Sherab Lhamo

Amidst the soft glow of lights, aligned strategically atop grand mirrors, a scene unfolds – a tableau of beauty and transformation.

To either side, chairs stand sentry, poised for their occupants. In the heart of this cosmetic sanctum, a table takes centre stage, adorned with a square basket brimming with an assortment of brushes and makeup pencils.

And just across, opposite the entrance, a desktop computer hums, offering a melodious backdrop to this realm of metamorphosis.

Meet Lhawang Zangmo, a name that carries more than just the weight of 53 years. In the world of makeup, she’s an outlier.

Her journey commenced in Phuentsholing, where primary education was the norm. Yet, destiny had other plans. Within months, her mother summoned her back to the village, Bongo in Chukha, where farm labour awaited her.

Lhawang’s voice, soft as a whisper, carries the cadence of her journey.

“During that time,” she says, “I taught my friends how to walk in the urban city way, style their hair, cut their hair, thread their eyebrows… It’s how the women in town did it.”

With No beauty parlours in sight, her interest in beautification served as her guide. She learned by practising with her friends, cultivating skills that would one day transform her into a makeup maestro.

As the clock strikes 5pm, the BBS makeup room comes alive. A news anchor takes her place in a chair, her reflection illuminated by the glow of the grand mirrors. In a choreographed ritual, Lhawang swings open a metal cupboard, revealing an array of makeup products – foundations, concealers, eyeshadows, lipsticks, and a palette of hues waiting to be wielded like an artist’s palette.

Her own appearance is modest, with medium-length greyish hair tied neatly at the back. A pink-stitched snap fastener adorns her tego, a departure from safety pins. She wears a half kira, eyes locked in unwavering focus on the news anchor’s face.

With deft precision, she applies cotton pads soaked in rose water, cleansing away the day’s grime. A concealer emerges to cloak any blemishes, while a blending brush gracefully sweeps across eyelids, delivering a delicate veil of eyeshadow. Mascara enlivens the anchor’s double eyelids, and contours emerge to sculpt the jawline. Eyebrows, too, receive meticulous attention. The final flourish – a sweep of lipstick, a final inspection of the coif – perfection achieved through Lhawang’s practised hand.

Rewind to 1999. Thimphu beckons, and Lhawang answers its call, finding shelter with her sister. It’s here that she confides in a friend about her aspirations as a hairstylist. With her friend’s assistance, she secures employment at Druk Salon, embarking on a journey of hair transformations.

A pivotal moment arrives when the salon’s owner returns from Bangkok, armed with newfound makeup skills. Lhawang becomes the canvas for experimentation. Though unfamiliar with the product names, she watches closely as makeup is deftly applied to her visage. The next day, she embarks on a quest to replicate the magic. Shop by shop, she seeks out the same makeup products, determined to recreate the artistry that had graced her own face.

“I also learned the basics of makeup from a makeup artist friend of mine,” she says.

In 2001, opportunity came knocking once again. A troupe of West Bengal movie makers descends on Bhutan, and Lhawang is invited into their world. The Doordarshan TV channel becomes her classroom, where she masters the art of makeup under the guiding light of professional illumination. Be it indoors, outdoors, or even from unique angles, Lhawang hones her craft, absorbing the lessons like a sponge.

At 32, Lhawang clinches her debut role as a makeup artist in a Bhutanese movie. “Tshangpa” is the title, with Lhaki Dolma as the leading lady.

“I learned how to do makeup and hairstyling, in line with the scripts,” she says, her eyes sparkling with the memory.

Her journey is no walk in the park. Makeup products were scarce in those days, which forced her to scavenge from various sources. But adversity only fuelled her determination.

“When I look at a person,” she says, “my mind automatically knows what kind of makeup to apply… Even watching movies and reading magazines, I directly know how his or her makeup is done, what products were applied.”

Until 2007, she was a makeup maven for around 22 movies, adorning the faces and tresses of countless actors and actresses. The year marked a turning point as she set her sights on BBS, taking the plunge into the world of television.

“One of the reasons I decided to work in BBS was due to the time schedule,” she says. Movie shoots often meant late nights and gruelling outdoor locations. BBS offered stability, and she seized the opportunity with both hands.

BBS wasn’t just a job; it was a classroom. Lhawang journeyed to Delhi for intensive training, delving deeper into the realms of makeup and skincare. But her quest for knowledge had no bounds.

In 2013, she volunteered with the Bhutan Chamber of Commerce and Industry (BBCI) and had the privilege of working alongside a Korean movie makeup artist who visited Thimphu. The following year, she collaborated with a Hollywood team.

“Through these opportunities, I honed my organisational skills, learning to arrange makeup products efficiently. I also mastered the art of makeup that brings fictional characters to life, absorbing these lessons faster than I ever imagined,” she reflects.

Her philosophy intertwines makeup and hairstyle, for they are inseparable in her world. “Makeup and hair are a harmonious symphony. Changing one without the other is like a song missing its melody.”

Since 2007, she has been the trusted hand behind the transformation of countless individuals on the BBS talk show, from the early days of political parties to the present moment.

Choney Seldon, a BBS news anchor, reminisces, “Lhawang has been my makeup artist for years. From my internship days at BBS to my official tenure, her skilled hands have been my constant companion.”

“Her adaptability and willingness to embrace changing trends set her apart,” Choney says.

Around 2012, Lhawang extended her expertise to the contestants of Miss Bhutan and Project Bhutan, answering their call for a touch of magic.

Dechen Pem, one of her regular clients, praises Lhawang’s unique and adaptable makeup artistry. “Her calming presence and amiable nature make the makeup process a truly relaxing experience.”

Lhawang’s journey has been a testament to her unwavering commitment to learning. Challenges became stepping stones to her current stature.

Her friend Tshering attests to her calm and positive demeanour. “She’s a dependable friend who’ll be there when you need her, even if she has her hands full with important tasks.”

Beyond makeup, Lhawang is an avid cooking enthusiast, using her free time to explore the intricacies of diverse cuisines. “My love for cooking has driven me to research extensively, delving into the nutritional value of vegetables, rice, and fruits,” she says, exemplifying her thirst for knowledge.

Every day, she immerses herself in mindful meditation and the teachings of Buddhism, a spiritual practice that has been her anchor for nearly six years.

In her two-bedroom apartment, simplicity reigns supreme. A small table and sofa parts form a cosy corner for mindfulness training. Amidst the modest furniture, a cupboard and a dressing mirror complete her abode.

“Education is paramount, but the hunger to learn is even more crucial,” Lhawang says. “If you’re passionate about something, give it your all, research, and learn relentlessly. That’s the path to unimaginable heights.”