Story By Abi Lilley, Hair & Make-up Artist for TV and Film
As a freelance Hair and Make-up Artist working around the world with some of the biggest production companies out there, it’s fair to say that Abi Lilley is killing it in her career. Between Abi flying in from a recent shoot in Prague and doing local dailies, we squeezed in a cup for tea to talk all things work and the journey that got her where she is today, as well as the unmissable advice she would give to anyone who has no idea on where to start work-wise.
FROM “NO-IDEA” TO NETFLIX
Before we begin, it’s worth mentioning Abi is one on my oldest and loveliest friends. So, not only was there a lot of chat that didn’t make the interview cut, there was also a huge amount of raw and honest insight that I’m so grateful to her for sharing, as it’s so important to highlight the lows (as well as the highs), which can sometimes be conveniently forgotten. And we all know that makes us feel like shit! So let’s get real together, and understand what it really takes to go from “no idea” to “Netflix”.
When Abi (now 29) first graduated university in 2012, she did not know that she wanted to get into the hair and make-up game for TV and film, and she definitely had no idea about it going even further back into High School. In hindsight, Abi can pick up on tiny glimmers of her future career as we comb through it and I ask a million questions. She thoughtfully reflects, “There was no lightbulb moment where I knew that I was destined to be doing the job I am now, but I have always followed what interested me. Like I always used to watch the behind the scenes discs of films in my teens, and I still do the same thing now. I just love it. And I used to joke in high school that I wanted to be a make-up artist for the belt! But apart from that, I just got curious about what interested me.”
“THERE WAS NO LIGHTBULB MOMENT WHERE I KNEW THAT I WAS DESTINED TO BE DOING THE JOB I AM NOW, BUT I HAVE ALWAYS FOLLOWED WHAT INTERESTED ME.”
When it came to choosing her university course, Abi did just that and studied Costume and Set Design, following her interest in the behind the scenes of productions (with the final push to apply coming after watching the behind the scenes of Gangs of New York, no lie!), and putting her A-Level Art skills to work. Whilst studying though, she realised that costume and set design was not, in fact, her calling. The industry was still pulling her in though, so she kept open-minded about her interests, which peaked whilst undertaking an independent project in her second year. Abi learnt hair skills from two fellow students who had experience in the industry, and it was at this moment her interest peaked in learning more about becoming a Hair and Make-up Artist. “If there was one turning point I had to choose to when I knew I wanted to become a Make-up Artist, working on this project was it. The girls were amazing and I helped them out because I was interested, and I learnt a lot in the process about the industry. My advisor suggested I look into a local prestigious school of make-up and special effects, so that’s exactly what I did. I emailed Davy Jones, whose school it was, to see if he had time for a chat and we met at his workshop for three hours and I left absolutely buzzing. I thought, that’s it. That’s what I want to do!” She didn’t overthink the initial e-mail or the meeting, but admits there were some nerves there. With support from her now-husband, she went to investigate and see if she wanted to undertake a course at the school on finishing university.
Needless to say, since she left the workshop absolutely “buzzing”, Abi went on to study at the Davy Jones School of Make Up and SFX after graduation in 2012 and it was from here she started getting familiar with the industry that she fell in love with. “I learnt so much with Davy and got a taste of TV working on productions such as Emmerdale. Even though I was working for a year unpaid, it was an amazing opportunity and the catalyst to meeting some incredible people, which constantly opened doors. Soon after, I was working on things like CBeebies, and in 2014 I had my first paid Make-up Artist TV job as an Assistant. I kept in contact with some of the people I’d met whilst I was working unpaid, and this led to being involved with The World’s End, my biggest non-CBeebies set at that time. Opportunities continued to roll after that and I work for about 7 weeks on Jericho, which was a turning point to TV for me.” Just as I’m sure you are, I was in absolute awe as Abi was telling me this (even though I already knew so many of the details, it still sounds crazy!).
“I REMEMBER GRADUATING, CRYING AND TELLING MYSELF…IT HAS TO GET BETTER.”
As we dug a bit deeper and rewound a little back to the time after finishing her course at Davy Jones, it was clear that Abi was equivalent to a gorgeous duck swimming gracefully on the water, whilst underneath its legs are going 100mph to keep momentum. For example, whilst Abi was throwing herself into unpaid opportunities, she had rent, bills and general life to pay for, so at the same time she worked another two jobs to support herself. One role was at a gastro-pub, and the other was at Bobbi Brown where she temped and then took an Associate role travelling across different stores. Whilst working there, it taught Abi that she didn’t want to pursue a career in retail, but did teach her lots of relevant skills and allowed her to build her kit. Such an amazing example of making the best of a situation that isn’t your fave. It was at this time, when she was working three jobs, fresh out of education and finding her feet in what she loved, that Abi panicked. “You go from being in education and your whole life being set to a schedule to plunging into reality and thinking, what am I going to do? How am I going to make money? There was a lot of crying and I just remember telling myself and our friend Claire who was going through the same thing, it has to get better. It’s got to.” So, she ploughed on and really lent on her supportive network (namely her boyfriend, family and close friends) to do her best to move forward, and always made a conscious effort not to compare her journey to other people’s. It was this, rinse and repeat for 3-4 years when her dedication and hard work started creating some amazing opportunities, which, most recently, has seen her flown to New Zealand and Prague for a Netflix TV show, all whilst working with some of her favourite people.
"I still doubt myself every day. Honestly, I think I’m going to walk on set some days and people will be like..who hired this person?! And there’s a lot of poo-pants emoji used when messaging the other girls in the industry. But the crazy thing is, I see others higher up doubt themselves and I learn from what they do. I realise that it’s good and professional to be aware of your weaknesses, so you can then create a team to fill those gaps that your abilities might not cover. You don’t have to be good at everything.” Imposter is alive and well in most of us, but this point of view is killer. Embrace it and use it to guide you towards asking for help where you need it to strengthen what you can do! Learn as much as you can by plunging yourself into the industry, even if it is unpaid work. It taught Abi an incredible foundation such as set etiquette, that she wouldn’t have known without taking a deep breath and stepping into the unknown.
“KEEP YOUR SIGHTS ON WHERE YOU WANT TO BE AND TAKE ACTION EVERYDAY.”
So with these lessons, opportunities, and good few years of freelancing under her belt, Abi has experienced enough to be sure of the high and lows. Up there at the top of the pros list is being your own boss and making your own hours, which she wouldn’t change for the world, closely followed by feeling so lucky to be working in the industry. The downsides? Having to do your own tax return and explaining to non-freelancers the nature of the role that doesn’t allow you to commit to plans in advance. But it’s all worth it, and now she couldn’t not do it. So, what advice would she give herself when she was a new graduate fighting back the tears and anyone in the situation right now? “Don’t be hard on yourself. You will get there and your hard work will pay off, just keep you sights on where you want to be and plough on everyday, even doing little things. And always always be grateful. I’ll be so happy to learning more in the future and have goals that I would love to achieve, such as working on specific TV shows and Films. Most importantly though, I want to continue with a happy work/life balance, take each job as it comes, and keep working with amazing teams.”
Story by Abi. The advice;
Get clear on your interests to build a foundation for your career.
Learn about your industry and say yes to opportunities, paid or unpaid.
Don’t be afraid to pivot if something isn’t for you.
Everybody feels like an imposter! Identify your weaknesses and own them.
Take action everyday and your hard work will pay off.
Don’t compare your journey to someone else’s. Stay focussed on your own goals.
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