“Tell me, specifically, what is wrong with my face,” I say in my best yeah-I-can-take-it voice.
“Well, it’s lovely, really, but…” says Rachel the make-up artist before hesitating.
“But what needs to change?” I interrupt.
Between frowns and winces, Rachel, senior make-up artist with Mac, starts to list the ways in which my face does not confirm to the “beauty ideal” – and what she intends to change in the next hour or so, using the techniques of shading and highlighting to make my face look more three-dimensional. I’m about to be contoured, a makeup technique that has become a recent phenomenon, thanks in no small part to Kim Kardashian.
Last year, Kardashian Instagrammed a selfie that showed her midway through the contouring process, before the makeup was blended out. The picture showed her face painted with what looked like a silver palm tree – the trunk down her nose and the spray of leaves fanning up into her forehead. She had a beard of white chalk and black eyebrows that looked like a swallow in flight. The look was decidedly odd, but the after-picture she posted later had the kind of painterly beauty of which Caravaggio would be proud. Suddenly, contouring was a Thing, and a zillion online beauty tutorials followed.
Rachel promises to work the same magic on me, but she can’t use the phrase “beauty ideal” without doing air quotations with her fingertips, because she feels weird about imposing an idea of the perfect face on anyone. She mentions this frequently. I feel weird, too. I’ve somehow reached 40 without ever having taken to makeup – not birthdays, not Big Days, not ever. I’m a clean-face-and-moisturiser-only woman. The concept of wearing an hour’s worth of face-paint is just so alien. We are both very much out of our comfort zones.
It turns out the list of what needs to be done to my face is long. My forehead needs to be smaller, my jawline needs defining, my cheekbones need to be brought out, the bridge of my nose needs thickening and the ball at its tip needs removing. There’s more: my eyes have to be brought out and widened, my eyebrows have to be lifted and my lips have to be beefed up significantly.
“And you think we can do all this just with makeup?” I ask Rachel sceptically.
Rachel nods emphatically: “Oh, absolutely. You can do more with contouring than you can with plastic surgery. I mean, how else would you do the hairline?” I examine my forehead, which seems to have taken on Brian Eno-like proportions. I squint at my deep-set eyes, which I’ve always thought have a touch of Ryan Giggs about them. I’m intrigued. Wider-apart eyes would indeed be a very good thing.
Contouring may be a beauty buzzword, but the technique is not new. Kevyn Aucoin, the makeup artist who found fame in New York in the 1980s and whose celebrity fans included Cher and Barbra Streisand, is often credited with its invention, but Hollywood stars were using light and shade to create planes across their faces long before then. Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor and Audrey Hepburn all owe their magazine-cover cheekbones to the process. If you look out for it, you can find examples of contouring everywhere – from Lynda Carter as Wonder Woman in the late 1970s to Lindsay Lohan attending her probation hearing in 2011 with improbably orange isosceles-triangle cheeks, and Sienna Miller at the Golden Globes this year, looking as if her face were carved from balsa wood.
Rachel says all catwalk and editorial makeup artists rely on contouring techniques, but they usually emphasise just one feature, rather than cutting the entire face like a jewel. “It was a trade secret, but recently it has gone mainstream,” she says. Like the fad for thick eyebrows, started by Cara Delevingne, “it used to be catwalk thing, and now it’s a basic”.
I was planning to go the full Kardashian – everything at once – but Rachel is not so keen. She wants to make it slightly more modern by using grey to shade, rather than orange and brown, which can look a bit Dynasty.
We start with a base of liquid foundation on my ears: apparently, if you don’t blend them to be the same colour as the rest of the face, they start to look red by comparison – a dead giveaway. Next, she sketches a plan on my face using dots. It’s a little like an Ordnance Survey map. Rachel thinks out loud as she decides which bits of my face she will highlight with yellow, and which sections would be better powdered into the background with the greyer tones. Shades of pink are used to neutralise the blue tones under my eyes, which I owe to my two-year-old daughter.
As she works, we discuss the power of the Kardashians to shift makeup products (apparently, Kim’s sister Kylie has caused a particular Mac lip pencil to sell out) and my relative lack of cosmetic nous. Kim’s parents bought her makeup lessons when she was 14; I grew up in a household where makeup was never discussed – my mum rarely wears it and my older sister doesn’t at all. Their ambivalence must have worn off on me, because I’ve never experimented, even as a teenager. Various makeup artists I’ve worked with in the fashion industry over the years have been bemused by my lack of interest, and have persuaded me to let them have a go on my face. To my eyes, the results have always looked ageing – but perhaps I’m about to be converted.
This transformation isn’t about subtlety. This is full-throttle face paint. Rachel uses at least four different industrial-sized palettes, and swirls brushes around my face with impressive dexterity. She coats the outer edges of my lashes with mascara and paints light colours on my inner eyes to reflect the light and pull out my sunken eyes. They do look as if they have floated a few crucial millimetres apart. Goodbye, Giggsy. But my lips are, frankly, someone else’s. They’ve been shadowed underneath and highlighted on top with what seems to be a yellowy-white moustache, so that they are in a perpetual state of selfie pout. A lip-liner in a colour paradoxically named Boldly Bare fills in the top of my mouth. Looking at the results, Rachel and I both instinctively guffaw. While contouring may look good on the catwalk or magazine page, close up it is altogether stranger. But I have to stop laughing: this is not a face that looks at all good smiling.
Back at my desk, the reaction from my colleagues is mostly physical. It’s a recoil, a shudder and a lot of staring. The fashion desk – normally an oasis of open-mindedness – scrutinises me en masse. “You’re a bit Titian.” “I actually hate it – wipe it off.” The features editor sends around an email with a Margaret Keane painting of a creepy, big-eyed, child waif. Subject field: Don’t miss Imogen’s weird face: LOLS. Only fashion editor Jess, unfazed, says she’s used to it after 10 minutes and optimistically proclaims my contoured face LilyRose Depp meets J-Lo.
Buoyed up by Jess’s positivity, I take my novelty face off to watch a catwalk show at London fashion week. I dismiss the staring and get the tube to the Tate Modern, where the show is being held. It’s amazing how quickly people’s behaviour has changed towards me. We are late for the show and the security at the entrance won’t let us in. Almost immediately, the press officer comes running out to apologise – presumably someone has told her via the headset that a sub-Kardashian with too much bronzer on is having a strop. It’s not my fault – it’s the lip pencil’s.
Usually, my unmade-up face is interpreted as approachable and friendly, but my rearranged features mean I’m seen as a bossy bitch. A good friend who is also a tactful PR views me with horror at the show. Honestly, what does she think? “You look like someone who would take a lot of selfies – possibly with a selfie stick.”
She isn’t the only critic. Contouring may well be the fad of the moment, but it is also under fire from some quarters because it revolves around the notion that a nose becomes more attractive if it is smaller and more defined, qualities more usually associated with white European noses. The reaction I get, on the other hand, is that I look less European. One colleague suggests that I have been contoured towards a more modern idea of perfection, one that aims for a truly international and race-free look.
Meanwhile, the makeup is actually making me behave differently. I feel stiff and unnatural, and don’t gesticulate half as much as normal when I’m mid-chat, lest I disturb my face. My phone screen is covered in gunk, I’m desperate not to get the stuff on my clothes (on reflection, the white polo neck was a huge mistake), the facepaint is somehow making me hold my head differently and I’m getting a banging headache. Things don’t improve when I set off for home. At my local railway station, I see an old friend, who turns away when I wave at her. When I finally convince her it’s me, she is fascinated by how ageless I’ve become. “Older or younger?” I ask. “Neither, just without age.” She’s with her eight-year-old son, who has known me since birth, but he can’t look at me. He says he recognises me only by my trainers.
My own children are horrified when I get home, and ask if they can wipe it off immediately. Their dad thinks I look a sight.
“Do I not look like Wonder Woman?” I venture.
“No, just weird,” is the emphatic answer. Thankfully, this illusionist facelift is reversible.
Even though I am counting down the minutes until I can wipe my face clean, I do understand why women such as Kim would submit to the process. It is so completely transformative that it’s a powerful security blanket. Unusually, I had no problem with my colleagues taking pictures of me with my new face on, knowing they could probably snap only one facial expression, the strange, if false, illusion that I’m presenting. That’s reassuring, for all its fakery – and for celebrities whose status relies on selfies and red-carpet appearances, this level of facial control must be appealing. This is a look for screen – for selfies, pap shots and red carpets. Given that stars live their lives on screen, looking downright odd in real life is a trade-off that they are clearly prepared to take. But I’m not.
The next day there is visible relief among colleagues that the mask is off and I’m back to normal. It turns out contouring is indeed transformative, and it no doubt works for Kim Kardashian and most of Hollywood, whose careers live and die by a lens, but it’s not for me. After two hours in the makeup chair, I can conclude that more is actually less – ageless, race-less, charmless. I’ll be sticking with Eno-forehead and a stain-free polo neck from here on in.