“I’m just a natural enhancer” – Carl Ray on makeup, Michelle Obama and his love for women

As Michelle Obama’s much-anticipated documentary lands on Netflix, her make-up artist of 11 years Carl Ray spoke to Zara Korutz in a candid interview.

Carl Ray has a quiet and confident demeanour that doesn’t beg for the spotlight. Yet, as an artist, he paints the faces of powerful and celebrated women who put his work centre stage. His first muse was his mum Ann Paige, but his most famous muse is former First Lady Michelle Obama. In his role as make-up artist, Carl was by her side during two White House administrations, photoshoots, press and public appearances, and book tour – now documented in behind-the-scenes Netflix film ‘Becoming’.

Carl Ray has a prolific artistic style with brush strokes that aim to enhance the natural beauty of a woman. His reputation led him to work with the likes of United States Supreme Court Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elana Kagan, former United States Secretary of State Madeline Albright, Queen Rania of Jordan, Melinda Gates, Meryl Streep, Natalie Portman, Diane Von Furstenberg and Stella McCartney.

The make-up artist grew up in a military family and moved regularly as a child. Born on Andrews Airforce Base near Washington, D.C., he relocated to Italy as a baby, followed by Morocco, Puerto Rico and, finally, Virginia Beach in the US.

On a sunny Saturday in early May, Carl was interviewed at his home in Washington, D.C. He reminisced about his White House days, and talked about life, passion and beauty.


Zara Korutz:  You have spent the past 11 years as former First Lady Michelle Obama’s make-up artist, and in her memoir Becoming, she describes you as “soft-spoken and meticulous”. How are you meticulous?

Carl Ray: I don’t know exactly what she meant when she said that, but I am meticulous in the sense that I want my make-up kit clean, organised. I am meticulous in the sense that I never want to be late and I’m always on time. I’m meticulous in the fact that I believe that manners go a very long way. I’d also like to say that I like a little pressure and I like to rise to the occasion.

ZK: Michelle Obama always looks stunning and has a fantastic sense of style. What can women learn from her sensibility?

CR: To be authentic to yourself. Authenticity is the number one thing. Look good, feel good. She is just authentic to herself.

ZK: You spent so many years in the White House. What is a special moment that you cherish?

CR: There are so many memories… too many to share them all. A few that stand out are the inaugurations, the balls, the dresses. It was the love and happiness. The state dinners [too] where we could do more with hair, make-up and clothing. Also, traveling around the world and representing America and being open to the cultural influences of those countries ­– like if we were in Cuba, then maybe a red lip, or in India a little extra eyeliner.

ZK: How did you learn to navigate high-profile events?

CR: We are going through kitchens, back rooms, back hallways, motorcades… It was a whole other world. I just went with the flow.

ZK: You are a very loyal person. What impact do you think that has on your career?

CR: I think it’s a huge part. Keeping someone else’s private life private is important.

ZK: You’ve done a lot of magazine covers. Which is your favourite?

CR: I have. I’ve done [American] Vogue twice with Annie Leibowitz. And many others like Essence and Elle. Elle is my favourite because I like her [Michelle Obama’s] look. It’s after the administration and she has a great vibe.

ZK: What is it like to have an on-location photoshoot with the Vogue team in the White House?

CR: To work with Vogue was always a goal and it was a career highlight to be able to work with top industry people. It was exciting and there was a buzz in the air.

ZK: What does success feel like?

CR: It feels like I’ve followed my passion, followed my heart and I’ve been able to do what I love. To me, that is success.

ZK: Living in all of those places as a child, how do you think those experiences shaped you?

CR: It opened up my eyes to the differences of the world – cultures, climates and customs. There was no normal. It opened my eyes up without even knowing it.

ZK: Growing up you were an athlete. You were training for the U.S. Jr. Olympics swimming team, is that right?

CR: Yes, I started swimming as a young child.  My father said I was like a little fish and I swam before I walked. I just always loved the water. It was somewhere I could go to meet other people in a group setting, so I would join swim teams and my swimming got better and better. I started swimming at a college when I was in Junior High to swim with faster people since I was getting good at my sport. I excelled in swimming and baseball.

ZK: What did sports teach you?

CR: How to be a team player. Sports teaches you how to work, how to win, how to focus. It’s a good learning tool.

ZK: When did you start to see yourself as an artist?

CR: From a very, very, very young age. I would say maybe first grade.

ZK: What was that discovery process like?

CR: I’m dyslexic, so I had a hard time reading and math and numbers — it was very frustrating. I naturally gravitated towards art and anything to do with art like museums, drawing, pottery – I mean anything. I won my first art contest in the second-grade, drawing flowers for the women’s committee — I felt like wow!

ZK: What kind of flowers did you draw?

CR: They were tulips. Very simple with a blue ribbon. They gave me a certificate in front of the class, and I was shy and bashful about it.

“Carl takes the time to understand you so that his work is authentic to who you are. That is a truly exceptional talent, I feel fortunate to call him my friend” –

Michelle Obama


ZK: Where does your love of women come from?

CR: My love of women, of course, comes from my mother. That’s the beginning. I am an only child and my father was in the military, so I spent a lot of time around my mother one-on-one growing up. I love women.

ZK: How did you become a make-up artist?

CR: I began doing make-up when I was around 14 years old.  My parents were going through a divorce and I watched my mother do her make-up and when she did it, I would think that I could do it better. So, I asked her if I could do her make-up and she let me.  She looked good, felt good, and it put a perk in her step, and it gave her confidence.  It made me feel good too. I never really thought of it as a career at that point. I was shy about it and I didn’t want anyone to know, but I enjoyed it and it was fun. Eventually, she began waking me up in the morning to do her make-up.

ZK: What were you doing that she liked so much?

CR: I’m just a natural enhancer. I would bring out her natural features. I also liked to do her hair, I liked to help pick out what she would wear. She was my first muse.

ZK: Early in your career, who did you look to for inspiration – what make-up artists did you look to for guidance?

CR: Back then, there really weren’t a lot [of make-up artists]. My mother got a lot of magazines…Vogue, Cosmopolitan, Interview. All kinds of magazines. I would look at the pictures, the make-up, the campaigns, the clothing. I was very passionate about make-up, hair, clothes, fashion and beauty in general.

ZK: You mentioned once that Kevyn Aucoin was a huge creative influence, yes?

CR: HUGE! When I saw his book in the bookstore, I bought it and sat on the floor and just looked through it for like an hour. The name was Making Faces. I think he had three books, I had them all. He is just such an inspiration. He made beauty. He made women beautiful.

ZK: You are known for your signature make-up style that enhances a woman’s natural beauty. That’s not always the easiest look to pull off.

CR: To me it is easiest but that’s what I’m told by other make-up artists, a lot of them say the same thing – the natural look is the hardest. I guess every artist is different. When you think of all the artists in the world, all the painters, they all have a different style. It’s easier for me because it’s what I see. I see the natural beauty. I love it all – high glam, soft glam, high fashion, red carpet. I think the red carpet is my favourite.

ZK: What advice would you give to make-up artists who look up to you as an inspiration?

CR: Don’t give up on your passion.  Work hard and visualize your goals. Aim for things that you want to accomplish. You have to be committed. Being an artist, in general, is really tough. You have to build a reputation and have people who recommend you. Most importantly, do your work with a smile.

Michelle Obama’s intimate behind-the-scenes documentary Becoming is available on Netflix.

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