The Beauty of It

Never forget one little point

Maybe my Gen X is showing, but I wonder if I might not understand the millennial interpretation of “anti-capitalist.” Or perhaps I might not get it enough to understand how Daphné B. — a writer from Montreal with a new book on getting through lockdown while buying makeup online from Sephora, losing herself in YouTube beauty videos, and finding bankrollers on sugar daddy match sites — could be soft branded by her publisher as some kind of late capitalist whistle-blower.

But I will say that B.’s Made‑Up: A True Story of Beauty Culture under Late Capitalism is well worth reading. A tight string of thoughts and observations, translated from the French by Alex Manley, it is a work of art born of the pandemic, not simply a piece of writing about it. This is something we are beginning to see: considered words, newly bound and published, emanating from 2020’s seat of solitary and end-times angst.

We all did a lot of weird stuff on our computers during COVID 1.0, and, in a way, Made‑Up is a pillow book that tracks B.’s online habits. She obsesses over trending colour palettes launched by influencers, she pines for an out-of-town boyfriend who has moved on, she watches unboxing videos, she clicks “Pay now” (seemingly more often than she’d like) for things to put on her skin. It does not necessarily paint a pretty picture, but Made‑Up seduces through the close-quarters voice of an author whispering in our ear, a cloistered tempest of desire, heartbreak, designer lipsticks, and skilled navel-gazing.

B.’s attitude is sometimes raffish and sometimes ruminative but nearly always unapologetic in its tits-out solipsism. She writes of watching a documentary about children working in Indian mica mines, who are “risking their lives to hunt for the stuff that will make me sparkle.” (Mica, she reminds us, is the “shiny mineral that can be found in just about every iridescent cosmetic product.”)

But another video soon pops up. “I watch someone make themselves up and it’s calming,” B. writes.

There’s something satisfying about this particular form of embellishment, the way it produces a concrete effect. Covering a face in foundation is like frosting a cake — the upshot is immediately visible, and easy to consume. The linear succession of steps in the transformation gives me a sense of closure, a half-hearted moment of pleasure. Still, it’s better than nothing. For a second, caught between the lips of a beautiful YouTuber, I forget about the children stepping into the mouth of the mine.

It plays on the emotions to read about something we’ve all done — turn away from disturbing news in favour of online pablum — written about so ruthlessly. And as you can see in the frosting-foundation beat, there is a lot to admire in B.’s poetic take on cultural commentary. Yet the fly in the ointment might fall somewhere near the idea that honesty, while an excellent policy in writing as elsewhere, cannot save a work. Indeed, in the case of Made‑Up, we might face the unusual situation of a writer hiding in honesty. So fine: B. uses a sugar daddy site. So fine: she spends her money on high-end cosmetics. What I needed from her after these chest barings was for her to go into the down-below place that exists past morality, past politics, and past posturing.

I agree with B.’s idea, floated several times, that surfaces contain multitudes. But ultimately she never reveals as much as she conceals. We know her heart is scarred. She tells us that. The how and the why, though, remain blurry beyond the foundation finish, beyond the selfie.

In contrast to Daphné B.’s aching contemporaneity is Behind the Red Door: How Elizabeth Arden’s Legacy Inspired My Coming-of-Age Story in the Beauty Industry. Louise Claire Johnson’s (unswervingly capitalist) book about the beauty industry reads like something from an altogether different planet or, at the very least, a wildly different era.

The Manhattan beauty magnate Elizabeth Arden (born Florence Nightingale Graham, in 1878, to poor farmers in Woodbridge, Ontario) was one of the most accomplished businesswomen of the twentieth century, having launched what would become an international cosmetics empire at a time when having a painted face meant you were a whore and having a bank account — never mind a corporate one — meant you were a man.

Arden, who ran her company until she died in 1966, is due for a big new biography — a splashy, feminist book. But Johnson’s isn’t quite that: it smells too strongly of books already written, notably Lindy Woodhead’s War Paint, which intertwined Arden’s story with that of her European-born counterpart, Helena Rubinstein. Like War Paint, Johnson’s Behind the Red Door is split between her main character’s story and that of another woman. In this case, rather frustratingly, the woman is Johnson herself, who intersperses a memoir of her years as an intern and employee in the company’s marketing department, between 2008 and 2014, with the biography of the grande dame who more or less launched the white American beauty industry.

On its own, Arden’s story will keep you reading: a notable suffragist, a lesbian icon, a horse-racing, ceiling-busting visionary who created so many of the basic beauty concepts we still live with today, from the day spa to the three-step skin-care routine. She also played no small part in normalizing the idea that makeup can be empowering. Johnson’s own journey, as an Ontario-born neophyte who lands a Manhattan marketing job, engages less. If you’ve read The Devil Wears Prada, if you’ve seen Julie & Julia, you can make out many familiar contours pretty quickly here: the sweaty stumble into the first day at corporate HQ, the lipstick on the teeth when encountering the CEO in the elevator, the starting of a blog, the crappy apartment Wi‑Fi, the Starbucks, the ultimate lesson that there is more to life than making it in the Big Apple.

Alongside Arden’s epic life — which blooms with Gibson Girls and the Lost Generation and flourishes in the era of Hollywood glamour and JFK’s Camelot — the account of Johnson’s time with the company just wilts. When Johnson couples, for instance, the internment of Arden’s sister (who ran the company’s operation in Europe) in a Nazi concentration camp with her own “battle” with homesickness while working in the Geneva office for a year, readers might wonder whether part of this story would have been best kept on that blog. For this particular beauty-culture book, the mirror should have been left aside.