A Chat with Ambika Pillai, Delhi

{Written from my verandah in New Delhi}

With a wave of her hand, Ambika Pillai deftly snips and snaps away strands of her client’s hair. She’s got a beaming smile – the sort that makes her face glow – instantly endearing her to anyone lucky enough to meet the Makeup Moghul of India’s fashion industry. From Valentino to Tarun Tahiliani, Ambika Pillai has created stunning looks for models, actresses, royalty… and even the everyday girl. With awards for Makeup Artistry from Vogue, Kingfisher, Cosmopolitan, and more gilding her mantelpiece, Ambika is inspiringly down-to-earth for someone who reigns as the only makeup artist in India to have worked on every single FDCI India Fashion Week. But right now her wild curls bob cheerfully, as she finishes blow-drying her client’s hair and invites me to chat in her office at her red and white South Delhi salon, where her team creates looks for 10,000 brides a year.

Nikita: I look at you as someone who had a passion, had a dream and built an empire of styling. What advice would you give to other girls who have big dreams?”

Ambika: I had a dream to be happily married with four kids, but that didn’t work out, so the dream actually gets you. Then it’s up to you to pursue that dream and make it work or not, and it’s never a bed of roses the path you’re going to tread. If you want to get to the top, the winding road up has thorns and you’ve got to be very, very careful…life is a struggle yaar, nothing comes easily. If you want to achieve big things – whether it’s time or willpower – you have to give life your 100 percent everything.

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Ambika Pillai crafts a haircut at her South Delhi salon

Nikita: Where did you find the strength and power within you to climb this mountain, past all the thorns and turns?

Ambika: I think it was the fact that I was married at 17, divorced at 23, and I had a baby. My baby was the main factor for me. I was born with a proverbial silver spoon in my mouth. I could have stayed under the umbrella of comfort under my father’s home, but I wanted to stand on my own two feet and show [my daughter] the life I had seen growing up, but on my own terms and time. There’s always something that grounds you, and for me that thing was that I was a mother.

Coming to Delhi as a young mother with a three year-old child was difficult while working nonstop, and so when [Kavitha] was in third grade I sent her home to my parents, and for the next nine years I gave it my all. I worked ridiculous timings; I took on great jobs but for weird money, most often [the jobs] were just for credits in magazines, for free. But it all added together eventually to build together this brand over the last 28 years.

At that time in Delhi we were the only ones, there wasn’t that much competition, but along the way it seems like everyone on earth realized what a great industry this is to be in. Today every housewife is a makeup artist. The clients know exactly what they want now, and that shows the trust that we’ve accumulated over 28 years. At this point, I’ve become like a family heirloom: I get passed on from one member to the next member getting married. And that’s a blessing to me really because I love my job.

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Hair & Makeup by Ambika Pillai

 

Nikita: You’ve had the chance to work with some very interesting people over the years, some very big names starting with Miss World/ Bollywood actress, Aishwarya Rai. Is there anyone in particular who really stands out as memorable to work with?

Ambika: That’s a no brainer actually because even though I’ve worked with practically everybody in the fashion industry – not just the stars, I’m talking every single model and designer – it has to be Sachin Tendulkar. When I was called in to do his makeup and hair, I practically dropped everything on earth: I’m a huge fan of his. I can’t even begin to tell you… I nearly swooned and fell on his lap, and I’ve never felt that way about anyone. I even told him, ‘Sachin if I swoon and fall onto you, please forgive me,’ and he replied, ‘You’re adorable.’

He’s…I mean come on, he’s Sachin Tendulkar… I have a lot of respect for sport stars, but I don’t know what it is about Sachin, but he’s got magic about him. I love Sachin Tendulkar.

Nikita: Name me one more?

Ambika: Meeting Valentino in Italy was huge for me. I was doing the Saudi Arabian Princess’ bridal makeup and she was wearing a Valentino wedding gown. Valentino obviously wanted to meet the makeup artist, so I flew down to Rome for exactly 18 hours to do the Princess’ makeup and for Valentino to check it out. I’m not a Bollywood person; fashion is my passion – and so in the fashion world to meet an icon like Valentino… that was icing on the cake for me. Valentino and Sachin, these have to be the big ones for me.

But, you know what? It’s not the stars or the models that really tickle me; it’s the normal kid who walks off the street into my salon for their bridal makeup or haircut. When I transform a normal kid into a stunning beauty and see the look on their face that says ‘Oh my god I can look like this?’ that makes me happier than an Aishwarya telling me ‘oh that’s lovely makeup’ because they are used to looking beautiful, it’s their job to look gorgeous. But for the normal kid to transform into a mind-blowing beauty, that’s something else.

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Ambika Pillai with Aishwariya Rai

 

Nikita: You’re like every kid’s fairy godmother!

Ambika: So I’ve been told!

Nikita: But going back to designers, do you like it when designers tell you what look they want for a show or are you more of a freewheeling artist when it comes to makeup and hair?

Ambika: The designers always know exactly what they want; they’ve made the clothes after all. I like it when they have a structured look in mind. They just tell me, ‘Ambika this is the look I want, please work on it, elaborate or cut down on it.’ It’s nice to have a guideline from a designer. However, there are a lot of flooseball designers around who have no clue what they want. When I say guideline I do not mean pull out a picture of the last Dior show and point at it.

If a designer was to tell me their theme is of say, an international traveller, I can wrap my mind around their feelings and story, and give them a look that they’d want. When I hear traveller, I think a healthy looking suntan, some out-of-the-bed messy curls. No one travelling’s going to have structured hair or a red mouth or stuff like that…I’d think more a lovely bitten, stained mouth… [She muses] Then I get my thought process in line with the designer’s thinking and we come up together to create a perfect look for [their show.] Most people, I’m sorry to say, just pull out a picture from a magazine and then of course we just replicate that, but that doesn’t get my juices going as much as creating a look for a certain designer.

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Ambika Pllai at Rohit Bal’s Fashion Show in Kochi

Nikita: What’s been your favorite look that you’ve created for a designer?

Ambika: Oh, there’ve been hundreds! There are some designers who really get my creative juices flowing: Manish Malhotra, Rohit Bal, J.J Valaya, Sabyasachi … and now there’s a whole new crop of designers that has come up.

But I have to say my coolest, most stunning looks have to be for Manish Arora and Gudda, I mean, Rohit Bal. Rohit came up with Karma Sutra and I created the sexiest look for him. Then Ashish Soni told me, ‘Ambika, my girls are travelling from here to across the mountains and they’re in this frozen, cold place… and she’s just dipped her face into ice-cold water, thrown her hair back, and she’s frozen. That’s the look.’ And the look we created for him was just mind-blowing.

And then of course Manish Arora said, “I want everyone to be bald.” [she laughs] We had models like Monika Chatterjee who have hair till their waist, and I told him “What do you mean you want everyone to be bald?” But we created these sequins skullcaps for them, it was beautiful: when [the models] walked in with sequined heads, people went crazy: they lost their minds over them! It was awesome. These were some of the yesteryears looks I created for senior designers that I just loved.”

Nikita: Is there a show you look forward to the most in a year?

Ambika: Nothing beats those beautiful individual couture shows that designers used to do earlier where the audience would sit down and the show would be out of the world. Today everything feels more prêt, more straightforward…every designer shows their collection on the same platform. There are five thousand “Weeks” of fashion now: bridal, fashion, and prêt… I’ve been doing hair and makeup for this industry since the first edition of India Fashion Week in 1999, from when Rohit Khosla was designing, and done it every year since.

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Ambika Pillai creates an elaborate hairdo at L’Oréal Fashion Show

Nikita: Kavitha was saying you want to move to Kerala?

Ambika: Yes, I want to grow my own vegetables and raise cows and whatever in Kerala, that’s my eventual plan, but right now I’m still going mad working! [She laughs]. I’m 53 years now and someday I want to take a backseat. The apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree though: Kavitha works with the same drive as me. In terms of shows, I used to think that no one could work at the speed that I do. I take four minutes for face and seven minutes for hair, and I thought no one could break that, but Kavi works at that speed. Recently we did a show in Bombay and there were 125 girls and Kavi singlehandedly did 85 models back to back. And that’s no joke. Temperamentally, she’s doesn’t let things get to her. If a girl walks in late I’ll bite her head off, but Kavi? She’ll probably just ignore her the rest of the day. I talk over the top; Kavi doesn’t talk much. But when it comes to makeup we are the same: time, precision, mentality…I’ve taught probably 200 makeup artists in my career, and she’s one of them, but she’s creamed it. It’s in her blood.

Nikita: Is it like being a storyteller and creating character for the show?

Ambika: No, no! It’s easy to do one beautiful face and just sit back and say ‘wow.’ Doing a show is hard: you’ve got 180 girls and you’ve got to make them look identical. You know why designers want the same look? Because they want the attention to be on the clothes, not the girls, so they can’t all have different hairdos or anything. After the first five girls have gone through and the audience has said, ‘Wow, she looks stunning,’ they need to focus on the clothes so that’s why all the girls’ look is the same.

Now for couture shows you could do much more, because each outfit is something grand and unique. But for prêt shows the girls need to look the same for sure. For prêt you’re stupid if you do different looks. If a designer was to tell me something elaborate for each girl for a prêt show I’d give him two slaps and say, “Keep quiet it’s a prêt show.’ Sometimes they think like Jean Paul Gaultier but they’re making some garbage and I have to tell them, “I’m sorry but the look that you’re talking about and the clothes…they just do not go hand in hand.’ It’s up to me to put a stop to this. At this point I’ve been in the industry for so long that every designer in the industry will ask, ‘What does Ambu have to say? What does Ambu want?’ They all actually take my advice and input for their shows. Whether it’s Sabyasachi or Tarun Tahiliani or Rohit Bal, I don’t think there’s a single designer who would overrule what I have to say.

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Ambika Pillai with Sushmita Sen and Rohit Bal

Nikita: I believe that you’re also a writer; you’ve just come out with a book?

Ambika: I’ve written a few short stories, which are on their way to getting published, but my book on makeup secrets is only out in Malayalam right now. But even the Mallus are saying, “Why is it only written in Malayalam? We can’t even read it!” But it’ll be coming out other languages soon.

Nikita: That’s something to look forward to! So do you have any beauty tips you could share with #nikitalyfe today?

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Such an honor chatting with Ambika!

Ambika: The key to looking beautiful is just taking care of the basics first: keep your skin, hair, and scalp clean and healthy. If someone asks for a tip on an amazing smoky eye look when they’ve got pimples all over…it’s just ridiculous; take care of the healthy basics first. My belief is that if you do not know how to take off makeup, do not put on makeup.

Nikita: That’s a pretty good slogan to live by.

Ambika: As far as an evening look goes, it’s the same world over: dark on the eyes, light on the mouth or light on the eyes, dark on the mouth. Keep closest to your skin tone with foundation. The days you don’t want to use foundation just use translucent powder; an even skin tone is always the goal. I’m not a fan of a lot of foundation, but I believe in beautiful, clear translucent skin. Moisturize, cleanse, get a trim for your hair every two months, and definitely get a nice hot oil hair massage once a week. These are the few golden rules for hair, makeup, and beauty.

Nikita: Is there any look you love these days?

Ambika: My mantra is “Be Comfortable”. It shows when you’re not comfortable in your own skin. Wear your look the way your inner being calls out for it. It’s very scary when someone puts on graphic liner because smoky eyes are in and their eye shape just does not call for it… oof it’s scary. Go for mascara and a strong mouth instead, a lovely red, a vivid orange for summer, or plum for winter: those are so alive!

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India’s Makeup Maestro at her salon

Nikita: So we started this interview discussing dreams, so let’s end with it too: what is your dream now? At 53 years?

Ambika: Everyone’s got some skin or beauty problem that’s a constant thorn in his or her side now. I’ve got 7.5 lakh people on my Facebook page and they keep telling me their problems so my dream now is to get my line of products to help each and every person at home. And then I’m going to Kerala and buying my cows or something.

We conclude our conversation as Ambika’s next client comes in – another Delhi socialite – and her phone pings to remind her to check-in for her flight to Malaysia tonight. She gives me her winning smile as she poses for a final photo, leaning against the reception desk at this corner of her empire of styling. It’s monsoon weather outside in New Delhi, but as I splash through the flooded streets, I too feel touched by the magic of Ambika Pillai.

 

Author: Nikita Taimni

A Dubai-based blogger, I write about travel, theatre and lifestyle in the cities I explore around the world. Follow me on Instagram @nikitalyfe and follow via email if you enjoy reading my posts!

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