Skip to main content

Green Makeup Artist JoAnn Fowler Shares Her Safe Cosmetics Secrets

The Sappho Organics founder on the best and worst ingredients, and how she created her own natural makeup line.

Sappho Organics founder JoAnn Fowler.

A few weeks back, I shared my love for Sappho Organics Liquid Foundation, a.k.a. the BEST natural liquid foundation on the market.

Today, I want you to meet the woman who created it, Sappho founder and Emmy-nominated makeup artist JoAnn Fowler.

From The Styling Edit Archives

JoAnn, who is based in Vancouver, was in Toronto a while back to meet with the press and do makeovers at The Detox Market in Toronto (my favourite beauty shop and where you can find the Sappho line of products). 

When I showed up for my one-on-one interview, I didn't realize that JoAnn was going to do my makeup as well—and what can I say? I was admittedly reluctant. As a beauty editor, I've played guinea pig so many times at media events and been disappointed. (That's probably an understatement. From heavy orange base to Jack Nicholson eyebrows to an entire spring collection applied to my face AT ONCE, I've been the recipient of more than my share of shoddy makeup jobs.)

But JoAnn was so reassuring that I got over my trust issues, and ended up with the most amazing, natural-looking makeup job I think I've ever received. I looked and felt like myself, only (much!) better.

With JoAnn Fowler at The Detox Market in Toronto.

But JoAnn isn't just a super-talented makeup artist. She's also an amazing, inspiring person, because she recognized a problem in the beauty industry—unsafe ingredients—and did something about it. 

As an advocate for natural ingredients AND natural-looking makeup, it was absolutely my pleasure to chat with her about her career path in makeup and how Sappho came to be. Here's my Q&A with JoAnn:

Were you always interested in makeup?

Yes, I was always fascinated with makeup. When I was 16, I discovered that you could put brown on the crease part of the eye. I saw it in a magazine, and I was thrilled. I just thought, "Oh my God! You can change things." I started doing what all girls do—looking at fashion magazines and copying they way they did it. 

I asked my mom if I could take a makeup course when I was 16. She was not in a good mood. "Only whores wear makeup." That was the end of the conversation. So I become a child care counsellor. I went to George Brown in Toronto, and eventually I moved out west. 

How did you become a makeup artist?

I was always involved in the arts. One of my best friends was a little punk rocker from Leeds in England, and she was producing underground fashion shows. I always wore crazy makeup in the '80s—those were the punk rock days, and new age. It was all colourful and crazy, so people loved my makeup. She asked me to start doing the models for the photo shoots and that kind of stuff. I really didn’t know what I was doing. Literally, I didn’t know what I was doing. I never wore foundation because I always had really good skin. I realized that I needed to learn something. 

Did you go to makeup school?

I took a part-time course. I got along really well with my teachers, and each of them ended up hiring me. The first teacher hired me for CKVU [a Vancouver TV station] part-time doing news. Then I started doing music videos, and then small films. All within a year of taking my last course. I took a special effects makeup course twice, so that I could really excel in it. I was very driven.

What was it like working on set?

My teacher hired me on 'Wiseguy' back in 1988. It was my first show as an assistant. Kevin Spacey was in it, and Ken Wahl. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven, watching Kevin Spacey working every day! I thought my whole career would be like this, going to play every day.

Then I ended up on 'MacGyver'. I was an assistant on that show and it was up to me to do everyone other than the top three stars. It was all stunts and stunt doubles. So my skills as a makeup artist became really well-rounded. I got some skills that a lot of makeup artists rarely get to practice. 

Then I started keying [heading the makeup team for] shows myself. 'The Commish','The Lone Gunmen'. I was doing TV shows and the odd feature [film]. My first feature was the original 'Air Bud' movie with the little boy and the dog. 

So it just continued. I’m a film makeup artist and I've worked in this industry for 25 years. 

What were your biggest achievements as a film makeup artist?

I have an Emmy nomination for 'Reefer Madness: The Movie Musical', which was a gay musical done in '30s style that was really fun. 

JoAnn winning the Leo Award for Best Makeup in a Feature Length Drama. (Photo: @josappho)

I was awarded a Leo last year for the best makeup for a feature-length project. In my career, I've done a lot of features, TV shows and photo shoots. So I think I’m well-respected in my field. 

What inspired you to create your own makeup line?

I was head makeup artist on 'The L Word' for six years, and it was on that show that Mia Kirshner told me, "JoAnn, I’m not wearing any more parabens in any of my products." 

I was like, "Okay, you don’t have to, but I don’t know what you're talking about. I’ll make sure you don’t have to." She was kind of appalled that I didn’t know what she was talking about. So we started talking, and Mia is a very smart woman. I promised her that I would go back and start doing some research. I did and I was flattened. I was devastated, basically.

What did you learn in your research about the cosmetics industry?

When I did all my research, I thought with all consciousness, "I don't want to go to work and put stuff randomly on people’s faces that I don’t really know about."

They say that 40 to 60 percent of what you put on the body goes into the bloodstream. I’ve looked it up a number of times, and that’s what I'm seeing. 

If you read the book "Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry", it’s fantastic. It’ll tell you there are more than 10,000 chemicals in cosmetics that have never been tested. They just don’t have the manpower nor the time. 

"Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry" by Stacy Malkan.

So I did the research and I went back and wrote to all the companies that made organic and paraben-free makeup. I got all the makeup and we tried it out on screen. 'The L Word' was one of the first HD shows. The girls were fantastic with me.

What did you think of the green makeup lines available at that time?

Honestly, the girls didn’t like the makeup I brought in. There was nothing I could do about it. It was too chalky, too pink, too beige. A lot of the European lines are pinky-beige. 

Jennifer Beals used to sit in my chair and say, "You should start your own makeup line, JoAnn." I thought, "Another makeup artist doing another makeup line, how boring is that? The world doesn’t need another line." But then I realized the world does, actually. 

JoAnn Fowler with Mia Kirshner and Jennifer Beals.

I got to a point where I was like, "I’m going to have to come up with something myself." I love makeup and I love artistry, and the alternative of not being able to play with makeup was devastating for me. I wanted to continue doing it. So that’s why Sappho came to be. I created the line because there was nothing out there that was organic and lived up to the criteria of myself and my clientele.

The whole idea was to come up with a little online store and a kit that I could walk into any set with and feel comfortable that I could offer an alternative [to mainstream cosmetics lines].

I started working on Sappho during the hiatus of the second to last year of 'The L Word'. I started doing all my research, and then I met up with a lab that was very knowledgeable about essential oils and formulations. 

The first thing I did when I met with them was I brought all my makeup from my kit. I opened it up and said, "What’s in this? What's in that?" It was 100 percent synthetic chemicals. I was so shocked. 

What do you think are some of the most dangerous ingredients in cosmetics?

The things that are most detrimental are not even the parabens at this point. Which, by the way, they’ve been finding in the middle of breast tumours. Estrogen and cancer go hand and hand… there’s irrefutable evidence. 

Phthalates are the basis for all synthetic fragrances. They've been banned from toys. They're also a softener for plastics, so they're used in a lot of different things. They are proven endocrine disruptors that mess with your hormonal system. They've been very much affecting baby boys and fetuses—undescended testicles, testicular cancer, all that kind of stuff.

There is a cumulative effect from all this stuff. The studies don't take any of that into account. The research is very young. It was only in 2004 that the first blood test actually found all these chemicals—more than 389 chemicals—in the test subjects, who were newborn babies. That’s when people starting wondering how these chemicals are getting into people’s bodies, and that’s when EWG [the Environmental Working Group] started their research. 

Why do you think these ingredients are so pervasive?

It's all ruled by money. Certain things make products last longer. If you add dimethicone, you don’t have to use as many colourants. It's easier and it’s faster. I don't think there's any conspiracy. The people that put parabens in all the products did so because they thought it was a good thing. I think what’s happening now is we're finding out that wasn’t such a good thing, and turning that boat around is quite difficult.

It's all based on money. So of course they're going to want to protect the financial end of things. I don’t think [cosmetics manufacturers] are out to harm the world. They didn’t know. But now they do know and have taken things like the phthalates out of baby toys—so why not other products?

Why are safe ingredients important to you on a personal level?

I've had a lot of cancer in my family. I thought my mom died of cancer, and my father had cancer. My sister has got leukemia right now.

While I was doing all my research, my next-door neighbour knocked on my door at 5 in the morning. She lifted her arm up and had a huge lump under her armpit. All I could say is, "Go to the hospital right now. Go to the hospital." She was diagnosed with stage 4B cancer within four days. It was very quick.

What really struck me about all of that—and is she is still alive, thank God—was watching what she went through for almost three years. It was pretty awful. She had breast cancer, so she is a cancer survivor. But those words don't do justice to everything that is behind them, because it’s awful what women are going through.

How did Sappho evolve into the brand it is today?

I never forced anybody to use it. I just offered the alternative [on set]. So that’s how I started. 

It was just so popular. I’m lucky because most of my friends are fabulous makeup artists. Vancouver’s an interesting community because we’re all friends, even though we’re in business competition with each other. We all support one another. The artists here have really embraced Sappho and as a result, there are a lot of movie stars and a lot of shows using it. Jean Ann Black in the U.S., who is an award-winning makeup artist doing 'Masters of Sex', they’re using Sappho on their lead, Lizzy Caplan. They love it. 

People started wanting to put it in stores. So we went into six stores. I still continued to work in film, but [the brand] was this little sideline I was doing.

The Sappho Organics display at The Detox Market in Toronto.

One day, a distributor came to me with an offer. So now, we are in 70 stores across Canada and negotiating with a number of medical spas, because our foundation is so soothing on the skin. People can use it if they have rosacea, eczema, all that kind of stuff. It tends to work really well for them.

What makes Sappho foundation so unique?

My foundation is very expensive to produce. One of reasons I had such a hard time finding investors is because what [most brands] can make for two cents costs us two dollars. We try to use as much organic content as possible because I'm really concerned about pesticides. Also, our packaging is recyclable and biodegradable. Many other foundations are non-biodegradable. Once they're in the world, they're here forever. So that's another reason for not using them.

Sappho Organics Liquid Foundation in Leisha.

Our base is certified organic aloe vera and certified organic jojoba. The aloe is very soothing. Jojoba is really interesting because it's not an oil. It's a wax ester—a liquid wax. That means there is no oil in the product at all. They say jojoba works with your hormones to help you not over-produce oil. It's a great little ingredient.

What’s really wonderful is that the foundations are preserved with a system of essential oils. They evaporate, so they’re not true oils. They're chock-full of antioxidants and antibacterial and anti-fungal ingredients. The oils even have different qualities; for instance, frankincense can help to stimulate collagen production in the body. So that's an extra bonus to the preservation system.

The colours of all my foundations are done with a yellow base, as opposed to pink or beige. So we're following in the footsteps of Bobbi Brown and Laura Mercier. It's a colour range I have always worked with myself. Everything is coloured just with minerals, so there are no synthetic dyes in there. 

It feels great on skin. A lot of foundations have dimethicone and silicone, which just sit in the cells. It's like putting saran wrap on your face. If you've got bad skin, then the oils and debris are just pushed back in and not actually released into the world, where they need to be. What happens is many girls end up with bad skin and put on something with silicone in it. Then their skin gets worse.

We don't use any dimethicone, so it will never occlude the cells and your pores will always be able to breathe. We get a lot of girls with bad skin coming to us months later [with improvements]. One girl jumped into my arms and said, "Look at my skin!" I was like, "Wow!" I had done a consultation with her three months earlier. I just feel that a lot of the heavily-laden dimethicone foundations that they call "HD"—they’re like masks.

Why do almost all foundations silicone now?

It makes the makeup artist's job easier. It's like putting on a mask. You don’t have to be a good makeup artist. With HD, you have to be a better makeup artist. But they're troweling this crap on people’s faces that’s going to wreck their skin. I think skin is beautiful. I want to use a product that’s going to make the skin look gorgeous, not look like they're wearing a bunch of crap on their face. 

So we don’t use any dimethicone. And actually, it looks better. It looks great on film. 

Everyone talks about Armani foundation, but interestingly enough, I did 'Final Destination 5' in HD3. I had a very good makeup artist as my assistant who had just come off an HD series. I don’t force my products be used by anyone else but myself. I may suggest it, but if they don’t want to, that’s fine. 

She wanted to use what she was comfortable with, the Armani, so we had one of the actresses come in, and she did her makeup and it and it was lovely. She’s a very good makeup artist. We brought the actress into the studio, and she looked great on all the cameras. 

Then we went into the actual filming room, where we have a projector. That's the true test of everything in real 3D. It was like, "Oh my God!" The director said, "We need to change this." Armani is such an oil-based makeup that it looked so heavy. It just separated and floated on top of the skin. Her face just fell. I was like, "Yep. We need to go with something else."

Is HD the true test of how well a foundation performs?

There are two schools of thought with HD. One is to cover everything as heavily as possible. The other school of thought is no, use less makeup, but use it properly and blend. And it looks fantastic. Even director of photography told me, months later, that in editing he hadn't needed to do one correction [because of the Sappho foundation]. He said, "I want your makeup for my next 3D movie."

For 'The L Word', we did a week of makeup tests on camera, just to see how the makeup looked and interacted with the lighting, the lenses, the filters. Makeup is a huge priority for film, and especially for a show like 'The L Word', where you have 12 women who all have to look fabulous all the time. It was very high-end, with parties every week. So the makeup was a huge deal.

How do you recommend applying Sappho foundation?

Hands down, with a foundation brush. You can use another brush, but mine are all cruelty-free and tested in a Canadian lab for toxicity. 

The Sappho Organics Foundation Brush.

The coverage of the foundation is buildable, so you can put it on let it dry, and then put another layer on. You can also put some moisturizer in your hands and mix it together with the foundation to create your own BB cream. If you need a heavier coverage, take a little foundation out and let sit in the air overnight. The essential oils will evaporate, so you'll end up with a thicker product. You can use it that way for those times of the month when you get a possible breakout. Or if you don't have concealer and are in desperate need of a lot of coverage.

And you also have concealers?

We have two concealers. Undo is a very yellow concealer that is amazing when mixed with foundation to cover the red. 

Sappho Organics Undo Concealer.

It gives a little heavier coverage than the other concealer, Neutrality, which is more of a neutral. 

Sappho Organics Neutrality Concealer.

The concealers work really nicely, especially if you mix them in with a foundation. They're pretty well the spot-on perfect concealers. They are our only non-vegan product, as they have beeswax. We’re a small company, so these changes come slower than I would like, but we're definitely aiming to be 100 percent vegan as soon as I get a new formulation down. 

Do you need to set the foundation with powder?

No, you don’t have to. If it's hot and humid, or if you have oily skin, then yes. But if your skin is normal to dry, you don’t have to set it.

I set it with our Silky Setting Powder that is crushed aloe vera juice and crushed mica. There's no talc or powder in there, so you just need a touch. One pot of setting powder will last you five years. 

Do you find there's any difference in longevity with natural makeup?

No, there's no difference in longevity at all. Sometimes that has been a problem in the past, but I think with our new formulations, we’ve overcome that. So I'm not finding any difference at all, especially in the foundations. With our eyeshadows, we work really hard to pigment them—we use extra pigment.

What are your favourite products in the Sappho line?

The foundations are my favourite thing. I also love the concealers and the blushes.

Sappho Organics Blush in Luv the Cheeks.

My new favourite product is our Blush in Luv the Cheeks. It’s vegan, and it's very hard to get deep colours in a vegan formula. We managed to do it. It's really good on darker skin, but you can also use it on pale skin as a blush; just use less. It's also fantastic on the eyes if you use it as a brown in the crease—it just warms everything up and pops. It's really gorgeous. I love red eyes anyway; that's a great look. 

Sappho Organics Eye Shadow in Chloe.

I also love our Eye Shadow in Chloe for a daytime smoky look. It's a one-stop shop daytime smoky pewter colour. To kick it up at night, you can add a little Eye Shadow in Raven, a black, and get a beautiful smoky eye.

We don't carry pencils, so if I need a pencil I will use Dr. Hausckha's

Do you have a favourite makeup look?

I love beautiful skin and seeing light on the skin. And I love all different looks, from really pale eyes with dark lips to smoky eyes with light lips. It just depends on the person and the situation. Makeup is so malleable. It's there to change with the moment.

Mia Kirshner playing with Sappho Organics. Photo: @josappho

Makeup uses the same principles as art. Things fade into background and you bring things out. I love strong brows, and I loved doing Mia Kirshner's makeup because her brows are fabulous. 

On 'The L Word', it was great because we had high-end, powerful characters and I could craft a look for every single scene. That’s what I love about makeup. You get to influence a character. 

In your own life, makeup can influence how you look and feel. If you're going out partying, you can play with your look. To me, that's fascinating. 

How would you describe your makeup philosophy?

It's about artistry. I’m not a hippie. It’s not about running through the fields picking berries and flowers. I'm a professional and I need products to work. Makeup is fierce and you can do it as subtly or as strong as you want—but it should all perform the same way. So really, I'm into artistry. Makeup artists are my tribe. 

JoAnn with Magoo. Photo: @josappho

Personally, I don’t always wear it. I'm in my 50s and I don’t wear makeup. I wore it heavily when I was young. I've been obsessed with it since I was 16 years old. But now, I just think of it as being about changing who you are for that moment and for that look. Painting is in my bones, and there's something about a good makeup image that just excites me.

What do you wish women would start or stop doing with their beauty routines?

I think the whole permanent tattooing stuff has got to be done very carefully. That’s the new thing I’m just a little iffy about. It has to be done really well. I've seen some awful things.

Women should change up their look and their makeup. And they should match their skin tones. Rather than put on darker base to get a bronze look, match the foundation to your skin and then use a bronzer. Don’t just put on a darker makeup—it’s horrible. 

Stop spray-tanning orange. Make them stop! I went to England, and they had spray-tanning booths in the trade show. Every woman there was bright orange. It was like they were all totally dedicated to 'Jersey Shore' and the Kardashians in Britain. So really, if you do have to bronze up, then use a bronzer. Match your skin tone. Don’t try to do it in one swoop by making yourself orange.

Do you have any advice for aspiring makeup artists or beauty entrepreneurs?

Know more than your client knows. You need to be more educated and know more about what you're putting on the skin than they do. I think any client deserves that. So that’s my best advice to makeup artists.

The second thing is to know more than just makeup. Educate yourself in the arts, the world and interesting things.

As far as doing a makeup line, I would suggest to go in with a business plan and some idea of what you're doing. But I never would have done it had I known. It seemed very simple to me, but it’s not. Gather as much evidence, support, interest and information as you can. I don’t even know how I did it!

What's next for Sappho?

We've had a lot of great press, and we’re a tiny little company—it's because the product is so exceptional. Just this year we were voted as the best green foundation in InStyle magazine.

We are changing up the foundation slightly. The thing that is changing is the emulsifying wax. It's the only synthe