12 of Elizabeth Taylor’s Red Carpet Beauty Secrets

1:58 PM 2/18/2019

by Lindsay Weinberg

She took a bath to set her makeup and used drugstore skin care brands most of her life, according to her personal assistant and makeup artist.

Elizabeth Taylor in 1971; Taylor presenting at the 42nd Academy Awards in 1970
Elizabeth Taylor in 1971; Taylor presenting at the 42nd Academy Awards in 1970
Tom Wargacki/WireImage; PictureLux/The Hollywood Archive/Alamy Stock Photo

Best known for her extravagant jewelry collection and violet eyes, Elizabeth Taylor helped set the standard for today's glitzy glamour on the red carpet. The Butterfield 8 best actress winner had several beauty tricks up her Valentino sleeves, from taking baths to set her makeup to using drugstore brands for her skin care. 

Here, Tim Mendelson, Taylor's personal assistant and current trustee of her estate, and her former makeup artist Francesca Tolot dish on the icon's red carpet beauty routine ahead of the 91st annual Academy Awards on Feb. 24. 

Mendelson got his start in the business by working as a shopper for costume designer Nolan Miller on Dynasty in 1984. After college, in 1990, he started hanging pictures and folding sweaters for Taylor, and she soon offered him a permanent position as her right-hand personal assistant. "From that point on, I was with her every day," Mendelson says of developing a "very close relationship" with the actress, who died in 2011.

"It was disarming to run upstairs with a pile of papers and then walk into her bedroom and just see her like that because I'd forget. She was just so beautiful and she'd be like 'What's wrong with you?' and I'm like 'You just look so gorgeous.' And that's with no makeup on at all," Mendelson says. "She would say 'Oh, get over yourself.'" Though he describes lots of behind-the-scenes drama, he attests "She was not bitter at all, she was not jaded at all, and she was not snobby at all. She swore, she was very funny. She had a huge laugh and she really was always looking for ways to enjoy life." 

Mendelson and Tolot share 12 of Taylor's top cosmetics secrets that made her one of the original red carpet queens of Hollywood.  

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    Taylor Based Her Entire Look Around the Jewelry

    Taylor started by choosing the jewelry she wanted to wear and then reached out to "whichever designer she was in the mood for," Mendelson says, which usually meant Dior or Valentino. "She knew that that's what people wanted to see: her jewelry."

    Once she chose the gems, she would let the designer know what color she wanted and had pieces designed to go with the jewelry. The designer would send four to six sketches based on what she asked for. Mendelson adds that Taylor loved the design process and was vocal about what she wanted in a dress, like design and color. 

    When Taylor won the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award at the 1993 Oscars, she donned a yellow Valentino gown to go with yellow diamonds in a Van Cleef & Arpels suite of daisy jewelry — earrings, a necklace and a brooch.

    Mendelson was tasked with cleaning the infamous 33.19-carat Krupp diamond daily or multiple times per day. "She really only trusted me to do it and I was very fastidious about it," he says. "It needed to be really buffed and polished and scrubbed often because lotion and things would get on it."

    When it was time to head to the awards show, the jewelry was the last thing to go on (Mendelson had access to her safe and would collect it for her ahead of time). 

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    She Didn't Always Want Custom Designer Gowns

    Taylor sometimes had costume designers create her Oscars gowns, or chose them herself off the rack because "she was really unconcerned with what the fashion world thought of her," Mendelson says.

    When Taylor was nominated for Butterfield 8, she went to a store near her house in Gstaad, Switzerland and picked out a Dior gown — it wasn't made for her.

    In 1970, she and Richard Burton went to the Academy Awards and she chose to wear a periwinkle blue gown by costumer Edith Head. "They were very close," Mendelson says. "The significant moment was that Richard had bought her this 69-carat Cartier diamond and that was a big deal, because that was massive headline news around the world. So she planned on wearing that ... So that gown is cut so that the Taylor-Burton Diamond would fit really well with the cut of the dress." (Periwinkle fabric was chosen to go with her violet eyes).

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    She Enjoyed Doing Her Own Makeup

    Mendelson says Taylor loved doing her own makeup and skin care, and primarily did it herself, with the exception of Tolot, an Italian makeup artist she met on a Vanity Fair shoot.

    "A makeup artist wants to do the makeup, but Elizabeth loved to do the makeup so much herself. She really looked at her face as a blank canvas," Mendelson says. 

    Technique and application were most important to the star — taking time to smooth in her moisturizer. "Not just using extensive products and slapping it on; I think it was about the time and care she took to massage it into her skin," he adds. "Elizabeth was very tactile and sensual, like a cat in some ways. She just enjoyed the feeling."

    Taylor especially loved filling in her own eyebrows: "She'd been doing that since she was a little girl," Tolot adds. 

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    It Took Her Two Hours to Do Her Makeup

    Taylor spent up to a half hour doing her lips and 1.5 hours on her eyes "just because she enjoyed it," Mendelson says. 

    Since she was nervous about the upcoming event, getting ready was a special ritual time where she could "go into herself and concentrate and we created an atmosphere," he adds. Her team put music on. Sometimes it was soft music — she loved Enya or Andrea Bocelli — but if she was looking for something more upbeat, it would be Elton John or Michael Jackson. "Sometimes she needed the energy from the music and sometimes she needed the calm from the music," he says. Taylor's Maltese, Sugar, would also be playing in the background. 

    Why did it take her two hours? For the Oscars, she knew the stakes were higher, and "there were a lot of distractions always. So for an award show, she needed to be protected a little bit more in terms of what was coming into the dressing room," Mendelson says. "When I got into Elizabeth's world, it was like being in the center of a film every day — with Elizabeth Taylor no less. You couldn't look away."

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    Taylor Used Drugstore Skin Care Brands

    Taylor used drugstore brands like Jergens lotion for most of her life. "She put cream on but she didn't use fancy brands," Mendelson says. Other times she would use ice water or put tea bags under her eyes. Toward the end of her life, Taylor used La Prairie as a go-to skin care brand, along with the eight-hour skin cream by Elizabeth Arden.

    The actress also used a lesser-known setting powder from Japan, called Maquifard. Taylor introduced the powder to Tolot, who loved it so much that she stocked up before it was discontinued ("because it doesn’t cake and build up"). Tolot still rations the setting powder with her clients, who include Catherine Zeta-Jones and Beyonce, while she tests out new ones. 

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    She Didn't Like Conditioner

    Hairstylist José Eber had "open access" and when he arrived, somebody would buzz from downstairs and he would come right up. First, Eber washed Taylor's hair, but she didn't like conditioner because she wanted her hair to have as much body as possible, so it wasn't too soft.

    "Because obviously she liked big hair," Mendelson says. Eber put in a roller and dried it with a dryer, one at a time, which would get her hair out of her face so she could do her makeup.

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    She Never Wore False Eyelashes

    Her team is very adamant that Taylor never wore false eyelashes — or had lip injections. 

    "She had beautiful lashes. We never used false lashes, always her own. They were very full and long," Tolot says. Though false lashes were unnecessary, Tolot did apply mascara.

    "She had a double row of lashes, she was born with it. When she first started making movies, the director would say, 'Wash the mascara off that little girl.' She said, 'I'm not wearing mascara' and she'd prove it," Mendelson adds. 

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    She Took a Bath to Set Her Makeup

    Norman Parkinson Archive/Iconic Images/Getty Images

    Once she was all ready, Taylor would take a short bath in order to set her makeup. The steam from the bath was the final step, before they quickly took the rollers out and teased her hair.

    The effect? Tolot noticed Taylor's skin stayed "dewy" opposed to matte, one way Taylor was ahead of her time, as the style matches beauty trends today. She also used more of a sheer foundation to let her freckles show through, again aligning with modern naturale looks. 

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    Her Favorite Eyeliner Was Matte Grey

    "There was one eyeliner that she always used and it was a Clinique eyeliner," Tolot says. "It was a cake and you had to wet the brush with water and soften the cake and apply it, like the old-fashioned type of eyeliner. I think she was just used to using it. Why change?"

    Interesting, it wasn't a strong black, but a matte, grey color — "I think that's why she liked it ... The application of that was soft, so you never would have the impression of a graphic liner."

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    She Didn't Contour

    "She liked a soft, pretty look. A lot of people today are into contouring, but she never did any kind of contouring," Mendelson says.

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    Taylor Collected Elizabeth Arden Lipstick

    Taylor favored a fellow Elizabeth – Elizabeth Arden – for lips. 

    "She had a lot of makeup. Her assistant would be buying new makeup all the time. I would bring her new stuff. I remember she was using a lot of Elizabeth Arden lipsticks. She had a huge collection of lipsticks," Tolot reveals.

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    And She Loved a Shiny Lip

    Though the actress spent a lot of time on her eyes, blending different colors, moist lips were important to her, Mendelson says. 

    "She loved a shined lip," he says. She used a matching lipgloss with a sponge applicator, so she could control it easily along with a lip pencil — but never a different color than the lipstick or lipgloss (other fave brands included Dior, YSL and Chanel).