Moani Lee, Makeup Artist to the Biggest Names in Country Music, on Why Less Is More

Big makeup—and bigger hair—is as much a part of country music as nudie suits, cowboy boots and Dolly Parton. However, with a new wave of performers like Lil Nas X, Trixie Mattel and yes, Kacey Musgraves, pushing the boundaries of what it means to be “country”, the genre's definition of beauty is more inclusive than ever.

Enter Moani Lee, makeup artist to some of country music's most famous faces, as well as actresses including Frieda Pinto. From collaborating with Musgraves during her record-breaking Golden Hour era—think the luminous, rosy makeup from her Rainbow music video, powder blue “Velvet Elvis”-inspired shadow, and, of course, her backwoods Barbie glam at the Met Gala—to working with stadium superstars like Miranda Lambert and Little Big Town, Lee’s understated approach to beauty is a breath of fresh air in an industry full of pageantry.

Here, she breaks down her must-haves products for flawless skin, how she finds serenity while on tour, and what goes into creating the perfect look.

Describe your makeup philosophy in three words.

If I could even try to describe my makeup philosophy in three words it would be : Simple, understated elegance.

It’s quite difficult to sum it up in three words as I think beauty is such a living, breathing art form. I’m very much fascinated by so many elements of beauty such as color, texture, structure, graphic lines, architectural form, lightness vs darkness, and varying textures but I’m also completely fascinated with the health and beauty of skin (as our body’s largest organ), with a particular focus on all natural skincare and essential oils. I have believed for a long time that beautiful skin is a result of a variety of factors including topical products, diet and lifestyle.

What inspired you to become a makeup artist?

I’ve always been drawn to the world of fashion and art. I loved the idea of painting on a living, breathing canvas and to not only embrace but to enhance and sometimes transform whilst telling a fashion/beauty story. I loved the idea of collaboration and the mutually cohesive elements of hair + makeup + fashion and I also loved the idea that makeup could be so empowering in a lot of ways.

Who are some of your beauty icons?

Sophia Loren, Pat McGrath, Audrey Hepburn, Yves Saint Laurent, Christian Dior, Coco Chanel and Diana Vreeland.

Could you highlight some of your favorite looks that you’ve done?

Many of my favorite looks have been with Kacey Musgraves. She has been such an extraordinary creative force and it’s been so fun collaborating with her on so many different planes. I adore her and her hair stylist Giovanni Delgado and her stylist: Erica Cloud and it’s really been a gift to explore with these magical humans.

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Some of my favorites have been transforming her into a real life Barbie for the Met Ball (compliments of Moschino with perfectly matched product by Pat McGrath Labs); the beautifully sensual, softly winged-out, nude lip Oscars look (in Giambattista Valli also in Pat Mcgrath Labs); her ethereal pink highlighted Grammys look (in Valentino, again in Pat McGrath Labs); and the drop dead gorgeous CMA 2018 look where we gave her a stunning crimson pout (also by the ever gracious Pat McGrath Labs).

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How did you and Kacey begin working together?

I credit the amazing Miranda Lambert whom I love for graciously inviting me into the country music world and I have been working with her for quite some time. Over the course of time, I was lucky enough to be given the opportunity to fill in where needed for Kacey but I think it really clicked for me at the CMA 2018 awards last year. I fell in love with her album and was inspired by her and her music.

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You've created some show-stopping hair and makeup with Giovanni Delgado and Erica Cloud for Kacey. Can you explain the collaborative process that goes into each look?

I think it’s quite unusual, to be honest, to feel this safe to explore and collaborate. It has been such a natural process of freedom and exploration. Often we build hair and makeup looks from a few elements, namely clothing and then time and place: Where is this look being seen? Is it the red carpet? Is it television? Is it an open-air festival? Are there jumbo screens? Is it a controlled environment but large arena? What is the lighting like? Is this outdoors and what time of day is it? Are we getting the golden light of a setting sun? How are we all feeling creatively? What’s inspired us lately?

And with all those questions on the table, we build and build until we feel good about the full lo. To be quite honest, we are tweaking up until the very last moment right before she leaves our hands to go onstage, or hits the red carpet or when the cameras go live.

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You’ve also worked with other huge names in country music: Miranda Lambert, Little Big Town, etc—not to mention your bio shows a background in theater. How would you say that influences your aesthetic?

I’ve very much enjoyed and continue to enjoy working with Miranda Lambert and Little Big Town amont other wonderful musicians and I count my blessings every time I’m given the opportunity. It is extraordinary the grace, humility and utmost kindness I’ve been shown over the years and I do not take these wonderful blessings for granted.

It's hard to really say whether theater alone has influenced my aesthetic but it certainly has played a part in opening up my mind to the art form of performance as a whole. I’m more acutely aware of lighting and how different placements and color tone of light shape the face. I’m also more aware of the size of the stage or the size of the audience and how far back we have to play to, visually speaking.

It’s from theater that I’ve embraced collaboration, the art of storytelling through your craft and, most importantly, the art of listening which has influenced my aesthetic tremendously, whether it be listening to your heart, listening to a collaborator’s ideas or listening to all the wonderful inspirations that surround you.

I think theater has also opened my mind to other art forms from which I often gather a world of inspiration: architecture, dance, lighting design, music, photography and especially nature.

When creating a great red carpet look, what factors do you take into consideration?

I always start with the clothing: the draping, the silhouette, the pattern of the textile and any other architectural or sensual element the piece offers. Then it’s a discussion with the stylist, the hair stylist and the talent about what inspiration the clothing is sparking in everyone and then from there we build, together, multiple parts of a greater whole.

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What do you think there should be more of in the beauty industry?

I think the art of subtlety has been quite lost in this grand world of “much” and that to pare down, or pull back is generally an anomaly.To do less is often lost in this beauty world of “more”.

What are your favorite beauty products right now?

I am a long time fan of Pat McGrath and I absolutely adore all her beautifully crafted, very thoughtful products. I fell in love with her Sublime Skin Highlighting Trio at the Grammys. And her foundations (Skin Fetish : Sublime Perfection) are iconic and absolutely gorgeous!

I also love Tata Harper’s entire line but particularly her Illuminating Moisturizer. It’s so beautiful! And her products are 100% free from GMOs, toxins, fillers, artificial colors, artificial fragrances, synthetic chemicals—its just good-for-you skincare.

Hourglass Cosmetics has been a great supporter of my work ever since the beginning and I have been lucky enough to work alongside them on many a campaign. They are a cruelty-free, gluten-free and vegan luxury beauty brand that delivers high performance, gorgeous makeup. I particularly love the formulation of their Confessions Ultra Slim High Intensity Refillable Lipsticks. Not only is the packaging beautiful, but the the product is creamy and longwearing. They have a stunning nude color called One Day.

What’s the best beauty advice you’ve ever received?

Always protect your peace.

I think in this wild and creative world of beauty and fashion, music and film—and the world as a whole—it is quite easy to work endless hours and negate self care and not take time for oneself.

Once I clicked into protecting my peace, I learned to let go, to not feel guilty about self care and taking a moment for myself, to pursue grace, to listen harder, to stay open, to never stop learning. In so doing, I have embraced a much more joyful approach to beauty that has me stopping to embrace the subtlety, the simplicity and the understated.

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Where do you see makeup trends heading this fall?

Bolder colors, bolder textures and bolder shapes. I think neon tones are making an entrance by way of pops of eyeshadow and eyeliner. I think glitters are making a comeback. And I think bolder shapes are coming through by way of graphic eyes. I think gorgeous, glowing skin is timeless and never went away and will continue to be a trend people aspire to this fall—and pretty much every season from here on out. Luminizers and highlighters of every kind are here to stay and I’m here for it!

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