Putting on lipstick means more to one woman from Texas than just getting all prettied up for a night out on the town. Nope, for fellow PWD (person with diabetes) Natalie Irish, shades of lip color are her means of creating art. Yes, she paints with her lips. On canvas. And produces remarkably amazing portraits of people like Marilyn Monroe, Jimi Hendrix, and the Duchess Kate Middleton. That’s why she’s known as “the kissing artist.”
Natalie also happens to be an insulin-pumping type 1 who proudly refers to herself as “a cyborg” (because you know… all those tech devices that keep us alive).
Living with type 1 for nearly two decades now, the thirty-something from the Houston area hit celebrity status in mid-2011, when a long-overlooked YouTube video of her “lipstick art” that had been posted by her husband finally got some attention. An off-beat website called Oddity Central stumbled across that video and linked to her channel, catapulting her art into the public eye. Since then, Natalie’s name and artwork have appeared in national media and blogs, including high-profile spots like Good Morning America and the Huffington Post, on Conan O’Brien’s Late Night show, and within the diabetes space at various conferences and events.
Through the years, Natalie has done much more than make lipstick paintings. After studying metal-smithing, ceramics and art at the University of North Texas and Alvin Community College, she went on to a corporate job before eventually finding her way to full-time artist status. She now uses her hands in her work quite often, and in the past has even used diabetes supplies in her art, like pump infusion sets for conceptual jewelry beads, and broken syringes in her metalwork creations. On her right wrist, she sports a serpent-cross tattoo on that reads “Diabetic” with the date of her diagnosis: Oct. 30, 2000. It’s much more stylish than a medical bracelet and is “fitting for an artist,” she says.
Her website features all kinds of different lipstick art pieces that she’s created over the years, and Natalie has had some fun creating diabetes-themed lipstick art for our D-Community, too! Though she’s busy, Natalie took some time to talk with the ‘Mine recently about her life with diabetes and her art career.
DM) Hey Natalie! Can you share your diabetes diagnosis story?
NI) I was diagnosed a few weeks after my 18th birthday, in my senior year of high school. It was also the day before Halloween… and all the candy that goes along with it. Good thing I didn’t wait another day longer to go to the doctor. Six months later I was on a pump. Now I wear an Animas pump. It’s pink, and waterproof, and awesome. I joke a lot about being a cyborg, especially with little kid pumpers. I tell them we’re part robot — how cool is that?!
What’s your favorite diabetes “cyborg” part these days?
I FINALLY got my first CGM! Insurance has been a pain trying to get one, and I’m so relieved we finally made it happen. I’m wearing the new Dexcom G6 and it is truly a game-changer for me.
How did you possibly get started making art with your mouth?
I’ve been making art since I could hold a crayon. I like to try every medium I can get my hands on. Drawing, painting, sewing, metal-smithing, ceramics… anything and everything. I’ve always sought out new ways to create and enjoy using everyday things in ways that they aren’t intended. I have made several pieces with thumbprints before. Chuck Close has done some portraits in that manner, as well as other artists. It’s all in the spirit of pointillism. Back in 2001, I was putting on some red lipstick to go out and see a show, and I blotted the lipstick on a bit of tissue. I saw the kiss print it left and decided I could paint with my lips in a similar way as with thumbprints.
Do you take your artistic talents to any diabetes organizations?
I have been involved in JDRF and ADA walks and events for years and I try to donate art to local gala and event auctions. I really enjoy working with the JDRF advocacy team. A couple of us met with (politician) Ron Paul several years ago and I had a chance to speak with him. He had never even seen an insulin pump and was very interested in the technology. He said that it was ridiculous that we can put men on the moon, but do not yet have an Artificial Pancreas yet. A few weeks later he voted in support for more diabetes research funding.
OK, how cool was it meeting and talking with Conan on live TV when you were on his show in 2013?
I had a blast! He was a pleasure to work with and he really enjoyed the artwork. The crew working on the show are an amazing group of people and I had so much fun meeting all of them! Plus, it was very cool getting Conan to put on some lipstick and smooth his portrait — nobody else can probably say they’ve gotten him to do that on TV!
Can you give us an update as to what you’ve been doing over the past several years?
For a few years I did a lot of commercial work and was able to travel all over the world to places like Budapest, Stockholm, Sao Paulo, and Santiago. I’ve worked with tons of amazing companies, such as Urban Decay, Avon, Magnum Ice Cream, MTV, Covergirl, and Cirque du Soleil. I’ve been scaling back on the commercial work the past two years and have been working on my own pieces lately, focusing more for a gallery collection and being more selective on commercial work. There have been a few projects I couldn’t pass up, though. I worked in Milan, Italy, in 2017 and will be working in Hong Kong in early December. They’ve built an elaborate set that consists of giant cosmetics! I’ll be doing a live painting at an opening event and have lots of local interviews scheduled, then several of my originals and prints will be on display for a few weeks through December. Going to be so much fun!
You’ve also been developing your own lipstick line, right?
Yes, I have been spending more time working on the formula for my lipstick line and am very close to perfecting it! And I’m going to start releasing my own lipstick prints again in the very near future.
Did you work with any diabetes companies through the years?
For a few years I was an ambassador for (insulin pump maker) Animas. I traveled all over the U.S. and Canada getting to talk to folks about my work and living with type 1 diabetes. I was a special guest at many JDRF walks, ADA galas, camps, and fundraisers. I adored working at the Children with Diabetes Friends for Life conferences too, and I hope to be going back to some of those soon. But since Animas is no more, I am looking to start getting back into these type events through other groups.
Are you still using a pump, now that Animas has shut down?
I have hit another rather difficult roadblock with insurance lately. My pump is out of warranty and I have been trying to get a new one through insurance. I was not aware until recently that UnitedHealthcare has an exclusive contract with Medtronic. I have a long list of reasons why I will never wear a Medtronic device again, the main one being that I almost died on one.
Whoa, what happened exactly with that pump emergency?
In 2009 I became very ill, with BG levels out of control (500+ on a daily basis). I was hospitalized, lost my job, no one knew what was wrong, doctors said they were shocked I didn’t go into a coma. I suddenly started to get better and moved on with my life. Several months later I received a letter about a certain lot number of infusion sets that were faulty. I still had a few boxes in the back on my closet, and sure enough, the numbers matched. Medtronic customer support was the real kicker. Complete disregard for what I was going through, never a single apology, flat out bullying attitudes on the phone, and there’s still a bill floating around the collection agencies from the money I refused to pay for the supplies that put me through so much trouble.
Now, the thought of hooking up one of their machines to my body sickens me. I cannot do it. Yet, my insurance refuses to cover any other pump.
That sounds pretty traumatic. But experiences like that are pretty rare, aren’t they?
I was hesitant to tell this story. It can easily sound like I’m whining. I understand that things like this happen, but they can be dealt with in a better manner. There are many folks who have been on Medtronic pumps for years and never had a problem, and that’s great. Not telling my story would be worse. These things are happening and I believe people need to know about them. Not every device out there labeled “insulin pump” is the same. I should have the right to decide what machine I hook up to my body. I should have the choice to decide what company makes the machine that keeps me alive. And I know I’m not the only one who is tired of insurance companies dictating what medications and devices I can use. That is a decision to be made by myself and my doctor. Heck, majority of the time the people I talk to at the insurance companies don’t even know what an insulin pump is! I’ve shed an awful lot of tears over this, and didn’t you know? Stress is bad for type 1 diabetes! Excuse me while I go adjust my pump accordingly.
We’re sorry to hear about that bad experience, Natalie, but thank you for sharing. Is there anything you’d like to say to the D-Community in general about your diabetes goals and mindset?
My main goal is to help get some awareness and educational information out there, and I’m glad to have the opportunity to speak to people about diabetes and insulin pumps. When most people hear that I have diabetes, they automatically assume type 2. Both type 1 and type 2 are terrible diseases, but they are also very different. Don’t ever assume you know what someone else is going through. And don’t take my word for it either; do a little research on your own. That part is easy… and mostly painless.
Thank you, Natalie. You have such an incredibly unusual talent, and we love how you are using it to fight the good fight for the best possible life with diabetes for all!