Valerie Monroe behind the Bobbi Brown makeup counter
Photo: Thomas Holton
Your project: to find a new lipstick…or eyeshadow…or blush. A simple errand—or a rite of transformation? We slip behind the counter to see what's really putting a smile on your face.
One Saturday afternoon not long ago in a New York City department store, I inadvertently wandered into a party so lively, I couldn't bring myself to leave: a hundred people at least, mostly women, young and old and in between, laughing, sharing stories, thoroughly engaged. Though I hadn't actually been invited to this party, I felt very welcome. As I made my way through the chattering, excited crowd, a number of strangers smiled warmly at me, asked me how I was, and offered treats. A cup of exotic jasmine tea? An exquisite cream puff—or how about two? A hand massage? A shoulder rub? I might have taken them up, but I didn't want to be distracted from the action, of which there was plenty. And it wasn't just the collegial kind. Money was being spent, a lot of money. I was on the department store's cosmetics floor, it was a typical weekend day, and the crowd were not party guests but women on a mission. They were there to invest in themselves, to make themselves more beautiful, seductive, fresher, renewed.

If you've ever bought a lipstick, you know the remarkably large satisfaction that can accompany a small purchase. I wanted to find out what that satisfaction looks like from the other side of the counter: Do women shop for cosmetics knowing what they want? How vulnerable are we to the power of persuasion? Why do we love to buy so much?

Bobbi Brown, celebrity makeup artist and founder of Bobbi Brown Cosmetics, agreed to allow me behind one of her counters so that I might get firsthand some answers to those questions. Before I started work, I read through the company's training manual: I wasn't going to be chewing gum, wearing any distracting jewelry, or sporting wildly colored stripes in my hair. I familiarized myself as much as I quickly could with the huge product line, which includes every kind of makeup imaginable as well as powder puffs, lip brushes, and something called a conditioning brush cleanser—not to mention a complete skincare line. Oh, yes, and also fragrance. In the end, I knew a shimmer brick from a concealer stick, but my grasp of the range of cosmetics was limited to the assumption that if Bobbi didn't make a color, it probably didn't exist. So to some extent I was going to wing it, and rely on charm. Which, I found out right away, is useless in the face of a woman looking for the right lipstick.

In Bloomingdale's in New York City, the Bobbi Brown counter sits smack in the middle of the bustling first floor. It's well stocked, terrifically organized, a candy store for anyone with a sweet tooth for cosmetics. From my side of the counter I watch woman after woman walk by, focused fiercely on some shopping objective down the line. I can see the moment when she is distracted by the display. Her eyes dart to the side, take it in, and that's it, she's done for. She's been mugged; the makeup has pocketed her attention without her even knowing it.

My guide behind the counter for the day, Tia, a makeup artist, gently instructs me on how to greet customers. Friendly but professional, she says to me, "What brings you to Bobbi Brown today?" I repeat, mimicking her tone, as if I'm learning a foreign language, "What brings you to Bobbi Brown today?" Saying it, I feel completely inauthentic. "I always like to compliment a potential client on something too," Tia says. "Like that brooch you're wearing," she says, pointing to my favorite little Victorian pin. "Why, thank you," I say, not really sure whether she likes my pin or is simply demonstrating her technique. Whatever; she's so warm that it doesn't matter.

And so it begins: I stand around trying to look inviting. This is hard because, on a typical day, I often try not to look inviting, as the consequences—solicitations from strangers of every kind—are mostly unwelcome. But today I've arranged my face (or I think I have) into an expression that says something like, "How can I help you?" A lovely middle-aged woman approaches. She's dressed for a day off, in casual pants and shirt. "Hi," I say, "and what brings you to Bobbi Brown today?" She tells me she's looking for a lip gloss and a foundation. I'm about to pluck a gloss from the display to offer it to her when she says, staring at the glosses, "They're telling me I have to wear makeup." "They are?" I say. "Yes," she says, a little bit morosely, still focused on the glosses. "And who are they?" I ask. "They" are the people she works with; she's a nurse on a cardiac unit. "Well, they have some nerve," I want to say, "you look perfectly great without makeup," but then I remember that I'm supposed to be selling makeup. And her comment seems, even to me—not the most natural salesperson—an unusually propitious opening.

I choose a deep mauve gloss, which she eyes suspiciously. "This is pretty," I start to say, when Tia swoops in, holding a gloss in a lighter color. "What's your name?" she says. It's Phyllis. Phyllis likes Tia's choice, tries it on, and immediately admires herself in the mirror on the counter. Like a gracious hostess, Tia says, "Would you like to sit down?" (In the split second before I realize she isn't speaking to me, I'm relieved. I've been on the floor for only a half hour and already I'm exhausted. But it's Phyllis who gets to sit in a tall chair, balancing her bag and her packages on her lap.) I love Phyllis's face; she has wide-set eyes and the gorgeous, engaged smile of a genuinely happy person. I do see though, that, happy or not, she could use some eyeliner. Tia agrees, and before I could ask where to find it among the many drawers of products, she's applying a coffee-colored pencil and explaining why she isn't using black (less subtle). Tia hands Phyllis a mirror. "Oh my goodness!" Phyllis says, obviously delighted. "May I apply some blush?" Tia asks. Phyllis's eyes flutter closed as she presents her face to Tia; when she opens them and looks at her reflection again, she makes another delighted cry. "They won't recognize me!" she says. "I'm going to stop and look at myself in every mirror and window I pass!" As Tia assembles her purchases, Phyllis sits waiting excitedly. She was beautiful without the makeup. Is it her increased happiness or the blush that makes her look more beautiful now?

Back at the gloss counter, I hang around making like a Venus flytrap, scanning the floor for customers. Ah! Here comes one now! Cute, in her 20s, she's buzzing along, looking a little hungry, as if she wants something. So what brings her to Bobbi Brown today? I'm about to compliment her on her glasses, when she says, "Arf fogush bren ahsado en pink freitshummer." I lean into the counter: "Excuse me?" "Arf fogush bren eyeshadow in pink freit shimmer," she says. "Right away!" I say. "We've got that right here," I say, pointing at a pale rose shadow. "No, no, no, no," says the woman definitively as she slides away sideways, like a crab. "Freit shimmer!"

And with that I've learned a very important lesson about how a woman buys makeup, and what it takes to sell it: If you can't quickly give her exactly what she wants, or at least offer an alluring facsimile, she leaves, pronto. The salespeople at the Bobbi Brown counter evidently know this very well, because in my several hours there, I saw no one go away empty-handed (except—sorry, Bobbi—Ms. Freit Shimmer).

Another middle-aged woman approaches me. (Are they attracted to me because I'm also middle-aged, and therefore less threatening in some way?) "What brings you to Bobbi Brown today?" "I came with a list, actually," says this woman. "Oh, how nice—for gifts?" I ask. "No," she says, "all for me, actually." She digs around in her bag and pulls out a large, white, lined sheet of paper. "Okay," she says, "I need a shimmer brick, and a bronzer blush, and a foundation, and I need to replace this old lipstick." She extracts from her bag a Bobbi Brown lipstick that has been rubbed right down to a nub; it's a very well-appreciated lipstick. A salesperson has magically appeared behind me. "What's your name?" she asks. It's Beth, and Beth is graciously invited to have a seat. "I'm running out of time," she says casually as she arranges herself on the high chair. "You'll be more comfortable," says the salesperson, who, between soliciting the information she needs from Beth about what she's looking for and gathering products, applying them with the speed and precision of a skilled surgeon, has made Beth look absolutely radiant. She buys more than she had on her list; nevertheless, she's quite pleased. The curious, captivating thing is: If you saw her, you would understand. She looks as if she's just returned from a long, relaxing vacation in a warm climate. Her entire demeanor has shifted from pressed to pacific. The transformation is remarkable, and she knows it. But neither Beth's transformation nor Phyllis's have come from the makeup alone. For a short time in a day most likely spent taking care of others, they have been well taken care of themselves, asked about their preferences, their feelings, their needs. Where else does this so reliably happen to a woman than at the makeup counter?

And where else do we so reliably celebrate our potential to be beautiful, which reminds us we're here, alive, in the game. Making up, brightening and revitalizing our looks—the skill and the artfulness of it—can be one of the most exhilarating of women's sports. No wonder we love shopping for a delicate baby pink blush, a cool dove gray eyeliner, a rich mauve lip gloss—makeup is the equipment, the sport gear that keeps us happily in play.


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