My first make-up bag was a small, shiny affair. The kind with a cheap zip and inside corners stained with glitter. It was stuffed with all the things a thirteen year old could desire: roll on shimmery eye shadow, mascaras in purple, blue and yellow, metallic eyeliners that flaked as soon as they were dry, palettes of sticky lip-glosses in lurid shades of red and pink, neon nail-polishes, limp false eyelashes, mini spray cans of tinny ‘So…’ fragrances with names like Vanilla Dream or Apple Pie.
The vast majority had been freebies, found rattling around inside the plastic casing of mags like Mizz, Shout and Sugar.
This was the absolute hey-day of the teen magazine. They offered up a strange mix of the salacious and the sensible, following a formula of SHOCKER true life tales, celeb ‘hot or not’ features, advice pages (always sponsored by Tampax), super-cringe embarrassing moments (always involving falling over/ farting/ inadvertent periods), flow-chart quizzes, and the odd fashion shoot. They veered between the kind of content that now makes me want to growl in frustration, and the odd bout of surprisingly sensible wisdom.
The freebies were a bonus added extra in all this: a fun little something to supplement the features my friends and I would scrutinize in detail. But more than that, for me, they laid the foundation for my relationship with cosmetics and dressing up.
Objectively, those samples were pretty grim: the kind of cheap, gluey things I wouldn’t go near now. They were badly made. They were often of more than questionable taste. But they gave me a literal paint-box to mess around with: a means of turning make-up into an incredibly creative tool.
I spent hours using all those samples to paint and play around with my face. Eyeliner could swirl up in curlicues towards my eyebrows.
Coloured mascara could be layered until my vision was fringed with green. Eyeshadows could also be turned into weird and wonderful blushers. Glitter could go EVERYWHERE.
I could make like Bowie or Twiggy or anyone else whose face had been a canvas for strange, delightful creations.
Other, slightly fancier freebies came later. I collected posh samples of foundation and tiny little spritzers of perfume. My friends and I spent any science lesson where we were allowed to use a laptop ordering free packets of Nivea moisturizer. When I began modeling and blogging, I was thrilled at any sniff of a free, pretty palette or dinky bottle of shampoo.
Of course, I also learned the art of neat(ish) liquid eyeliner flicks and red matte lipstick. I bought myself things from No.7, Rimmel, Barry M, Soap and Glory: adding these special, chosen items to the multicoloured chaos in that make-up bag. I also managed to steal a lot of my mum’s brown kohl eyeliners (sorry mum). I enjoyed these other, subtler tools of transformation; figuring out what worked, what didn’t, what enhanced, what was disappointing. They’re the tricks I still use now.
But I remember the early stuff the most fondly. It had a certain freedom to it, a kind of revelry in being silly and stupid and exploratory.
The end point didn’t have to be ‘beautiful’ or ‘more attractive’.
It could literally be ‘blue eyebrows’ or ‘an alien-like shimmery face.’ It was a very Cindy Sherman-esque way of approaching things: asking myself, “What character can I paint into place?” It was an extension of my love of dressing up. Here was another way to try on other appearances for size.
These days, I don’t often indulge in those kinds of weird, wonderful painting sessions outside of music festivals: one of the few places where we still feel we can embrace all things shiny, glimmering, bright, and deliciously ridiculous. But they were so important at that point.
It’s a process I’d recommend to any teenager: to take the time (and liberty) to just be playful, using whatever you can get your hands on. Now there are thousands of Youtube tutorials that encourage wild and fantastical looks, and whole communities advocating inventive approaches to make-up.
Sometimes it’s just about shutting oneself away in your bedroom with some cheap, flamboyant products, and seeing what strange brilliance emerges.
It’s about adventuring in front of the mirror, learning that looks can be a malleable, marvelous thing, that a face can be so many, many magical things.