One day, as a very little girl, I sat on my grandmother’s bed watching her spritz on Yardley English Lavender perfume, powder her face from a gilt Stratton compact and slick on her fuchsia No7 lipstick. Transfixed, I asked why she wore makeup. Clicking the lipstick shut, she said, matter-of-factly, “Because when I’ve got my makeup on, I’m always ready. Imagine if I was out and got some lovely invitation that I couldn’t accept because I wasn’t looking and feeling my best? With makeup, I’m always able to go on the adventure.” I never forgot it, and apply the same theory to most days.
Looks become important at the times you’d least expect. It can be one of our most effective coping mechanisms: when we’ve lost a job, are going through divorce, ill, or grieving. I remember spending an hour or two choosing which lipstick to wear to my father’s funeral. At the time, it seemed the only thing I could control.
At the same time, nothing makes me happier than discovering an amazing product and spreading the love, or popping into Selfridges for a Chanel lipstick on a rainy day, or mastering some technique I thought I’d never nail. But there’s a difference between being a beauty fan and someone who was born yesterday. Packaging and glossy ad campaigns make promises that can’t be kept. We spend our hard-earned money in the billions on this stuff – shouldn’t we know that what we’re getting will work?
I never recommend anything I haven’t personally tried on myself, or on someone I know well. There is nothing more satisfying than looking at someone’s beauty kit and letting her know she simply doesn’t need that £80 eye cream, that the £25 moisturiser will work much better, or that one concealer swapped for another will make her look fabulous in photographs. I know what works and what doesn’t – and I want you to know, too. Here are a few things I’ve picked up along the way.
How to manage beauty counter staff
I am amazed at how commonly grown-up, successful, smart readers tell me they daren’t visit a premium brand counter for fear of insult, ridicule or humiliation. They either leave empty-handed, feeling upset and ignored, or having been bullied into spending £300 on things they’ll never use. This has to stop.
There are excellent counter staff across the country, who love beauty the way we do, who are generous with their samples and who know we won’t forget good service. They are to be cherished. Treat them well. Don’t talk down to them.
But my God, for every five goodies, there is some monster in inch-thick American Tan foundation and drawn-on eyebrows just waiting to harsh your mellow. And when you come across her, I beg you to stand firm, know it’s your hard-earned cash she’s after and understand that everything is your call. Here are some good starting points:
Vote with your wallet Counter staff work on commission. If you’re getting rude or sloppy service from one sales assistant, politely move on to another and don’t feel afraid to explain why. Helpful staff are more deserving of your money.
Carry a good bag On the one hand, everyone should be treated well, regardless of age or apparent wealth, but on a busy counter, the woman who looks as if she can shop will always get preferential treatment. Even if you’ve dashed out in a onesie and mad hair, carry a decent bag. Miraculously, you’ll find staff a whole lot more attentive.
Ask for samples If you’re not sure you want to buy, ask for a sample. Most counters have pre-packed samples across the range, or stacks of empty pots for decanting a small supply to try at home. Don’t abuse the privilege – two to three samples, perhaps more if you’re buying something, seems fair.
Don’t buy just one brand I hate it when sales assistants say you must buy a whole skincare range for it to work properly. This is usually balls and, if it isn’t, I have grave reservations about any product that can’t stand on its own two feet. If you love one brand, go for it, but it’s a question of playing to the strength of different companies – I’d buy primer from Laura Mercier, but foundation from Armani, say. If someone insists you need their moisturiser for their serum to work, walk away and get a better one.
Be smart about makeovers Do not book an on-counter makeover before an important event, unless you’ve been before and were happy with the result. I’ve seen some makeovers that were so ham-fisted and clueless, they caused me actual bodily pain. Some brands are better than others. Bobbi Brown, Mac, Charlotte Tilbury, Laura Mercier, Illamasqua and Armani staff are generally more reliable and skilful than others, but there are many exceptions; the rule is not to bank on anything – unless you have time to fix it afterwards.
Don’t take advantage of consultants Or deliberately mislead them. They’re not idiots, can spot a freeloader a mile off and always, always know if you’ve popped in for a free makeover with zero intention of buying. Personally, I think a free makeover deserves a lipstick purchase. That way, you get to touch up her handiwork later.
What not to buy
Some products are a nonsense or an unnecessary extravagance. Anti-cellulite creams, gels, serums – these are the snake oils of the beauty industry and best left alone. Here are some prime offenders.
Bust gels Bust-growth products make me crosser than almost anything. No topical gel can penetrate the skin to create fat cells (breasts are made of fatty tissue). This makes no sense.
Anything claiming to act as a ‘detox’ What balls. I would cheerfully ban this silly word if I could. Beauty products can reduce bacteria, affect pH balance, soothe, calm, cleanse – lots of good things – but they cannot “detoxify”.
Eye cream My relationship with eye cream is not clear-cut, so let me explain. You need a form of moisturiser around the eye area, and eye cream is marvellous at doing this without irritation. When all is said and done, however, it is still an anti-ageing moisturiser sold in a tiny pot and not the magic product the beauty industry implies it to be. So if you suffer no adverse reactions from your regular anti-ageing day cream, and no puffiness occurs, you are perfectly fine to use it.
Neck creams For much the same reasons, I don’t believe anyone really needs a neck cream. A firming moisturiser will do just as well, although, frankly, no cream will dramatically tighten a sagging neck.
How to look good in a photograph
When I was told my decidedly imperfect and un-model-like face would appear close-up in the paper every Saturday, I could have cried. It is a very strange thing to watch yourself ageing on the page, despite knowing that photographs are largely unrepresentative of a person’s face.
In the flesh, people glance at your face as a whole – a moving, changing image affected by different lights, words and facial expressions.
Three years on, I am pretty blasé about having my photograph taken, and believe me when I say that it’s entirely learned behaviour. There’s good reason to overcome your fear of looking terrible on camera: if you refuse to be in photographs, you’re denying others (and yourself) many happy memories. I am not suggesting you should strike a supermodel pose whenever a camera appears. We should accept that we sometimes look crap in photos and don’t much care – their function is to be a record of a lovely time, not to make us feel like Gisele. But there are some images that it is good to get right, not least because we have to see them frequently: office passes and railcards, wedding albums, passports. A daily glance at an unflattering photo is a downer.
Start by looking at lots of pictures of yourself you like and try to work out the common thread. Do you look better from one side of your face than another? Best when relaxed and laughing, or more considered? Hair up or down? That’s your starting point. For anything else, there’s a quick fix.
Makeup that looks great in photographs
Red lipstick It makes teeth look whiter, skin clearer and provides a great focal point. Just make sure it’s applied neatly and freshly, as any smudges and wobbles will show.
Concealer Everyone looks better with concealer, it’s just a fact. Use to cover dark circles, spots, uneven skin tone and broken veins. Choose one that’s yellow-based.
Face powder I love face powder, never more so than on photoshoots. It evens out skin tone and removes shine, giving pictures a more professional and smart quality. I use Bobbi Brown, Mac, Chantecaille or Nars.
Eyelash curlers Nothing appears to open up your eyes like a great curler. Unfortunately, you do get what you pay for – I like those by Suqqu, Urban Decay, Shu Uemura and Kevyn Aucoin.
Public displays of grooming
I will apply lipstick at a restaurant table, and powder my nose in a pub rather than visit a grotty loo. I’ll do the same in a doctor’s waiting room, and more on a train or bus. I see public grooming as no worse than watching someone play Words With Friends or listening to fellow passengers chat. It is infinitely less infuriating than having to listen to someone’s unnecessary telephone conversation (my pet hate – speaking in hushed, mortified tones, promising to call back later, is what made this country great).
Women trying to apply eyeliner in the 30 seconds a train stands still at a platform, or stroke on lipstick between stops on a shaky bus, are some of the little rituals that make up my daily commute. I enjoy watching, even if it’s sometimes difficult not to intervene to tell someone their blusher brush is in dire need of a wash, or that they’d look so much better in rose than fuchsia. If you are irrationally offended by these people, don’t look. And then perhaps turn your attention to the idiot in headphones playing drum’n’bass way too loud farther down the carriage. Now that is out of order.
How to do your face on the bus Before leaving the house, apply tinted moisturiser or foundation. This takes very little time, but involves a large area, liquids, brushes, elbows and other things that are not terribly social. After that, things are pretty easy to do discreetly from a train or bus seat. Just arm yourself with as many products as possible that can be used without brushes and applicators: pencils, crayons, cremes. You will also need a small magnifying mirror, ideally one that opens flat rather than at a right angle, so you can hold it close to your face.
Dot concealer under your eyes, around the nose and over any blemishes. Pat with your ring finger to blend. (45 seconds)
Pat a puff in some pressed powder and stroke over your face, including lids and lips. (20 seconds)
Dab your ring finger in a creme eyeshadow. (Brown, ivory or taupe are easy to apply.) Pat your finger on to each eyelid, covering the lower half and stopping just past the eye crease. Move to your cheeks while this sets. (Two minutes)
Dab your middle finger in a creme blush. Pat three dots of colour on each cheek, then stroke together in a circular motion. Use a clean fingertip to stroke the farthest edge of the circle into a teardrop shape, feathering it outwards. (60 seconds)
Take a chunky eye crayon and line the upper and lower lashline. The fatness of the crayon will keep a shaky train or bus from making this wonky. Smudge lightly with your little finger to soften. (Two minutes)
Apply mascara during a stop. (30-60 seconds)
Use a tinted brow gel (Benefit, Mac, Nars and By Terry all make them) to tint and comb brows upwards. (30 seconds)
Leave lipstick until you’ve finished your coffee and are almost at your destination. Blot with a tissue or napkin before applying a second coat. Check your teeth. (30 seconds)
Do not spritz perfume until you’re outside. Brush your hair then, too.
How to do the tricky stuff
I have very shaky hands and can barely draw, but since about the age of six, I’ve approached makeup as a series of fun puzzles to solve. Black winged eyeliner seems harder than hell, but it’s not. You just need to know you should use a pencil under the liquid to banish all slipperiness. Covering a huge spot seems impossible, but it’s not. Can’t do a bun? You need an old sock, pronto. I have amassed a lifetime of tricks that make the hard stuff a cinch, even in the hands of a novice. Here are just a few:
Winged eyeliner Those iconic feline flicks of liquid eyeliner, beloved by Bardot, Monroe, Fonteyn and so many other glamorous women, will never go out of style. I wore flicky 60s liner for years, and while it will always be a look I love, I’ve parked it until its moment in fashion passes. Because the point for me is that flicks are special – they require effort, patience, maintenance, occasion and a half-decent outfit. I don’t want to wear them when everyone’s at it. There are still times, though, when only a flick will do.
The flick is really not that hard if you treat it like riding a bike – it’s like adding stabilisers and removing them when you’re feeling more confident. The stabilisers come in the form of a black pencil. Its marks will be covered, but it is just tacky enough to stop the liquid-liner brush wobbling and veering off course. Start by lining your eyes normally with the black pencil, going from the inner corner towards the outer. Stop when you get three-quarters of the way across your lid. Then, with the same pencil, make a tiny dot wherever you’d like your flicks to end. I generally imagine the corner of my eye to be either 3 or 9 o’clock, then place my dot five to 10 minutes farther towards 12 o’clock. Put the pencil down and swap it for a liquid eyeliner pen or brush dipped in liner gel. Using the tip of the pen, join the dot with the tail of your pencil liner. Sweep it across the pencil line, allow to dry with eyes closed or looking down, then adjust any differences between the two eyes if necessary. Finish with mascara. Over time, you will become dexterous enough with the liquid liner to stop using the pencil. But there’s no hurry.
(NB: This look doesn’t work especially well on very wrinkled eyelids or on hooded ones. Don’t sweat it. There are heaps of other makeup looks you can try.)
A ballerina bun There’s no need to buy one of those cheap, nylon, clip-in buns you see on infomercials. Just get an old odd sock and cut off the foot so you have a longish tube. Put your hair in a ponytail, its base wherever you want your bun, and secure with a hair elastic. Pull the ponytail through the sock tube, so its length is encased. Now, starting with the end of the sock at the tip of the ponytail, roll the sock back, outwards (as though removing a stocking), smoothing your hair over the top of the sock to conceal it as you go. Tuck any loose hairs under the bun. When you can no longer see any sock, secure with a couple of grips across the bun’s foundations.
Clump-free mascara I’ll admit to sort of liking clumpy mascara on occasion, but for everyday lashes, you want them darkened, thickened, but separated. The key is always to dab the point at the end of your mascara wand on to a tissue or the side of the tube before applying. Otherwise, the blobby bit just moves around the lashes. Take the wand from root to tip, wiggling from left to right as you go. The wiggling movement deposits maximum colour without clumping. After one coat, reload your wand, switch eyes and repeat the process. Then go back to the first eye to apply a second coat. When the wand is almost empty, use the same wiggly motion on your bottom lashes.
False eyelashes These have become hugely popular, yet many women imagine them to be near impossible to apply. I feel the same way about falsies as I do about bow ties – they’re worn only occasionally, but it is a satisfying skill to have up your sleeve. There are two golden rules: always cut strip lashes to size first, trimming them from the outside end in (a lash strip that’s even a tiny bit too long will bump up against the bridge of your nose and peel off, probably before you’ve even left the house); the second is never to attempt to apply lashes when the glue is wet. This makes them slip, wobble and peel. What you need is an almost dry, tacky finish, like when you got Pritt Stick on your fingers as a child. If the lashes fit and the glue is tacky, the lashes will go on and stay there.
Makeup for the morning after
I hate the term “walk of shame”, because when I’ve wandered home after a fun night with a man, I’ve felt on cloud nine – giddy and satisfied, not shameful and sheepish. But I have not looked great. There have been times when, having been invited out for eggs and bacon the following morning, I’ve spent the whole time covering the dry, flaky skin on my chin with my hand and hastily rubbed off smudged mascara using a fry-up knife as a mirror. A spontaneous shag is hard to plan for, but for a big date that is likely to end well, packing a small survival kit means you can extend to brunch. Shove it in your bag and you’re sorted. Your beauty arsenal includes:
A small bottle of Micellar lotion A super-gentle lotion to remove all traces of makeup. Just wipe over your face with cotton wool (loo paper works, at a push). Bioderma, Mac and Avene all do travel-sized Micellars, or decant your favourite into a little bottle before going out.
BB or CC Cream The one time you’ll see me recommending these multi-purpose moisturisers/foundations/sun protectants. A quick layer over cleansed skin removes the need for several products and will make skin look clearer and more even.
Mini toothbrush For God’s sake, brush your teeth. Your new friend should have toothpaste for you to use – if s/he doesn’t, looking good is the least of your worries. Call a cab.
Creme blush This will make you look instantly better. Smudge a little on lips, too, if you don’t have lipstick with you. Pink suits everyone.
Mascara Forget liner and shadow, mascara takes up very little room and will make you feel effortlessly “done”.
I have always loved going to salons, chiefly because I spent my first seven or so years being taken with my brothers for identical bowl cuts from bemused old men in the local barbershop. When we eventually moved in with my mother and she took me to her salon, I loved it instantly and deeply. I’ve never outgrown it, but I’m no longer surprised when I hear people say they dread tiptoeing across the minefield of salon etiquette. Allow me to demystify the experience.
Dilemma You want to read your book, they want to chat.
Solution Guess what? They almost certainly don’t want to chat and would much sooner be getting on with things – they’re just trying to be friendly. Exchange niceties, then politely say you’d like to do some reading while you have the rare chance of a break, or that you have work to do. They honestly won’t mind. And if you’re having any kind of relaxing beauty treatment, a running commentary is completely not on.
Dilemma The therapist you’re offered is more senior than you can afford. Are they that much better that you should suck up the cost?
Solution A stylist or therapist’s rank is an indicator of experience. If money is tight, save your high-flyer money for dramatic restyles or major treatments only. If the more junior therapist does a consistently great job, move over to him/her for everything.
Dilemma You’re a pounder, they’re a stroker.
Solution There is nothing worse than a mimsy massage if, like me, you’ve gone to enjoy a good hammering. I want to feel body or face muscles being worked, gross stuff being extracted from my skin. Being stroked makes me so unrelaxed that I leave feeling murderous. But unless you say, how can they know? Tell them cheerfully upon arrival or when booking that you like a firm or light pressure, that your pain threshold is high or low. Most salons will be happy to match you accordingly.
Dilemma Is taking in photographs rude?
Solution Hell, no. Visual references are almost always preferred by hairdressers and makeup artists – they save so much time. Search on the internet, tear pictures from magazines, bring in snaps of yourself wearing a look you’d like to revisit.
Dilemma Can you use your phone during a treatment?
Solution I think it’s rude to gab away to a third party while someone is attempting to concentrate on your nails, feet, hair or mons pubis. By all means let the therapist know you need to take an important call, but then tell the caller it’s inconvenient.
Dilemma Is it OK to accept champagne or wine?
Solution If it’s free and you fancy it, say thank you and enjoy it. If it were gauche to accept, it would be gauche of them to offer. I certainly find a glass of something fizzy towards the end of the day raises my spirits and sends me on a night out in a giddier frame of mind.
Dilemma You never know which way the gown goes on.
Solution Like a coat. You are confusing the salon with the operating theatre. No one has used back-tying gowns since 1982.
• This is an edited extract from Pretty Honest: The Straight-Talking Beauty Companion, by Sali Hughes, published later this month by Fourth Estate at £22. To order a copy for £17 with free UK pp, go to theguardian.com/bookshop or call 0330 333 6846. Join Sali for a live QA on Monday 15 September at theguardian.com/fashion