Giant Among Us
Karl Giant’s world
Written by D. Michael Taylor and Jeffery Taylor
In the intensely competitive world of high glamour, just making a name for yourself in one niche is difficult. Few artists have the discipline and raw talent to master new forms of expression while maintaining creative control over every aspect of their career. This is what sets Karl Giant apart from mere mortals. Makeup artist, photographer, actor, video director, and budding movie director – Giant has an insatiable hunger for making glamorous images come to life.
“I have many, many lives. It keeps me busy,” Giant told noiZe. “I was never trained in makeup, never trained in photography, and never trained in film production. I just watch a lot. I still technically don’t know what I’m doing. I know how I want the picture to look. I just fuck with it until it gets there.” This irreverent, unpretentious attitude has allowed Giant to find a balance in life that most can only dream about: success on his own terms.
Karl always knew he wanted to express himself in creative ways. Like many young boys, his childhood in Boston was filled with a healthy comic book obsession. He also wanted to be Madonna for a time. “I really loved the X-Men,” he explains. “I related to them because they were sort of outcasts and mutants and homos. I was always either drawing or being an obnoxious acting brat. I’d be in every dance show. You know, you send your bratty kids to dance class, and I was the only boy of course. I wanted to be a comic book artist, or a famous actor, or later, Madonna.”
Karl moved to New York in 1991 in pursuit of his dream—or, rather, dreams. He enrolled at the American Music & Dramatic Academy on the Upper West Side. The performing arts school is housed in a legendary old building named the Ansonia, which provides the perfect dramatic backdrop for budding artistes. “I loved the Ansonia,” Karl recalls.
He enrolled in the music theater program because of that lifelong goal to become the next (or just plain become) Madonna. After he realized that he couldn’t tap dance, he quit after a year by faking an injury. He did act in a few independent films during the indie-crazed ‘90s. Considering the faked injury, it’s no surprise IMDB lists Giant’s genre as “drama”.
Gian “used to think I wanted to be a star or Madonna or something like that. And then, after doing a whole bunch of movies, I realized I didn’t really want to be a star, what I wanted was control – of whatever my process was.”
He has since explored a dizzying array of art forms—and had success in all of them.
Makeup, however, became the proving ground for Giant, as he boldly thrust himself into that cutthroat competitive world with very little experience. What he did have was a bold and unique point of view. “A lot of dramatic makeup looks really good from far away but really bad up close. My makeup looks good up close.” Good enough to land him a gig as the lead makeup artist for Smashbox Cosmetics. He became the go-to media person for the company, and was one of the talking heads regularly announcing to fashion mags “the new looks and how to get them!”
He’s always been fascinated with eyes. “When I was a little kid, I used to draw these eyes over and over and over. My mother would say, ‘Stop wasting paper!’ I’d scribble on her mail and any little note that was by the phone. I’d always do the same eye with huge lashes.” His work as both a makeup artist and photographer still teems with luscious, almost alien eye work.
He soon found that simply doing the makeup didn’t give him all of the creative control he craved. “I was doing all this makeup and working with these photographers and I didn’t like how it was being photographed,” he recalls. So he taught himself how to shoot.
Once he grabbed the reins both in front of and behind the camera, his work took on a new level of artistic expression. Its noir fantasy quality hints at a parallel universe without alienating the subject matter. The best kind of glamour doesn’t intimidate or set its subjects on pedestals – it draws the viewer into an intimate world where anything is possible. Giant’s work manages this in colorful and exciting ways.
Giant soon found himself itching to learn about video, his current fascination. He stumbled into that while working on a shoot for house music legend Ultra Naté. “I was watching what they were doing and I think I said out loud, ‘I can do this!’ And Ultra said, ‘Send me a treatment.’”
The treatment turned out to be “Automatic.” His collaboration continues with Ultra whom he counts as a close friend and inspiration. “She’s definitely the reason why I’m here. I love working with her. She’s amazing. She says yes to all my crazy ideas.”
Giant clearly enjoys working with the fluidity of the video medium. He edits everything himself, sculpting the look and feel of his shoots with the same intensity and passion that he brings to makeup and photography. He flat-out rejects the idea that music videos are a thing of the past.
“Some people think video is dead, but it’s not. Absolutely not. In Europe, it is no joke. They have at least fifteen video channels going at one time.”
One of his favorite shoots was a video for The Ones, which featured a dizzying collection of downtown celebrities and musicians. “That was a crazy, crazy, crazy day! It was every downtown celebrity. It blew my mind that Debbie Harry agreed to do it, and I was directing her. I had such a great production staff that they had it timed down to the hour,” he continues. “We had six makeup and hair people.”
All told, close to 60 boldface names joined in: “It was really a blender of celebrity glamour. I’m really proud of that video.” He another video project is around the corner, equally exciting, he promises. He won’t name names just yet, but assures us that “she’s so unusual.”
Giant finds inspiration in the people he works with, and never stops thinking about how to make the world a little more glamorous. “One day you’re working with Cindy Crawford and the next day it’s Peppermint Gummibear.”
He just shot amazing pictures of Irish major dance up-and-comer Roisin Murphy, who just had a super-successful American debut concert at Mansion in New York. “I did the poster for the American leg of her tour. We did it with a lobster on her head, sort of like this ‘50s Schiaparelli-meets-Dada surrealist look. It’s kind of weird when I don’t have to put rhinestones on somebody.”
Rhinestones, in fact, are Giant’s signature. They pop and sparkle in nearly everything that he creates. He started his spangly obsession with Ami Goodheart, who “basically brought burlesque back to New York City. She had this show called ‘Rouge’ five, six, seven years ago. They would perform in dark little clubs. It was The Box before it opened. Some of these rooms were so dark and I was their makeup guy and I thought, how can I bring light to their faces?”
The solution was rhinestones—and plenty of them. If they had one little light on, it would explode off the group’s face. If such a thing is possible, Giant brings a subtlety to the bastard child of diamonds, lovingly creating radiant starbursts on many of the magical eyes that he creates.
He warns of the tightrope that he walks with them, though: “It takes like three rhinestones in the wrong place to make someone look vulgar and cheap.”
Business is booming for Karl Giant. Currently, he still works with friends like Ultra and out-gay crooner Jason Walker, as well as Peppermint’s video (“it’s the sickest thing I’ve done so far”) and makeup for Tiesto’s worldwide tour. He’s excited about working with va-va-voom trans performance artist Amanda Lapore on a shoot for her track “My Hair Looks Fierce,” but he also loves to work with macho men like singer Colton Ford.
Oh, and he just joined “The Tyra Banks Show” as official celebrity photographer. Too busy to even bother getting himself a proper business card, his reputation nevertheless precedes him.
At the end of the day, there is one thing that keeps him pushing the boundaries and trying new things . “I always do this thing called ‘hyperglamour.’ I don’t know why I call it that, but that’s what it is to me. It’s not really drag; it’s very theatrical in a fashion-y sort of animé way.”
Whatever it is, it lights up his world like fireworks. He also enjoys flipping the script a bit when it comes to gender in his work. “I like empowering women and objectifying men,” he admits. (The men never seem to mind very much.)
Look for Giant’s work wherever you see a painted face, a photograph, a video or a movie. In other words, don’t be surprised to see him all around you, making the world a little bit more gorgeous along the way.
Karl Giant makes the world a fierce and gorgeous place to live in! He’s like a Sexy Santa Claus, bringing us the gift of glam every day of the year. All of us girls, and I’m sure boys, love him for it.
Diana Terranova ps- I wish he was the make-up artist on my Fox Reality show “Smile You’re Under Arrest”. I think the criminals would look cute with rhinestones to match their jail outfits.
By Diana Terranova on 12-06-2008