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MAC lipsticks in Ginza, Tokyo

We're standing in a line and she walks up and down. Her face is inscrutable, by which I mean it's on its default setting of pissed off, and we're wondering which of us is for the chop. I say which of us, but I know I'm safe, though some of the others are definitely not leaving on time tonight.

"Kate Simpson, Hannah Jones, you two stay behind. You've not even made an attempt to hide the fact you're caked in blusher".

She then gets a cotton wool pad, dips it in toner and begins wiping down our lashes - looking for that tell-tale black smear that denotes Rimmel's finest. Some girls are ahead of the game though - as well as the wondrous White Musk perfume, the Body Shop sells a clear gel mascara to foil such fascist tactics. Granted, its gluey formula makes them look like startled kittens with conjunctivitis, but it's guaranteed not to leave an inky trace.

As we wait our turn, it doesn't seem to occur to any of us that this is, if not an infringement of human rights, at least a violation of personal space, but it's a more innocent, less litigious time. And after another couple of girls get hoicked out of the line, the rest of us breathe a collective sigh of relief, and get our bags, and traipse home.

Like I said, I was never in danger of detention this way. I was the classic Tartrazine kid - you just had to show me something brightly-coloured and all around my mouth would bloom an angry, red rash. I resembled Bluto, Popeye's nemesis, which isn't the best look for a small, brown girl. It meant no ice lollies, no felt tips, no crayons, no Plasticine, no make-up, no fun.

My mother has never worn cosmetics, so it's not like they were constantly around me, but my dad's mother and sister were a good deal vainer, so whenever we'd visit them back in Mandalay, I'd linger by their dressing tables, entranced by the pots and bottles and lotions and potions which jostled for space.

My aunt gave me my first lipstick at the age of eight; it came in a fuchsia floral tube, smelt of cherries, and bizarrely the lipstick itself was green. But as soon as you swiped it over your lips, some kind of magic happened - the swampy green would blossom into pinkish red and I'd be left with the perfect rosebud mouth.

For a few moments, I was transformed into a princess, the prettiest girl around. Then I'd feel my skin start to tingle and itch and blister, and I'd grab a wad of tissue, wipe it away, and be back to being me.

Because of this unfortunate propensity, my fixation soon transferred from the perfumed contents to the trappings that surrounded it. The fuchsia floral tube of that first lipstick became supplanted by the sleek, navy lines of Max Factor, and then the shiny purple packaging of Maybelline, and then the matte black of Chanel.

It was utterly pointless - I couldn't wear any of it, but I was beginning to be consumed by the need to own as much beautiful make-up as possible, even as it began to moulder and go stale.

When the novelty cosmetic came onto my befuddled radar, I was really done for. Dior was a favourite - every season they'd reveal a new must-have, an immediate sell-out: the knuckleduster ring that swivelled to reveal a lipstick, the eyeshadow compact corsetted with black velvet ribbon, the blusher disguised as a smart leather purse.

I started stalking the counters in Selfridges, ready to pounce as soon as the next limited edition trinket was revealed. My acquisitions became manic - I even found myself bidding on eBay for the sold-out silver Dior dogtag with two contrasting shades of lipgloss (of course I had the gold one already).

Meanwhile, new formulations began to come in. Make-up brands began to cotton on to the fact that there was a whole world of face cripples out there like me, and they swapped out whatever the hell it was that was causing us so much pain and replaced it with a gentler version.

It was too late for me though - I'd become disassociated to the extent that I wouldn't dream of actually using the stuff - but I kept on buying. And buying. And buying.

I can't remember when the turning-point was. I must have caught a glimpse of myself in a mirror one day and realised that somewhere along the line the face that stared back at me wasn't a scrunched-up, awkward child, or a badly-fringed teenager, but that of a woman - a woman who had neglected her appearance somewhat. Who owned most of the make-up in the Western hemisphere, but hadn't the faintest idea how to apply it in any way.

I bit the bullet; I took myself to the Lancome counter and asked them for a full makeover. 45 minutes later, the lady stuck a mirror in front of me. A wonky Barbarella was staring back - sickly pink cheeks, lavender eyelids, powder peach lips. I stammered a thank you, left the counter and then scrubbed it all off with a wet wipe.

This was when I realised that the odds were still stacked against me - the make-up artists around hadn't a clue what to do if you weren't Caucasian, and none of the shades were really designed for an Oriental complexion anyway.

So I sighed and resolved I would try to sort myself out. I needed to start small though, and I decided I would just find a lipstick that suited me. It had to be long-lasting but moisturising, sexy but discreet, and most of all it had to be flattering. How hard could it possibly be?

Very hard. I think there's a special level of hell reserved for people who devise new make-up products - I swear all they do is come up with increasingly ludicrous claims before laughing and taking every penny I have.

Swayed by bold promises of "24 hour staying power", "collagen-plumping", or "skin adaptivity", I'd test all the colours on the back of my hand, excitedly buy the one that was The One, only to try it at home and find it did nothing of the sort. That it bled at the corners, or looked dire away from the shop lights, or smeared after a cup of tea, or faded to an ugly ring.

And never, ever, ever was it the perfect shade, the perfect red, the perfect one for me.

I don't know why this is in the past tense. I'm still looking for the right lipstick. And as soon as I do, it will be like that old cliche - when the straight-laced librarian undoes her bun and takes off her glasses, and everyone is in awe of just how beautiful she is. And at how they'd missed what was under their noses all along.

One swipe and it will turn me into a princess again. Into the prettiest woman around.


Kavey said…
I discovered as a kid of the eighties that, at that time, the make up houses weren't really aiming their shades at brown women, or at least, they'd started trying but not with great success.

Luckily for me, crazy shades of silver and bright bright colours were in, and they actually looked better on my brown skin than they did on my white friends' faces.

So I did wear make up and nailpolish for a while, in my early teens with vague enthusiasm.

Though not to school, just for social events.

But I lost that interest really quickly... for a start, being so strongly myopic means my glasses make my (fairly large) eyes look teeny tiny. And mascara makes my lashes feel strange against the inside of my glasses.

For various reasons I can't wear lenses.

And I'm lucky with skin so never ever bought or used any foundation stuff.

And suddenly, by the time I was an adult, it had switched to me only wearing (rudimentary) make up for very special occasions.

Now, even for weddings, I'll sometimes grab my lone lipstick. It's symbolic really, as I eat it off within half and hour and seldom reapply even if I've thought to take it with me.

The brown eyeliner pencil I used as shadow is used less and less often.

I sometimes feel that friends think I'm less of a female for NOT having a vast collection of make up that I fuss over and carry subsets with me wherever I go. But I'm sure it's my reading thoughts that are not even there.

I'm make-up inadequate.
Miss Whiplash said…
I'm not sure it's all down to brownness or lack thereof... Makeup (and particularly lipstick) looks extreme on people who don't wear it.
I wear makeup on stage. And, very occasionally, on high days and holidays... To the outside world, it probably looks fine, but, to me, and anyone that knows me in normal life, I look like a clown or a painted lady.
And I definitely don't know how to wear lipstick. It's just too extreme. And I have no idea how not to just eat it off straight away.
I think that maybe, for some of us, it's just not meant to be.
And, in all honesty, I'd rather have the extra ten minutes in bed in the morning :-)
Miss Whiplash said…
Of course, it doesn't stop me actually *buying* it... I'm still human ;-)
meemalee said…
@Kavey - I have lots of bright eyeshadows and eyeliners which are also slightly pointless on me because I don't really have eyefolds, but when I blink you can see the flashes of colour. Eye makeup makes me much happier. Foundation is something I've had to worry about more recently - my skin has been terrible for the past year or so :(

@Miss Whiplash - Oh, I'm not suggesting people who aren't brown don't have problems finding make-up that suits them - I just mean we have a few more ;P
Unknown said…
Apart from special occasions I've largely stopped wearing make up. I don't have a problem applying it, it looks nice when it's on but taking it off is the problem.

3 years ago I realised I had become allergic to virtually every eye make up remover (and sadly YSL touche eclat too) going. They either make my skin go bright red or irritate my eyes badly.

I had my eyelashes tinted once and it gave me a delightful condition called "giant pippillary conjunctivitis" which is basically bumps under the eyelids that only the option can see if they turn your eyelids inside out (nice experience).

Oh yawn and I get terrible heat rash in the sun... and I'm allergic to spray tan and fake bake creams.

Good job I'm not a footballer's wife really....
Unknown said…
I dont often wear make-up but when I do, the lipstick is my first port of call!... loads of it!... love the new look blog! x
Helen said…
If you are sensitive mineral make is your friend. Lily Lolo do all shades and there is (or at used to be) a salon on the Edgeware Road where they would colour match you.

My skin is horrible at the moment, wretched rosacea which I thought I had fixed.
Kavey said…
Make up manufacturers are better now at creating ranges for different ethnic groups/ skin tones than they were, from what my relatives tell me...

MiMi I really like when you wear that thin line of bright bright turquoise colour on your eyes. Sabrina wears it too. It suits both of you, I think it's gorgeous and almost tempts me to give make up another go.

But I'm lazy at heart and wearing makeup would be the least of the things I should address if I want to make myself look visually better.

Anonymous said…
I look like a distressed panda whenever I try to wear eye make up but I love a good lipstick. I actually found a site recently that sells only red lipstick, and only in 4 shades- which for me is actually perfect as I get so confused when confronted with endless rows of slightly differing colours :S
I chose the 'Rockette Red' which is good for paler skin but it says the 'Hot Rod Red' and 'Roulette Red' are good for darker skin tones. Maybe one of those would work for you?

(PS- I really hope I don't sound like I work for these people or something. I just wanted to share the spoils of my quest to find a great red lipstick!)
meemalee said…
@Sarah, Maison Cupcake - I think we're very glad you're not a footballer's wife! Ooh, that's bad being allergic to make-up remover. Baby lotion is what I use.

@Dom @Belleau Kitchen - Oh thank you! Also - pictures please? :)

@Helen - I've not heard of Lily Lolo. Will Google the salon too, thank you.

@Kavey - Awww, I do like that eyeliner - it's Bourjois Nightclubbing! ;P

@Anonymous - I think I read about them recently somewhere - thanks for the tip! :)
Uyen Luu said…
sigh... I am a makeup shopping addict - its about the only thing I have patience for (shopping wise)!

I used to do makeup for The Body Shop when I was 16 - 18 every Saturday. I must admit, I made some women look like they stepped out of Rosemary's Baby (and myself too).

Maybe we can go together one day, I am quite good at it now, would love to suggest some things to you if you would let me x
Unknown said…
I cannot fathom how anyone gets lipstick to stay on! Other than dyeing your lips I guess?

My mum used to work for the Avon factory and the 25p eyeshadows, mascaras and nail polish is the reason I love make up, but mainly cheap make up. We had the biggest make up collections as teenagers.
meemalee said…
@LELUU - Oh, yes please - I'd love for you to take me make-up shopping! x

@Deepa - Lipstains are the closest - I also like the staying power of Max Factor Lipfinity - though the one shade I liked (103 Powerful) got discontinued! Lucky you re Avon :)
LaFlafster said…
I remember that lipstick! I had some too! (sorry v excited punctuation)

Also for a fellow non-pink skin, have you tried Bobbi Brown? I finally have a concealer that blends in. AND they were amazingly flattering (and I spent a fortune) ooh look, this makes you look SO pretty. And it did, like myself but with 100 years more sleep.
Anonymous said…
Love this post - looking forward to more non-food stuff :)

BTW, did you see Sali Hughes' post in the Guardian a couple of weeks ago about 'six lipsticks that suit everyone'?
Suz said…
Like Kavey, I am make-up inadequate. The few bits I do own are probably out of date. I'm just awful at putting it on. And lazy. If I ever get my eyes lasered, I might start wearing eye make-up again. I'm a bad one for getting mascara on my eyeball though, so that might not be the best idea.

Love the mental image of startled kittens with conjunctivitis!
meemalee said…
@LaFlafster - Hehe, a Vietnamese lady told me the same thing! Weird we all had the same first lipstick. 100 years more sleep is exactly what I want but everything in Bobbi Brown just seems so dull to me (I'm a magpie). - Aww, I'm glad - I thought people would be put off. Have bookmarked that list, thank you!

@Suzler - I at least can wear contacts - but like you and Kavey I don't bother with eye make-up when I have my specs on.
Miss Whiplash said…
I bought a Tom Ford lipstick yesterday... I am a junkie :-(
Anonymous said…
Don't stop buying lipstick, or any other cosmetics for that matter! You're the reason I have such a vast makeup collection myself. And I'd be much less inclined to actually go to a counter and buy it myself.I've benefited from your rejects for years!But I do hope you find that perfect shade one day.(Magayle)
meemalee said…
@Miss Whiplash - Whoa, Tom Ford lipsticks are uber-expensive!

@Anonymous - Awww :) x
chumbles said…
Coming out of retirement to say that that is an absolutely brilliant post. It's the female equivalent of me at 16 liftng weights, shifting crates around as a Summer job and then thinking "why?"... I had muscles all over ....

My personal fetish is buying spices; I buy far too much and far too many... Also moisturisers...