Madonna isn't the only star to have turned to Nars to save face. In his 20-year career, the French-born makeup man has glossed the pouts of celebs (Anjelica Huston, Ashley Judd) and supermodels (Cindy, Claudia) at countless runway shows and fashion shoots. But lately it is at the makeup counter that Nars is making his mark. The Nars cosmetics line, which he launched in 1994, generated $6.5 million in worldwide sales last year and endeared Nars to a slew of not-so-famous fans. Shoppers at Barneys New York and Saks Fifth Avenue can't get enough of his lipsticks ($19) and foundations ($37)—or of Nars himself, who is regularly mobbed at in-store appearances. "He has that personality that wins you over," explains longtime fan Isabella Rossellini. Adds pal Naomi Campbell: "Francois can transform you into anything he envisions you to be."
Nars, 39, sees a simple reason for his success. "After years and years of practice," he says, "you really understand what works best." Growing up in Tarbes, France, where his father, Jean-Jacques, now 63, owned a pork-products factory, Nars routinely scoured the pages of his mother Claudette's Vogue magazines. As a teenager "he would do my makeup," boasts Claudette, 63. "I'd be very chic, and he was delighted." Arriving in Paris at 18, Nars assisted top makeup artist Olivier Echaudemaison for a year before striking out on his own, creating looks for designers such as Yves Saint Laurent and magazines such as Vogue, Elle and Marie Claire. In 1984 he moved to New York City, where he quickly became popular with editors and photographers. "I worked hard," he says, "but I got lucky. People really liked me right away."
Even Madonna, who, after the eyebrow incident, anointed Nars her makeup man for several music videos and her bare-all Sex book. During their nearly four-year collaboration, Nars takes credit for helping give the chameleonlike chanteuse a look he describes as "more beautiful and womanly. Not as crazy."
By 1994 it was Nars who needed a change. "I was frustrated just doing makeup," he says. With financial backing from his parents, he launched a line of 10 lipsticks in 1994, followed by a full makeup line a year later. Nars shoots his own ad campaigns, often using models wearing surprisingly little face paint. "You should definitely see the person first," he says.
When he's not conducting private makeup sessions (for $300), Nars, who is single, can be found unwinding in the antique-filled, one-bedroom SoHo apartment he shares with his French bulldog Marcel, visiting museums or hatching new schemes. He hopes to open his own Manhattan store next year and to expand to Paris, London and Tokyo. And his first photography book, portraits of the famous as well as unknowns, is due next fall. For the former factory owner's son, the ride to success has been sweet. "Knowing that even when I go to sleep at night there are women in Europe or in Asia buying my cosmetics," he says, "that's quite a thrill."
Mary Green in New York City and Cathy Nolan in Paris