I was finishing beauty school right around the same time Sex and the City was ending. I looooved Sex and the City back then. I used to watch it more or less every day. I was 21 years old, I had no friends, and their relationships seemed like a dream–just four women trading quippy quips about shoes or whatever all day long.
Even as a considerably less intelligent 21-year-old, I always knew there were terrible, shallow, ethnocentric elements to the show. I hadn’t even learned the word ‘heteronormative’ yet but I knew the characters were way too obsessed with it. Pretty much everyone I know has since publicly renounced the show, but we still talk about it all the time. I’ve resigned myself to a life of comparative think pieces.
When Sex and the City reached a milestone anniversary a few weeks ago, I, along with some friends, decided to re-watch “just a few” episodes. You know, for nostalgia’s sake. Somehow the show managed to be simultaneously better and worse than I remembered it. There’s some really wonderful, funny, sad, smart stuff there!.I don’t think we were all brainwashed into loving this show; it wormed its way into our hearts and conversations naturally. But then there’s also some weird, horrible stuff–really casual transphobia and homophobia, a narrow-minded obsession with the pursuit of monogamy, and an obsession with white Upper East Side socialites and wealth that’s just bizarre.
Re-watching the show did remind me of the reason I loved it as a fledgling makeup artist: while the show itself might no longer be my ideal of entertainment, it nonetheless displayed what I still consider to be the best use of makeup in the history of television. Seriously, go back and watch a few episodes of the sixth season just for Carrie Bradshaw’s unbelievably perfect blush game. She might be an annoying, narcissistic nightmare, but damn if she didn’t have the best baby-pink flush of all time.
I spent tons of time studying the cast’s faces, reading articles about the SATC makeup to get tips and tricks. I think the actual blush used was NARS Desire, but Tarte Cheek Stain was often invoked as a good alternative. But here’s what no article would ever point out, and what I only knew from beauty school: it wasn’t really the blush. It was the lighting.
“Good lighting” is kind of a cliché; shorthand for a prima donna who doesn’t like the way she really looks. Someone who knows what lighting they look best in is one rundown mansion away from Sunset Boulevard. But so much of what we consider to be integral to conventional attractiveness is nothing more than the lighting it appears in. Really excellent makeup, like the kind on Sex and the City, works with lighting to trick the eye into thinking that your cheekbones are naturally that defined and not the result of a designer cosmetic product.
Have you ever struggled to grasp some concept, and only done so when you learned about its opposite? I feel like that used to happen all the time in my high school math classes. Well, this particular lighting-related epiphany happened not in any of my actual beauty makeup courses, where we learned how to cover under-eye bags or conceal pimples. The light-bulb moment happened in a character makeup course.
Character makeup is kind of like diet special effects–we learned the things you would have seen in Grey’s Anatomy, bullet holes and stitches and sunburns and such, but not real special effects (the type of makeup you see in The Thing or whatever). It’s called character makeup because it’s like visual character development. The teacher would go around the room and give each of us a character, like: “Your model is a rookie cop who has just been shot for the first time, and he’s very tired because he was out all night chasing felons,” and then you would have a set amount of time to complete the look.
So I had just applied a really nice bullet wound to my friend’s arm and was working on his under-eye bags because the teacher had specified that he was tired. I was doing it all wrong–just smearing a dark beige eyeshadow totally willy-nilly–and the teacher came over to correct me. “Exhaustion isn’t just dark circles under the eyes,” the teacher explained, “it presents itself as a completely sunken eye socket. The darkness occurs in the corners of the eyes, where the under-eye skin meets the nose, and often includes broken blood vessels on the eyelid. That’s exhaustion.”
That’s how I learned to cover up dark circles–it has nothing to do with the actual dark circle or bags that appear under the eyes. It has everything to do with the appearance of darkness, broken blood vessels, and sunken eye sockets. You need to work with elements of lightness to counter this appearance, NOT cover it with a cream that matches your skin tone.
A basic rule of makeup application is “light colors enhance, dark colors recede.” That’s why a basic eye shadow is a light colour on the eyelid and a dark colour blended into the fold–it gives the appearance of the eye moving forward, which we subconsciously associate with alertness, wakefulness, and general healthiness-type-stuff. To really look like we haven’t been out all night drinking tequila and dancing to Sonic Youth in a park, not that any of us do that (*shifty eyed emojis*), you need to recede and enhance your entire eye area in all the right places. This means a highlighter on your cheekbones, highlighter on your brow bone, highlighter on the inner corners of your eyes, concealer or a light neutral color painted on your eyelids, and, if you want to go really crazy, a concealer pencil on the inside lower rim of your eyes to remove redness.
When you watch a TV show like Sex and the City and marvel at the skin of the actresses, you’re really marveling at the absence of shadows. I really do think lighting is the single most underrated element of the film industry, and that’s saying a lot considering what kind of macho bullshit I had to put up with as a young makeup artist on film sets. It’s one of those things where the mark of an excellent job is complete invisibility; you never see a movie and think, “Wow, they’ve really done an incredible job blowing out the right side of her face while keeping the sunlight looking natural;” you think, “Oh, what a pretty girl.”
If you work as a makeup artist in film or television, there is no Photoshop that will save you if an actor has a pimple. The lighting technicians are the film version of Photoshop. A pimple is a 3D element and a movie screen is a gazillion feet tall; you can’t just slap some cover-up on it and hope no one notices. The lighting technician lights the set so that the actors’ skin is free from shadows. No shadows mean no visible depth between pimple and skin surface, which means no visible pimple. They are magicians and I salute each and every one of them forever.
Have you ever seen street-style photos of celebrities leaving like, the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf? Is that still a thing? My pop culture references basically peaked at Mischa Barton on Perez Hilton circa 2006. ANYWAY. You know how there are always photos of celebrities leaving the gym, or the coffee shop, and they always look great and flawless and you’re just like, damn? Yeah. That’s lighting. Some of that is genetics, sure, but 98% of the time it’s because that photograph was taken in California and there are no clouds in California which means there are no shadows in California which means people look freakishly healthy and awake all the damn time.
Combine that with a suntan and a dedicated makeup artist, and you have Jessica Alba. When Us Weekly does their “celebrities without makeup” bullshit, the bad photos are almost always taken in New York and the good photos are almost always taken in California. This is a scientific fact, probably.
So should we all move to California? No. Los Angeles is seriously the worst place on Earth [Ed. note--Cheap shots at Los Angeles' expense don't make anyone look bad but you]. But what we can do is practice a few basic principles to trick everyone who looks in our general direction into thinking we’re good-looking, just like God intended.
1. Skin care.
An article about how all skin-care products are bullshit is forthcoming, because they are. But nothing says “health and beauty” like clear skin, because patriarchy. Do what you can to keep your skin even, free of redness, and without too many bumps or pimples. Or don’t! Whatever! Fuck the Man!
If you do decide to go the clear-skin route, I recommend tinted moisturizer applied with a brush–Laura Mercier is the best, hands down, but I also bought some Maybelline BB cream on sale, and it’s nice too. A clean, even-toned canvas says, “I always get nine hours of sleep bathed in the blood of virgins.” And you want that.
The surface of your face should be smooth, but not without some contrasts. That brings me to the next point:
Shading is another thing that evokes primadonnas and old-school black-and-white actresses. I don’t mean using two different foundation colours to change the shape of your nose–I mean enhancing your bone structure to give the appearance of higher cheekbones and brow bones and nicely defined cheekbones. You want a bronzer applied to the hollow part of your cheeks, a blush applied directly to the apple of your cheeks and blended with a brush upwards towards your eyebrows, and a highlighter.
Highlighter is where you’re doing movie makeup magic. The highlighter goes parallel to the blush and cheekbone; have you all watched Jane’s videos on the Hairpin? Then you know what I’m talking about. Dab the product on the highest part of your cheekbones, making sure that it overlaps with the sunken area underneath your eyes. Blend the shit out of it. Apply it underneath your eyebrows, too, and then groom those fuckers.
You want some. In your face.
Sometimes when I tell people I used to be a makeup artist they do that thing, like, “YOU used to be a makeup artist?” and then try to backpedal to downplay how shocked they are. That’s because I don’t use makeup the way I think they expect a makeup artist to use it; most of the time people are genuinely surprised to find out I’m wearing any makeup at all, which is just the way I like it.
As a makeup student, I spent a lot of time in other student’s chairs; we would pair up and practice looks on each other. I got used to seeing what my face looks like with perfect, movie-star-red-carpet-level makeup, and let me tell you, it looks weird as fuck. There are lots of people out there who have the bone structure to support an artificially produced, unnaturally even complexion (I’m mostly thinking of Kim Kardashian) but I am not one of them.
Most faces need a little bit of shadows and redness or you start slipping into that uncanny valley of “not right.” Your eyes know it, but they might not read it as too much makeup, the way that flakiness or dullness immediately distinguishes themselves as bad foundation. On an average day, we expect human skin to look a little weird, and I would rather deal with a little redness than look fake. Plus, it takes a long time and I’m quite lazy!
Anyway, that’s what the blush is for, because if you just had bronzer hollowing out the cheeks and highlighter on top of the cheekbones you’d look weird, probably. Or not. I don’t know! Just do you.
So, what have we learned? Skin care is bullshit, check; makeup is bullshit, check; no one has good skin, it’s all an optical illusion, check, Sex and the City is bullshit, check. Should we watch another episode real quick?
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