Winning Look

Olympic Rugby Player Ilona Maher Sees Makeup As A Form Of War Paint

Bustle speaks with the Olympian and TikTok sensation.

Bustle speaks to Ilona Maher, rugby player and lipstick lover.

If you’ve ever spent time scrolling through TikTok, you may recognize Ilona Maher.

In 2021, she amassed a following on the video-centric platform, which just so happened to occur in tandem with her first-ever time playing rugby in the Tokyo Olympic Games. Much of her content is — expectedly — related to Rugby. But rather unexpectedly, right alongside the empowering videos of her honoring her body’s beautiful strength are beauty tips and product recommendations that highlight the athlete’s love of makeup... even while playing her sport.

Rugby is a physical, high-contact sport that’s largely dominated by men. Unlike ballerinas or ballroom dancers, who are known to complement their athletic performances with bold glam that shines on stage, makeup hasn’t traditionally had a place on the rugby pitch. But for Maher, it does.

She likens the lipstick she wears while playing to “war paint,” and sees it as a pointed “FU” to those who think beauty and sports can’t coexist.

Here, the Olympian opens up to Bustle ahead of her turn at the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris.

What was your first experience with makeup?

My earliest memory is from when I had serious surgery for my kidneys and was in the hospital. I was three years old, so it was a terrible time for my parents, but the only thing I can remember from that is that my Aunt gave me this bag of lipsticks, which I called “lippy tippies.”

[From then on], I've always had this sort of obsession with lipstick.

When did you start wearing makeup on the rugby pitch?

I started wearing makeup when I played for Team USA [in 2018].

I have a very simple makeup routine, but I think it was definitely a buildup. At first, I started wearing a little mascara, some under-eye concealer, and maybe some brow product. Then, I would wear a little bit of a less-bold lipstick, like a brown or muted tone. After that, it was kind of a progression of moving toward brighter lipstick tones.

Did you ever feel judged for wearing makeup while playing your sport?

In relation to my sport, I saw that people believed athletes, especially female athletes, had to give up their femininity to be athletes. [There was a perception] that you don't get to be beautiful and pretty if you play these sports; you have to be manly and go out there and crush people.

I just didn't like that. I didn't think the idea that I had to give up a part of myself.

At first, I felt self-conscious, so I wore lipstick almost as an F.U. to those standards. I can tackle people really hard, run really hard, and stiff-arm. But I can also keep my femininity with me, wear lipstick, and feel pretty out there.

What shades of lipstick make you feel most confident?

I wear a lot of coral colors, and sometimes I'll wear a bright red shade because I think it looks pretty on me.

I definitely don't want it to smudge when I “scrum,” which is when you literally put your head in between other people's heads and just get knocked around. The one that works for me is Maybelline SuperStay Matte Ink. The stuff doesn’t come off.

What other makeup essentials do you wear on the pitch?

Fred Lee/Getty Images Sport/Getty Images

As far as my other makeup goes, I wear the Tarte Tubing Mascara on my lashes and Boy Brow from Glossier on my brows.

Are there any other beauty products you swear by on the field?

In rugby, you wear tight shorts, and your thick thighs rub together, so a lot of my teammates and I use the anti-chafing No Fric Stick [from Medalist] when we're playing.

What’s on your workout playlist right now?

Chappell Roan, Sabrina Carpenter, sometimes Ariana Grande, Megan Thee Stallion, and Victoria Monét. Those are my go-to.

You’re about to launch a skincare brand alongside former collegiate swimmer Ann Ragan. Can you tell me a bit more about Medalist?

AR reached out to me last year around this time and had such a clear vision for the brand and where she wanted it to go — it’s been great to slide into a co-founder role.

We have such two different sports backgrounds —her being in the pool, me being on the field — so we understand exactly what athletes need because we’re actually in that world. I knew that field athletes sweat, wear sunscreen, and often have dirt on their faces — when we get off the field, we want a wipe that will make us feel refreshed. Pool athletes, in comparison, don't always think about that because they're in the pool and everything is washed away. But across all sports, skin rehydration seemed to be really important.

To me, it doesn't matter what ability you have in sports—you go through all of the same struggles as any athlete would. Everybody's an athlete, and everyone can be a Medalist.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.