Last June, during New York's pride parade, Lady Gaga had a rare day off. She and her crew just landed in the city and wanted to go out to a bar. As always, her longtime glam team—makeup artist Sarah Tanno and hair stylist and wig maker Frederic Aspiras—rose to the occasion. In ten minutes, Tanno used neon paints to make a rainbow eye look while Aspiras whipped out a wig with 22-inches of long, blonde hair.
"It was just a casual day! We went around the corner for a drink, and that's what happened. Isn't that funny?" Tanno recalls. Aspiras agrees, laughing, "I feel like sometimes our most casual days turn out to be so dramatic."
That's the thing—every time Lady Gaga steps out, it's an event. Her Haus of Gaga beauty team, most of whom have been with her for ten(!) years, makes sure of it. With the movie A Star Is Born newly released and Gaga in full-on promotion mode for her silver screen debut, her hair and makeup looks have been especially stellar: Frosted silver lids and platinum Veronica Lake waves. White liner and curtain bangs. Blue metallic wings and an intricately braided crown.
Aspiras describes the process of creating these looks "like The Amazing Race meets RuPaul's Drag Race." Whether it's for her appearances on the red carpet, film and TV, live performances, or a worldwide tour, Aspiras and Tanno—who spend up to 20 hours a day together and describe their relationship as both "brother and sister" and "creative soulmates"—constantly work to surprise and inspire people with their creations on Gaga.
Gaga at the A Star Is Born UK premiere.
Tanno, originally from Cleveland, started out at a M.A.C counter but juggled bartending, waitressing, and being a club promoter to fund her work as a makeup artist. She remembers she got the call to join Gaga's team when she was down to the last $1000 in her account. She started out doing Gaga's dancers and learning from other artists Gaga worked with like Billy B, Val Garland, and James Kalliardos before earning her spot as her lead artist about five years ago. "I wanted it so bad that I just had to be persistent," she says. "[Gaga] really saw something in me. I worked really hard until I was ready."
Tanno (top) and Aspiras (bottom) creating Gaga’s 2018 Grammy Awards beauty look.
Aspiras grew up working in his mom's salon in San Francisco—he had no formal training and considers himself a late starter with an "addiction" to his craft. He too did retail, then learned to make wigs, and continued collaborating on shoots with connections made in LA when he got called to join Gaga for her Monster Ball tour in 2009. "We were on the cusp of doing something great," he says, "I think fate put this team together."
Over the phone, the team—situated in Tanno's home in LA—finish each other's sentences. The laughter is constant and the pure excitement over what they do is palpable. Ahead, they exclusively tell ELLE.com what it takes to help create the image for one of the world's biggest superstars.
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"She always has this very strong vision and very strong opinion about what she wants. A lot of times, it starts with the clothes," Tanno says. For instance, at the Venice Film Festival she wore an incredible Valentino pink feather gown that warranted a pulled-back, classic beauty look. "I wanted to play on that and make it a little more ethereal where you could see her skin and eyes and nothing was distracting from the beautiful moment of her first premiere. I felt like I was never going to have a more important red carpet," Tanno recalls.
I swatched probably 60 lipsticks before I picked the perfect pink.
"I swatched probably 60 lipsticks before I picked the perfect pink. It had to be timeless." Meanwhile, Aspiras did more than 20 sketches before settling on the sleek updo Gaga wore. "It was about her face and she's just glowing and happy. Thank god we put it up, because it was raining!" he says. "It was so magical."
Gaga at the Venice premiere of A Star Is Born
Once Gaga settles on a vibe she's going for, Tanno and Aspiras confer with each other before presenting anything to the singer. "We look at films or books and tell each other what we're inspired by," Tanno says. "It's never like Freddie and I walk in on the day of the job and we're like 'This is what we're doing, Gaga.' It's never like that. We present it and she adds to it or changes it." Aspiras adds that exchanging references is everything. "A lot of our peers don't tend to share knowledge, but we strive to help each other."
Gaga at the Los Angeles premiere of A Star Is Born.
"I practice on myself before I present something to her just to get the method down a little better," Tanno says. "And he dances with the wigs!" Aspiras will practice his technique in at-home tests where he styles a wig and see how it moves. "She says it's dancing, but what I really do is see how this hairstyle moves in real life. I see it on Gaga and I study her movements. That's important—understand how your client's body functions," he elaborates.
"It was one of the largest audiences she's ever had at one time. Gaga always has a trick—we didn't want to just bare her face right at the beginning," Tanno says of deciding to create the Swarovski crystal cover-up Gaga wore over her eyes. "I think I was crying because I just didn't know if the mask was going to come off. I had to figure out the right amount of tape and what tape to use and where to place it so that when she ripped it off to do 'A Million Reasons' her makeup underneath would still look flawless."
As for her hair, she started her performance up in an updo then (gasp) let it down. "It was so stressful. It. Was. Live!" Aspiras recalls, "She took her bun out and the wind was just perfect that day—yes, we had to study the wind direction!"
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From her corseted Game of Thrones-esque braid and smoky glittery eyes in 2018 to pink streaks and red eyeshadow to "bring the lower east side Gaga back" for a performance with Metallica in 2016, the singer never disappoints on music's biggest night. For her glam team, the Grammys are always an opportunity to "kick it up a notch" as Tanno says.
The Bowie homage from 2016 , in particular, stands out as "one of the craziest experiences" because she had to work with Intel on face mapping and recreating the late music icon's looks to project on Gaga's face. Meanwhile, Aspiras got the chance to create a Ziggy Stardust-inspired, extra long and red creation. "It was definitely one of my more fun wig moments," he remembers, "It was a beautiful, fiery moment."
2018 Grammy Awards
Tanno recalls the day after the 2018 Grammys being tagged in hundreds of fan recreations of her starry night-inspired eyes. "So many people trying to do that damn braid," she also remembers. But, the Gaga Effect is strong not only among makeup and hair enthusiasts on Instagram, but across the fashion industry. "I feel like a lot of times when we do a big red carpet, we see it reinvented in fashion shows and editorials," Tanno says. "To me, that is the highest compliment of everything."