The make-up doctor

Paula Teo at workPaula Teo at work

Local make-up artist Paula Teo, who has a PhD in literature, reflects on her unconventional career journey from academia to make-up artistry.

I was never a particularly girlie girl. I was a solemn, solitary child who loved reading, drawing and colouring. My first encounter with make-up was when, aged four or five, I made my mother a birthday card which I had 'painted' using her own blue eyeshadow and red lipstick. Because I was very academic and musical, everyone thought I would become a teacher, a musician, or a journalist, like my father. I studied English and Music at university and obtained a PhD in Literature; I've been a teacher, editor, research administrator and project manager. So how did I end up being a make-up artist?

In fact, the first seed was planted while I was writing up my PhD thesis. As an antidote to sitting at my desk all day, I took up belly dance. And it was while helping other dancers to get ready for performances that I first realised the transformative power of make-up. Take a bunch of nervous amateurs, add exotic make-up, and suddenly they're swanning around like Cleopatra. Make-up created that confidence.

In 2005 my husband and I moved to Wanstead, and I started a new job. Wanstead I loved, but as for the job... it wasn't long before I was looking for something more creative. Remembering my 'Cleopatra' moment, I signed up for a couple of make-up courses. This turned out to be a mixed experience. I enjoyed the learning but, at 35, I was twice the age of the other girls. Loud and confident, they all wanted to work for MTV and meet celebrities. Somehow, I didn't feel that the 'cool' gigs were for me.

Feeling ambivalent and somewhat disheartened, after the course I took on bits of make-up work but kept at my job. It wasn't until I got involved with Look Good Feel Better (LGFB), the beauty industry's charity supporting women with cancer, that I really found my niche. We run makeover workshops to help women manage the visible side effects of their treatment. This is beauty at its most therapeutic. It is a rare privilege – and enormously humbling – to be able to give someone a boost when they're facing a difficult and uncertain time.

I realised that what motivated me was not selling a glamorous fantasy, but helping someone feel great about themselves. When we're tired, down or unwell, make-up can literally help us face the world with a little more confidence.

Since then I've worked with teenagers with heart defects and met many smart professional women who've confessed: "I have no idea how to apply make-up properly. Will you show me?" And that's how I started going to people's homes or offices and giving make-up lessons. As far as I'm concerned, make-up has to work for real life. Busy women haven't got time for a high-maintenance routine, so I love showing them simple yet effective tricks for looking good in a hurry.

Make-up fascinates me because it's about creating infinite effects and possibilities. The researcher in me is always asking, "How did they do that?" I'm constantly studying photos, looking up techniques and breaking things down into notes and diagrams. One client remarked, "You are a born teacher! And the notes are a great idea." You could say I've changed direction, but come full circle.

Paula is a freelance make-up artist and Regional Co-ordinator for Look Good Feel Better at the Royal Marsden Hospital, Fulham. She also writes, makes cards and paints glasses. Visit

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