrealism and the notion of finding art within inanimate, everyday objects. Very often when makeup artists reference beauty it’s often base on icons and historical decades. I love bringing references down to a very real, tangible level. When I compared a particular shade of raw pink eye shadow to a packet of sliced processed ham, I think people knew exactly what that shade was. It’s like cutting out the middle-man. Art in the obvious.

What advice would you give to makeup artists on Instagram?

Of all the subject matter on social media, beauty strangely seems to get the most coverage and it ends up getting quite political. Decide on your tone and keep that consistent. You need to decide whether you’re a people-pleaser who’s going for numbers or whether you’re opting for a point of view and likely to divide opinion. In the latter you need a thick skin as it’s really competitive and judgemental out there. Remember that social media, whilst giving you the opportunity to show your work, also gives idiots an opportunity to freely air their views at your expense.

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