There’s a memorable scene in Lady Gaga’s 2017 Netflix documentary Gaga: Five Foot Two, when she’s in a room with her team, sans makeup, under pressure as she’s approaching a deadline for her record. She’s about to change locations. “There’s just a lot of people outside,” someone warns, as the clamoring crowd of fans and paparazzi on the street below them grows louder and louder. “Go ahead then,” she tells her longtime makeup artist, Sarah Tanno, who proceeds to apply a dramatic black cat eye. As the product piles on, you can see her transforming from Stefani Germanotta to Lady Gaga, the global pop star we all recognize. She takes one look at her makeup before walking out the door, then gets bombarded by camera flashes and fans screaming her name.
It’s a brief moment in the movie, but one that stuck with me when I first watched it because you can see how much makeup—even just swipes of liner—serves as armor for Gaga. She echoed as much when she announced she was launching her very own beauty line, Haus Laboratories, on Amazon back in July. The singer wrote that discovering makeup helped her invent Lady Gaga. “I found the superhero within me by looking in the mirror and seeing who I wanted to be,” she said on Instagram. “Sometimes beauty doesn’t come naturally from within. But I’m so grateful that makeup inspired a bravery in me I didn’t know I had.”
I didn’t know Tanno back then (we’d meet one year later at a dinner for Marc Jacobs Beauty), but I distinctly remember wanting to know who she was after watching that clip. Who was this behind-the-scenes, trusted right-hand woman who helps Gaga become, well…Gaga?
I’ve since learned from Tanno everything there is to know about the process of creating Gaga’s red carpet beauty looks, the influence of drag on her art, and now, inside intel on what it has been like to launch Haus Laboratories. “When [Gaga] asked me to be part of this with her—I could cry talking about it—we agreed it isn’t just makeup. We got to do this as two best friends creating a brand together,” Tanno tells ELLE.com. “This is our baby. We want it to not only succeed, but we want to see people love themselves.”
Ahead, hear more from the brand’s Global Artistry Director on how she and Gaga worked hand in hand to conceptualize and develop every product in the line.
What inspired the creative process for Haus Laboratories?
We wanted the message to be even more important than the makeup. It was really about creating something that can help you with your self-invention and self-expression. We were really celebrating all forms of artistry from the lightest to the heaviest kind of glam because you know, we’re known for that and want to empower people to also have that time for yourself. We want to share that you deserve self-love. And so that’s really where the brand started.
What were on your mood boards?
With Gaga and I, we like to share through imagery. Sometimes I’ll make mood boards. Gaga is also very visual as well, so we share things back and forth. I have the weirdest things on my inspiration board all the time if I’m trying to get an idea across. I really go into different textures whether—sometimes it’s like soot or oil. If I’m trying to get across a certain color of black—I love to put on there her pleasers [shoes] that she always wears because it’s showing something gritty, downtown. That’s the messaging that I’m trying to get across. It’ll be certain photographers that we love, or a time period of makeup that really inspires me. Also music to get across the vibe. It’s not just, “This is the style of eyeliner I’m creating.” There’s a tone, a reason, and a messaging behind every single thing that we do. There’s a reason that that gold is that color.
How did you go about actually developing the products?
I was very heavily involved with Gaga and our product development team, going through rigorous testing with all the products. For example, our liquid shadow, Glam Attack—that’s a really new innovation. It’s not just a liquid shadow. This is an all-over color, liquid shimmer to powder so it dries as a powder but goes on as a liquid. It’s pretty much foolproof. You could apply it with the applicator, finger, or brush to get different finishes. It’s very buildable and I put it through all her stage-testing, which was kind of fun. I will put it on her before her show so she can make sure that it wouldn’t have any fallout because that’s a problem we have with any glitter or shimmer products: When she’s changing and moving, all of a sudden she has glitter all over her cheeks. Glam Attack stays in place and also it’s easy to remove—literally one or two wipes with the makeup wipe and it’s gone. Sometimes after a show, if I would use glitter on the eyes, it would be a 30 minute process of getting her completely cleaned up.
How did you narrow down which products you wanted to do?
If it’s not out there, we want to create it ourselves. We really wanted to start with color because it’s so transformative and expressive. So, Glam Attack was a really interesting new innovation.
Gaga and I use lip liner in an unconventional way—that is, all over our lips as a lipstick because we really love the precision. We love that when you color in your lip, anything that you put on top stays longer. Most have great pigment and look beautiful, but most of the time they drag and are too dry and end up looking splotchy. So, I wanted to create the creamiest, most beautiful lip liner that has the actual demi- matte finish so it looks like a healthy lip, not like a dry, cracked. That’s our Rip Lip Liner. I’ll just color my whole lip in with the liner. That’s something that she does. So, that’s why we decided to start with a lip liner instead of a lipstick actually because we wanted to change the way people use lip liner. She likes to use the lip liner on her cheeks and blend it out with her fingers, kind of as a blush because they’re so creamy.
The gloss is honestly the most comfortable formula—she loves gloss, especially when she’s doing her own makeup because it’s so easy for her and she loves the way it looks. She likes it to just drip off. We found this amazing formula that’s super smooth and feels nice and hydrating and multi-dimensional to really give the lip a nice, beautiful, full look.
I’m really interested in the liquid liner—it’s a signature for Gaga. How is it different from others?
I feel like [liquid liner] is such a statement item for Gaga. That was something that we really spent a ton of time on. We went back and forth a lot, and Gaga brought up something that kind of won me over: She said that she wanted it to be a matte black liquid liner because that’s hard to find on the market. One of her old makeup artists taught her to put a black eye shadow on top of her eyeliner to look more black for stage. We wanted to come out with a matter than matte black liquid liner with the most precision tip that’s also longwear.
Did any of Gaga’s specific past beauty looks inspire the collection?
A big inspiring moment was when I did my first tour with her about five years ago—it was the jazz tour. Because it was not a pop show and she was singing next to Tony Bennett, she really wanted crazy, beautiful, intricate costumes and makeup. But she wanted me to change her makeup in the quick change and I was like, “Oh my God, Freddie [Aspiras, Gaga’s hairstylist] is putting different wigs on, she’s changing her shoes, her pack, she’s trying to have a drink of water, and take a breath and I’m trying to change her liquid liner?” It was too much. It always looks sloppy.
So, I reached out to Phyllis Cohen from facelace and we made all these really cool, custom eyebrows and eyeliners with Swarovski crystals. That way, when she came into the quick change I could give her an entire new look in seconds. That’s where we got inspired for the Armor Masque, a paste-on eye mask, and the Armor Wing Tips, adhesive eyeliner wings, because we really wanted to bring that kind of fast, easy, perfect makeup to a consumer in a way that they’re familiar with seeing it through Gaga. [The Wing Tips] really look like a perfect wing so you’re not going back and forth to have symmetry.
How did working with Marc Jacobs Beauty as a global ambassador help you with developing this line?
Being part of that brand has taught me how to be a leader, how to communicate products, and how to teach and have a voice in the artist community that it is deeper than just an eyeliner, you know? It helps me so much because it’s always been a dream of mine to be any ambassador for a company—it’s kind of the highest honor as a makeup artist. It means they love, value, and trust your opinion in your work enough to have you represent their brand. I have these two incredible artists—Marc Jacobs and Lady Gaga—that not only I admire, but they have so much admiration for each other and similar beliefs about self-expression. They’re very supportive of each other, where it’s not a competition. Gaga has always said to me that she always wants me to be part of Marc and not just leave now that she has a brand because she’s like, “That’s authentic to you. It’s about authenticity and that’s products that you use and you support his brand.”
How did you develop the colors?
We really did get nitty gritty with the pigments because we wanted it to be perfect. We’re both very hands on with our artistry. We really wanted to have something in there for everybody. And the reason that we started with Haus of Collections is because we really just wanted to put together a suggestion of things that we wanted you to try. It’s not like this is the only way to wear them. They work incredible intertwined together.
How did you make sure the range is inclusive to all skintones?
We tested on all skin tones across the board with every product. That was really, really important to Gaga—that these shades are wearable for everybody. I would use Rose Bitch on a medium skin tone looks great as a blush, but on a darker skin tone, it might look great as a highlight.
What was the most challenging part of launching the makeup collection?
The rigorous testing. We were full on. A lot of the times I will test during a show on Gaga and the dancers, which I bet is not product development’s favorite part. But if a liner falls underneath the eye when it’s not supposed to, those are notes that I give that need to be fixed to our standards. And we have high standards because we do a lot of high-performance makeup.
I was really struck by Gaga saying in her Amazon tutorial video that she was “relentless in her bravery to be herself.” Was there a time that you felt that way too?
I didn’t have a lot of friends in school, and I remember I got this one Covergirl eyeshadow palette and one black liner. Every morning I would get up early for school and do my makeup in as many different ways as I could each day. It gave me confidence. People started to really notice me. I can attribute that time of feeling insecure to finding that I had a talent in something. Before I knew it, other people were asking me to do their makeup and that’s where this all started for me!
What would you say to someone who is intimidated to try more dramatic makeup?
I think for people who are afraid to try Glam Attack, I just want them to understand that it’s a liquid that dries as a powder. It’s a new innovation. It’s not a liquid eye shadow. That’s not what it is. So this is a completely new innovation. And one of the reasons is that when I’m not around Gaga, she never really puts eyeshadow on. Her thing is that she’ll throw an eyeliner on, but with the Glam Attack she could achieve a really cool smoky eye in seconds with one product and it’s easy for her to do when I’m not there. It’s not something you need a makeup artist to achieve. She’ll send me pictures of how she does her makeup when I’m not there—and it looks so great! Makeup shouldn’t be intimidating, it should be fun.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.