When lockdown shut the nation indoors, many experimented with sourdough, sculpting and sewing – anything to occupy our hearts, minds and hands to distract us from impending doom. So it seems only natural that the telly world reflected that, serving up our distractions in competition form. Stuart Heritage wrote last week that the Great British formula may have reached saturation point as The Great Pottery Throw Down, The Great British Sewing Bee and all the rest are joined by All That Glitters, taking the format down the jewellery line. However, this week, Glow Up also returns to BBC Three, taking on one thing most of us have done significantly less of over the past year: makeup.
Admittedly, a competition like Glow Up might not be for everyone, but anyone with an Instagram account (or who has a child with an Instagram account) will know that the world of makeup is about more than just contouring and fake eyelashes. The best challenges on the series involve totally transforming faces, with truly impressive results. It’s hard to tear your eyes away from the trembling fingers fiddling with prosthetics, especially on well-known film and TV sets with contestants competing under the watchful gaze of award-winning guest judges from the industry.
Glow Up caters more to BBC Three’s younger demographic and, as it rolls into its third season, it is clear to see why. Veteran makeup artists and judges Val Garland and Dominic Skinner remain on the show, with 26-year-old presenter Maya Jama replacing Stacey Dooley – a more natural choice of bubbly presenter and supportive sister to the young contestants. “I don’t know how involved you’re supposed to get in these jobs with people,” she says, fresh-faced and glowing in her sports bra, as she tries to fit in some home workouts between interviews. “We cried at points; it was emotional. Maybe it would have been different if it wasn’t a pandemic because everyone goes home and lives their lives separately, but because it was our whole life for that month and a half, you put your all into it.”
Jama’s trademark cheekiness translates well on screen for the third series, fully glammed up and throwing encouraging words to nervous contestants such as young Riley, who has never done makeup on a model apart from herself before – “Poppin’ the cherry today!” – but she says that working with the young makeup artists (MUAs) also helped her reflect on her own image. “Sometimes in this industry, world, media, you can kind of get lost in it and think that you’ve got to be a certain way like you have to be this way and you have to be proper,” she says, putting on a faux posh voice. “Whereas, with the MUAs I was just like their mate and how I would be in normal life and they appreciated that so much … It was like a confirmation to me that I don’t need to change the way I am to do certain shows.”
Part of Glow Up’s charm is the wholesome, inclusive content. The format is designed to focus on the contestants and their work with very little bitchiness between them. But Judge Val serves as the competition enforcer, making sure there is an element of pressure to keep contestants on their toes. She deftly dodges a question about which makeup artists (MUAs) she likes most. “For me, it’s very important that I give everyone the same sort of attention because it would be unfair to have favourites,” she says, diplomatically. It would be a stretch to call her the bad cop to Dom’s good cop, but she brings the necessary discipline and trepidation needed for TV, which also translates into real world professionalism required to work in the industry.
“I may come across as a little bit cold. I hope not,” she says. “But, I often find myself getting quite emotional because I do want them to be the best. And I know how hard it was for me. You get so many knockbacks, and you’ve just got to keep bashing on that door until somebody either opens it or you’ve knocked it down. And that’s the way you succeed in this business.”
Things have changed a lot since the judges entered the industry, not least the advent of social media. “When I started out no one knew what [a makeup artist] was” says Skinner – now there is a lot more opportunity to demonstrate your skills online, though there are still barriers when it comes to access to work within the professional industries. “There are cultural reasons, financial reasons,” he says. “I came from a very privileged situation where, being [from] an upper-middle-class family, I was able to just go off and be artsy and my parents were going to pay for it. But I know a lot of people don’t have that opportunity.”
This is part of the reason why diversity is important on the show. Makeup naturally lends itself easily to diverse representation. Different faces create different canvases and makeup has long been used as either a mask or a form of expression for people who are grappling with their identity and sense of self. Therefore the show attracts a wide range of MUAs from diverse backgrounds, whether that be race, sexuality or unique facial features not usually seen on TV, such as one MUA’s beautiful port-wine-stain birthmark. Though true diversity is perhaps shown most obviously when one contestant asks another, “Are you pranging about the time?”, in a thick scouse accent, to which he replies “… you mean, like, scared?” in an Irish one.
“We want to see more inclusion and diversity,” says Garland, “but fundamentally, we should just be looking for great makeup artists – that should be our objective. Not, ‘have we got the right number of people and types?’ in the show. But I have to say that, with Glow Up, it happened naturally and that’s as it should be.”
Overall, the show is designed to bring a bit of hope, creativity and upbeat energy to a young audience, who have been locked at home for a year. “I love this kind of stuff, like the whole dynamic of somebody that has a little dream or a big dream,” says Jama. “And this is like my dream, what I’m doing at the moment … the message that I try to push out there is that no matter where you’re from, no matter what your start in life is, no matter what situations you’ve been put in or setbacks or losses, you can do whatever you want to do. If you put your mind to it, you can actually chase your dream. It sounds so corny, but it’s real life.”
Glow Up series three begins 20 April, BBC One, 10.45pm and on iPlayer