I want to live inside a reality television makeover set with good lighting and a trio of style experts who promise to fix me. I want someone to really see me, to interpret and diffuse my essence into a natural makeup look, a flattering haircut, and outfits that are conventionally fashionable with a unique personal twist. I want my face shape to determine my future successes, my good features standing out like city lights on a horizon, calling out to people, making them want to aspire to be like me, too. I want to get really good at using highlighter. I want to get really good at a natural smoky eye. I want to get really good at filling in my brows so that my eyes stand out, so you cannot see how dark the circles are under them, so that I look approachable. To be unapproachable is to be lost forever to your own impenetrability. It’s like building an electric fence around yourself adorned with fairy lights that read ‘dying alone’. It’s like building a moat between yourself and the world, filled with crocodiles that do not yet know how to adequately contour their jaws.
I want my outfits to communicate some vital truth about my interiority that my body cannot alone. I want them to say: here I am. I am alive. I am valid.
I am depressed, I am anxious. I am housesitting for my parents at their apartment. The dog probably needs to piss but I can’t handle going downstairs—the elevator is lined with a tarpaulin sheath that looks like something Patrick Bateman has set up, and there’s an outside chance that I will have to say hello to a neighbour, even though most of them do not say hello. It’s all too much. I have decided that the best way to deal with this bout of depression is to dive headlong into it, to close the curtains, to stay in my sweat-lined pyjamas till dark. To be like a dog, and roll in it, extravagantly, like a fragrant shit I have found at the park.
I have watched six episodes of 100% Hotter in the last six hours. It is much the same as all makeover television, or its cousin, makeunder television. A person enters, experts are horrified by their look, there is some mild resistance, and then they just let the experts take over and reinvent them. Lie back and think of England. At the end of each episode, they have a section where we find out, ‘where are they now?’ As in: have they kept to the righteous path, doing their makeup as they are supposed to? Or are they desecrating the work of the experts by returning to their festy old habits?
I started wearing makeup when I was thirteen. I bleached my hair because I wanted to look like Kurt Cobain. I was an emo kid, so makeup consisted of thick kohl eyeliner beneath my eyes, which made my pimples look even more pink and the whites of my eyes look red and dull. The look was paired with ivory foundation, laid on thick. One day my friend gave me some makeup advice, just between us girls: ‘If you’re going to wear eyeliner you should start closer to your nose. The way you have it now just accentuates how far apart your eyes are.’
Queer Eye, one in a series of merciless reboots of pop cultural icons of the late nineties/early 2000s, was recently critiqued by Dion Kagan in The Lifted Brow. The original Queer Eye is a makeover show based on transforming straight men. It reinvented them through the eyes ands minds of five gay gurus, who descended like fashionable sprites, each imparting wisdom about a key facet of modern life: grooming, design, fashion, culture, food and wine. In the reboot, the transformation is presented as a more holistic, less superficial process, as the hosts (on some levels) confront toxic masculinity, homophobia, racism and religious dogma. Kagan sees too much of the previous show’s legacy in the new: ‘I still wondered if we should let Queer Eye—in either of its iterations—off the hook. Does basking in the self-conscious “wokeness” and earnest pathos of the new series somehow absolve the original of its political sins, recasting it as a straightforward, unblemished object of pop nostalgia?’
His problem with the former is that ‘popular culture had concocted the most crass and unapologetic example yet of the helpful homosexual whose job it was to patch up the crumbling façade of heterosexual romance.’ Gay people are okay, can participate socially, if they use their magical gifts to reinforce the status quo. If they can make a straight man clean his bathroom and wash his face for the benefit of his girlfriend (or potential girlfriend), they can be validated, accepted, as a help-maid. The successor of the franchise does provide some interesting moments—in making over a young closeted gay man, in attempting to dissemble a man’s life-long devotion to toxic masculinity in Australia’s rural town, Yass. But this aim is always signified through the same commercial procedure. Markers of ‘togetherness’ and ‘adulthood’ are proffered through styling mousse, moisturiser and casual-but-presentable wardrobes. Any revolutionary potential is disguised with the chic-neatness of a French tuck.
One day in high-school, Ms Brennan yelled at me for wearing so much eyeliner. I told her that I had forgotten to wash it off from the weekend. ‘You’ll get wrinkles!’, she shrieked. This was at a time when it was fashionable for scene girls to shave off their eyebrows and draw them on much higher, like drag queens. I wonder what the hair above their eyes looks like now, and what a makeover show host would have to say to them.
At the start of each episode of How Do I Look, another makeover outing, the clothes of the participant/victim are kidnapped and critiqued by the host and the friend who has dobbed them in. After each item’s value is vocally shredded, the participant is encouraged to put them into a long vacuum tube that devours the clothes, sucking them from the screen. The tube reminds me of the one they use in Supersize vs. Superskinny, in which an overweight and underweight person are made to swap lifestyles for a month. At the beginning of each episode, the diets of the two participants fall from the sky into these transparent tubes, exposing the surfeit of one and the relative lack of the other. Cigarettes, too, tumble into the tube. Watching it, I imagine a more extreme version of the show in which they would blend up the day’s diets and serve them to the contestants like milkshakes, cigarettes and all.
On overseas trips with my sister we spend a great deal of time in Sephoras. Each Sephora is slightly different from the last. We collect them like a set. Although they vary in size, they are always configured with each makeup brand occupying a similar terrain. You will find the Sephora private label along the right wall. You will find the Urban Decay and Naked cosmetics side by side. You will find Kat Von D’s collection near the front door, although maybe now that she has come out as an anti-vaxxer, you might not. A Benefit counter, often accompanied by a ‘Brow Bar’ will dominate one of the most central spaces. There is something comforting about the ubiquity of such a floor plan, across countries, across language divides, from mall to mall. It’s like McDonalds, except for making you feel like your face is acceptable for public consumption. There is something meditative about trying on the same product four or five or six times before you buy it—applying taupe eyebrow filler in the mirror and comparing it to the way you felt when you last applied it. Turning it over in your head, over and over. Does this feel right? Is this me?
At the beginning of our trips I am usually resistant to wearing makeup—if we travel together we do so in humid climates, like in Southeast Asia. I figure there’s no point putting on makeup when it’s going to be sliding down my face in half an hour. But as the trip progresses, and I am waiting for my sister to put her face on, I start to do it too, just to have something to do with my hands. I tell myself this, but maybe it’s because I don’t want to be in a picture next to her like this, my pale face and bald lashes stark against her glamorously lined eyes.
Once, at Sea Scouts, a boy told me that I was trying to look like Courtney Love. I kind of was, but the way that he spat it out made me question myself. One day the boys were discussing which girl they thought was the hottest, and none of the boys said me. Afterwards, one of the boys cheerfully reassured me not to worry. Sometimes the ugly duckling becomes the sexy swan!
The one time I got my makeup done professionally, at Napoleon Perdis in the city, the artist asked me what I wanted. I don’t know, I mumbled, what do you think will look good on me? She didn’t have an answer. I said: I’ve always wanted to try a smoky eye, I guess? So she did it for me. My hooded eyes looked like smoking pits of ash. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so ugly.
Gradually, as I have become older, I have begun to relent, to prefer natural makeup. I dyed my naturally light brown hair dark brown and then slowly grew it out to my natural colour. I started using a light foundation, blush, mascara, no eyeliner. I bathed in the compliments, felt their warm salve like calamine.
100% Hotter is like an extended version of the brash Channel 4 predecessor, Snog Marry Avoid. In the latter, people are made over by the fictional, sassy, robot Personal Overhaul Device, or POD (think Hal from 2001: A Space Odyssey with more catty one-liners and arguably better fashion sense). Because the participants believe that they are, in fact, hot to start with, the production team conduct a vox-pop about the person, asking the public whether they would they snog, marry or avoid them—a more sanitised version of fuck-marry-kill. When they get their (inevitably bad) rating back, the participants fold and say, sure, I’ll try something new. They are instructed to use a makeup wipe, which dissolves their former face, and their true tone shines through—the orange of their makeup blares like a paint sample on the moist cloth. The producers do a makeunder in ten minutes of show-time, giving the makeover-ees the same chestnut shade of hair, a neutral makeup pallet, an acceptable high-street fashion look. A look that a mother could love.
Sitting on my parent’s couch, hair pulled back, skin pale and dry and un-makeupped, I hate this spectacle with every ounce of my being, yet I still crave it. I still say yes when the TV asks me if I want to watch the next episode. Perhaps on some level I want the kind of self-love that can be bought and sold, wrapped in cute, feminine-coloured packaging, a tiny bag with a dainty string. Perhaps I want a self-love I can take home and blend perfectly with my natural skin tone. Perhaps I want the problems of my life to have a one-episode arc, where everything is resolved and glimmering at the end, where my circumstances are 100% better.
When my sister and I visited a NYX makeup counter in Bangkok, we were greeted by a sales team consisting of one shy man, a glamorous and vivacious trans woman, and her sassy sidekick. We felt their effusive energy—they made us feel uniquely warm and welcome in the space. I bought a lot of lipstick. The next day we went to another NYX, in another shopping mall, and the three people working there had the exact same characteristics, the same dynamic. I don’t think this was by accident.
The main trick to working with a formula is to convince the person experiencing it that it is happening organically, that this is novel, that it is new terrain. If I can just restrain my cynicism for long enough, I can be cured by the right hair colour, the perfect eye shadow pallet. If I let go of previous conceptions of myself and give into the myth of self-improvement, I can simplify my quest for happiness. I can be the butterfly; I can be the sexy swan.
Like a miracle I can watch myself, lovely and unfurling, as if for the first time.
Eloise Grills is an artist and writer living in Melbourne. She recently won the Woollahra Digital Literary Award for Non-Fiction for her Scum Magazine column, Diary of a Post-Teenage Girl, and is a finalist for the Mid-Year Walkleys. She tweets and grams from @grillzoid