I'm winding up the steep stairs to Maxim Magnus's apartment in central London on what is quite possibly the hottest day of the year. The 20-year-old Belgium-born model has opened up her home for a Byrdie UK shoot, and it's absolutely sweltering. The breakout star has modelled for Gucci, starred in off-kilter–cool magazines and walked the runways at London Fashion Week. She's young, but she's already achieved so much.
The transgender model is open and honest about her transition, a journey she began when she was 14, but it's not something that defines her. The part she plays on social media with her #TransIsNotATrend hashtag and in the LGBTQ+ community supporting those around her is inspiring, but when we sit down to talk all things beauty, it's just that: two women cooing over their mutual love of certain products.
It wasn't easy for Magnus to experiment with cosmetics when she was growing up in Antwerp. "It was hard to get your hands on things, so for me, it was always exciting when I used to travel. My whole family loved travelling, so when I went to the U.S., I'd go to Sephora," Magnus tells me. "The only thing we had in Belgium at the time that was amazing was MAC. Now it's different because you can buy things online. You could [shop online] back then … but it wasn't as easy as it is now."
While many women learn makeup tricks from their mothers, Magnus looked to YouTube. "My mum was always (and still is) very natural. She doesn't like to wear much makeup. She's very into skincare. So my first introduction to makeup was Gigi Gorgeous on YouTube. Her extravagant makeup looks—just everything she does."
When it comes to makeup, her first foray was lipstick. "[Gigi Gorgeous] introduced me to that; I remember going to the MAC store and buying a bright pink shade. I wanted that experience of going to buy my first makeup item [in person, rather than online]. "It was, however, Riri Woo that was one of my first true loves of lipsticks," she reminisces. "I used to wear it all the time."
Magnus's approach to beauty is like her approach to life: The running theme is honesty. "I think the biggest beauty lesson is to be honest and be yourself—to wear whatever you wanna wear." At first, Magnus went to town with makeup. "At one point I wore so much makeup that I had, like, a year where I was like 'I'm not wearing makeup ever again!' and now I realise I apply makeup because I love it. I love the techniques; I love learning new things. The more confident I got and the more comfortable I got in my skin, the more I started wearing makeup again because I just enjoy it."
These days, some beauty looks are off the table, she says: "Don't overline your lips, and don't overdo your eyebrows and don't try to look like other people. Everyone is an individual, and in your own way, you are beautiful. It doesn't matter what you look like; there's no such thing as 'perfect features.' It's something people need to get out of their heads."
That's not to say, of course, that Magnus doesn't believe in change. "I'm pro-surgery; I used to really want a nose job, to lower my hair line and lift my eyebrows to look more feminine. I'm all for plastic surgery, but if you really want to do it, do it responsibly, and don't do it for anyone else."
Beauty to Magnus isn't about looking like the crowd: "Beautiful to me means accepting what you look like and who you are. That's beautiful to me. At the end of the day, we don't always look 'pretty' to the beauty standards—by the beauty norms of society. But if you accept that there are those off days but you still look beautiful, to me that's real beauty. Oh my god, and I can wear the most makeup ever when I'm feeling bad and you'll still be able to tell that I'm feeling bad!"
While her mum may not have taught her makeup lessons, she did bestow upon a young Magnus another passion. "I've always been obsessed with skincare," she says. "My mum always taught me to wash my face, tone and moisturise. When we were 10 on holiday, she would come around with the Caudalie mist!"
Magnus is so in tune with her skin that she varies her routine based on how she is feeling and how her complexion is looking. "My skin really depends on my mood," she notes. "It's really strange, but if I wake up in a bad mood, I know my skin will show it! It will be dull; it's going to look dry.
"People always disassociate the two, but when people go, like, 'Oh, you know, I always break out when there's a special occasion,' it's because you're stressed about it. You can't always help how you feel, but when you feel stressed, you start eating differently. You start sleeping differently. You start drinking maybe less or maybe more. Everything you do changes because of your mood, and your skin can reflect that."
So what's her skincare non-negotiable? "I always take my makeup off; I've never not taken it off. Twice a week, I'll use rose oil. I always use a toner and a facial mist on top of that, and then I apply the oil. Sometimes I'll apply a moisturiser, but I'm not really into them anymore."
She likes Kiehl's Daily Reviving Oil Concentrate Oil (£38), and she's really into the brand's Ultra Light Daily UV Defense SPF 50 Sunscreen (£28). "I use sunscreen every day," she tells me. "It doesn't matter if it's sunny outside or cloudy outside; sunscreen is the way to go. And the Kiehl's one actually works against pollution. Living in London, when I take the tube, I can immediately see it in my skin the next day. I love having the balance between Antwerp and London, because if I'm in London for too long, my skin really acts up."
Besides the Caudalie mist her mum got her hooked on, Magnus also loves the water mists from Vichy and La Roche-Posay, as well as Kiehl's Cactus Flower Mist (£29). In place of moisturiser, Magnus uses Shiro Sake Kasu Lotion (£45). "It smells horrendous, but it's really good for our skin. It's fermented yeast, so I don't expect it to smell good, but it keeps you young," Magnus says, her brilliant, dry sense of humour showing through.
Interestingly, Magnus notes that when she transitioned, her taste in fragrances changed. "I have certain scents I can't wear anymore because I have bad memories linked to them. When I started taking hormones, my sense of scent changed, so the stuff I used to like I really cannot smell anymore now. I used to like Viktor Rolf and really sweet things, and now I can't.
"The one that brings back the best memories for me, and it's actually such a simple one I don't wear a lot but I cherish, is Elizabeth and James Nirvana White (£68). That scent takes me back to just really good times, and every time I'm, like, feeling a bit down or like I just want to have a really good day, I'll wear that, and it does really uplift my mood."
When Magnus feels homesick, she'll spritz Hermès Rose Ikebana (£180) because it reminds her of her mother. These days, Magnus looks to clean scents like Byredo Blanche (£160): "It smells like fresh sheets," she tells me.
Like most models who are primped and preened for work, Magnus only wears makeup if she's going out. "I love to just give my skin that nice breather," she explains. So what's her go-to evening look? "If I was going out for dinner with my friends, it would be, like, really contoured. I love Chanel Soleil Tan de Chanel (£40). I don't really wear foundation or concealer. [Ed. note: She's wearing barely any on the shoot and the images aren't retouched, so to say she has incredible skin is an understatement.] Charlotte Tilbury's Hollywood Flawless Filter (£30) is great. It gives a good glow; it's insane." For mascara, she buys Dior, and on her lips, she uses Dior Lip Glow in Berry (£26) or Glossier Lip Gloss (£11).
Magnus has an assuredness that belies her years, but that's probably unsurprising considering the journey she's been on. I ask if she has any advice for the LGBTQ+ community, and she responds, "Well, l feel like don't be scared to wear things that are very out there because people might judge you or might label you as gay or a drag queen or trans or whatever. I think that a lot of people stray away from colourful makeup or wearing bold outfits because there's that stigma—like, 'Ooh, that's so gay."
"I hate it when people say that or 'You look like a drag queen.' Be positive; don't pay attention to what people say to you, and don’t be afraid to experiment with things. I actually feel way more comfortable with myself now that I've explored beauty. I've played with colours; I know exactly what suits my face and what doesn't suit my face, and you know, it might really surprise you what does suit your face. I never thought I could wear pink eye shadow, but I love wearing pink eye shadow," laughs Magnus.
"Everybody needs to be much nicer to each other. I always say this, because you never know what someone's going through. Everybody has their own issues. Life's a roller coaster; no one knows what the heck they're doing!"
Magnus tells me she feels like being transgender kind of puts her in a box: "With my whole transition, I was so focussed on needing that surgery, but then once I got it, I was like, Is this it? Like, am I meant to be really happy about this? Are all my problems solved? No, because your problems aren't solved just like that. I'm still human."
And that's what it comes down to: We're all just humans making our way through this journey called life, so if we could judge a little less and be a little bit nicer, the world would be a much better place.
Photographer: Phill Taylor
Creative Direction: Amy Lawrenson
Makeup Artist: Dominic Skinner using MAC
Hairstylist: Ryan Steedman using Percy & Reed
Photographer's Assistant: John Gurung