Julie Verhoeven’s creativity cannot be contained. Not even her hair can be categorised as one style. Erotic Troile de Jouy wallpaper, delicately gothic book illustrations, madcap snakeskin rainbow appliques for Marc Jacobs, perfume packaging, glittering windows for Liberty or Bergdorf, hallucinogenic animations and monumental installations colliding bum and boob filled videos, performance, sound collages and towering piles of sculpture formed from a riot of reclaimed trash, pound shop treasure and technicolor textiles.
Interview and Photography
For Issue Six BIG Julie and photographer Annie Collinge continued their ongoing exploration of the self portrait. We chatted to the artist in her studio about prettiness, ugliness, DIY, piling it on and stripping it back.
Beauty Papers: Julie, when did you start putting makeup on?
Julie Verhoeven: It was early. I don’t know … I must have been ten or something. I remember my Dad was upset, he wasn’t too keen. Then I got into trouble at school. I remember being fascinated with watching my Mum putting her makeup on. She had this dark blue eyeshadow that went on.
BP: Gorgeous. How did she apply it?
JV: Just with her finger. It was very brutal, really. I was like… you know when a cat stares at you [mimes staring like a cat] She said, “One day I’ll give it to you, but it won’t be for years.” I remember it was Day Glow, because it was the eighties. Day Glow makeup was amazing.
BP: Would you say she applied her makeup badly?
JV: Probably, yes. As well as the eyes there was a Rimmel Strawberry Ice lipstick, and then a bit of powder but that was it. Maybe a bit of mascara. But I was just like, wow. I want that.
BP: Where did you used to go and buy your makeup?
JV: I think it was Barry M, from Superdrug.
BP: What was the makeup that your Dad seemed upset by?
JV: So my cousin Sally was very pretty. My Dad, he said “Oh, she’s started wearing lipstick.” He thought she was wearing lipstick too early, then he looked me and saw that I had on a full face of makeup. He was very tolerant though. I looked such a sight, but he would never say anything.
BP: Describe it for me. The face.
JV: Sort of piling on foundation, when obviously you don’t need it at that age, right? So that was white. Creamy. For quite a while I did a solid rectangle black eyebrow, really hideous. What else? The Day Glow, which was very exciting.
BP: Have you always worn makeup since then?
JV: I’ve always worn it. I couldn’t leave the house without it, ever.
BP: Do you enjoy putting your makeup on?
JV: Hmm. I don’t know if I enjoy it, it’s just a necessity isn’t it. No, I don’t enjoy it.
BP: You wear it everyday so you must have the routine finely tuned?
JV: It’s fairly quick. But I have to be careful not to get complacent so I have to keep mixing and changing colours. I obviously have a look… But you see it with people, when they were young they had their look and then they retain it as they get older. I hope I’m not gonna become that. I have to keep on my toes.
BP: Your makeup doesn’t really look like anything or anybody else. Is it a look that you worked?
JV: It’s just dealing with your face, isn’t it? There are many things I’d like to do that I can’t do with it, obviously.
BP: Because of technique… or because of your face?
JV: Because of my face. I’m very jealous of people who’ve got heart shaped faces. Sometimes I get over those issues and think oh I’ll just do it anyway. Pretend I’ve got cheekbones, things like that.
"I remember being fascinated with watching my Mum putting her makeup on. She had this dark blue eyeshadow that went on. Just with her finger. It was very brutal, really."
BP: What was the first step into the creative world? I’ve heard you talk about not necessarily having the intellectual training, but I know that you did evening classes?
JV: Yeah, I did loads. I’ve studied drawing, I took that seriously.
BP: What was the journey? You were a teenager and now you’re here…
JV: So I left school at sixteen, wanted to do something with fashion but didn’t know what. At that time I couldn’t do a foundation, I was too young, so I did a fashion diploma. That was like two years. I applied to do a BA at St. Martins, but I didn’t get in.
BP: Me neither.
JV: Didn’t you? Aw, fabulous.
BP: I cried for a week, and then I couldn’t listen to Pulp’s Common People for about two years.
JV: I don’t know many people that haven’t got in, do you know what I mean? It’s weird isn’t it. Maybe people don’t admit to it or something. Who cares!
BP: We should make badges. What was the backup when you didn’t get into St. Martins?
JV: I hadn’t got one. I must have been that cocky. [Laughter] So then I got a student placement at John Galliano when he was in London. I managed to hang on in there on the placement and then reapply the next year for the four year course instead. Didn’t get into that. So I trained on the job basically, and then I did all the evening classes and summer schools.
BP: Why did Galliano give you a chance?
JV: Initially, there was like hoards of students, so it was like tumbleweed, part of the flock. Then they all fell away and I was just very subservient. [Laughter] I was. I was a total drip, really.
BP: So you didn’t blaze a trail into that office?
JV: Not at all, no. It was a very slow drip feed, because I was shy but I was very diligent. Then I was doing Howard Tangye’s evening classes, Saturday classes, summer schools. He’s very close with John [Galliano]. We had a connection. So in the little cutting area at Galliano I started to put drawings up that I done from the classes, which was very brazen.
BP: I love that contradiction of being so subservient but then being brazen enough to put your work up.
JV: Well that was the only thing I was sort of semi-confident with. I remember thinking I need to get better at this because this is what I might get attention from. It’s so pathetic.
BP: I don’t think it’s pathetic.
JV: It is, you should be able to just shout and be confident.
BP: Have you always maintained a fashion practice and an art practice?
JV: I’d say it’s only the last twelve years or so I’ve had more an art practice as such, whereas previously I was just making work for pleasure.
BP: So in the early days was fashion the goal rather than art?
JV: I didn’t really think about it. I just thought, this is where I can get work… Just attack and see how long this will last, and then it was a sort of natural progression, I suppose. That sounds very wanky, ‘dunnit?
BP: Where did the interest in Fashion come from? What was the moment that it appeared on the horizon?
JV: I just always liked dressing up. As a child I changed my clothes several times a day. I don’t know, I just took pleasure in clothes.
BP: Was that encouraged?
JV: Yeah. Well my Dad always said he got twins because he always thought there were two of us.
BP: Were fashion magazines in the house?
JV: Oh god, no. I had to save up to buy Vogue. So that started. My Mum was always interested in clothes. I remember my parents had friends, and these friends gave me a copy of French Vogue, when I was like eight years old or something. It was full of Helmut Newton photographs.
BP: Perfect for an eight year old.
JV: I know! They were friends who didn’t have children. You know what I mean when you get the age thing totally wrong. [Laughter] I was like oh my god, what is this? It was the late seventies, so they were full on sexy shoots, and I thought this is amazing, totally amazing. Then I bought this Vogue book of covers from 1919-50. That had a huge impact on me. I remember getting that from WHSmiths. The V&A put on a denim exhibition which I thought was really good. So it all sort of started to snowball at that age.
BP: You’re signed with CLM, a huge agency, and you’ve worked with some of the biggest names in the industry, but you also maintain an approach and an aesthetic very much in opposition to a lot of what the fashion industry prescribes. Do you feel like an insider or an outsider?
JV: I do feel like an outsider, but happy to be outside. Even when I was in the thick of it, in my early thirties or something, I was just unhappy. I thought oh, this is such a nonsense fuss over a fashion show. People taking themselves too seriously. So I just got on with it, but I was so uncomfortable in that scenario. I don’t know why, I just don’t really like fashion shows.
BP: You have an iconic personal style. You said as a kid you were always dressing up and changing clothes. Was there a point where you felt like that look coming together?
JV: There was a moment about ten years ago, when somebody made a comment. They said something like “you are your work,” or “you look like your work.” I know it sounds absurd but I hadn’t even realised. Oh yeah. Suddenly everything became much easier.
BP: When did John Vial start doing your hair?
JV: I think it was about eight years ago.
BP: Had you done DIY hair before that?
JV: In my late teens I’d saved up and was trying extensions, stuff like that. Then there were the barren years when it was just sort of long and I’d dye it badly. Then in the years just prior to meeting him, it was sort of DIY, but I was always so annoyed with it. I didn’t wanna spend hundreds of pounds I was a tight arse. Also, the hairdresser thing, they have to totally understand you don’t they? It’s a horrible thing to say but you know when you’re trying to do a hairdo that’s sort of taking the piss?
BP: Yeah, it requires a certain taste level or aesthetic sophistication. How do you feel with John in the salon?
JV: I’m not crazy on the mirror, but I just don’t look. With John now we go in on a Sunday so it’s just the two of us. All the tactile bit is lovely, isn’t it?
BP: And the smells of a salon… you can never achieve that at home.
JV: No. It’s real bliss. I was never keen on the basin moment, though.
BP: The masochism bit.
JV: Yeah, yeah. It’s so undignified. [Laughter]
BP: I think that’s where the S&M salon experience sits though, that you are being lavished but then you have to have that bit of torture.
JV: They get their revenge.
"I do feel like an outsider, but happy to be outside. Even when I was in the thick of it, in my early thirties or something, I was just unhappy. I thought oh, this is such a nonsense fuss over a fashion show. People taking themselves too seriously."
BP: Have you ever been particularly bothered about towing the line of prettiness?
JV: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
BP: I feel that your work challenges other peoples’ perceptions of beauty, of prettiness. I think that your shoot in the magazine does that. Do you feel that you have to challenge your own perceptions of beauty… the rules?
JV: Yeah all the time, because it’s always in flux isn’t it?
BP: How do you do that?
JV: Well it’s that old chestnut of things of things coming in and out of fashion. You know I’d hate to think that I’ve missed something. I know that sounds awful … Or that I’m producing work that’s irrelevant. That makes it sound very grandiose, but I just feel that you need to keep looking ahead to find a new aesthetic all the time. Which is why now it’s quite a difficult moment on the beauty front, because it’s so saturated. So what’s next?
BP: Do you have any Mystic Meg predictions about what’s next?
JV: Hmm, I don’t know. Let’s hope it’s not too hippyish.
BP: What’s particularly distasteful about hippyish-ness for you?
JV: Well it’s fake isn’t it? It’s totally fake.
BP: Do you through artifice we can reveal more of a truth than through stripping?
JV: [Laughter] Sounds exciting! Yeah, yeah, yeah.
BP: Your shoot for this issue of Beauty Papers is a continuation of your collaboration with the photographer Annie Collinge?
JV: Yeah it is.
BP: How did the collaboration originally come about?
JV: Hmm, I’m not that sure to be honest. I think we ended up having mutual friends, and then I think it was a bit of a cold call!
BP: And did that cold call bare fruit because you’re quite an open collaborator, or was there something about Annie’s work that you connected with?
JV: I am a pretty open collaborator. It’s a horrible expression, open collaborator. [Laughter] Well you just know as soon as you meet somebody if it’s gonna work or not. As soon as I met her, I thought oh, I really like you. She’s so dry at times. And she knows what she wants but without shouting it. It’s just been really easy.
BP: When you work with Annie is there a plan?
JV: There’s a really loose plan. [Laughter]
BP: Loose and open [Laughter] With this one, because you’d already developed a language together, did you have an aim or was it just play time?
JV: No we did have an aim. The aim was to try and be kind of stark and unforgiving, because we were both really tired and over the heavy painted faces, the blah blah masquerade-y stuff. We wanted to try and have a dig at that contouring, where you’re supposed to look so natural. Then I just thought it’d be funny to attempt to lose my identity i.e. my hair and makeup and just expose myself for the sheer horror. It was my own issue but we couldn’t go far enough because I’d always pull something in, but we got quite stark-ish on the way.
BP: Was that stressful?
JV: No, no. It was pleasurable, in a weird way. Once you get over the fact that you’re gonna look shit, then it doesn’t matter does it? I totally trust Annie.
BP: When you collaborate do either of you at any point feel like it’s going too far?
JV: Annie probably does. [Laughter]
BP: Do you egg her on?
JV: No I think it’s more the case that I overcompensate so I keep chucking things in and she’s a lot more controlled. She’s just more confident, I think, in the vision. But then the whole point is that we were trying to pare it down.
JV: Well what’s next? There’s something about being anonymous, that would be quite nice I think. Sort of as if you’ve taken an eraser and you rubbed it over your face. You would just arrive like that. Blank.
BP: It’s interesting with ‘Instagram makeup’, it’s quite different to ‘fashion makeup’ in that a lot of social media make up is about this process of you erasing your face, and then painting something else back in place. And in fashion the response has been lots of stripping away. But then that’s created a new cliche where it’s all about a raw skin and a little touch and you can’t go too far because it’s not the done thing. Working in fashion there seem to be so many rules. I’m interested in how you operate within the fashion world and the art world, both of which are a minefield of rules, etiquette and politics.
JV: I think with the fashion thing I sort of understand the rules better, and I’ve managed to operate in the past within those parameters. But now less so. Then art: I’m beginning to learn how multi-layered that is, as far as absurd rules and regs and snobbery. It used to really bother me, and now I love it because I feel I can use it in my work because it’s so entertaining how restrictive it all is when it’s supposed to be about self expression and doing whatever you want. There’s all this hidden language going on, which is why I’m happy that I wasn’t art trained academically.
BP: Your work at Frieze where you became a toilet attendant is a brilliant synthesis of that.
JV: Yeah, I mean I’ve always been fascinated by toilets. Often I might have an idea and I don’t really see initially what’s dodgy about it, until later. It’s a weird sort of naivety. I know it sounds ridiculous, but I thought oh that’ll be really funny, and then the deeper I got into it I realised that actually I am poking, poking at the art. It does make me upset that there’s that extreme wealth.
BP: There’s quite a circus like aspect to some of those art fairs, just like there is at Fashion Week.
JV: Yeah totally. I just think both of them got totally out of hand. It feels like, well what’s next? Something has to change now. It’s just got extreme.
"I think it’s nice to highlight things that are less palatable. I mean, who makes up these rules? I think there’s something attractive about weakness of some description."
BP: Would you call your art practice DIY?
JV: Sadly, yes. I mean I wish it wasn’t but I lack patience, I lack skills – making skills. So it’s just ended up DIY by default. I feel I can create a lot of work with it. But now I’m like oh my god, I need to be a lot more minimal. Now I feel a change is in the air.
BP: Will you navigate that change through experimentation?
JV: I don’t really know yet. Although I feel like I wanna start again, but that’s quite normal, isn’t it?
BP: Your show at ICA ‘Whiskers Between my Legs’ was extraordinary. They way you totally transformed The Reading Room into this otherworldly grotto.
JV: It was quite random, it came through Gregor Muir, who was the director at the time, and he actually used to be friends with my brother. That’s how I met him.
BP: I like Gregor’s book Lucky Kunst. It was a really fun read.
JV: He’s a great guy. So they have that really awkward space, The Reading Room, which they previousy had quite academic shows in. I think he just wanted to try and do something different for Christmas – as it was – cringe. The brief was left pretty open. I just thought, I’ve gotta fill this. I’ve got to just throw everything in, because I might never have a show again. So I went with that mindset, I thought just put everything in, and just give it everything. That felt nice.
BP: Did you plan the installation or did you just take as much material as possible?
JV: I just kept making stuff, thinking, I haven’t got enough stuff, I haven’t got enough stuff. Then through shooting video for the installation, I made a lot of stuff – lots of props and things. I started off with a more restrained plan, but then you get in there and it just needed more layers.
BP: I loved the fact that it felt like it was tiny yet hugely expansive. It was impossible to tell where it began and ended, which was really joyful. Was making it joyful or stressful?
JV: No, it was really joyful.
BP: Is art a joyful practice for you?
JV: Yeah, or the alternative is miserable, because if I’m not doing it I just get so grumpy. Which I’ve only just recently realised – that that’s why I get grumpy. I moan about everything, but then once I get into it and get the momentum going, it’s lovely.
BP: How do you get the engine going? Do you have any tricks or rituals?
JV: I have to have loud music.
BP: Do you think that your work is camp?
JV: Yeah, absolutely.
BP: How does that make you feel?
JV: I love camp, evidently. I’ve got a really wonderful camp book somewhere, it’s really nice. Do you know it? It’s got a pink cover.
BP: Camp is so tricky because when you try to start to talk about it, it disappears, it’s very hard to grapple with. Were you aware of camp or were you camp and then became self aware?
JV: I think more the latter, but you’re totally oblivious to that, aren’t you? And you wonder why people are laughing.
BP: I believe camp comes from empathy.
JV: That’s nice. There’s definitely a warmth, isn’t there. I think.
BP: What about ugliness? I feel like you find beauty in certain things that other people think are really hideous.
JV: Yeah, absolutely. I think it’s nice to highlight things that are less palatable. I mean, who makes up these rules? I think weaknesses… there’s something attractive about a weakness of some description. I’m not setting out to be especially provocative. I just get bored looking at the same faces. The same proportions. But equally I use that in my work because I understand what can be aesthetically pleasing for the masses, so I like to enjoy playing with that in a way. If you want to reel somebody in then you work with a different set of proportions.
BP: Do you feel like within fashion your work is prettier?
JV: Yeah, because however much people say they want such and such, they always really want something pretty. I suppose that sells, doesn’t it?
BP: Does that mean you get to enjoy a different side of your taste, or does it feel like a compromise?
JV: I don’t know. It’s fine because I like a brief. I like working within constraints. You have to work a bit harder at it to achieve something that’s not too cliched.
BP: I do love a cliche though.
JV: Yeah, me too. I like a contradiction as well. I had a student walk out once because she said I was full of contradictions. Which is true, but you don’t need to walk out, do you?
"I like a visual pun. I think I was always quite embarrassed about liking humour. It’s a bit stupid isn’t it? With toilets for instance… a lot of people are very sensitive about, you know, going to the toilet."
BP: The juvenile streaker that runs through your work… Where does it come from?
JV: Oh, I dunno.
BP: Does it come from comedy?
JV: Yeah, I like a visual pun. I think I was always quite embarrassed about liking humour. It’s a bit stupid isn’t it? With toilets for instance… a lot of people are very sensitive about, you know, going to the toilet. [Laughter] It’s so ripe, I can barely touch the surface.
BP: Are there any comedians you like?
JV: Derek and Clive, Peter Cook, Spike Milligan. Who else? Reeves and Mortimer from the early days.
BP: The juvenile streaker, the DIY, the maximalism… do you think they can be a barrier for people accepting your work? Do you use them as a form of protection?
JV: I suppose yes … I like to hide, hide in it. Because with humour then you don’t really have to have a normal conversation, so that’s quite good. The irony… I don’t like talking about myself. [Laughter] She says going on about herself.
BP: But you have to go on about yourself, because I’ve asked you to.
JV: Uh huh. I just like to listen to people, I like to watch people, but I don’t really want to talk about myself, because I find it a very unattractive trait. So humour helps with that, because then you can divert and then with creating a lot of stuff, again I feel I can just bury myself in it. I like that.
BP: Do you think that it stops people from taking you seriously, and if it does, does that bother you?
JV: Oh I don’t know. Yeah, good point. It probably is not helping matters.
BP: And are you bothered by that?
JV: Not anymore. I used to be, but now as I feel I’m on my way out … [Laughter]
BP: Oh gosh. Where? [Laughter]
JV: Sorry. As I’ve come up the hill, now I can see the end. I’m not being melodramatic, it feels really good. I’m really happy being this age. I’m like, I’ve only got this amount of time left. This is my own stupid logic. I’ve always been aware of time and thinking that I’ve got so much to do but now I can’t take in any consideration about all these other things, I just have to get on with what I’m doing because I haven’t got long to do it. I just have to do what feels right, and you just have to hope that it connects with somebody.
BP: And so have you found a sense of freedom?
JV: I’m definitely going down, I’m cycling downhill.
BP: Right now what do you think is beautiful?
JV: My cat. [Laughter] I don’t really like the word, for starters.
BP: What’s a word you prefer?
JV: Tasty. [Laughter]
BP: Who do you find tasty?
JV: That’s a big ask. Hmm. Oh God. That’s a tricky question. I like Frank Zappa. He’s tasty. I like big features. I like cumbersome features.
BP: Did you like Frank as a teen?
JV: No, I was totally oblivious to him.
BP: Did you have a pin up when you were a teen?
JV: Phil Oakey. I loved him. I liked Marilyn too. Both Monroe and Boy George’s Marilyn.
BP: You’ve got the Tin Man on the wall right now.
JV: Yeah, he’s lovely isn’t he?
BP: I always identified most with the Wicked Witch. She’s my fave.
JV: Yeah I like her too. I liked the Child Catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
BP: I found the Child Catcher actually quite sexually appealing as a child.
JV: Me too, it was all a bit wrong wasn’t it.