The Requests That A Magazine Retoucher Gets Will Shock You

Erasing collarbones and "vagina armpits" is all in a day's work.
Publish date:
September 19, 2014
models, photoshop, retouching, interview, weight, celebrity, wrinkles, magazines, media

By now we're used to seeing gifs of celebrities before and after magazine retouching. The image flashes from real to industry ideal and what's revealed is... less.

Less weight, less fine lines, less skin texture and tone (when's the last time you saw pores on a magazine cover star?), but always a bit more cleavage and volumized hair.

Who's to blame? The fashion and beauty industries shoulder a lot of the backlash. Celebrity culture and celebrities themselves play a role, too. (Is everyone as appalled as I am that our perfect queen Bey allegedly feels the need to retouch her Instagram photos?)

But if you want to go all the way down the rabbit hole, talk to a digital retoucher at a fashion and celebrity glossy, which is what I did. The retoucher I spoke with--who preferred to remain anonymous--is a 20 year veteran of the trade. He came up when digital retouching was in its infancy--when edits were still being painted on with an actual airbrush (like, with real paint). His mentor was the exclusive retoucher for one of the most famous supermodels of the 1990s.

"Everything I learned about keeping skin tone intact--taking out wrinkles but still having texture to the skin so it didn’t look painted--everything I learned about skin texture I learned from my mentor," he told me as we began a conversation about his process, his ethics, and the gravely irresponsible retouching requests he receives from editors and creative directors.

What are the things that you immediately look to fix on an image of a celebrity or model? Where does your eye go first? First of all, things have changed a lot. Celebrities are in every form of media everywhere, you know, with social media. So people know what they look like. First thing you cannot do is over-retouch somebody. I’m old school. I’ll actually look at a current picture of someone before I sit down and do anything--just to make sure that I don’t go too far. And I do have arguments with art directors and creative directors all the time . . . I’ve got to say, I do generally get asked to retouch women more. It’s always “do more, do more, do more” to the women celebrities than the men. Male celebrities have actually told us that they don’t want to be retouched at all.

Do creative directors and editors view wrinkles on men and women differently? Like, on guys they’re interesting and rugged and on women they’re sad and unattractive? Definitely, there’s more pressure on women. To tell you the truth, I think most of those kinds of issues don’t originate with the retouchers. It’s all the art directors, the creative directors, even the publicists to an extent.

Have you ever had a female celebrity, or her publicist, request no retouching? Only once. Mary J. Blige. [She has a scar] that means something to her.

Let’s talk about covers. What is the back and forth between you, creative, and editorial? That’s another thing that has changed through the years. When I began you never did anything unless instructed. Now it’s more like, you get to know the personality of the creative director--what his or her likes and dislikes are--and then, just because it’s easier, you do it before you’re asked. And I’m never comfortable with that. We have to be mind readers along with everything else. I’ll do to an extent what I think is right. I would never alter someone’s looks. I won’t shorten Barbra Streisand’s nose. I will not do things that are uncommon to a person’s looks.

[Editor’s note: here the retoucher describes being asked to substantially reduce the size of a celebrity’s head.]

There are times when you have to fight and say, “No, I think this is wrong.”

I’ve never done anything like take someone else’s body part and put it on someone else, but like I said, sometimes there’s no pleasing art directors, and they say, “I like her head in this shot and I like her breasts in this shot, can you put them in one?” I’ve actually done that quite often.

I want to discuss weight. People say the camera adds 10 pounds, but where do you draw the line between portraying a person’s actual size and telling a lie? Sometimes you’re doing something for a celebrity almost like you feel like you’re doing them a favor. You’re not being asked, but you know that’s a very popular person and you know that they should be presented in the best possible light. So you feel like, OK, I’m going to tuck in this person’s stomach and I’m going to take a few pounds off their hips. You kind of feel like you should do this for them as a person that people really like. [Maybe] it’s a red carpet picture that someone took at an awkward angle and you just feel kind of responsible. I actually retouched a picture of Martha Stewart even though nobody asked me to, but I felt like I had to do it because it was just such a horribly taken picture. There is a professional courtesy that you do a little when you’re not asked.

In general, what are the directives you get on weight and body edits? With women they always want too thin. They always want thinner waist, thinner legs. And these women are already skinny. Women that you would even think are kind of too thin and they still say, “Thin her thighs out a little bit.” And I’m thinking, What are they seeing? I’m a student of anatomy . . . and you have to really know your anatomy when you’re messing around with people’s bodies.

I’ve had instructions like, “Remove this, it’s distracting.” It’s the woman’s collarbone, for God’s sake. Is she not supposed to have bones? So when it’s time to fight and say no, I’ll do it. I’m not going to damage my own reputation.

What are some of the other things that editors and art directors write on proofs that make you want run screaming out of the building? “Can you make her eyes bigger?” Bigger? You mean, open her eyes? Are her eyes squinty? “No, no, I mean, make her eyes bigger.” That’s too much. What is the model going to think when she sees herself with Martian eyes? Someone else might do that but I won’t . . . The models that aren’t as well known get messed with more. I’ve done things where I thought, This shouldn’t be that we’re going to take this much weight off of this person.

How much weight have you taken off? I would say 10, 20 pounds, at least . . . Groups of models would come into our place for [fashion director’s name redacted] to select. I’ve seen women leave in tears because they weren’t selected, or maybe because of the way they weren’t selected. Maybe they do it like, “OK, you, you, and you, and the rest of you, no.”

How often do you change the color of someone’s lipstick, the color of someone’s hair, the amount of hair on someone’s head? Is that a regular thing with celebrity covers? Yeah, I would say so. Lips especially. I always say, whoever did the makeup for this person did so based on what they were wearing or the situation, whether she’s outside or indoors. Regardless, [editorial and creative] still ask me to change things, lipstick more often than hair color.

But do you punch up the hair color? Yeah, put highlights in, do something. [More often now], because they know what a digital retoucher can do, they take less care [in hair and makeup]. We’ve had pictures where hair is a mess--like, all over the place--because “the digital guy will fix it.”

If a person is shot with very little makeup can you literally put their makeup on for them? Yeah, we’ve done that. We’ve had to put color on someone’s cheek, eye makeup on their eyes, lipstick on their lips, reshape their eyebrows, lengthen their lashes. I’ve even gone so far as to put nail polish and fingernails on.

There will be a model that will have absolutely no fingernails--no manicure at all, busted up cuticles and all of that--and I’ll have to shape and render fingernails.

I’ve noticed that, in some magazines, no one has pores anymore. What do editors have against pores? There’s a lot of software that I think are very wrong to use that have become popular as quick fixes. I don’t ever use them. It’s just a quick, fuzzy fix for skin texture.

Sounds like retouching for dummies. They’re taking the skill out of it. I don’t want to be reduced to a button-presser. Actually, the more challenging things make me the happiest.

Can you change someone’s expression? Yes, but not too drastic; I’m talking about taking someone with no expression at all and giving them a slightly upturned smile, a Mona Lisa smile. You can alter people’s eyes--if they’re squinting you can open them up with the Morph tool. Those are the best improvements in Photoshop that have come through the years. That and the brushes in Photoshop used to be so crude and terrible but now they’re amazing. I really think that Photoshop has come to a point where they really couldn’t make it much better. You still have to know how to you use it, you have to know anatomy. It’s not a button-pressing thing, at this point.

What kinds of things do you change on a younger girl, like, say the age of a Taylor Swift? Clarity of complexion is always an issue . . . You do something like that almost because you feel like you should. Yeah, I would say skin, and even with thin celebrity girls they always want them thinner.

I’ve retouched Victoria’s Secret catalogue images--the most beautiful women on the planet. You wouldn’t believe the stuff you have to fix on a regular basis. There are disgusting terms that retouchers have coined over the years--"vagina armpits" is one.

What do you get asked to do more of--taking off pounds or taking off wrinkles? I would say they’re probably obsessed more with weight. “Can you tuck her arm in a little bit?” And the arm is fine but they want it thinner. Thighs: thinner. Hips: thinner. That’s pretty much the norm.

Have you ever done something against your ethics or better judgment and felt wrong about it afterward? Yes, but I always try and dial it back, like when they said they wanted me to make [name redacted’s] head smaller. I said no for a while and then I gave in and did a slight variation of what I thought would be acceptable and it went out the door.

Where does all of this scrutiny and irresponsibility stem from? What is the source of the problem? [The editors and creative directors] are driven by the advertisers--their opinions are being molded by clients and the industry itself . . . It’s something that should change, and I don’t think it’s a healthy atmosphere for a young woman to be model right now.

After this interview I was more thankful than ever to be a member of the xoVain team, where there is no digital retoucher and no one has Photoshop on their computer.

What surprised you in this article? What are your feelings on retouchers paying celebrities "professional courtesies" by fixing awkward photos and slimming them down where they may appear heavier than they usually would?