Minutes before Chinese actress Zhang Ziyi hits the red carpet for a film festival or an awards ceremony, Singaporean make-up artist Clarence Lee will be there to put the finishing touches on her make-up, making sure that she looks flawless.

In fact, Lee, 40, has flown around the world with the actress, even hopping on a private jet from London to Milan just so he could do her make-up for two back-to-back events. But in spite of having worked with top international and local stars – the likes of singers Chris Isaak, the Spice Girls and Stefanie Sun – the veteran make-up maestro is not one to toot his own horn.

“People can say I am their favourite, but I don’t believe I am the best in the industry. There is no best in art,” says Lee, who is regarded as one of the top make-up artists in the business here.

He has worked with world-renowned make-up experts such as Chanel make-up’s former global creative director Peter Philips and Estee Lauder’s creative make-up director Tom Pecheux.

Recently, he has appeared on television as one of the expert stylists on Lady First Singapore, a beauty and fashion infotainment show, which was launched on StarHub TV last month.

But to hear him tell it, his success is all due to luck and good timing.

He landed his first editorial job at the age of 17 when he accompanied a friend to a modelling job. From there, he built up his name and a chance meeting with Zhang led to him doing her make-up in 2003. The winner of a number of make-up awards, including best make-up artist in Her World’s Beauty Awards in 2003, Lee says his passion is “to make people look better than they are”.

“Someone can have not-so-nice features, but with a bit of help, make-up can boost a person’s confidence,” say Lee, who has been wielding make-up brushes from as early as his primary-school days.

“In primary school, when we had performances, I hated the way they did my make-up, so from Primary 5, I did it myself,” says the former Bedok Primary School pupil, who would borrow his mother’s make-up. His mother is a retired cashier, 64, and his father is a former senior technician, 71.

Says his mother, Madam Wong Sai Wan, in Mandarin: “He and his sisters would take my make-up and play with it. I always discovered my lipstick was broken when I wanted to use it.”

Lee’s two elder sisters are a housewife and an administrative officer, and his elder brother works in a freight-forwarding company. All are in their 40s.

His interest in make-up continued in secondary school. He and his friends – mostly girls – from Chai Chee Secondary would hit the beach for their own photoshoots, which would be styled by Lee.

And he remembers adding “make-up” to black-and-white photographs of models in newspapers, using coloured pencils. “I thought, ‘oh, I can make this person look much more stunning’,” says Lee, who confesses that he spent less time listening to his teachers and more time furtively going through fashion magazines in class.

The first magazine he bought in primary school was local publication Her World with pan-Asian model Julia Frodsham on the cover. “I thought, ‘wah, this girl is very beautiful’ and was flipping through the magazine under my desk,” he says with a laugh, crow’s feet showing under his perfectly shaped eyebrows, which he fills in with eyebrow pencil.

“I do it every day, it’s my security blanket,” says Lee, who also has a thin layer of foundation on, in preparation for the Life! photoshoot.

These days, he does much more than admire models in magazines and doodle on newspaper cut-outs.

When he worked with the Spice Girls in 1996 while they were here to promote their Wannabe single, he remembers them reluctant to be made up by him because they were not sure what to expect.

But after he did the make-up on Sporty Spice (Melanie Chisholm), the others were pleased with what they saw and allowed him to make them up.

As for actress Zhang, he has done her make-up on and off for as long as 10 years, including for film festivals, the glitzy British Academy of Film and Television Arts in London and fashion shows.

The well-groomed Lee, dressed in dark tones, with hair pulled back in a ponytail, says he is fortunate and has never had to struggle much. His family has always been supportive – even his grandmother told him to learn hairstyling to add to his craft.

Says his mother, Madam Wong: “Some relatives said this job is for girls, but we said it’s a different age, there is no difference between girls and boys.”

His family even paid for his make-up classes at Cosmoprof Academy, a make-up and beauty school in Singapore which has been around for 25 years, before he went for national service.

Besides having the passion for make-up, Lee says he has been lucky and always seemed to be at the right place at the right time.

Getting to work with Zhang is one such example. She happened to be at his friend, celebrity hairstylist David Gan’s salon, Passion, at Palais Renaissance, when he visited, and Gan introduced them. That meeting sparked a working relationship between the three.

Gan, who says he is in his late 40s, says: “His style is very clean, yet you can see the colour. Our first job with Zhang Ziyi was in 2003, when we did a Coca-Cola shoot in China, and she liked Clarence.”

Says model and close friend Junita Simon, 36: “We worked together when I was 15. He saw me queuing for make-up for a show at Zouk, and he pulled me aside and asked if he could do my make-up. He’s so versatile, he can do anything, from the eyebrows to the lips, he does them perfectly.”

The two have become fast friends and he is her supplier of make-up, which he says he often gets for free from brands. “He’s such a nice person. I have not bought make-up in 20 years,” she says.

Clarence Lee’s first editorial shoot happened by chance. He had accompanied a schoolmate to a casting for a modelling job at Chinese newspaper Lianhe Zaobao and the stylist ended up asking himto do the make-up for the shoot.

He was just 17 at the time.

While he was in national service, he volunteered to work at fashion shows with modelling agency Hanis International and worked part-time at the Fox Hair Salon at Shaw Centre. After completing NS, he took on a full-time position at the salon for two years. During that time, he also built his name by doing editorial work.

He still works on editorials and had just completed a shoot for Chinese fashion magazine NuYou before this interview. “Editorials help me keep up to date,” he says, even though they do not pay.

Of course, he does get paid top dollar when he is hired for fashion shows and events, but he declines to reveal his rates. Weddings, too, are not beneath him. “This is work for me, why should I push work away?” he says in his straightforward manner.

Brides are charged $2,000 for one day and one evening look. A regular make-up artist would charge about a third of the price.

Lee also has his fair share of socialite clients, who pay his regular fees, then throw in a designer bag once in a while. He has received Hermes bags, costing $15,000 each, from his clients.But he says he has never asked for such presents and does not boast about these gifts.

The secret to his success, he says, is that he is always himself. “People like me because I don’t act like someone I am not,” he says.

You would not catch him making small talk with someone he does not like or respect. “Sometimes, people say you have to be fake, so as not to cause tension,” he says. “I can’t do it. I’m a bad liar.”

Working with stars is not difficult, says Lee. In fact, the stars are rarely prima donnas. Zhang, he says, is easy to work with and willing to try different looks. The two chat with each other on the mobile-phone application WeChat and meet up when they are in the same country.

Instead, uninformed art directors with no fashion background are the ones who irk him. For example, they might show visuals of Caucasian models to the crew and expect them to achieve a certain look.

“But the model is a different race and has a different bone structure, so you can’t compare the two. It’s really quite silly,” he says.

Another thing that gets his goat: Women who wear too much make-up. “I’m quite minimalist,” he says of his make-up style. “I prefer girls who don’t wear garish make-up.”

Two of his pet peeves are over-dramatic fake lashes and iris-enlarging contact lenses. When it comes to heavy lash extensions, Lee vents: “It looks like two visors. It’s so f***ing ugly, I’m sorry.” On iris-enlarging contact lenses, he says: “I hate those, I just want to push thumb-tacks into those eyes.”

He also worries about young girls who go under the knife and make themselves look like dolls. “They don’t look real at all.”

He warns: “They are very misled, they don’t realise that when they are older they will look freaky… they will have a 20-year-old face, with a 60-year-old body.”

But that does not mean he is against plastic surgery. In fact, he has done some work himself. In 2006, he went to Seoul to get his receding chin pushed forward by half a centimetre. The operation cost him US$4,500. Unlike young girls who change their whole look, he says his procedure was meant to enhance his face.

“I call it permanent make-up,” he says, adding that it is the only procedure he has done.

But the fickle world of fashion and beauty does sometimes tire him out. He admits that he has spent the last 10 years chasing after material things, such as designer bags and expensive watches, but is done with that. “I was immature and I would be so happy to carry these things or just have them at home,” says Lee.

A documentary which he happened to catch on television last year really hit home, he says. It was about a village in China and how a Singaporean took shoes to the schoolchildren there.

“They asked kids what their biggest dream was and it was to have a pencil sharpener,” he says, stopping abruptly as tears well in his eyes.

“In this material world, everybody shows off his stuff and all she wished for was a pencil sharpener. I don’t need expensive things to put in my home. My home is now my baby,” he says of the private apartment he bought in the south of Singapore.

The bachelor says his mother has always emphasised the importance of thrift.

While he does spend on the occasional expensive piece of clothing or perhaps a watch he has been eyeing for some time, he says he does not do it as often as before. “I often think, ‘Do I really need all these things?'”he says.

He admits that this is a recent development in his life and expresses the desire to do charity work, but has not started on anything yet.

Lee comes across as quite a generous person and is not worried about a younger generation of make-up artists who might steal his limelight. In fact, his mother brings up the fact that he gives make-up to younger make-up artists.

When asked about this, he says he gives younger artists pointers and extra make-up he has because he knows how expensive it is to start out in the field.

“Everyone needs a head start. I had established artists helping me, so I should do the same to younger ones now. The world is round, if you do good, people will also do good to you,” he says.

This article was first run in The Straits Times newspaper on June 3, 2013. For similar stories, go to sph.straitstimes.com/premium/singapore. You will not be able to access the Premium section of The Straits Times website unless you are already a subscriber.