Redefining Beauty Through Unconventional Makeup

Artist Julia Lee uses unusual objects such as food and rubbish in her makeup looks, highlighting the beauty and aesthetic potential in the ordinary and mundane.

The talented and innovative artist, harnesses her creativity to expand the boundaries of how we typically believe makeup should be used and attests to the magic in inventive, unabashed, uncompromising self expression.

“Every time I’m looking at a paperclip or a strawberry, I’m thinking about how I can make a cool image out of it.”

THE PLUS: Can you tell us a bit more about your journey to where you are as a makeup artist today?

Julia Lee: When I first started playing with goth-style makeup in 2017 I noticed most of the beauty content on Instagram felt rather predictable and formulaic. I started detaching makeup from vanity, and it became a different kind of art. I’m now known for putting food and trash on my face. I try to defy the traditional ‘beautiful’ faces we are used to seeing on instagram.

TP: Where does your inspiration for your work come from?

JL: My inspiration comes from trash. I think a lot of us can relate to this – when I was a kid, I would collect plastic bread tags and can lids. They were just ordinary junk items, but there was something fascinating about their aesthetic that I can’t quite explain.

I’ve always been aesthetically intrigued by small items. My account is about celebrating all these trash items, and looking at these objects in a different way.

TP: Did you experience any challenges when getting started as a self-taught artist?

JL: Makeup has always been a hobby and creative outlet for me. Even as a beginner, I never really felt like it was a struggle because I enjoyed every second of it. The real challenge was Instagram itself.

It’s hard to separate my self worth from my engagement count, and harder to accept that small artists like me are at the mercy of an algorithm that only wants to generate profit. Instagram can easily become unhealthy, but I think I’m a lot better at caring less now.

TP: What is a look you are most proud of, so far?

JL: When I was young, I always thought that pomelo pulp looked like jewels. I was so happy to finally express this in my glossy pomelo look. It felt like something I had always wanted to say, but didn’t know how.

I also love my entire prawn series. I have always loved the way prawns look, and my childhood was spent watching them swim around in pet stores.

TP: Can you talk a bit about the role of food in your work?

JL: I’m not sure when I started using food in my work but I don’t think I treat food differently than other objects. I forget that it’s edible, and focus on the visual qualities.

TP: Generally, how does your audience receive your food-based looks?

JL: People’s reactions to my food looks are varied. Sometimes they love it because food is usually appealing and relatable, especially when I use it as lip art. Sometimes they hate it.

There was one look where I covered my lips in fish skin, and a lot of people were grossed out by it. But I think fish skin is incredibly beautiful, and I wanted to show the intricate visual texture. 

Does your unique choice of materials make the looks difficult to shoot?

JL: Sometimes I have to balance large items on my eye and hope that I can capture the image before it falls off or blinds me…With wet items, I let them dry out in the fridge until they are just the right texture.

Sometimes materials can be dangerous. When I used orange peels, I tried to wash them and let the natural oils evaporate first, but they still burned my eye area. I also worry about getting sick when I use dead insects, but so far I’ve been alright.

TP: How does your work challenge mainstream makeup lines idea of beauty, or general social expectations of how makeup should be used?

JL: Is my work considered makeup? I’m not even sure anymore. Is it makeup because I’m using things to decorate my face? Is it NOT makeup because there are no makeup products involved? Or is it NOT makeup because I’m not beautifying myself?

I think the most common misconception is that women wear makeup for men. But men don’t even like makeup. If you put women in a place with no men, they would still wear makeup, it makes us happy.

There’s something magical about the feeling of transformation, but companies go too far in capitalising off of this. I want everyone to know that you don’t have to own expensive things to be creative or express yourself, and that there are no rules.

Honestly, it shouldn’t matter if something “is” or “isn’t” makeup. Why should it matter? I have yet to hear an answer to this question.