Caitlin Moran explores her complicated relationship with make-up

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Georgie Lane-Godfrey
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Cailtin Moran

This is how the writer makes sure that her look and her identity remain as one…

The liquid eyeliner. The big hair. The Cruella de Vil streak. There aren’t many people with a signature look quite as distinctive as Caitlin Moran’s. But then again, there aren’t many people in the public eye who would let you come to their house and start talking about their pubic hair. It’s for both these reasons that Stylist wanted to talk to the award-winning writer about beauty and identity.

An expert at articulating the female experience, Moran, 43, has been rocking her particular look since the Nineties. Growing up as one of eight children in a three-bedroom council house in Wolverhampton, Moran lived in what she describes as ‘an incomprehensible level of poverty today’. Unsurprisingly, cosmetics were a luxury the family couldn’t afford. Yet it was here that Moran’s signature winged eyeliner and voluminous hair was born – a look that would become as much a part of her identity as her funny, feminist and unapologetically honest writing.

It’s this humour and relatability that have earned Moran such a devoted following. Her second novel, How To Build A Girl, sold more than half a million copies across 16 countries and is soon to be adapted into a film. When we meet, with the book tour for her new novel How To Be Famous about to kick off, Moran is wondering how to open her shows. Her last tour would always start with Moran introducing her ‘feminist smile’ – two eyes drawn over her stomach, which she manipulated into a talking mouth. Unsurprisingly, it was a hit with the audience, showing the real, less-than perfect body we rarely see in media. This time, she’s debating whether she can step on stage and get the audience to cheer when she says she’s put on a stone. Of course she can. Few people own their look like Moran. Here’s what she knows about beauty and how it’s made her who she is…

Growing up, we were too poor to buy make-up. 

But we did have felt tips, so consequently my first attempts at putting on eyeliner was with a black pen. It would bring you up in a massive scaly rash, which we described as ‘the mermaid look’.

At 13, I realised the only beautiful thing you can do if you have no money is to grow your hair. 

That epiphany resulted in the first big transformation of my life – I stole a comb from the local chemist and started backcombing my hair. I thought at the time that if my head looks big, then my body would look smaller in comparison. And I could make it as big as I want; it could be as big as my imagination.

Big hair and big eyeliner have always been the constants for me. 

The changes have come more below the chin, with a variety of successive breakthroughs where I’m finally happy with my body.

One of my biggest beauty breakthroughs was realising you shouldn’t wear nappies on your head. 

I read that in the 18th century women used to use pads, called ‘rats’, to make their hair look bigger. The problem was that the only thing I had to use as a rat were my younger siblings’ terry towel nappies. So I’d basically pile a nappy on my head and arrange my hair over it, which was fine until I hit a brisk wind. Given that my primary hobby at this point was being chased down the street by yobs, who would run after me throwing gravel and shouting, “You fat lesbian!”, having a nappy on my head stepped this up to an intolerable degree of bullying. It was at this point I realised I needed to leave Wolverhampton, so I started to write a novel. In a way, my beauty failures gave me the ambition I needed to leave.

My sisters and I got our beauty tips from the library. 

We were very 19th century in our beauty regimes then – we’d read books on how to create cosmetics using household ingredients. It would involve things like putting egg on your hair to make it shiny, but then not getting the temperature of rinse right and ending up with scrambled egg in your hair.

“Part of my job is to look cheerful and comfortable and myself – you don’t see enough people looking like that”

The first proper perfume I ever bought was Chanel No 5. 

After I moved to London, I heard people talking a lot about ‘signature scents’ so I thought that was something I needed. Before, I’d used the same as every girl in the Nineties, namely The Body Shop’s Dewberry perfume, or their White Musk one if I fancied something more sophisticated. But then I was informed by Richey Edwards of the Manic Street Preachers when I interviewed him that Silk Cuts were ‘the cigarettes of the working-class girl’ – so I started smoking them. He also said the best thing to cover up the smell of fags was Chanel No 5. My bottle was instantly the most beautiful thing I owned, so I kept it on top of the TV for everyone to see.

I always want my beauty look to reflect me. 

In the past, whenever I did a shoot, I’d be given a straight-forward, glamorous look, which would make me feel a bit sad. It didn’t communicate anything and seemed a bit bland. It was like I was pretending to be some glamorous woman, with maids, a massive house and loads of Lululemon leggings. That’s not who I am. It made me feel uncomfortable to be communicating the wrong thing. I feel like part of my job is a responsibility to look cheerful and comfortable and myself – you just don’t see enough people looking like that.

Big eyeliner is definitely my go-to look. 

Three inches of eyeliner paired with a bright eyeshadow. I love a bold emerald green or peacock blue – to have a clown eye is a wonderful thing. It’s such a low-maintenance look too – it takes 30 seconds and you can do it on a bus while drunk, as indeed I have done.

My beauty icon is the puffin. 

It’s hard to explain that to make-up artists, but some people look better trying to look like an animal than someone off Love Island. I’m a round bird – I primarily dress in black and white, I wear bright eyeshadow and lots of black eyeliner. I have to explain that my eyeliner isn’t meant to look sexy or glamorous or feline or ‘flicky’, it’s supposed to look like a puffin. That’s how I want to look.

People ask whether it’s anti-feminist to wear make-up. 

But I say if David Bowie wore make-up, then as a feminist I can also wear it. There’s a lot more gender fluidity going on in terms of make-up today. If men can wear it, then why can’t women too? My argument with feminism is that you can tell sexism is happening when it’s something men are doing but women aren’t, or conversely it’s something women worry about but men don’t. Everyone just loved Ziggy Stardust. Maybe we want to look like Ziggy too.

“What’s going to catch your eye these days is an imperfect body. That seems rarer and more interesting to me”

There are millions of reasons why I love make-up. 

It’s not just about looking glamorous or sexy. If that’s what you want then go for it, but for me it’s about something giving you joy. The truth is you very rarely need to be hot and sexy. Walking down the road for example, do you need to be hot and sexy? No, of course not, you’re on your way to M&S. You’re not going to bang someone now so why bother?

Make-up is the great equaliser.

If you’re not born typically ‘beautiful’, you can learn a skill and apply make-up to look however you want. You can change how you define yourself and that is magic. Anything where a woman can learn a skill and change her self-worth is magical.

It’s not anti-feminist to say a product is anti-ageing, it’s just stupid. 

They might be able to plump you out for a bit, but they don’t stop you ageing. Whenever I see a 20-year-old trying to flog me one, I just turn the page. There’s a widening of the kind of women we see in the media but it’s still only a fraction of the true demographic. Until there is a female equivalent of Seth Rogen – and I say this with love as the kind of guy I would bang – who looks like a sofa with the stuffing coming out of it but gets million-dollar film deals regardless, we know we’re not anywhere near true equality.

I grew up loathing my body. 

My biggest dream as a teenager was that I would be caught-up in a massive car crash and the miracle that is the NHS would rebuild my body, removing about four stone in the process. That’s an extreme level of self-loathing for a teenager. Then when I gave birth for the first time, it was very traumatic and suddenly I felt sympathy for my body. I’d seen it entirely as a problem before, but after giving birth, I felt very sorry for it. I was like, ‘Aww, mate! That f**king chafed!’

Thinness bores me now. 

We’re in such a sculpted body age. Look at Kim Kardashian West – her body is a feat of engineering and cash. Unless it’s your full-time job, you will never look like that. There’s no traction to it either. Twenty years ago nudity was a big deal, but now you see naked tits all the time. What’s going to catch your eye these days is an imperfect body. That seems rarer and more interesting to me. We’ve seen enough physical excellence now; the pendulum is starting to swing the other way. We want realness.

Yoga has definitely improved my body image. 

I don’t go to classes, I just follow YouTube videos by this Texan girl [Yoga With Adriene]. Her mantra is “Find what feels good”. It sounds obvious but it’s revolutionary. How often are you told as a woman to just do something which makes you feel f*cking great and is purely for your own pleasure? Not to tighten up your pelvic floor muscles to become better in bed. Just because it feels good. Rarely.

My attitude to body hair is ‘live and let die’. 

I remove it from the places where it might cause terror rather than offence in public, just the edge of the bear’s head. Unless someone is knocking on my door saying, “Dude, sort your minge out”, I just let it be.

My white hair streak is my calling card. 

The white grows naturally, but I used to bleach it to accentuate it. The problem was, it would only look good for a couple of days until it started looking yellow and sh*t. So now, I have a few hair swatches I simply glue in when I want it on show. People associate it with me now, so if I don’t want to be recognised, I don’t put it in. It’s like my open/closed sign – if the white streak is in, I’m open for business. If not, I’m off duty.

This article originally appeared in Stylist’s 2018 Beauty Issue, out 26 June. To see more from the issue, click here.

How To Be Famous by Caitlin Moran (£14.99, Ebury Press) is out on 28 June.

See Caitlin at Stylist Live

Caitlin Moran will join our line-up of inspiring women at Stylist Live at Olympia London on Sunday 11 November, rounding up the festival’s best moments as she answers the boldest and most surprising questions raised across the weekend. Early-bird tickets are still available from just £9. Use code STYLIST422 at