Sunday, 18 September 2011
Probably the longest, most intimate relationship I've had as an adult has been with make up. I could practically count the number of days I've left the house totally bare faced since I was an adolescent. I'd only consider a desert island if my make up bag counted as one item such is my devotion to mascara and eyeliner equally. I cannot remember my first proper kiss or what record I first bought was, but I can tell exactly what my first eyeliner was*. I know the day and date I started wearing blusher. Every event in my grown up life is just little bit more technicolour, more photogeni, more fabulous and less acne ridden due to the art of maquillage.
I'm really not sure how I came to worship so devotedly at the shrine of slap. My mum wears very little make up beyond the basics. Her sisters and mother sported a similar look. The women on my dad's side were slightly more au fait with the world of make up and hairstyling due to being hairdressers and beauticians, but I barely saw them when I was growing up and if I'm honest, my dad was fairly disapproving of careers he saw as rather shallow so it wasn't encouraged or expected. But somehow my mum's make up bag exerted a hypnotic pull from an early age.
Green with a blue trim, it lived in the downstairs cloakroom and I used to hide in there with it and apply its endlessly fascinating contents to myself with such absorption it's amazing I didn't fall into the sink and drown à la Narcissus. Everything called to me, but none more so than the mascara. Unaware of the hygiene rules of this miracle product, I was quickly lured in by the siren song of the thicker darker longer lashes that even clear mascara offers. But it was the discovery of the transformative effects of black mascara that set me on a path I've never wandered off since. My foray into Yardley Raspberry Ripple lipstick was much less life changing though. I don't own a single lipstick even now. Possibly because they don't have that old fashioned scent anymore...
I moved onto buying my own make up fairly quickly, probably to the relief of my mother who wanted her's back and less pawed over. My first foundation was Rimmel's Clear Complexion in a hideously branded maroon and yellow tube. It had the consistency of mortician's wax mixed with grit and a range of colours all based round an apricot in varying stages of ripeness. I slathered it on with gusto, feeling that something resembling a mask was preferable to my current face of lurid and painful acne. I added some extra colour contrast to this combo with an equally incorrect shade of Hide the Blemish concealer. Even now I don't think this product lives up to its name if you have an actual spot rather than the more demure sounding 'blemish'. To me it just makes them look like angry swollen uneven lumps with a coating of stuff on top. You might as well wear a spot cosy for all the good it does.
I soon realised that with limited funds, a lack of places to buy premium brands at the time and a complexion too pale for any range even in Ireland, I wasn't going to be able to hide my acne that well. Better to distract from its malignant presence by use of eye make up. As a child I loved to draw, favouring brightly coloured intricately detailed pictures until teenage self consciousness and an evil art teacher by the name of Miss Newell bullied away the idea of putting pen to paper ever again. Discovering eyeshadow was like finding a way to bring that love of colour, tone and creativity back into my life and it wasn't long before my lids were rarely unadorned.
Whereas I used to spend my pocket money and disposable income from part time jobs on music and gigs, it all began to go on make up and magazines that taught me how to apply it and what look was in and with what. I saved up and then splashed out when I went to cities with trendy new brands, practically needing resuscitated in Browne Thomas and Kendalls where I discovered MAC for the first time and realised why being an adult could be wonderful. I scoured niche mail order companies like Beautique for Delux nail polishes and Le Club des Createurs de Beauté for Agnes B products. I braved a bomb scare in Oxford Street to be the first of my friends back home to own Hard Candy when those plastic rings on top of the bottle were the hottest accessory in town and Urban Decay when it was actually edgy. I went on waiting lists for Chanel products and still prize my red and black compact with eyegloss from 1998 which despite making me look like a lab rat is still the fanciest thing I own.
My poor brother became well trained in the art of avoiding the hard sell at beauty counters as he went on missions to get me coveted items for Christmas and birthdays, even learning how to branch out and choose for himself, as the 22nd birthday present of Fuji by Nars proved. Father Christmas got used to every list reading like the Beauty Hall of Selfridges (which ironically became my least favourite job of all time). When I think back over my late teens and early 20s the years aren't punctuated by music or fashions in clothing in the same way as make up. Turning 18 was all about my first MAC eyeshadow in Contrast. I still struggle to get this super pigmented product to blend and wear this dark metallic navy as a liner instead. 19 was Pigments in Melon and Vanilla and Aveda lipstick scented with clove and cinnamon. 20 was Lancôme Maquisuperbe, stacking pots from Ruby and Millie and my very first blusher. 21 was when I discovered Nars and found my signature look with the beautiful Lola Lola shadow from Space NK in Glasgow. 22 was cat eye flicks in Fuji, pinching my friend Jennifer's Cranberry Frost by MAC and realising how useful the right brush is.
At 23 I was working for Space NK in my first job in London and was like a kid in a candy shop. I was given bags and bags of products either as training items by PRs who wanted you to push them above all else or of testers that no longer looked the part in the store displays. The pay was minimum wage. The perks lay with the freebies. Beautiful fashionable products I had drooled over in magazines and would have had to work three or four hours to afford. By 24 I had trained as a make up artist at London College of Fashion and was working at it full time between stores, side projects and freelance jobs. I lived make up. I ate make up (and very little else as the stuff is so damned expensive). I spent most of my spare time either trawling make up stores or standing in front of the bathroom mirror applying make up and practising a variety of looks. I loved the stuff.
But somewhere in my late 20s make up stopped being something fun and creative and endlessly fascinating and became something I did out of habit and to hide myself behind a mask. When fully made up with my customary 20 products, primed, shaded, sealed and blended to perfection, I exude an air of haughtiness bordering on the fuck off. Men especially don't glance my way and thus don't hassle me in the street the same way they do as when I'm scrubbed clean. Make up makes me feel safe. I also feel it distracts women from commenting on my clothes choices or my body (as they did all the time in fashion.) I also feel more able to hold my head up and fake it when I've got my 'face' on.
I didn't really realise I did any of this, thinking it was perfectly normal to wear a full face of make up popping to the Post Office, although I did admire and slightly envy my fresher faced friends and have never thought they should wear more. I knew I wasn't wearing make up for men, but I wasn't aware I was daubing myself in the stuff to repel them either until my therapist dug a bit deeper and set me the challenge of going out with no make up on to confront my fears. I couldn't think of a polite way to say 'not on your nelly' and comprised somewhat by going light on the products instead.
Taking advantage of my Roaccutane perfected skin, I got this down to under eye concealer, primer and pressed powder on my face. But like Amy Winehouse (rest her soul) I understand the lure of a thick track of liner on the upper lids. It seems to keep the world at bay and convey a certain style of self. We've been together roughly 18 years. It was staying, but I've been shaking it up and using dark navy or green or brown instead of black. All topped off with my customary lashings of 2000 Calories mascara by Max Factor. I'm happy to trade somethings for good mental health but I'd rather not go back to looking like a blinking mole with my fair lashes.
As well as using make up as a mask, I'd forgotten what I could look like and was still buying into the industry urge to make everything smoother, tighter, lighter, sleeker, longer, deeper, pinker and less like yourself. I thought I look crap without make up and that people would avert their eyes or snigger if I cut out a stage. But wanting to be able to say I'd at least tried to my therapist, I streamlined my look for an entire week.
And promptly received more compliments about my appearance than the previous ten years combined. Not ringing my eyes with heavy kohl apparently makes me look fresh faced and luminous. It also gets me carded more often trying to buy gin. But it doesn't cause the sky to fall in. It's also made me feel more creative with colours and techniques than I have in years. And having more time to waste on other stuff before I leave the house is rather marvellous. A month in to my experiment, I'm starting to rather like actually seeing my own face without the idea of what I should look like superimposed on top of it. I haven't been hassled in the street at all, probably because I still give good bitch face. But I think I'll be keeping up the lower maintenance look for day to day life and the smoky eyes for when impact is required.
Of course, this means I'm not allowed to buy any make up probably ever again so stop me if you see me going near a MAC counter or sniffing round the Nars stand. It's for my own good you understand...
*Boots Natural Collection Black Kohl pencil. Slightly more comfortable on the eye and barely any darker than a 3B graphite pencil from my case. I learned quickly to move on.