Since the 1980s make-up maverick topolino has trod an unorthodox path, creating many iconic and fantastical visions along the way. Maxine Leonard meets the enigmatic character in his Paris apartment.
Maxine Leonard: Are you Italian?
Topolino: I’m half French, half Italian. Je suis Marseille. I have a strong accent. [Laughs]
M: You’re a Marseille gangster.
T: Voila! Super beau! You’re very courageous doing this magazine. I know it represents a lot of work. It’s very difficult. How do you do it?
M: Red wine mostly. [Both laugh]
T: In 2003 I left France and took a break to live in Italy. I returned in 2008. It took me a while to find my feet. I came back to an industry that didn’t know me.
M: Was that very difficult for you?
T: Yes. A lot of people encouraged me to come back. When you have a reputation, it follows you. I started again but it was different to starting from scratch.
M: I don’t think it’s unusual for artists to go through feeling hot or not. It’s a difficult industry to work in.
T: Ah yes, it can be violent. One day you can be riding the wave and the next it crashes. The game has changed. Models have changed. I am fifty-four. I started my job at sixteen. My job is my life but I don’t want to feel stress anymore. I love your look by the way. Your hair is very 80’s. When I worked in the salon I used to do the women’s hair like yours. You look like the woman in Flashdance.
M: Without the body but I’ll take it! You’re not flirting with me, are you?
T: Maxine come on! Beauty has changed. I understand when people have surgery, but this ideal of ‘beauty’ I struggle to accept. It’s hard now. People don’t accept wrinkles or age. There is a lot of pressure. I find it confusing. Seeing life is beautiful. You heard about Judy [Blame]. He was like my sister, my godmother. I’m very sad. People were just starting to discover his work and recognise him. He was an art director with all he achieved. A lot of people didn’t understand him until he died. Now it’s like he’s a unicorn.
When I came back to the industry and it was digital, for me it was hard. Photographers would complain and say I use lots of foundation. I do not, I use make-up and powder but the photographers wanted to leave the skin. For me, it’s not possible. I can’t leave spots, I'm sorry.
M: Mr. Topolino, I have some questions for you – shall we begin?
T: Ok. I love your jumpsuit by the way I have one but mine is decorated with pearls from 1981, darling! [Both laugh]
M: You grew up in Marseilles and trained at L’Atelier Parallèle, learning basic trades in hair, fashion and make-up. Was it always a passion growing up to work in the fashion industry?
T: I was very young. It was in the beginning of the 1980’s. I loved it. When I started I wanted to be a stylist. My parents didn’t have enough money to send me to the school so I started hairdressing. I learnt make-up in the salon on the clients – on real people. When I trained for the diploma they didn’t want to pass me. It was very traditional – we even had to make our own Q-tips and learn how to manicure nails – but I didn’t want to follow their rules, so I left with nothing. Strange, no?
M: At what age did you move to Paris?
T: I was nineteen, but I had to keep returning because of the military service. I wasn’t going to do that because I knew it would break my dream, so I said I had to help my mother. I missed a year and quickly left for Paris in 1984.
M: You shot your first editorial at the age of nineteen – how did this come about?
T: Alors, life is very strange. The first editorial I shot was for L’Officel. When I was at the airport travelling to Paris, in the queue there was a model that used to come to the salon. We began to talk as the plane was delayed and exchanged numbers. She told me that in Paris hair and make-up was a new job – there were only a couple of artists working. After I arrived at the apartment, she called me an hour later and asked if I would come to the shoot to do the hair and make-up. When I arrived, that was it. It was advertising. I would start to make pictures for my book. We would all meet at the printers and make model cards too.
M: I used to love that process of going to the lab, meeting the photographer and looking at contact sheets. There was something really special about it – building those relationships and understanding each other’s dialogue, especially when it came to ideas.
T: Ah, me too. When I came back to the industry and it was digital, for me it was hard. Photographers would complain and say I use a lot of foundation. I do not, I use make-up and powder but the photographers wanted to leave the skin. For me, it’s not possible. I can’t leave spots, I’m sorry. This new way of working was a big shift. I do the make-up everywhere. I always put make-up on the ears; it’s the first thing I tell my assistants otherwise I’m screaming. I also put make-up on the hands and knees. I like the make-up to feel premium in its finish.
M: You put make-up on the ears?
T: Always. I hate, hate to leave them I’m the older generation, darling!
M: Your name, Topolino, is the Italian name for ‘Mickey Mouse’, which conjours up fantasy and fairytale – can you tell me more about the origin of how you became Topolino?
T: Topolino is my real name! [Digs out tax bill as proof]
M: Are you showing me your tax bill?
T: My name is Renaud Topolino Pasquale. I was very ashamed of my name when I was younger. I was always addressed growing up by my family name. When I started to work in the salon I was called Topo – they loved the name. Topolino is a little mouse. In Italy, Topolino is Mickey Mouse.
M: Oh, I thought you had made it up! It’s interesting given how your work translates that that’s really your birth name. Tell me about your approach to your work?
T: I always draw whenever I have a project. I want to show you so you understand my job. [Brings out sketchbook] People respond to my drawings. They are very prepared. I’ve been drawing since 1982. With the book I published, Topolino: Make-Up Games, there was an idea to do one of all the drawings and one of the published work. We never managed to complete the idea of publishing the drawings.
M: I think what’s interesting about the drawings – when you look at your drawings against the finished look, they feel a bit chaotic, but actually, the execution is exactly what you have drawn.
T: D’accord. Clients want to keep them. Ronald McDonald, see [points to a drawing of the clown] … They asked me five years ago to change the face and look of Ronald McDonald. They changed it a little. I’m known for clowns. The change was subtle.
M: Sorry, just so I understand, did you redesigned the face of Ronald McDonald for McDonalds?
T: Oui, in 2012.
Towards the end of the 80s I was too revolutionary for Paris. I didn’t work because the ideal was very different there at the time. Once I started working in London, Paris wanted me - they thought I was chic.
M: Why are you so drawn to clowns? Do you think clowns reflect your personality in any way?
T: I dont know, maybe a little – I love the circus and cartoons.
M: Clowns are quite complex and elusive, and I would say that you are too. The internet is always the best place to go when researching about someone’s life, but I found there’s hardly any written pieces about you. You felt quite enigmatic and mysterious, especially as your Instagram also gives nothing away.
T: This is true. Urgh… Instagram. It’s important now – I need to keep up with that.
M: I connect both you and Judy in a way that you were both underground and unconventional in your approach.
T: It’s true, I met Judy when I worked with him on Manchild with Neneh Cherry. He helped me a lot!
M: Buffalo Stance was the first CD I bought.
T: I did that, darling! Judy asked me to come to London. He loved the idea of the make-up artist coming from Paris to work with him. England gave me a chance. Towards the end of the 80s, I was too revolutionary for Paris. I didn’t work there because the ideal was very different. Once I started working in London, Paris wanted me – they thought I was chic. Judy called me to London because he wanted the girls to look interesting but still beautiful.
M: As the industry changes we have to play the game, be a brand, market ourselves and still re-invent the wheel on set. The expectations are different – how have you managed this?
T: It’s very hard, it’s true. People have questioned why I haven’t chased working for big beauty houses with make-up contracts but that’s not my taste. It’s not the reason I do it. I love imagery. I once worked with Guy Bourdain, it was a dream…horrible picture but I worked with him nonetheless. I have worked with a lot of great photographers but the problem was I never lived in America. I’m too European. I know it’s not for me and I don’t need to lose the time – there is a place for everybody. I don’t want to socialise because it’s not good for work. I don’t want to hashtag or advertise for anybody because that doesn’t feel right for me. I don’t want to do what I don’t want to do. I want to feel free for me – it’s really important at this stage. I prefer to eat nothing and be free.
M: Was there a moment when you felt you were able to start challenging beauty and ideals within editorial?
T: You see, when we all started working at the beginning, we were not aware of that – it was instinctual. It’s only much later you can see the influence it had.
M: Your make-up feels free from any historical reference – you flirt with subversion and humour. Do you think it’s been difficult to work within the framework of what the industry expects?
T: Every day is a challenge. [Laughs]
I do my drawings and I like to be prepared. For me my life is my reference. I don’t like to use computers. I have an iPad now, but people laugh as it took me years to get one. I didn’t have a phone either. People were screaming about me not having a phone but I didn’t want one.
M: Why didn’t you have a phone?
T: I don’t like them! People phone and they say, ‘Where are you?’… Where am I? You called me! They don’t ask how you are they just want to know where you are. Maxine, I can’t. It’s crazy!
One thing I hate about work now is that nobody engages with anything apart from their phones. And I don’t understand the selfies? Once you have taken a horrible picture on your phone and posted it before the job is published, what is the point? I look around on set and while the photographer is taking pictures, the whole team’s on their phones in the dark. No one is looking at the model or what’s going on. Come on! No one is concentrating! When you are being creative you need to communicate. How can you get a feeling of what you are doing if the team doesn’t communicate?
M: You have a reputation for being a rule breaker, an underground rebel. Has this been intentional and affected how your work is translated?
T: Always, but the problem is now everyone is a punk. It’s an overused word. Punk is inside you, it’s a lifestyle. For me Judy was a punk. I’ve always been this way. I try to do my best.
M: Your work is a combination of make-up, art and freedom. How instinctual is your work on set?
T: If it’s a make-up story, I always draw and prep. When photographers say, ‘You can be free’, for me I need something to work from and I like to think about what it is going to be. I need to know before so I can draw ideas. When I arrive I have my ideas. They can evolve but my prep is important.
M: Who’s been the most influential photographer you have worked with?
T: My influence comes from the whole team.
M: Did you enjoy working with the artists Pierre et Gilles?
T: A lot. I started in 1986, I worked with them around three months ago. I must have shot around 70 images with them. They are so sweet to work with.
M: Which photographer has most understood your work?
T: It’s hard to say because sometimes I have worked with a photographer and loved the results and never shot with them again!
M: It’s funny how that goes, isn’t it? I wanted to ask you about your kit, Topo. I know you prep with drawings, but is this why you can go to set with such an edited kit? I’ve heard rumours that your kit is on the small side.
T: It’s true. I have these small boxes I like to use. I take everything out of my kit and I look at what I need. I can do everything with this kit. Bases, eyeliner, greasy, natural, eyelashes, all in a small box. In the beginning, I was using this one… [Brings out box]
M: [Bursts out laughing] Topo, is that the box? It’s tiny, you are a magician!
T: This box is genius! People are screaming when they see this box! I have one with stars and my name on too. When I arrive with that I have a lot of problems. They say, ‘Where is your make-up?’ Darling, I can do everything from this!
The problem is now everyone is a punk. It’s an overused word. Punk is inside you, it’s a lifestyle.
M: So, when you go to a commercial job with this box – I’m trying to set the scene when hairdressers and stylists turn up with a hundred black suitcases – do you walk in with this box? And what do clients say?
T: [Laughs] I don’t carry these boxes now because they don’t understand, but when I started I did. Now I have this… [Drags out a small suitcase] This is my kit! Look, generally I use all that’s in here: Vaseline, Q-tips, lotion, cream to take off make-up, one mascara, my greasy black, one foundation, one powder, blush, base. Voila! You know the mother of Kim Kardashian?
M: Not personally, no.
T: When I did Kim’s make-up for the CR Fashion Book cover, I talked with Carine Roitfeld and they loved the idea of her with no make-up on. Really, no make-up. She is beautiful and her skin was gorgeous. I arrived to set with Vaseline, powder foundation and Q-tips.
M: She must have broken out in hives when she saw your edited kit! [Laughs]
T: You can’t believe it! She asked me what I was using and I said, ‘Not too much’. Kim asked me where I had set up and I said, ‘Here’ and she said, ‘You’re joking?’ and I said, ‘No’. She looked shocked! I used cream, terracotta, Vaseline, but no mascara. Nothing. One moment she asked Karl Lagerfeld, who was the photographer, ‘Please, can I have mascara?’ He said, ‘Not too much, a little, nothing more’.
I worked with her mother 6 months later and she said, ‘I remember you, you’re the make-up artist that works with nothing’. We both laughed.
People love the idea of the small box but when I arrive it throws them. I can do anything from the make-up box because I know how to work with my kit. You know something, if I lost the box on location or the bags didn’t arrive I could go to the supermarket and replace it all and still do the job.
You know I worked with Michael Jackson?
M: Stop it!
T: I worked with him for four days. It was long. In the beginning, when he arrived I started to do the make-up but it looked shit. I kept applying make-up but I said to him, ‘Ooh la la Michael, I have done the make-up shit. Can I take it off quickly and do it again?’ He said, ‘You’re the professional!’ I took everything off, did it again and it was better.
When I was alone with him in the make-up room I took with me a little radio. I turned it on and Kate Bush was playing. He stood up and started dancing right in front of me, swinging his hips to Kate Bush. I couldn’t believe it. I looked around and no one else was there – it was surreal. After his little dance, he sat down again and I continued like nothing had happened. I was totally shocked.
M: Do you feel there’s limited space now to create?
T: We don’t have enough magazines to create anymore – it’s changed a lot.
M: Is your work ever affected by politics?
T: Sometimes. I don’t vote though. It’s very bad, but in my work I try and translate how I feel, which feels political to me. I translate it in my own way. I feel it but I’m not a politically driven person. Fashion and politics are very similar to me.
M: Do you set yourself any boundaries?
T: It depends. Generally, yes, I do at work. When I arrive in the studio I hang my coat up and I lose my life and leave my problems on the coat hook. I am there to work and not to bring my problems to the studio. I don’t go to parties anymore. When I was younger I did, but now I’m older I keep myself to myself. When I was younger we would spend a week planning an outfit and getting ready.
M: Do you compromise?
T: In life you have to, but I don’t always like to. My desire is to be free but that is
M: What is beautiful to you?
T: Many things. I love it when you see an older couple together holding hands.
M: You’re a romantic?
T: Yes, I’m a romantic punk!
M: Who are your heroes?
T: I don’t have specific heroes but what I love are the people that follow their dreams and that are relentless with their cause. People that don’t give up.
M: What are your obsessions – apart from smoking?
T: It depends. I’m obsessed with detail.
M: What are your parting words to me, apart from goodbye?
T: Je ne sais pas.
M: [Laughs] That’s funny… ‘I don’t know’. Merci.
T: De rien.