Glow Up NZ is the latest reality franchise to hit New Zealand screens, and Tara Ward discovers a show with plenty of heart.
“An online makeup revolution is sweeping the world,” host Megan Papas tells us in the opening moments of Glow Up NZ, TVNZ On Demand’s new reality competition about the wonders of makeup artistry. No, I might not know much about makeup and yes, I’m still using the no-brand mascara I bought in a supermarket bargain bin in 2017, but there’s one thing I didn’t expect to see in a makeup revolution: someone rubbing a glue stick all over their face.
The glue stick situation was the first of several surprises during the premiere episode of Glow Up NZ. The series takes nine emerging make up artists (or MUA’s, as us glue stick aficionados call them) out of the bedroom and into the national spotlight, putting them through seven weeks of challenges that will showcase their skills and creativity. These MUA’s want to be the “next best thing” in makeup. They know their contour from their cut crease, and they are ready for their close-up.
Based closely on the BBC version, each episode of Glow Up NZ involves a Selfie Brief (MUA’s make themselves up) and a Model Brief (makeup on a professional model) in a variety of genres and styles. At the end of the episode, two underachieving artists compete in a sudden death Face Off challenge, with the loser being eliminated. The last MUA standing wins $5,000, which seems like a stingy slice of the reality TV reward pie until you work out how many glue sticks you can buy with five grand. (Spoiler, it’s a lot.)
Glow Up NZ’s contestants come from around the country, with a range of MUA experience. Some are self-taught, like early childhood teacher Alyshia and Gisborne high school student Kyle, while others work in the industry, like freelance makeup artists Richard and Emma, and SFX makeup artist Myrthe. “My professional knowledge and experience in the industry is definitely an advantage,” Richard says. “I’m confident that whatever gets thrown at me, I’ll be able to handle.”
Throwing everything at them is Papas and judges Tane Tomoana and GeeGee Pikinga, who mentor the MUAs and explain what’s really going on with the makeup. While we might see a lovely pink lip, Tane and GeeGee see an unsymmetrical design, a lack of refinement and a need for stronger vision. They’re the ideal TV judges, wise and supportive but unafraid to speak freely. “There’s going to be a bit of tough love,” Tane says, “but we want to see the best from them”.
That’s the general vibe of Glow Up NZ: it’s a chance for clever people to do amazing things. “This is the biggest opportunity I’ve had in my life, and I’ve only been alive 17 years,” Kyle says. Glow Up is a show that celebrates the drama and theatre of makeup artistry, and wants to tell stories that connect with the audience. It’s about creating something beautiful from a blank canvas, and it’s a delightful learning curve for those of us who think strobing belongs in a Blue Light Disco somewhere in the mid 90s.
Like reality shows the Great Kiwi Bake Off and Project Runway, Glow Up NZ demands creative vision and artistic skill to succeed. There’s nowhere to hide when things go wrong, but where Bake Off is light and cheery, Glow Up is dark and moody. It’s also anchored in typical Kiwi understatement, because unusually for a reality show, there are no big egos. Everyone on Glow Up NZ is quietly passionate about their work and excited to be there. They know they can do a good job, but nobody’s getting carried away.
Take MUA Alyshia, who says “I’m not going to add anything too out there,” as she chucks on a huge rainbow feather headband, or Lara, who decides the best place to try a brand new technique is on national television. “Did you practice this on anyone?” Lara’s model asks. “No,” Lara replies. Love it. Give it a whirl, she’ll be right, put all your faith in the transformative power of the glue stick.
More than anything, Glow Up NZ celebrates the power of transformation. The MUA’s express themselves through their work, sharing their personal stories and revealing their true selves through their artistry. It’s a brave thing to do on television. “Under all the layers of foundation, concealer, powder and confidence, there’s an anxious person underneath,” says Kyle.
I didn’t expect such vulnerability in a show about makeup, and this honesty gives the show a thoughtful, emotional weight that other reality shows lack. It’s also refreshing to watch a New Zealand reality series that embraces a diverse and creative group of contestants and lets them speak about their personal struggles. Glow Up NZ is bigger than just blush and bronzer – it’s a reframing of the idea of what beauty looks like and letting your true self shine. Pop, pop, pop, in all the right places.
It might feel a little low budget, and I’d have loved more technical explanations from the judges to help us appreciate the skills involved, but ultimately Glow Up NZ is a show with heart. It’s got stories to tell and layers to reveal, and feels like it’s going to grow into something beautiful. This is a story about a team of talented underdogs who dream of doing great things, and my glue stick and I are here for it.
Glow Up NZ is available on TVNZ OnDemand, with new episodes every Wednesday.