Christine Ko on Learning to Harness the Power of Makeup

The Dave star shares her favorite skincare products, what she’s learned from Asian makeup artists, and the one beauty mistake she’ll never make again.

Christine Ko
Photo by David Higgs
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Christine Ko is an accomplished actress, having played the leader of the resistance on The Handmaid’s Tale, proved her comedic chops on season two of Only Murders in the Building, and currently starring as Emma on Dave, FX’s most-watched comedy ever (season three of which is airing now). But Ko didn’t always know she’d end up as an onscreen performer. Raised by her adoptive aunt in Georgia, Ko originally pursued a career in finance. But upon meeting her biological parents—both stars on Chinese television—at the age of 21, she realized acting was her dream all along. After working in the entertainment industry in Taiwan for years, Ko broke out with her role on Dave, which was the first project she was offered that didn’t pigeonhole her as a stereotype.

Ko bears some similarities to her character, Emma, who is the creative partner of the show’s titular star, played by Dave Burd in a fictionalized version of his life as struggling rapper Lil Dicky. Emma and Dave meet in their corporate careers before leaving the 9 to 5 world to chase their dreams: Dave as a rapper, and Emma as a graphic designer and director. “In tandem with Dave, somehow, the American dream came true for me too,” Ko says.

In addition to her television projects, Ko is also working on a film with her fiancé, Alan Yang, (with whom she previously collaborated on Tigertail for Netflix) about her personal history. “He knows my story best,” Ko said of writing the film together with Yang. “It’s similar to Dave, in that it’s loosely based on my life and the audience will be guessing what is real and what’s not.” Along with acting, Ko is also a beauty fanatic—and like any true beauty lover, she’s gone through several transformations. Below, she shares some of her favorite products, what working with Asian makeup artists taught her, and the one procedure she regrets.

Is there a beauty product that you can’t live without?

Lately, it’s been the Charlotte Tilbury Airbrush Setting Spray. It has replaced my primer. I used to spray it on as a finisher, because I saw makeup artists do that, and then I went on TikTok and saw that people were using it first, after moisturizing, and before makeup. I swear to you, your makeup doesn’t move. I like to use really light foundation, and now I can go a good eight hours with just a little bit of translucent powder.

Which foundation do you favor?

I have two. For my easy, everyday, light foundation, I go with the Makeup Forever Reboot. It kind of feels like moisturizer, and I like that it shows my freckles. Then when I’m going out to dinner with my fiancé or with the girls, I use the Dior Forever Foundation in matte. That one plus the setting spray is like, ooh. You take a photo and it looks filtered in a good way.

What other makeup will you wear for a night out?

I’m not a heavy eye makeup type of person. I love a rosy, kind of burnt orange shadow—that shade looks best on my eyes. I always have the short Ardell individual lashes; they make you look like you have extensions. I love doing a very straight wing—it’s very flattering on Asian eyes—with this brown Tarte liner that has both liquid and a pencil.

Also, I love putting a powder highlighter as shadow under my eyes. It’s sparkly and very K-beauty. It gives shimmer and also makes your eyes look brighter. I can tell you—it looks so good in photos.

When did you first get into makeup?

I’ve always been into beauty, and I’m always down to try a trend. But I really started understanding makeup when I began working. I saw how much makeup could change my face; I can put on dark eyeliner and a red lip and I look completely different. I started understanding the proportions of my face, and how I want to look. The best beauty tips have been from makeup artists that understand Asian eyes.

In college, I had those crazy-long strip lashes. I would do heavy, heavy, dark lids and a lot of black. But then I realized, for hooded eyes, it puts a shadow on your face. If I curl my lashes straight up, I really, really curl them. And if I keep the space between my lid and my fold a light color, it’s always flattering.

What’s the best beauty advice you’ve ever received?

The best beauty advice I received was from my birth mom. I always felt that my face was really round and wished it could be thinner, more sculpted. And she said, “Don’t ever do anything permanent on your face.” She told me, “Makeup can do wonders. You can wax your eyebrows a certain way. You can contour, you can get extensions, but I promise you that fad is going to wear out and 10 years later, you’re going to want a different look.” And that is so smart, because what I liked in college couldn’t be more different from what I like now.

On that note, are there any beauty trends you participated in that you now regret?

I got my eyebrows tattooed when I was 16 or 17. Thank god it’s all gone and worn off now. Don’t ever do that. When it fades, the color is weird—it kind of turned blue. And as an actress, your eyebrows tell a story. When I was on The Handmaid's Tale, I was supposed to be a resistance fighter in the woods, and it would’ve been so bad if I had tattooed eyebrows done up. I learned my lesson: nothing permanent.

Is there a skincare product that you swear by?

I don’t get paid for skincare and I don’t think I ever will because I’m a diehard Jan Marini Skin Care fan. People keep sending me samples of other things, but I can’t not do Jan Marini. My aesthetician uses it. I was trying to get rid of sunspots, and I’ve tried every single nice beauty cream you could think of, but nothing made them go away like this Jan Marini regimen.

The two products I swear by are the Regeneration Booster—that’s my splurge. I’ll buy Trader Joe’s dinner so that I can have my Jan Marini Regeneration Booster. And then she has a vitamin C product, the C-ESTA Serum, and it’s the most brightening, lifting serum. It doesn’t pill under your makeup.

What’s your favorite form of self-care?

I can’t help it—I love a full spa day. Korean spas are great because they’re not really expensive, and you can stay there all day.I bring a sheet mask and a bottle of water, and I watch my favorite reality shows. That’s the best day.

Do you have a favorite beauty icon?

Maggie Cheung. She’s in In the Mood for Love and oh, she’s the most classically beautiful actress. She’s my inspiration for when I do looks. She goes from beautiful, classic Chinese beauty to super modern, Matrix-looking makeup. I’m like, “If Maggie can do it, I can do it.”