“As makeup artists and people who want to be creative and push the envelope and take it to the next level, where else on TV right now is there a chance to do that?” Lisa Amstrong says of his role as Strictly come to dancehe’s the makeup artist. “That’s why we feel so lucky.”
Lisa is now in her 14th year heading up the make-up department of the hit BBC dance show, and when HuffPost UK catches up with her, it’s clear she loves working on it as much now as she did when she first joined.
Her glittering TV makeup artist career began after a chance meeting with Ozzy Osbourne during his days he worked on photo shoots like MUA, which eventually led to Lisa being recruited by his wife Sharon be her personal makeup artist for the first series of The X factor in 2004.
After climbing the ranks of ITV’s talent show during its early years, Lisa – who originally found fame as part of 90s girl group Deuce – was called to a secret meeting with BBC bosses to join to the show’s Saturday night rival and head up the hair and makeup team.
“It was beyond my wildest dreams,” she says. “It was just incredible from a make-up artist’s point of view to go from the biggest show on ITV to the biggest show on the BBC, and to lead the team and be in charge, it was literally, OMG!”
Having built its team of professional MUAs, Strictly’s makeup department has gone from strength to strength with their incredible looks, even gaining industry accolades when Lisa won both a Bafta Craft and a Royal Television Society award.
Lisa Armstrong attending the British Academy Television Craft Awards in 2019
While our behind-the-scenes look at Strictly continues into ours Backstage at the ballroom series, Lisa reveals the amazing pace at which her team works, the imaginative ways she brings to life the show’s famous themed weeks, and names her all-time favorite looks…
I wanted the make-up and hair to go beyond the limits when I joined Strictly..
I wanted it to feel very much like the present day, updating all those aspects of Latin and ballroom and making them relatable to audiences.
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 prom. I wanted us to be up there and push the limits.
The make-up technique in a show like Strictly is completely different from other shows…
You have to take into consideration that these dancers will be hitting the dance floor at 100 mph, flipping and flipping, sweating and out of breath. Smudged makeup and falling out hair is just something I couldn’t have. So attention to detail is an absolute must, and to be the best of the best.
Lisa in the Strictly make-up room with Aljaz Skorjanec and Giovanni Pernice
At the beginning of a series, it’s me, seven make-up artists and two assistants…
when [the cast gets] smaller, there are six, and it dwindles as the series goes on. It’s the same for hair. We have Lisa Davey who is now the hair stylist, who has seven artists and two assistants.
We’re a good team, but we’re working with so many people, including all the dancers, and now we have 20 professionals. With all the extra numbers it’s a very demanding show, with so many looks in one night.
Makeup is allowed in and out of the dancers up to four times on filming days…
For example, in Blackpool this year, we put that graphic orange eye makeup and blue liner on Nancy four times throughout the day. We had to wear her concept look with Will, then we had to take it off to do the celebrity reveal in the opening number, then we had to put it back on to go to the live show for her and Will’s dance, then take it off again to go to the opening number of the results show, and then put it back to do the rest of the results show – and that’s just one person!
Will Mellor and Nancy Xu performing in Blackpool
It takes a lot of skill and a lot of technique to be able to do that as the pressure builds, the minutes go by, and the floor manager says, “Five minutes ’til live!”
A typical week on Strictly seems to me…
On Saturday night, around midnight, we receive a confirmed concept doc about what next week’s show will look like. It gives us a style of dance and staging, what the lighting is like, whether there are any props, what era it’s in, and potentially what colors are on the screens or what color the costume is.
During the week, it’s a process of building and building with each department coming together to make decisions. On Friday, it’s confirmed with executives the exact hair and makeup look you’ll be doing, then it’s then handed out to team members who are actually doing them.
And then fingers crossed for Saturday morning and that it works like clockwork – and sometimes it doesn’t!
We actually don’t know what makeup will look like on everyone’s face until every Saturday morning…
What I don’t think people really understand is how complicated and stressful and creative it is, because those looks are all there on paper, but it’s completely different to see it on paper or someone’s face. The only chance we have to do that is the day of the show.
We arrive early in the morning and then the couples will get into hair and makeup when the schedule allows. We have them all pretty much perfect for the fashion show, then we have two hours to fix anything that didn’t quite work.
It’s meticulously planned, but you can’t execute it until the day. All my ducks are lined up and ready to go, but nobody knows where they’re going, because we’re live!
We really have to think outside the box for some looks, especially in themed weeks…
People don’t realize that we have to get really creative. They think it’s all professional makeup – and much of it is – but 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 filth of character.
It’s about thinking outside the box when we don’t have a million pound film budget or 100 hours to do something.
Tyler West dressed as Beetlejuice in this year’s Halloween week
Each 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 core kits.
You go to different places for different things, so I’m currently looking for a Santa beard for one of the couples in the Christmas show, but I can’t go get it from Boots, so I have to get it from a specialist makeup shop. There are quite a few around, such as ScreenFace or PAM, the professional makeup shop. We go to them and then we can get all the stickers, glues and if you need things like caps.
It’s like a bulk shopping list: plan it ahead and go over it to make sure we have that wig or those devil horns, or if we remembered the paint for that.
After filming the results show right after the live show, we have to get everyone back to makeup and do a ‘de-rig’…
It’s taking all the wigs off, cutting the hair pieces, removing the glue, taking off the eyelashes, washing the paint off the faces if they were characters, and then putting the pieces back in their boxes, cleaning up all the sides, packing all the makeup, clean your brushes, clear out the room and then start again the following week!
It’s past midnight, sometimes 1am, when we go out. It’s a long day.
My favorite looks I’ve created on Strictly are…
I thought [Stacey Dooley and Kevin Clifton’s] The Minions were brilliant – who knew a metal coat hanger would come in so handy?
Then I loved Halloween week with Faye and Giovanni. That hair never stayed right until the live show—every time we did, it fell out and fell out. Her hair was pretty short, so from having it scraped out and that big thick braid sewn in there and then used in the choreography to make her swing, we were like, ‘How is she going to stand?!’
One of the girls just pinned it, taped it, sewed it, and then we all watched it on the screen with an open hand, and luckily it worked overnight. Sometimes it gets a little hairy!
I also loved the creative journey I had with Sophie Ellis Bextor…
Her face is just insane and so beautiful, and she’s so ready for anything. I’d make up her big blue eyes and then put orange crystals on top of her, and she’d be like, ‘OK!’. It’s very trendy now, like when I did Ola Jordan for a ghostly number from the Alice in Wonderland group and couldn’t decide whether to do a pink or orange lip, so I did both: orange in the outer corner and then rose in the middle corner.
Then what happened a couple of months later on the pages of Vogue? The faded lip! I am stating it!
Sophie Ellis Bextor with partner Brendan Cole on the show in 2013
It’s overwhelming to have won a Bafta and RTS award for my work…
It’s startling, unbelievable, and truly overwhelming. You think, “Wow, my work is being watched and noticed and recognized by the industry.”
I’m not playing the trumpet, but Strictly is one of the biggest, best, most watched shows on television, so I feel it deserves [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 holiday season are…
You need a good eyeshadow base, some loose glitter that you can pop all over your lid and then a fabulous big lashes.
On the market right now, there are so many things that don’t necessarily have to be for professional use: those glitter sticks from Collection 2000 in Superdrug or Boots. Poke a glittery eye, poke a lash and you’re done – party!
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Strictly Come Dancing continues on Sunday at 7.15pm on BBC One.