Joanne Gair has gained fame painting the body beautifuls of the world. Arts editor LINDA HERRICK talks to her about her Auckland exhibition.

Meet Sudanese supermodel Alek Wek, given a shine and a thorny spine by the world's leading body makeup artist, New Zealander Joanne Gair.

The huge Wek shot, taken by top New York photographer Herb Ritts for the 1999 Pirelli calendar, will astound visitors to Gair's segment of the Auckland Museum Body Art exhibition which opens on Saturday.

Gair's 70-image show is, surprisingly, the first retrospective of her long career, which went into orbit when she moved to the US in 1984.

A vivacious 43-year-old based in Los Angeles, Gair explains the process of the Wek shoot.

"I had found the thorns on a bush in Mexico - I collect things all the time and improvise. When Alek was chosen to be the futuristic girl for the calendar, this concept seemed obvious to me. We used medical adhesive glue and ran the thorns down her back, and added them to two of her toes, like claws. I wanted her body to look liquid and shiny, and covered her with black, oil-based makeup made even slimier with latex.

"Herb shoots on top of his roof a lot. He is a master of natural light, which you can see here in the way the light is reflected on her body."

Gair sighs with pleasure as she recalls that particular day. "When you go to Herb's you shoot after a very civilised, wine-spread lunch ... "

Gair has spent seven months deciding which images to use in the show and tracking down the photographers to obtain their permission and, in most cases, their volunteered blessing. Aside from Ritts, the show's other lens luminaries include Annie Leibowitz, David LaChapelle, Raul Vega, Antoine Verglas and Matthew Ralston.

The photographs Gair has chosen are iconographic images of some of the world's most beautiful women: exquisite models, Madonna, Carla Bruni, our own Geeling (one of Gair's first models), as well as the famous Leibowitz shot of Malcolm McLaren as the Blue Boy and rock star David Lee Roth. Of course, there are images of Demi Moore, whose paint-suited Vanity Fair cover boosted Gair's international profile; here, we have new views of Moore with a "tattooed" back.

The names drop casually from Gair's lips, although she's far from a namedropper and her anecdotes are fascinating but off the record. She's a favourite of Madonna, with whom she has worked since 1985, and great pals with Moore. She won an award for her makeup on Nine Inch Nails' Trent Reznor for the Perfect Drug video, and has also worked with Gwen Stefani of No Doubt, and Christina Aguilera. And then there's Kim Basinger, Marisa Tomei, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Sophia Loren, Cindy Crawford, Steve Tyler, Elle Macpherson ...

It's all about trust, says Gair. "Body art to me can be a concentrated picture just of the eyes, the mouth, any part of the body that's interesting. But when someone is naked in front of you, they feel naked. The moment you start putting a layer of anything on their body like oil, it's got a warmth about it and they feel clothed."

Having worked on so many video and photo shoots, Gair has decided she wants to direct "so the process of sharing can continue all the way through".

Although the museum exhibition is Gair's history, or journey, as she likes to put it, "I am not alone," she says, looking around the room. "I am here with friends ... one of my photographer friends from Poland who couldn't understand any English when we first worked together later said to me, 'Jo, I could never understand what you were saying but you always made me laugh'."

There was only one significant hitch in the convoluted process of getting the exhibition together, says Gair. She had diaried in 15 appointments over one day in New York as part of the process of getting photographers' permission to use the images. She gradually made all of those appointments in downtown Manhattan - but the date was September 11. It was a long, strange day ...

* Joanne Gair's show joins an exhibition curated by the Australian Museum, plus works by New Zealand photographer Arno Gasteiger and British multi-media artist Buggy G Riphead in Vodafone Body Art, Auckland Museum, next saturday to March 17, 2002.