Alice Gao is a lifestyle and food photographer based in New York City. We’re huge admirers of her blog and Instagram, and couldn’t have been more thrilled when she agreed to share her beauty uniform. Here are her insider tips, including her favorite red lipstick, how to look good in photos and amazing advice for aspiring creatives…
What is your everyday skincare regimen?
My skin has been super fickle these days. (Though it’s my own fault — if I cut out indulging in wine as often as I do, I’m sure my skin would be happier! It’s always a trade off, isn’t it?) I like to sample new products all the time, so I’m almost never using the same thing twice in a row. Currently, I use Aesop Purifying Facial Exfoliant Paste about once or twice a week. It has a medium grittiness as far as exfoliants go, and I like massaging and removing all the dead skin. It doesn’t have a strong smell, which I like, and it makes my skin feel really clean. (To be honest, though, I especially love their packaging!)
Besides the scrub, I alternate between Själ Balans Deep Pore Cleanser, and CeraVe from the drugstore, which are both great for sensitive skin. The Själ cleanser makes my skin feel soft, but if I’ve been wearing a full face of makeup, I’ll use the CeraVe to do a full cleanse and then follow it up with the Själ for hydrating. Right now I’m also using Själ Kura Intuitif intense hydration cream to moisturize.
Tell us about your makeup routine.
On a daily basis, I can be fairly minimal, but I couldn’t leave the apartment without doing my brows and curling my eyelashes. I use the Shu Uemura eyelash curler, which I find to be the best for Asian eyes. I’ve been using it since I was a teenager! Next, I fill and shape my brows using the Anastasia Brow Powder Duo. The powder feels more natural. With a pencil sometimes you get a drawn-on eyebrow look. When it comes to technique, I have no idea what I’m doing. Some days I’m like “I got the shape right today” and some days it’s hard to get them to be even somewhat symmetrical. What’s that saying? They’re supposed to be sisters, not twins.
Typically, I’ll use a tinted moisturizer with SPF. I like Laura Mercier and NARS. Laura Mercier’s nude shade matches my exact skin tone, so I don’t have to blend or mix it with anything. It’s also lightweight. The NARS can leave my skin feeling a little bit oily, but is great for winter when my skin is drier. I’ll usually wear mascara, too, like Benefit’s “They’re Real.” I can bawl in movies or have a good cry session and it doesn’t go anywhere.
You’ve been photographed wearing gorgeous orange-red lipstick. What color is that?
Tom Ford lipstick is definitely a worthy splurge and such a great pick-me-up. The colors are just so good. They’re very pigmented, so I’ll wear the bright orange full-on or as a stain. Sometimes I’m amazed that I’ll have a whole meal and my lipstick is still intact. My favorite reds are more orangey-red, like Flame and Wild Ginger. I like that it’s also moisturizing.
What about when you’re doing something fancier?
For special events, I’ll attempt contouring (which I still don’t quite understand how to do, despite watching a million YouTube tutorials). I love YouTube tutorials — especially Lisa Eldridge. I can watch her for hours. Recently, I found Tina Yong, and I really like her vibe. It’s not super cutesy, and she’s Asian, which sometimes helps when she’s demonstrating certain techniques.
For contouring, I’ll use Tom Ford’s Shade & Illuminate, which includes a cream highlighter and a darker color for contouring. I also love RMS’s Living Luminizer for a bit of highlight on the tops of my cheekbones. For a special event, I may wear some eyeliner, too. I love Tom Ford’s Eye Defining liquid liner pen. Sometimes I try to do a little flick and extend the line out. I only wear liner on the top line, but if my eyes weren’t so sensitive, I would line my water line with luminizer, which I think looks so pretty.
Are you a morning person?
Mornings are actually my favorite time of day. In New York, I like that mornings are quieter. I have an almost religious coffee routine and feel totally out of sorts if I don’t make my coffee. The promise of a perfect cup definitely helps me get up. I like to tackle emails in the morning and read blogs and check social media — I like that you can do that early and not feel so guilty about it.
What are your guilty pleasures?
I love trashy real estate reality shows like Million Dollar Listing. Related, I also love looking at floor plans of apartments I could never afford. Otherwise, I kind of indulge in everything else not guiltily!
What’s your nighttime routine?
No matter how tired I am, I will never let myself go to sleep without taking off my makeup, washing my face and flossing. Giving into a moment of laziness isn’t worth the potential eye infection, cavity or what have you. Like many people, I love Bioderma Crealine, which is amazing for makeup removal. My bedtime routine is not nearly as structured as my morning routine. I’m naturally a night owl so I used to do all my work from around 11pm into the wee hours of night. Thankfully I’m on a much better schedule now. When I was photographing weddings, there would be hundreds images that I’d have to edit, so I would power through them during the night. Now that my schedule is different, I’m trying to find a better work/life balance.
Speaking of work/life balance, how do you manage to do so much and keep it all together?
It’s hard. I don’t have any secrets. The thing I’m sacrificing the most right now is my social life. I’ll go for months where I only see people through work-related events. I definitely don’t see my friends or talk to my family as much as I’d like. For the most part, they’re understanding about my schedule. My friends all lead rather busy lives themselves, so no one is really just idling around either. With certain friends, no matter how much time has passed, it’s always easy to pick things right back up. Those are the best.
I sometimes joked this year that I felt like a first year investment banker, and that I’d be able to ease up after a few years once I reach a certain level, but I know I won’t want to ease up. If I’m not constantly working or looking forward to new work, I get both depressed and stressed. I feel so fortunate to be doing this job that I’m okay with a heavily work-skewed work/life balance. My struggle is more that I don’t want to find a balance. It’s my work that makes me happy. If I go on vacation I’m still going to try to find the most inspiring photos, because for me it enhances the experience.
You’ve photographed so many people. Do you have any tips for how to look good in photos?
If I’m directing someone, I’ll give them an action to do so they’re focused on doing it and not on how they look. I might say, walk over to the sink, pour this cup of water, talk to someone on set. Then they’ll feel the camera isn’t on them and will look more natural. I think first and foremost, though, you should find good lighting. Some people prefer to take photos with soft lighting, but I like when it’s slightly more dramatic.
Your Instagram account is filled with beautiful photos from your daily life. Do you plan them out ahead of time?
If the photo is something for a client, I’ll plan it out. But for my personal shots, I have no idea what I’m going to post. I’ve definitely relaxed a bit. I used to be like “oh my god I have to get the window seat because I have to get the best shot,” but now I can just go out to eat and not feel the need to take the perfect picture of my meal.
You take such inspiring shots of New York City. What are some of your favorite spots?
Nowadays, I find myself going to the same places over and over. My favorite restaurant is Maialino and you can find me there at least twice a week… sometimes more. I can have a meal by myself and feel comfortable. I’ll order the fried artichokes as an appetizer and I love the garganelli. And their desserts are spot-on. On a lazy Saturday, I will almost always do this exact same loop, basically going to Bluebird Coffee Shop, McNally Jackson Books, Mud Australia, Morgenstern’s Ice Cream, and The Apartment by The Line.
People leave hundreds of comments on your photos. What question do you get asked most often?
People often ask about my travel camera. It’s a Sony Alpha A7R. On the downside, it’s expensive and fairly slow, meaning you’re not going to get SLR speed, and there aren’t that many lenses for it yet. The pros: It’s so sharp, it’s 36 megapixels, it’s super light and I can bring it everywhere when I travel. I also think it’s pretty.
Which beauty items do you pack when you travel?
I always bring all of the aforementioned products from my everyday makeup. I have really dry eyes, so I pack natural tear lubricant, as well. I use Thera Tears. And lots of moisturizer on my face and hands, especially on long-haul flights. I usually bring whatever I have samples of, though it tends to be from Aesop because when you shop there, they’ll give you a bunch of samples. I’ll open one of the samples and use it throughout my flight, then toss it. It takes up almost no space in my bag.
Your home is so neat and organized (not to mention beautifully styled). I’m curious, how do you store your beauty products?
Everything lives behind my door in this behind-the-door organizer, which my friend Kira, a prop stylist, came up with. It was genius. My makeup had been scattered everywhere before, but now it’s organized and everything is easy to find.
What scents are you into right now?
I can’t stop reaching for Fleur de Portofino. It smells like white flowers, citrus and honey — I don’t know anything about top notes, but it reminds me of a sailing vacation on the Italian Riviera. It’s the perfect summer scent. I’ve also been using Ghost Rose solid perfume from Catbird, which is really nice for travel since there’s no risk of spillage.
What do you do to style and care for your hair?
I have no idea what I’m doing when it comes to my hair. I use SachaJuan scalp shampoo, which is great for dry scalps. Bizarrely, I also get really bad knots. If I didn’t use SachaJuan conditioner, my hair would get tangled. It smells good, too. I have to blow dry the ends; otherwise they do the horrible floppy curl-out thing. Other than that, though, I don’t do anything. I’ve watched countless YouTube videos on how to curl my hair with my straightening iron and I still don’t get it!
And you just cut your hair! It looks fantastic. Do you have a regular stylist?
I go to Q Hair, where I’ve been seeing the same guy for five years. He’s Japanese — I prefer going to Asian hairstylists because they understand the texture of Asian hair and how it reacts to cuts. I’ve had shorter hair for a year and a half. I wanted that dirty, messy hair look. I’ve always had neat, blunt cuts, so this time I wanted to have thinner layers and have the ends be wild. I just bought a product at the salon — Nigelle Clear Surge Milk. It helps with texture and shaping, and gives you nice hold but isn’t sticky.
What advice you would give your younger self?
You can’t please everyone. That is something I used to try to do, but now I’m better about it. I think negative comments are always going to be there, and it’s good not to become immediately defensive when they arise. I’m not saying they don’t affect me at all since I am still human, but I try not to dwell on them. Once in a while, criticism or a negative comment may spur positive change. My funny advice would also be to start a YouTube channel back in 2006. People who did that are so successful it blows my mind.
That’s the best answer. What words of wisdom would you offer to creative people trying to find their way?
Everyone always says, find what inspires you. That’s fine in the beginning, but once you get there, you should stop looking at them. When you’re too focused on what everyone else is doing, you end up trying to emulate the thing you’re inspired by. Keep creating a lot of work, keep producing. I think people need to be better at editing. For a photographer, if you take 30 pictures, and you like 10 of them, try narrowing it down to two. Two powerful images is much better than 10 good ones.
Last but certainly not least, what is your beauty philosophy?
It may sound simple and cliché, but I think it’s good to not get hung up about the things you can’t change about yourself, and focus and enhance those bits you do like. I still have to remind myself of this all the time. On a physical level, I’ve had to make peace with facts like I’ll never have long legs or a symmetrical mouth (weird one, I know). But some of the things that might be considered “negative” are also things I wouldn’t want to change.
Thank you so much, Alice!