Tuesday, 27 September 2011
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.