What Every Southern Woman Knows About the Power of Makeup
The archetypal Southern female is a champion of artifice. She thinks it's important to make things nice, which is why she'll keep politely chitchatting even if she's passing a gallstone. She also likes to bend nature to her will: If God didn't give her visible cheekbones, well, she'll get a little powder and do him one better. As Blanche DuBois put it, "I tell what ought to be truth."
And thus for generations, my foremothers have circled up by the light of the Dillard's Lancôme counter to line and pat and puff. Every morning they got up, baked their faces on and went out into the world. Without mascara, said my mother, her eyes were just "two burnt holes in a sheet."
When I was 9, I wrote the beauty editor of a popular women's magazine—let's call it Fatuous—and told her I'd like to have her job one day. She never wrote back, but the joke was on her: As a young woman, through happenstance and stubborn optimism, I actually landed a spot at a fashion magazine in New York City.
I wouldn't be in the beauty department; I would be inserting and removing commas. But on my first morning I sat at my vanity, wild-eyed: What makeup would I wear? This was the late '90s, when there had been an explosion of new lines—Laura Mercier! Bobbi Brown! Stila!—and I was drunk with possibility, like Templeton the rat at the county fair. Which blush? Which shadow? Which gloss? Finally, I chose a Nars palette called Lust for Life and, quadrant by quadrant, began art directing my face.
Oh, it is to laugh! And to weep for the naïve hick that I was, because I did not know how they rolled, the well-heeled women of the Eastern Seaboard. I shared an office (and by "office" I mean the fashion closet) with three other members of the rank and file who, unlike myself, had degrees from fancy colleges. And naked eyelashes.
Let me see if I can put it in a noncosmetic perspective, this deep divide: One of my office mates had spent her senior year writing a thesis for which she traveled to Normandy, as in France. I had spent my senior year planning my wedding, where we served cheese straws but no alcohol because of the Baptists. I did my own makeup: a trio of gray eyeshadows and a red lipstick, all by Cover Girl. I was so proud when a guest told me she thought it was a professional job. Cheap things can pass for expensive if you know how to blend properly.
Blending properly would become an obsession of mine at this sophisticated magazine with so many brainy women—none of whom had been required to take hunters' safety classes in junior high, or wore any visible makeup. Even the beauty editors' faces were nonchalantly bare. (Maybe this is what Coco Chanel meant by "elegance is refusal.")
Vanity was okay, as long as it involved suffering—ordering omelets without the yolks, getting up early to hit the gym, having saline injections to shrivel one's leg veins. But spending your lunch hour at the MAC counter, getting trussed up like an Opryland show girl? It was not done.
Even so, in this one way I could not betray my motherland. I might be in New York, the reinvention capital, but I knew some things had to be nonnegotiable. So I was in full drag when I pitched my first story, when I bought my first grown-up shoes from Agnès B., when I attended the star-studded Russian Tea Room event where Paul Rudd turned to me and asked huskily, "Could you pass the tart tray?" Tart. Sometimes I felt sheepish about my shimmering powders, and at other times I stoked a flame of defiance. Go ahead, find my mirror-finish lip gloss frivolous, I thought. You know what else is frivolous? Your "self-directed" major in Expressions of Contemporary Popular Culture!
Eventually, I transformed myself into a person who goes to France. In Paris, I stopped at a department store for some eyeliner. The saleswoman sat me down and drew on gigantic Nijinsky-style cat eyes—ridiculous and utterly unapologetic. She declared, "Vairy preety." I believe it was her Gallic way of saying, A woman should enjoy her face. The women of Wilson County had known that all along.
Today I'm proud to be the daughter of the 1961 Mount Juliet High School fall festival queen. Pageantry! I bring it, with my face full of possibly ridiculous paint. Many would rather have the extra five minutes in the morning, and I salute them. But I take joy in creating that daily work of artifice. Because when you sit down at the mirror with your compacts and brushes, what you're really saying is, I'm ready for the show to start.