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“If at first you don’t succeed, slap on a bit more” Lucy Mangan on the power of make-up

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During a clear out, I recently found a little boxful of my early teenage make-up. So many memories. So many terrible memories. Mainly of what a useless teenager I was. This stuff dates from the late Eighties and there isn’t a single neon shade in here. I was wearing brown Marks & Spencer lipstick at 13, FFS. What hope was there, ever, for me? If I could meet my younger self, I’d slap her silly. So frightened, so timid, so unwilling to experiment or take a risk. NNYYYGGARRRGH!

I distinctly remember when I first realised that I didn’t have to be quite so boring. That I could use make-up to express something rather than simply hide my – admittedly proliferating – blemishes. I was putting on mascara with my traditional intention of simply making it look like I have eyelashes and denying the bog Irish heritage that moves me a little closer every day towards becoming a carbon copy of my dad, who is frequently mistaken for a baked potato. But I had accidentally bought a volumising tube, and in black rather than brown. It made me look… different. A bit like – not much like, but a bit like – one of those attractive people you sometimes saw. Interesting. A few more coats and I looked different again. Crazy. Bold. Up for anything. And looking like that on the outside made me feel a little bit like that on the inside.

I scrubbed it all off, of course. I don’t like change. But the seed of the idea that make-up could be a tool rather than a shield, a mood-altering substance rather than drably depressing camouflage, had been planted.

These days, I deploy make-up with military precision. Red lipstick is saved for when I’m having either a good day and feeling genuinely exuberant, or if I am having a bad day and need to convey, “Confident, put-together woman here!”.

I have an array of products for when I want to look like I’ve made loads of effort and a stack for when I want to look like I have made none (when meeting ex-boyfriends, mothers for coffee, friends I hate – “wake up like this every day, me! I’m just naturally even-skintoned and attractively pigmented at various facial points!”). There are products for special occasions and ordinary ones (am I going to waste my Chantecaille loose powder on Sunday lunch with family, who wouldn’t notice if I’d dipped my face in a bag of spelt flour? I am not) and everything in between. I can match, alter or contradict my mood, confidence levels, others’ expectations, the weather and the season as I want. It’s FUN.

In fact, foundation may be my favourite thing, now that I know I do not have to be orange. It took me years to realise that I didn’t have to keep trying to make the Boots 17 panstick the woman on the Catford counter in 1989 told me was right for me work. She was, it suddenly dawned on me, simply wrong. Or high on drugs and had mistaken me for an actual orange. Either way, I was liberated – captain of my base ship, master of my soul, now that I knew not everything that is wrong was necessarily entirely my fault. This is an epiphany worth having.

So, onward with beauty, its powers and its pleasures. And remember – if you still secretly favour brown lipstick above all, just call it ‘Nude’ instead. No-one bats an eyelid then.


Photography: Ellis Parrinder, iStock

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