Ever had one moment that changed the course of your life? Well, one encounter with one lady shaped the future of makeup artist, Anne Kohlhagen. From living it up in San Francisco during the dot-com boom, to waiting tables, to shooting her first cover of international Vogue, Anne has a story or two to share...
Do you remember your first week in New York?
I do because that was the week the huge blackout happened on the east coast in 2003. I was living in Bushwick, which wasn’t awesome back then. I got to meet all the neighbors though; everyone was trying to eat everything from their fridges so we all had a big BBQ.
There were huge lines at Bodegas to get those candles with the saints on them, our apartment was filled with them and it was creeping me out trying to go to sleep with these saints looking at me.
What brought you to New York?
I had always wanted to live in New York. After I graduated college I had randomly met a girl from San Francisco on a train on the way from Rome to Venice. We kept in touch and she said she thought I would like it out there. I ended up buying a one-way ticket to San Francisco, and stayed there for 5 years.
There was still something in me that needed to come to New York, so I moved here.
Had you ever been to New York before?
Was it what you expected?
It was different, and overwhelming. I have to admit; I didn’t really like it here for probably the first 3 years. It was a very love/hate relationship.
Most of my friends from San Francisco actually ended up moving here which made a difference, when you have that family base it changes everything. I never wanted to throw in the towel though; I was very determined to be a New Yorker.
How did you become a make-up artist, is that what you did in San Francisco?
No, I had a million different jobs in San Francisco. I moved there right at the heart of the dot-com boom. They were just giving jobs away! I landed a graphic design job, and I remember my parents saying, “This is not real, this doesn’t happen, this isn’t something that can last”.
Companies were giving away cars and huge signing bonuses, there were parties every week, and our company trip was to Hawaii. I was young and thought I knew better than my parents, but of course it all came crashing down.
As a graphic designer I couldn’t get a job anywhere. All my friends were laid off because we were all working for various start-ups. I started waiting tables while I figured out what I wanted to do.
I did a short stint at the Fashion Institute of Design, thinking I wanted to be a fashion designer but realized I hated sewing. [Laughs] At the restaurant I was working in I started working a bit as a dessert chef and a line chef. Nothing was really sinking in. I started painting, and for a while that was all I was doing. I would show in the gallery circuit with other new artists.
I thought if I wanted to be an artist I needed to be in New York. My first job here was in retail. I was so lost.
A girl came into the store I was working at and she flat out said “girl, you look miserable here”. [Laughs] I said, “I am”. We got to talking, we had a lot of common interests and she was a make-up artist trainer for MAC Cosmetics. She said I should come and work for MAC, and she gave me the name of someone to talk to.
I never thought I would get hired because I’d never done make-up. I brought my painting portfolio with me to the interview. The woman who interviewed me saw that I knew about color, and how to use brushes and she hired me on the spot. It was a temporary hire for the holiday season at the MAC counter at Macy’s in Herald Square.
That place was a beast, but it was make-up boot camp, I touched about 50 faces per day, all different ethnicities, people from all over the world. I got a lot of hands on experience quickly; I fell in love with it.
I remember my first customer, a woman in her 50s, and she wanted a pencil eyeliner and that really scared me. I’d never touched an eyeball before! I asked her what her favorite color was, and she said green so I found this smoky green pencil. Thinking back, that color probably looked terrible on her, but I successfully put it on her and she bought it!
I watched people who worked there like a hawk and learned on the job. As I got more serious about it, I moved up in MAC and got to do some fashion shows. I worked for MAC for almost four years.
During one of the shows at fashion week I met a girl who asked me if I wanted to assist, I said of course because I was trying to move out of retail. She ended up calling me frantically at 9:30 one morning, her assistant hadn’t shown up to a job and she asked if there was any way I could get there. I hadn’t showered or anything, and I said I could be there in 20 minutes. I brushed my teeth and ran there. She liked my work and hired me as her assistant.
My big break came when I had assisted an artist called Frank B. from The Wall Group on a fashion show. He really liked me but couldn’t remember my name. The agency was trying to find me, and kept sending him all these Asian named girls hoping they were me. I don’t have an Asian name because I was adopted, and my last name is German.
Finally one day I show up at a job and he’s like “it’s you! I’ve been looking for you for a year”. We got to talking and I became his second assistant. I was working for him every week, and through those kinds of connections you meet more people, do bigger shows and travel. I eventually worked on Pat McGrath’s team, and got signed to an agency.
Wow! That’s an amazing journey. At what point did you feel like you found what you wanted to do?
It happened right away. Probably once I wasn’t afraid of touching people’s faces and eyeballs.
What do you enjoy most about it, and what are you next goals?
I love that every job is different and I get to travel. I would love to eventually have my own brand, to be the key artist on more fashion shows and to work more in Europe.
Obviously I would also love a cosmetic contract, which is every make-up artists dream.
Last Friday I just shot my first Vogue cover, for a foreign Vogue.
Oh my god, that is amazing!
I’m really excited about that, it comes out in December. It’s a rite of passage.
Stepping back, would you mind talking about being adopted?
Not at all. My parents couldn’t have children, and were living in Minnesota at the time. They kept meeting people who had adopted children specifically from Korea. It was the mid-70s and Korea had opened the floodgates for adoption.
It was not socially acceptable to have children out of wedlock there. Someone I met through work was telling me there was a train station in Korea that she was left at when she was little. A lot of children were left there.
My story is different; I was born at a home for unwed mothers that was tied to a Christian adoption association. My parents, who are religious, went through this agency to get me. It took them about 5 years. I came over on a plane with 14 other Korean babies. I was four months old.
Your parents must have been over the moon!
They were so excited; the whole family was there to meet me.
Do you have any connection to Korea, have you ever been?
No, but it’s on my bucket list.
Did you ever have any desire to find out who your birth parents were?
I went through a phase in junior high school, the angsty teenage girl phase. You know, when you reject everything?
I think I would have to actually go over there now to find out the real story. A lot of the time all that was written on the paper work was ‘abandoned’ because it was the fastest way to get babies out for adoption. I have met people who have gone back to find their birth parents. I don’t feel like I need that though, I’m so close to my family.
You and your husband live in Williamsburg, do you have any favorite spots in the area?
I love this Thai place called Sage, the noodles are so good. Zona Rosa is amazing for a good happy hour and snacks. The watermelon margaritas are great.
Norman’s Kill is a place my husband and I love to go to, it’s a whiskey bar that also does gourmet grilled cheeses.
What is the best piece of advice you can give?
Never give up on your goal, no matter how dire the situation or how hard it seems. In New York you can be swimming up stream a lot of the time, so drive is the most important thing.
What is your favorite place to take out-of-towners?
Upstate, out of town! People often think Manhattan and Brooklyn is all New York has to offer, but it’s so beautiful upstate. We love the Catskills and Phoenicia. There is a diner there that is really popular.
Do you have a favorite New York moment?
Seeing an Irish Wolfhound across the street from a Teacup Yorkie, they met in the middle and touched noses. [Laughs] I remember thinking that everyone can get along here!
What does New York mean to you?
Possibilities. I still get wide eyed when I think of New York.
Learn more about Anne at annekohlhagen.net