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The Business of Blending In

For soldiers in the field, becoming one with the environment is a matter of life or death.

Words by Rae Nudson

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Makeup and special effects artist
Bobbie Weiner didn’t set out to change the faces of the American military. But when the US Armed Forces was looking for new camouflage face paint, she realized she could fill that need. Weiner’s makeup—sold under the name Bobbie Weiner Enterprises—can withstand sweat and inclement weather, and it was initially created so fans could wear their team’s colors to sports games. Since the late 1990s, her company has produced colored cosmetics specifically made for soldiers. “I just know makeup, and I know what works and what doesn’t work,” Weiner tells me in her Miami office.

Weiner started working as a makeup artist for TV and film after her wealthy husband divorced her when she was 46 and she needed to get a job. She went to beauty school at the suggestion of a stylist at her hair salon; they said her personality was well-suited to the work, which was plentiful in Los Angeles, where she was living at the time. One of her first gigs was for the 1994 cult horror film Pumpkinhead II, where she earned $35 for her first night of work. A poster from the film now hangs on the wall in Weiner’s concrete-floored office, along with other TV and movie memorabilia. I am sitting on a bright red, lip-shaped couch, surrounded by frightening dolls, monster masks, and other relics of her work on horror movies. After stints on other B movies and the TV show Renegade, Weiner was hired for the 1997 film Titanic, to help make the actors floating in the water look frozen to death. To keep the makeup from coming off in the water as the cameras were rolling, Weiner added powder to her product and applied several layers to make sure it stayed on.

For the average soldier on a mission, camouflage face paint often isn’t necessary: if you’re traveling in a truck or a helicopter, the enemy probably knows you’re coming, one veteran points out. “I think it really depends on the mission at hand and also the environment that we’re in. I’m not going to use camouflage if I’m in the desert of Iraq, but I am going to use it in the mountains of Afghanistan, where some mountains do actually have trees,” says Command Sergeant Major Philip Blaisdell from the Leader Training Brigade. 

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One day on set, one of Leonardo DiCaprio’s stunt doubles asked Weiner for blue and gold face paint that he could wear to a San Diego Chargers game. When she later asked him how the game went, he raved about her makeup. “We were on TV, and everyone wanted to know where we got the face paint,” he said, according to Weiner’s 2011 memoir. Sensing an opportunity, Weiner brought prototypes of her makeup to the University of California, Los Angeles, where she made a deal to sell it in the university bookstore.

Before Titanic came out, Weiner was featured on a San Diego morning show doing a makeup demonstration that showcased her special effects makeup from the highly anticipated film. San Diego is also near the Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, and the manager of the base’s post exchange—the department store where military personnel can buy supplies—saw Weiner’s segment. He called her to set up a meeting and told her he was looking for a new camouflage face paint to replace what they’d been using.

“He told me the stuff stinks, the kids won’t wear it, they break out, it’s greasy. It was like taking butter and putting it on your face,” she says. Weiner spent the next few weeks mixing samples by hand for the military and lining up a way to manufacture it. The resulting paint had no scent, and was easier to wear and safer to use than dirt or feces. Her work paid off: Weiner eventually began selling her makeup to every branch of the US Armed Forces, as well as about ten other militaries worldwide.

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Since the 1997 meeting at Camp Pendleton, Bobbie Weiner Enterprises has grown to include more than 250 people. In addition to military camouflage, it sells makeup for Halloween, sports fans, and movies and TV, as well as for morticians to use on corpses. (One time the company accidentally mixed up shipments to a Spencer’s gift store and the Fort Hood military base. “Fort Hood got the black lipstick and the black nail polish, and Spencer’s got the camouflage face paint,” Weiner tells me. “Spencer’s didn’t have a problem with it. The guy at Fort Hood—he had no sense of humor.”) But 90 percent of Weiner’s business comes from helping soldiers blend into the world around them, with different face paints for the woods, the desert, and the jungle. She says hunters also like the olive greens and mud browns of the woodland versions. The US military even sends her fabric swatches, so she can make colors to match certain uniforms. In the first few months of 2018, Weiner says she sold about 11.5 tons of makeup.

Weiner lets me try some of the camouflage creams, which feel smooth and cool on contact. The forest green goes on in a dark, thick line, and the black looks truly black when applied to the skin, not a faded gray. “Don’t be afraid of it,” Weiner says when I stick my fingers in the army-green plastic compact. “Act like you’re a man getting ready to kill somebody.” I can see how putting on the paint would make me feel more like a soldier—not unlike putting on lipstick to assume the role of a woman who has it all together.

For the average soldier on a mission, camouflage face paint often isn’t necessary: if you’re traveling in a truck or a helicopter, the enemy probably knows you’re coming, one veteran points out. “I think it really depends on the mission at hand and also the environment that we’re in. I’m not going to use camouflage if I’m in the desert of Iraq, but I am going to use it in the mountains of Afghanistan, where some mountains do actually have trees,” says Command Sergeant Major Philip Blaisdell from the Leader Training Brigade. 

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The veterans I spoke with agree that techniques like camouflage face paint are more important for a sniper or someone doing reconnaissance. In the memoir by Lyudmila Pavlichenko—a female Soviet sniper credited with 309 official kills during World War II—she describes camouflage lessons from the sniper school she attended while training for the Red Army: after a lecture on how to hide in a natural setting, the teacher would demonstrate the techniques, sometimes blending so well that his students couldn’t find him. “In those cases, we would shout, ‘We give in,’ and our teacher would emerge before us in some unimaginable yellow-green hooded overalls adorned with tatters of cloth, dry twigs, and clumps of grass,” she wrote.

To be effective, every part of camouflage has to work together to conceal a soldier completely". “There is nothing more ridiculous than an unsuccessful attempt to hide,” wrote Roland Penrose in his 1941 manual. “If, ostrich-like, we merely concentrate on hiding our heads and leaving other important parts visible, we shall excite the enemy’s suspicion and still provide him with a target.”

Captain Patrick Ripton describes camouflage as a kind of philosophy. It’s not just about what face paint you use—it’s about putting yourself in the enemy’s place and thinking about what they can see. It’s about looking out for your fellow soldiers and helping them stay out of harm’s way. “The concepts of camouflage and concealment apply to really everything we do. In any situation, whatever you’re doing, you’re going to be looking out for what amount of your body you’re presenting to the enemy,” he says. This mindset can be traced back to the camoufleurs, who turned camouflage into an art form, studying colors and patterns to help hide soldiers from enemy fire. Whenever a soldier uses camouflage in the field, they owe something to those who came before, wearing bright colors and shining in the sun—those who didn’t survive the fight.

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