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I’m Strictly’s Makeup Designer – This Is Why Working There Is Unlike Any Other Show On TV

“As makeup artists, and people who want to be creative and push boundaries and go to the next level, what other show on TV at the moment is there a chance to do that on?” Lisa Armstrong says of her role as Strictly Come Dancing’s makeup designer. “That’s why we feel so lucky.”

Lisa is now in her 14th year heading up the makeup department on the hit BBC ballroom show, and when HuffPost UK catches up with her, it’s clear she loves working on it as much now as when she first joined.

Her glittering career in TV makeup artistry started after a chance meeting with Ozzy Osbourne during her days working on photo-shoots as a jobbing MUA, which eventually led to Lisa being recruited by his wife Sharon to be her personal makeup artist for the first series of The X Factor in 2004.

Having climbed the ranks of the ITV talent show during its early years, Lisa – who originally found fame as part of 90s girlgroup Deuce – was called into a secret meeting with BBC bosses about joining the show’s Saturday night rival and heading up its hair and makeup team.

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“It was beyond my wildest dreams,” she says. “It was just incredible from a makeup artist’s point of view to be going from the biggest show on ITV to the biggest show on the BBC, and to be heading up the team and be in charge, it was literally, OMG!”

Having built her team of professional MUAs, the makeup department on Strictly has gone from strength to strength with their incredible looks, even being recognised by the industry when Lisa won both a Bafta Craft and Royal Television Society awards.

Lisa Armstrong attends the British Academy Television Craft Awards in 2019

Eamonn M. McCormack via Getty Images

As our behind-the-scenes look at Strictly continues in our Backstage At The Ballroom series, Lisa reveals the astonishing pace at which her team works, the inventive ways she brings the show’s famous themed weeks to life, and names her favourite looks of all time…

I wanted makeup and hair to push boundaries when I joined Strictly..

I wanted it to look and feel very much like modern day, bringing all those aspects of Latin and ballroom up to date, and making them relatable to the public.

I wanted us to be the leaders, not the followers, so I wanted people to watch our show and go, ‘OMG, did you see her hair? I want that hair for my wedding or my prom’. I wanted us to be up there and pushing boundaries.

The technique of doing makeup on a show like Strictly is completely different to other shows…

You have to take into consideration that these dancers will be pinging around the dance floor at 100mph, turning themselves upside down and inside out, sweating and being out of breath. Makeup smudging and hair falling out is just something I could not have. So attention to detail is an absolute must, and to be the best of the best.

Lisa in the Strictly makeup room with Aljaz Skorjanec and Giovanni Pernice
Lisa in the Strictly makeup room with Aljaz Skorjanec and Giovanni Pernice

Instagram/Aljaz Skorjanec

At the start of a series, it’s me, seven makeup artists and two assistants…

When [the cast gets] smaller, there are six, and it goes down as the series goes on. It’s the same for hair. We have Lisa Davey who is the designer of the hair now, who has seven artists and two assistants.

There’s quite a team of us, but we’re working with so many people, including all the dancers, and we now have 20 pros. With all the extra numbers it’s a very busy show, with lots of looks in one night.

Makeup can come on and off the dancers as many as four times on filming days…

For example, in Blackpool this year, we put that orange graphic eye makeup and blue liner on Nancy four times during the day. We had to dress-run her concept look with Will, then we had to take that off to do the celeb reveal in the opening number, then we had to put that back on to go into the live show for her and Will’s dance, then take that off again to go into the opening number of the results show, and then put it back on to do the rest of the results show – and that’s just one person!

Will Mellor and Nancy Xu performing at Blackpool
Will Mellor and Nancy Xu performing at Blackpool

It’s a lot of skill and a lot of technique to be able to do that whilst the pressure is mounting the minutes are ticking down, and the floor manager is saying, “Five minutes ’til live!”

A typical week on Strictly for me looks like…

On the Saturday evening, we get a confirmed concept document about midnight on how the next week’s show is going to look. It gives us a style of dance and staging, how the lighting is, if there are any props, the era it’s in and potentially what colours are on the screens or what colour the costume is.

Through the week, it’s a process where it builds and builds with every department pulling together to make decisions. On Friday, it’s confirmed with the execs the exact hair and makeup looks you’re going to do, so that’s then handed out to the team members who are actually executing them.

And then it’s fingers crossed for Saturday morning and that it runs like clockwork – and sometimes it doesn’t!

We don’t actually know what the makeup is going to look like on everyone’s face until each Saturday morning…

What I don’t think people really understand is how complicated, stressful and creative it is, because those looks are all there down on paper, but it’s completely different seeing it on paper to on someone’s face. The only chance we get to do that is on the show day.

We come in early in the morning and then the couples will be coming into hair and makeup when the schedule allows. We have them all pretty much tip-top perfect for the dress run, then we have two hours to fix any things that didn’t quite work.

It’s meticulously planned, but you can’t execute it until the day. All my ducks are in a row and ready to go, but where they waddle off to is anybody’s guess, because we are live!

We really have to think outside of the box for some looks, especially on theme weeks…

People don’t realise that we have to get really creative. They think it’s all professional makeup – and predominantly it is – but stuck around Tyler West’s face when he was Beetlejuice on Halloween Week was porridge oats, which were glued with eyelash glue and painted green to give him that grubbiness of the character.

It’s about thinking out of the box when we don’t have a million pound film budget or 100 hours to do something.

Tyler West dressed as Beetlejuice in Halloween Week this year
Tyler West dressed as Beetlejuice in Halloween Week this year

Every makeup artist will bring their own kit to work, and then I have the main Strictly kit there with all the extra bits…

Everyone is different because everyone likes and uses different things and everyone uses different things in our main kits.

You go to different places for different things – so, at the moment, I am sourcing a Santa beard for one of the couples on the Christmas show, but I can’t go and get that from Boots, so I have to get that from a specialist makeup shop. There are quite a few of them around, like ScreenFace or PAM, the professional makeup artistry shop. We go to them and then we can get all the adhesives, glues and if you needed things like bald caps.

It’s like a mass shopping list – preplanning and going over and over it to make sure that we’ve got that wig or those devil horns, or if we’ve remembered the paint for that.

After we film the results show straight after the live show, we have to bring everyone back into makeup and do a ‘de-rig’…

It’s taking off all the wigs, cutting out hair pieces, removing glue, taking eyelashes off, washing paint off faces if they’ve been characters, and then placing bits and bobs back in their boxes, clean down all the sides, pack all the make up away, clean the brushes, clear the room, and then go again the next week!

It’s gone midnight, sometimes 1am, by the time we get out. It’s a long day.

My favourite looks I’ve created on Strictly are…

I did think [Stacey Dooley and Kevin Clifton’s] Minions were genius – who knew that a metal coat hanger would come in so handy?

Then I loved Halloween Week with Faye and Giovanni. That hair never stayed put until the live show – every time we did it, it dropped and collapsed. Her hair was quite short, so to have it scraped up and that big, thick plait stitched on there and then using in the choreography swinging it, we were like, ‘How is this going to stay up?!’

One of the girls just pinned it, gaffer taped it, sewed it, and then we all watched it on the screen through an open hand, and thankfully it worked on the night. It does get a bit hairy sometimes!

I also loved the creative journey I had with Sophie Ellis Bextor…

Her face is just insane and so beautiful, and she is so up for anything. I’d do big blue eye makeup and then stick orange crystals over the top, and she’d be like, ‘OK!’. It’s very on trend now, like when I did Ola Jordan for a spooky Alice In Wonderland group number and I couldn’t decide whether to do a pink or orange lip, so I did both – orange on the outer corner and then pink in the middle.

Then what happened a couple of months later on the pages of Vogue? The ombre lip! I’m claiming that!

Sophie Ellis Bextor with partner Brendan Cole on the show in 2013
Sophie Ellis Bextor with partner Brendan Cole on the show in 2013

It feels overwhelming to have won a Bafta and RTS award for my work…

It’s amazing and incredible and really overwhelming. You think, ‘Wow, my work is being looked at and is being noticed and being recognised by the industry.’

I’m not blowing up own trumpet, but Strictly is one of the biggest and best and most-watched shows on telly, so I feel it does deserve [awards for the show]. But when it comes to personal ones, I find it very emotional.

My top tips for getting the Strictly look this party season are…

You need a good eye shadow base, some loose glitter you can pop all over the lid and then a fabulous big lash.

On the market at the moment, there are so many things that don’t have to be for professional use – those glitter pen sticks from Collection 2000 in Superdrug or Boots. Just whack on a glittery eye, whack on a lash and off you go – party!

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Strictly Come Dancing continues on Sunday at 7.15pm on BBC One.




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