'So much of the beauty industry is bogus' - meet make-up revolutionary Rose-Marie Swift

rose marie swift 
RMS Beauty founder, Rose-Marie Swift 

Back in the late Nineties, when she was 36, Rose-Marie Swift began suffering from memory loss. Her hair was falling out at an alarming rate and her candida was so bad – perhaps best not to read this now if you’re still enjoying breakfast – she had yeast coming out of her belly button. She was itching all the time.

Extensive blood tests revealed alarmingly high heavy metal content in her body – lead, cadmium, aluminium, barium and mercury, as well as high levels of pesticides and many other (not so) delights. That was when the doctors asked whether she worked in the cosmetics industry, “because,” recounts Swift, “so many of the toxins they saw in my bloodstream were present in common or garden cosmetic products”.

Did she work in beauty! She was a highly in-demand make-up artist: Gisele Bündchen’s go-to, an anchor on the Victoria’s Secret shows and constantly booked up for editorial.

She began scouring ingredients lists, cleared out her bathroom cabinet, cleaning cupboard and fridge, turned into a raw foodist, fasted, drank clay formulations designed to purge the digestive system and religiously took probiotics and digestive enzymes. Gradually she worked her way back to health. It was quite a turnaround from the woman whose doctors had told her they didn’t know how she was standing.

The ebullient 64-year-old seated opposite me in Mortimer’s restaurant in London’s Fitzrovia (she’s briefly here from Savannah where she now lives) looks like a Martha Graham disciple. Dressed entirely in black, she seems strong-but-gracefully balletic, an image reinforced by her translucent skin, crimson lipstick (organic obviously) and the black beanie that conceals her hair.

Un-Cover up concealer, approx £27 each, RMS Beauty

But the voice – which has less of the soft brogue of Canada where she grew up and a lot more raucous klaxon de New York, where she lived for decades, is something else. In 2004 she began broadcasting it, sharing everything she’d discovered via a blog called BeautyTruth.com. “It’s a bit better in the EU, but cosmetics in the US are almost totally unregulated. So much of what’s out there is bogus. Natural means nothing. Ethanol is a gasoline derived from corn, so they call it ‘natural’. But look what they do to it.” The beauty industry takes a dim view of those who publicly question its claims – “but actually, it catapulted me to another level”.

As BeautyTruth’s following grew, so did pleas for her to launch her own line. To say it wasn’t easy is an understatement. Most widely available brands are owned by a handful of conglomerates and many formulations are off-the-shelf generics. “I couldn’t even get a lab to make my formulations in the beginning, “ she recounts. “They all said it was too expensive and too time consuming.“

Lip2Cheek, approx £27, RMS Beauty; Luminizer, approx £29, RMS Beauty

She sought the help of a friend who’d graduated in pharmacology in Canada. “I was doing a scoop of this and a handful of this. It was quite intuitive. I was using my eye and my friend helped me set formulations.” Swift became obsessed with chemistry. “I was checking how much the other brands were heating all their ingredients. They’re nuts about heat and emulsification to increase shelf life. At best it kills the ingredients. At worst it makes them toxic. And it’s totally unnecessary. High quality oils – they naturally have a long shelf life. But everyone’s obsessed with germs. What’s the primary ingredient in hand sanitiser? Paranoia.”

From the start, Swift was determined to deliver subtle, sheer colours that felt butter soft and made skin look radiant. “My whole shtick was showing skin, not masking it. It’s the opposite of that Kardashian approach. It’s all about getting light to reflect off your skin so it looks dewy. I don’t understand this obsession with matt. It’s OK in a photograph but in real life it’s deadening.”

Eventually she found her factories and suppliers of organic cold-pressed sesame seed, castor, coconut and jojoba oils, non-genetically modified soy, vitamin E and honey derived from farms in South America. “Do you know how great jojoba is?” she booms. “I used jojoba all the time on the Victoria’s Secrets models because it makes skin look juicy while imbuing it with natural colour. The only other natural product that contains as high a concentration of lauric and caprylic acid, which are both anti-fungal and antiviral, as my make-up is human breast milk.”

She’s thought it through to the nth degree. But given how many millions use chemical-filled cosmetics, seemingly with no ill-effects, mightn’t she be accused of paranoia?

Volumising mascara, £29, The Organic Pharmacy; Eye Definer, £14.75, Dr. Hauschka

“No!” She practically yells. “This stuff is doing invisible damage. It’s disrupting our endocrine systems, playing havoc with our hormones, screwing up our water…” Don’t get her started on the sunscreen industry. She never uses it, except when absolutely unavoidable – it’s shade or a hat.

The first product was her Eye Polish, which “like all the products. You can sleep in this stuff and it will condition your skin”.

You’d have thought beauty editors would have leapt on RMS, but getting her foot past their doors proved a formidable task. “American Vogue wouldn’t see me for about five years,” she says. “I used to go home and cry.”

The breakthrough was Luminizer, one of the most natural looking light-bringers I’ve come across. No wonder it became a favourite of Gisele and Karolina Kurkova. Allure magazine named it one of its products of the year. Once the celebrity recommendations rolled in she was on her way. American Vogue opened its doors; “Now when I visit them, I can’t get away.”

She’s sold in over 1,700 retailers and still owns the business. The high rollers began calling, including one CEO who told her she was doing things the way they used to in the Thirties and Forties. “He told me the cosmetics industry is destroying women’s cells. That’s when I knew I was doing the right thing”.