New Zealand artist: Joanne Gair

In 2010 travellers enjoying Air New Zealand’s in-flight safety videos witnessed the impact of an art form popularised by a young Kiwi.

Aucklander Joanne Gair, who began the creative practice of using the body as a live canvas in the early 1980s, has gone on to become one of the world’s leading trompe-l’oeil artist or illusionist.

And while she didn’t personally paint the Air New Zealand crew who pushed creative boundaries when 'wearing' only body paint for in-flight safety videos during a "nothing to hide" advertising campaign, Gair can be credited for the elevated status of an ancient art form that has become a modern phenomenon.

Body art illusionist

Still a passionate New Zealander and known to her friends and the online community as "Kiwi Jo", Joanne Gair calls herself an illusionist - although her extraordinary rise to fame is far from being a figment of the imagination.

Now in her fifties and living in the heart of New York’s Manhattan, Gair has painted the bodies of some of the world’s most famous people, seen her work splashed across the front pages of a host of high-profile international magazines, and is considered a master in the art of make-up artistry and body painting.

Gair, who is seen as a trend-setter in the competitive world of fashion, says she continues to drive herself to explore and experiment in her work, in an effort to bring something new to a project every time.

Travelling Soul

Daughter of the New Zealand politician and former North Shore mayor Hon. George Gair, Joanne Gair left New Zealand with a one-way ticket age 21 thinking she’d be home within a year.

Years on she is still travelling and while her jet-setting lifestyle may seem a far cry from her home-town upbringing, New Zealand is never very far from Kiwi Jo’s thoughts.

She speaks to family in Auckland every day and comes home at least once a year for Christmas and the summer holidays.

Mostly she goes home to New York with sliced Vogels bread and vegemite in her bag - Kiwi treats savoured on special occasions. Pawpaw cream, and possum and merino mittens are some other favourite Kiwi purchases - articles much in demand by friends in the US, according to Gair.

North Shore girl

Growing up on Auckland’s North Shore, Gair attended a school on the waterfront at Takapuna Beach.

"The beach was our playground and the sea our swimming pool, so that’s where we learned to swim."

Gair went on to train as a school teacher before setting off on her OE (overseas experience) and travelling to Amsterdam. Then, through a recommendation, she moved to Sydney and completed a one-year make-up course that became the foundation for her new career.

Creative interpretation and experimenting outside the square by drawing on her Kiwi upbringing and understanding of Māori mythology and Pacific culture, the artist produced a portfolio that took her via Tokyo to Los Angeles where doors opened and a star was born.

Painting the stars

Working with the world’s top photographers, directors, super models and celebrities, Gair’s creations have spanned all media, with many memorable editorial covers and layouts, fashion campaigns, advertising, music videos, commercials and motion pictures to her credit.

Celebrities like Madonna, Cindy Crawford, Michelle Pfeiffer, Kim Basinger, Christina Aguilera, Sophia Loren and Lady Gaga have been some of her make-up clients.

She worked with Madonna over a 10-year period on numerous music videos (Express Yourself, Vogue, Fever, Rain, Frozen), the Blonde Ambition Tour and subsequent feature documentary 'Truth or Dare'.

Gair’s extensive work with editorial (Vogue, W, Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone, Playboy, Black Book, Harper's Bazaar, Sports Illustrated), fashion campaigns (Donna Karan, Versace, Victoria’s Secret, Guess, bebe) and cosmetic companies (L’Oreal, Maybelline, Revlon, Oil of Olay, Rimmel), has established her as a fixture in the fashion industry. She also did a two-year stint as beauty editor for New York based Black Book magazine.

Vanity Fair

It was the August 1992 issue of Vanity Fair, featuring Demi Moore wearing nothing but a suit of body paint that sent Gair’s career into orbit. The cover earned her worldwide recognition and put Gair at the pinnacle of the body art genre.

Another milestone was the 1999 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue, which featured a 12-page layout using six models as the canvases for Gair’s art.

The striking, brightly coloured, painted bathing suits (replicas of original designs) exemplified Gair’s close attention to detail and sense of realism that have made her the master of the art of illusion. Her work has now become an annual Sports Illustrated Swimsuit fixture.

Body Art exhibition

Gair says a highlight for her as an artist was in 2001 when more than 50 of her most famous works, spanning more than 20 years, were shown in the Vodafone Body Art Exhibition at the Auckland Museum, in New Zealand.

She has produced three books to date: Paint A’ Licious (2005), a career retrospective Body Painting Masterpieces By Joanne Gair (2006), and In The Paint - The Art of Joanne Gair (2007) - a collection of body-painted swimsuits from Sports Illustrated.

Describing herself as a beach-loving person who gains energy from being around water, Kiwi Jo says she loves the outdoors and is a jandal-wearing, practical person.

"I’m very much a working girl on my feet a lot and still doing all aspects of the work which remains about 50/50 make-up artistry and body painting."

Gair owns land on the Kaipara Harbour northwest of Auckland and says she hopes to build there and come home to roost one day.

"Knowing I have that little piece of New Zealand keeps me going and feeds my soul. I miss New Zealand big time, it really is such a beautiful place," She says.