Shirley Manson on Her Beauty Philosophy: "I Wear Makeup Not to Attract But to Repel"

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Shirley Manson

"I've never believed in just a little slick of see-through lip gloss and a little brushing of natural color mascara. I like my makeup bold," says the Garbage frontwoman.

Shirley Manson was dressed like a "12-year-old" (her words, not ours) when she stopped by Billboard for a playback session of Garbage's sixth studio album, Strange Little Birds, due out June 10. Donning candy-cotton pink hair (which is mixing it up from her famous electric red coif) and thick slicks of black eyeliner, the 49-year-old singer and feminist phenom is effortlessly rocking a Peter Jensen crewneck sweatshirt — the words "Shirley Shirley Shirley" screen-printed across the chest — a "cheap pleatherette dress, kind of like dungarees" and Robert Clergerie suede boots. 

During a time when Kim Kardashian-West contoured beauty and perfectly sculpted buxom bodies reign supreme, Manson’s signature look since the early '90s — a mix of no-fuss feminine mod and aggressively tough '80s punk — is genuine and refreshing. Billboard spoke to the fashion legend and "makeup-addict” about her enduring riot-grrrl feminism and innate disgust towards the mainstream ("We’ve gone back to the Victorian ages where women feel this bizarre need to be judged as f--- mates"), her current obsession with two-tone lips and why, after all these years, she's still wearing makeup "not to attract but repel."

As the lead singer of Garbage since the early '90s, you’ve owned your signature look: bright red lips. How’d that look come about?

There was a phase in my life where we [as teenagers in Scotland] were obsessed with that rockabilly, Americana look, which of course was the Marilyn Monroe-inspired red lip. Once I put a red lipstick on my very pale face, it just sort of popped and I became addicted. But now with pink hair I can't wear my red lipstick, otherwise it’s like "woohoo!" you can see me coming from miles away.

You’ve collaborated with — and been a muse for — many designers over the years, including Oliver Peoples, ALC and MAC cosmetics. What’s been your favorite?

I’ve loved them all, but the first campaign I ever did was with Calvin Klein in 1996. At the time, it wasn't so normal for musicians — especially alternative artists — to get so snugly with designers, so I was very excited when I got the call. It was a whole bunch of us alternative artists — MobyMelissa Auf der Maur, the guy from Buckcherry — and we certainly weren't models at all, which was a big deal, too. Steven Klein shot me with no makeup on, which was terrifying. Since I was 11 years old I’ve been wearing black eyeliner, and I never, ever take my black eyeliner off.

Why black eyeliner?

I will wear any kind of black eyeliner I can get my hands on. I used to burn coals in a tin until they turned into a liquid and apply using a cocktail stick. Now I wear Laura Mercier “Black Violet," but I’ve always worn makeup like war paint. I've never believed in just a little slick of see-through lip gloss and a little brushing of natural color mascara. I like my makeup bold, and I wear it not to attract but repel. I wear it as a statement of intent.

What is the statement?

I feel very at odds with popular culture and what seems to be so valued in our society right now. I don't believe women should be judged for their bodies or their faces. I don't believe women should behave perfectly, I don't think they need to look perfect. I think in some ways we've gone back to the Victorian ages where women feel this bizarre need to be judged as f--- mates. And that disturbs me because women have to be more than that.

How does your style factor into that belief?

I wear the clothes, the clothes don't wear me. I love simple pieces, and I always feel most comfortable in a little A-line, mod shift dress, which is what I’m known for. If I feel like the clothes are wearing me, like at a photo shoot or something, I can’t wear them because it f---s with my head. I hate what feels like dress-up because I’ve always wanted to be myself. As a child, I struggled in my warped little mind to have an identity. Since I was a middle child, I assumed I had no identity. And I really struggled with that — I probably still do, actually.

Is there a makeup trend you’re really into right now?

I love the punk-inspired makeup trends currently happening, particularly the stuff coming out of the U.K. I'm also obsessed with the two-colored split lip. Like a blue top lip and an orange bottom lip and lots of gloss ... We’re also seeing a lot of very linear, geometric lines rather than smudgy and soft. It's all very bold — almost like a drawing on the eyes and it just f---ing blows me away.

Favorite color?


One product you can’t live without?

L’Oreal Paris Voluminous Volume Building Mascara in Blackest Black.

Tips for getting that perfect red lip?

You must not bite your lip because that will end in complete disaster with lipstick all over your teeth, which is a gross look. You also have to line your lips first and then put lipstick on. As for colors, I’m very partial to Lady Danger by MAC and Charlotte Tilbury’s 1975.

Who is your style and makeup inspiration?

Siouxsie Sioux. I once showed up to a party late, by myself, and had painted my entire face white with black lips and black eyes and this mental, crimped, brushed-out ginger hair. The look was all inspired by her because she was my style guru back in the day. I remember knocking on the door and the boy hosting opened the door and burst out laughing. It was a bold look, I will confess ... it was a bold look.

What were you thinking when he laughed at you?

I was thinking I was cool as f---.

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