Mbombela-based make-up artist Michelle Raath is something of an enigma. Talented and creative, she is indeed proficient at make-up, as her 15-plus years and many satisfied clients – many of them household names – would attest to. But she is so much more than that.
Hillcrest born and bred, Michelle has lived in the Lowveld for 12 years. As a freelancer in the international and local film and commercial industries, she is no stranger to long hours, hard work and the spotlight. She has worked with local and international stars, yet her feet remain firmly on the ground; a practical, spontaneous burst of energy with a broad-shouldered soul. Michelle met her husband, Géran, on the set of a local television series, Innocent Times, and fell head over heels in love. They moved to Cape Town with their firstborn, Aurora. With the birth of Tarlo, their second daughter, the couple decided a quieter, more family-friendly pace would suit them better; they moved to Mbombela and run a successful wildlife educational business and lodge on the family game farm.
When Covid hit in 2020, the business suffered terribly due to the implementation of severe international travel restrictions, and Michelle and Géran had to sit down and do some serious soul-searching. “We were at a bit of a crossroads,” she explains, “when we received a phone call from a friend, Pranesh Hargoven, at Duise Designs in Riverside Park, inviting us to come and have a look at his new premises.
So off we went. He showed us the second floor office space, which he was planning to convert into a sewing room, when I blurted out, ‘Oh, it’s going to make a perfect photography studio!’” The couple laugh when they remember that moment, Géran being caught a bit unawares by his wife’s unexpected exclamation. “We went home and had a serious chat about the future and what direction we wanted to go in. We had come full circle and setting up our own studio was a long-term dream. We thought, why not? It was the perfect opportunity and we are ever grateful to Duise Designs for our collaboration.”
Michelle and Géran dove in, head first, and Skullpt was born. They employed the help of close friends, Brad and Amelia Vermeulen, who have a construction company in Mbombela, Rodina Construction, and with careful design on a super tight budget, Brad and his sons built a perfect photography studio. “We were looking for a way to utilise both our talents to make a living at the same time,” Michelle says. “And this way, we incorporate our passions.”
She understands the intrinsic value of looking the part. “Make-up enhances beauty. Every person has a special feature that simply needs to be enhanced with a little make-up magic. It gives a person confidence and helps them to present to the world a face they want others to see. Géran’s photography, from product to portraiture, is stunning, with a creative and dramatic flair both technically excellent and artistically brilliant. I feel incredibly blessed to have a photographer who understands how to light make-up properly and ultimately make my client look their best in photos.”
Another passion of Michelle’s is teaching; she would like to establish a deportment academy. “How you carry yourself and your appearance is so important, and unfortunately this is something that is not often instilled in young people these days.” Géran nods his agreement, saying that ever since he has known her, Michelle has always been elegant and is the epitome of class. “The reality is, if you aim to make an impression with clothing too tight or outfits that leave nothing to the imagination, you are going to make the wrong impression!” she adds. These values have been instilled into their own two girls, Aurora (17) and Tarlo (12).
“Aurora’s name means ‘first light’, and Tarlo means ‘baby bear’ (her dad’s nickname is Bear),” Michelle explains. “We are a very close-knit family; our girls are an integral part of everything we do. Last year just brought us even closer together; no matter how tough things got, we had each other. Aurora loves the camera and the camera loves her. She is my beautiful canvas and our favourite model, she lets me practise my skills on her in the make-up chair and then Dad gets to take photos of his beautiful girl. Tarlo is not one for the spotlight; for now she is more interested in the workings of the camera than being photographed.”
The couple are enjoying every minute working together in their studio at Duise Designs, and are steadily building up a good client base since opening in March. Michelle also takes photographs with Géran at outdoor events, so they are a two-camera team. “My husband is an exceptional photographer with an abundance of experience in the world of film and photography, and I learn something new every time we do a shoot together. “He has a wealth of photographic knowledge which he is able to impart, and he kindles enthusiasm in me. It is such a blessing being able to work alongside my best friend.”
It’s not only their own children the Raaths hope to benefit with their expertise. Looking ahead, they would like to establish a teaching facility that will benefit local people. “I’ve noticed a definite tendency in the Lowveld to outsource everything to Johannesburg or Cape Town, but why? We have skilled and enterprising individuals right here in the Lowveld. We need to stop the brain drain. Giving people the technical skills and knowhow is the best way to utilise their talents and grow expertise in various fields in the Lowveld.”
Ultimately, it’s about living your best life, taking the best bits of yourself – your natural and learned assets – and making them work for you. “It’s really the best feeling in the world,” Michelle laughs, “to wake up and look forward to the work day when it doesn’t feel like work at all, and to have the skills to make someone feel good about themselves. Working together is what we have always loved (and we are a pretty damn good team!), the stolen moments, the interaction, learning from each other – it’s us, living our best life in the Lowveld!”
Photographer: Géran Raath