I Know You Are, but What Am I?
You know all the studies, how beautiful people make more money, do better in school, etc., etc., than everyone else? I think when you look at a truly beautiful person, you think, We’re still the same species, no? If humanity shares 95 percent of its DNA with a fruit fly, how much must I be sharing with this gorgeous person here? You want to think you’re a little like them.
I am not, never was, and never will be a beautiful woman. I’m perfectly lovely, and I feel confident in my powers to fulfill whatever sexual and/or romantic aspirations I might have. But turn-heads-take-breath-away beautiful, no.
Like if I were the next person after you to go out with your ex-boyfriend, you’d see me at a party and think, Oh, OK. Whereas if I looked like Kate Moss or Sophia Loren, you might freak out a little.
I used to think I was ugly. I guess everyone does: Models are always going on about how hideous they thought they were and everyone teased them and then suddenly they found themselves in St. Barts getting $10,000 a day to have their picture taken. At first, it wasn’t even about “ugly” per se: I was concerned only that people would mistake me for a boy. Gender issues.
My mother likes short hair. She and her mother, Grandma Helen (generally a more pro-glamour operative, but she toed the line on short hair), were at their happiest during the Dorothy Hamill period. “Doesn’t she look nice?” was the refrain of the day, wherever we went, wherever the shiny ducktails would bob no-nonsensely past. My hair at the time was very early Kurt Cobain (minus the bleach) and a source of great tension among us. All I cared was that it was long, so people would understand that I was a girl.
My mother is anti-glamour through and through: Physical appearances mean nothing to her, despite the fact that she herself is stunningly attractive and, indeed, has plenty of glamour to throw around; she steadfastly refuses to acknowledge it. I spent my childhood wading through mud pits and setting up tents in the middle of blizzards, eating wheat bread and wearing battered pairs of Toughskins on what seemed like one endless hiking expedition.
Pre the Dorothy Hamill era, when I was too small to have much influence on my hairstyle, she kept my hair in a pixie (so cute, so sprightly, right?); everyone thought I was a boy. “So how old are your boys?” I remember some jovial park ranger asking my parents, then bending down with a lollipop or something: “Well, hello there, mister!”
I stared at him coldly until my little sister finally broke down and took a lollipop.
On a school trip to Angel Island when I was six, I had to be “rescued” from the shallows of San Francisco Bay when I refused to respond to the teachers’ aides calling me in from the shore: “Little boy, little boy . . .”
I don’t see a little boy, do you? was the expression I made that they were too far away to see. I shrugged and ran my hands through the thigh-deep water and concentrated on other things, so as not to hear the shrill, urgent warnings. I thought about shells or sea urchins or something; some irritated mother or aide or teacher eventually came roaring out, perhaps splattering her smock dress with seawater, further irritated to find me unalarmed, nonchalant, defiant.
I bit a mustachioed hairdresser badly on one occasion as he bent over me in the big beige chair by the shampoo sink one day. The shop was one of those minimall hair salons that smell violently of wet, snipped hair and mysterious chemicals. I watched the bits of hair—featherish and a lighter brown than I associated with the hair on my head—fall like large itchy tears onto the tarpish plastic “gown” Velcroed around my neck; the shears clipped in their grinding, icy metallic fashion. A scuffle ensued; somehow I managed to draw blood.
A second hairdresser was sent out to finish the job. He cut it even shorter, in big dramatic swaths that sailed to the floor—a cream-colored linoleum embossed with rivulets of gold sparkles that ran through it like ore—in clumps. “See, you look so pretty now,” the second hairdresser said in a tone that might have reflected vengeance or pity.
That night I suggested that my little sister give her doll a haircut. (We had new dolls: Hers had brown hair, I had grabbed for the blond.) It took some convincing. “No!” she screamed. I got the scissors, the red-handled for-right-handers-only ones, so she could do it herself.
“She’ll look really pretty,” I assured her. “Maybe I’ll cut my doll’s hair when you’re through.”
I went to the other room and got the green-handled scissors as a show of good faith. Her doll got a very chic Louise Brooks bob; mine, as you can probably imagine, decided in the end to keep hers long.
I never thought about the fact that I felt ugly until one day in the second grade, when I woke up with a bloody nose that wouldn’t stop; the ordeal involved a trip to the hospital, but I was fine. I showed up to school a little late, my nose still encrusted with dried blood but fine. “I’m not going to play with you today,” said Julia Ann, the richest little girl in my class, a girl so rich she wore a floor-length dress with her long blond, doll-like hair every day, possessed a dollhouse that was an exact copy of her own glorious mansion, and had ridden in a helicopter with Richard Nixon himself. (I know I’m stacking the deck, but I have to add one more thing: On Halloween, little Julia Ann wanted to be a southern belle, so her parents dressed her in an authentic—meaning actual antique—southern belle costume in precisely her second-grade size, right down to the miniature antique southern belle shoes that fit and the miniature antique southern belle parasol by her side.) “I’m not going to play with you today,” said Julia Ann, looking at my nose uncomfortably. “You’re ugly.”
Even after the nose had healed, the fact was still there: Beyond the boy hair, I had freckles. And the attendant pale, blotchy skin. I lived in California, where everyone was tawny and smooth and honey colored and fringed with pool-bleached, longer-than-a-pixie hair.
I’d like to say I’ve moved past these obsessions, but the truth, as your therapist will tell you, is that people rarely make it past the world of childhood. To this day, my hair is long, long, or longer. Someday (God willing, etc.) I’ll grow into one of those disconcerting ninety-year-olds who let their age-ravaged hair fall about their shoulders like overcooked pasta, eerily telegraphing the flickers of sexuality that still, apparently, lie beneath.
That’s if I make it to ninety after they discover the hideous toxicity of self-tanner, in which I all but bathe.
“In my next life, I’m coming back as a beauty editor.”
“Do you have any idea how good you have it?”
“Hands down, you have the best job in America.”
“Now I’ve seen everything: You get paid for doing this?”
I remember the first time I walked into a beauty editor’s office. It was delightful and disgusting all at once: shelves upon shelves choking with bath gel, perfume, foundation, lotion, conditioner, lip gloss, eye shadow, cellulite treatments, seaweed serums . . . to one side, a random collection of gifts, from Pucci scarves to yoga mats to novelty chocolates shaped like miniature blow dryers; to another, additional caches of lipsticks, soaps, and shampoos, along with the odd makeup bag and terrycloth robe stuffed in wherever they fit. Every day, cosmetics companies send the beauty editors dozens of packages—my office gets ten to twenty most days—carefully wrapped collections of whatever they’re serving up next. We unwrap, and we evaluate.
Whether it’s undeserved excess, American overconsumption in general, or blatant female vanity that sends you over the edge, my office contains enough incendiary material to fuel several thousand impassioned protest marches.
Then again, if you’ve ever waited stammering at a makeup counter while the salesperson wrapped up some overpriced item that you weren’t even sure looked good on you (but since you’d wasted their time and they were so insistent, you bought it anyway), the concept of being able to try on a few colors without a shrill sales pitch attached to it is wildly compelling.
It’s like candy, all those little boxes and bottles; a magpie would cock its head and turn its eye so as to take in all the glittering possibilities and probably lose its mind forever right then and there. Beyond my office, though, is the beauty closet, which is about a thousand times worse.
The word closet is actually a misnomer. When I worked at Elle magazine, the closet was actually an office the size of a large bedroom lined with beauty-item-crammed shelves; now, at Lucky, it’s three huge walk-in-closet-size closets, again with the shelves, again with more hope in a jar than you can shake a stick at.
There are various cosmetic pioneers who lay claim to the phrase hope in a jar; whoever said it was very perceptive. Nowadays, the jars reflect all manner of hopes and dreams, thanks to all the target marketing and brand building and niche identifying: You’ve got the wrinkle-erasing dream and the clear skin dream, but you’ve also got much more, from a cleaner earth (Aveda) to a more glamorous life (Chanel) to an edgier, punkier sense of femininity (Stila). You’ve got the hard-core-city-girl dream (M•A•C, Urban Decay), and the Park Avenue (Estée Lauder), and the dermatologist stamp-of-approval dream that started with Clinique and has recently escalated into Dr. Brandt, Dr. Perricone, and StriVectin SD.
The hands-down most popular dream, cosmetics-brand-wise, is what I like to call the Simone: Simone isn’t real, she’s an imaginary, dewy, health-exuding French girl. Simone is maybe nineteen, spends a lot of her time naked in spa-like settings, and when she speaks she purses her plummy, puffy lips
to say the word pure—or, because she’s French, it comes out “puuurrrrh.” If you want to convince people to buy skin care
of any sort, Simone is the woman to sell it to them: Clarins, Lancôme, Chanel, L’Oréal, Remède, Sothys, Darphin, Yves Rocher, Caudalíe, they’re all selling you a Simone. The accent in Estée imbues the Estée Lauder brand with lots of Simone. Simone is why there’s French on the back of the Origins bottle, the Shiseido compact, and the Maybelline lip pencil, despite those brands’ respective, utterly un-French pedigrees/attitudes. It’s confounding, but it works: Intellectually, I know I don’t want to be a French exchange student in any way, but Simone is wildly compelling nonetheless.
Like fashion, beauty items are an easy way to try on a new identity—like a kind of costume. As in fashion, some of the options are ridiculous and some are fantastic; at the very least, trying everything on can be a lot of fun. The beauty closet is like a giant costume box full of potential identities that are otherwise under heavy guard from smiling, heavily made-up salespeople armed with perfume spritzers.
The freedom to sift through all the possibilities without having to deal with the “Fries with that?” advisers—with all their advice about what you need and what you don’t and what they’re supposed to push on you that month—is enough to make most people’s heads spin. People tend to freeze up when the door to the beauty closet is finally opened: What to look at first? Who to be?
I get between fifty and two hundred products a day (the packages usually contain numerous items), some of them new, some of them just reminders, some of them gorgeous and innovative, and most of them just some dull cream purporting to moisturize some portion of your body, often wrapped up in an equally uninspiring package. The good stuff goes into the closet—either to be photographed for the magazine or to be saved as gifts. The less-interesting stuff goes straight onto the office help-yourself giveaway pile—the place where the fashion editors put the mismatched socks and the discontinued necklaces; the design editors, the oddly patterned pot holders; and the beauty editors, the shade of nail polish that didn’t make it into the article.
The thing that constantly amazes me is there’s a market for even the most cretinous, obvious, ridiculous, straight-to-the-giveaway-pile items. The world is full of statistics about how many small businesses fail and how likely it is that the restaurant you’re opening will be out of business in three years, but the reverse is true of beauty products. I’ve seen beauty companies go out of business, but relatively few of them, to be honest. The really good ideas are rewarded with zillions: Somewhere near her mansion in the Steven Spielberg/Kate Capshaw sector of the Hamptons, makeup artist Bobbi Brown docks a boat with the name TYLL (Thank You, Leonard Lauder—Lauder being the company that bought hers); Jeanine Lobell, the makeup artist who created Stila, told her husband, Anthony Edwards, he could quit being Dr. Green (on ER) when she sold her company to Lauder. Roxanne Quimby, the woman who created Burt’s Bees, bought the largest piece of land ever sold in the state of Maine (happily, so it could be preserved forever rather than logged or built on) with the proceeds from her business; hairdresser John Frieda was already a wealthy man when Jergens bought his ten-year-old hair care company for $450 million.
While they’re busy making their millions, whatever they send that’s truly irresistible goes straight into my bag; if I love it as much as I think I’m going to love it, we call in a new one to photograph. It’s exactly like shopping, except the mistakes don’t cost money and the salespeople are much less with holding.
So I do love my job. What I love most, I think, is that it’s impossible to take seriously. So much of it is inane and ridiculous and silly. My beloved shrink tries valiantly to float a “but you’re helping all these women feel better about themselves” argument every so often, but you know, I’ve got a cousin who sits in front of a microscope all day, helping find cures for pediatric cancer.
Me, I ponder lipstick. There are shining pots of ruby gloss, sheer washes of cheek stain, velvet black sweeping lashes. I’m surrounded by mountains of face cream and shampoo—certainly not all of it beautiful—but somehow it speaks to me.