Working on the beauty circuit in the late Nineties was a bit like a Scalextric race track, in terms of both pace and circular routine: find a juicy role with a luxury brand, immerse yourself into it, onto the next….work by day, party by night…..until all the days, nights and jobs blended into one. Looking back, it’s all a flurry of make-up brushes and chinking shot glasses, high cheekbones and high drama.
A typical day in the life of a cosmetic junkie would start with….a hangover. The alarm rudely buzzing in my ear would herald the start of another hectic day, so I’d jump into the shower bleary-eyed but unconcerned about my pallid complexion as I knew my suitcase of trickery would have me looking catwalk-ready once more.
Obviously this was no mean feat, so I’d set aside about thirty minutes for the full works : layer upon pinky-toned layer of foundation, concealer, powder, followed by at least three shades of eyeshadow, highlighter, blusher, gloss….plus lashings of mascara to give the illusion of being wide awake. It’s a wonder my eyelids stayed open at all under the weight of those spider-leg lashes.
Despite standing for upwards of eight hours a day, we were required to wear skyscraper heels, leading to severe ‘ball-burn.’ “My balls are killing me!” we’d exclaim, slipping off our stilettos behind the counter and reaching down to massage our poor stockinged feet. Stepping onto the train in heels and white consultant’s labcoat for the ninety minute Kent commute, we’d get sidelong glances from the other passengers who were trying to decide if we were a) nurses or b) fetish escorts.
The silent stares of the train were soon replaced by pumping house music the minute the tube spat us out into the West End and we’d assumed our positions behind our respective beauty counters; despite being merely an arm’s length apart, each had a different beat like the various rooms in a nightclub.
The loud music, along with the thousands of bright lights, was a set-up I’m sure that was intended to disorientate the customer to such an extent that they’d fling their purse open and empty the contents onto the counter, wild-eyed and desperate to escape the chaos. It worked. Such was the momentum and buzz of the beauty hall that the decision to part with half a week’s wages on a few frivolous frilly-packaged items was made in a millisecond. We’d expertly wrap their purchases in tissue paper origami-style, spritz them with perfume, then whisk away the banknotes before they had time to question the triple-figured total.
If footfall was low, on a Monday morning for example, we’d drum up business with a few deft demos: our modus operandi to hit our outlandish sales targets would be to stealthily grab an unsuspecting passer-by, guide them purposefully to a stool before carefully but quickly applying the latest season’s shadows and a glossy pink lip, giving the illusion that perfect application is effortless. Sometimes they’d put up an initial struggle, in which case the protocol was to politely but firmly hold one arm whilst casually tucking a tissue into their collar, before making up only one side of their face. Then you could relax your grip safe in the knowledge that they’d have to stay put whilst you evened out their face, or else risk looking like a stroke victim as they shuffled off half-done.
If they didn’t buy, well no matter, as by now a crowd of ladies had gathered to watch the performance, and if the ‘model’ didn’t loosen the purse strings, then you could guarantee some of the others would.
“Ooh, look how she’s reduced her bags,” they’d murmur, much to the dismay of the model/victim (model stroke victim – see what I did there?) who’d have loved to retort but by now I’m gripping her jaw shut as I liberally apply a lip plumper to demonstrate that “even thin lips (like these, I say internally) can look full and luscious.” It’s not so much a make-up brush I needed as a magic wand.
Once the gaggle of insecure ladies have restored their confidence by investing in lip-plumpers and eye-lifters I’m parched, and round up my other counter chicks for our morning tea break. In those days you could smoke in the canteen or over at Silvio’s, the local coffee shop, so both would be bursting with bimbos, the clouds of expensive fragrance quickly replaced by billowing clouds of cigarette smoke as we puffed away and sipped our skinny capps whilst catching up with all the latest gossip, of which there was never a shortage in an all-female industry.
I say it was all women – that’s not strictly true. There were men too, but solely of the haughty homosexual variety, who were arguably more feminine, and certainly more bitchy, than their female counterparts. They’d peer down their powdered aquiline noses at what people were wearing, either silently nodding their approval or sneering in disgust. They wore more make-up than the girls (which is saying something) and they were the most fun : the girls flocked around these social butterflies who fluttered about the Beauty Hall, earning some the dubious title ‘Fag Hags.’ Totally un-PC these days, of course, but in that era it was perfectly acceptable and even hankered-after – everyone wanted to be part of the coolest cliques.
Once super-charged on caffeine, croissants and Marlboro Lights, it was back to the shop floor to clock up some commission. Although the girls would smile sweetly and air-kiss each other, behind the scenes it was brutal – a dog-eat-dog scrum for sales, with consultants elbowing each other out of the way to get the juiciest transactions and hence biggest commissions for themselves. And if there was a ‘Gift Time’ GWP promotion, beware! I’m sure the most money-grabbing dollybirds sharpened their carefully-polished acrylics into a point, ready to jab a blood-red nail into the eye of a more agile advisor. All’s fair in love and lipstick.
The clued-up Queens were having none of it, however : hands on snake-hips, they’d pout and pontificate if they thought they’d been done out of a decent sale. To escape the drama, we’d step outside the counter for a spot of traffic-stopping : spritzing fragrance onto strips and wafting them past people’s noses so their nostrils would twitch Bisto-kid stylee and you could lead them, entranced, back to your lair and sell them the full fragrance-layering family of goodies….at great expense. Our favourite time of year was known as ‘Arab Season’, when wealthy Middle-Eastern customers would come to London to escape the heat of home and dispense with wads of fifties as they stocked up on precious musky perfumes. Ringing tills were music to our ears.
We hated quiet periods when our managers would proclaim “Time to lean, time to clean!” and surreptitiously slip a duster into our hands. As twitchy twenty-somethings we were happy to be kept busy….just not cleaning. Urgh! It was an alien concept to us. Instead we’d busy ourselves giving each other make-overs, eyelashes creating a breeze from all the false-lash effect mascara, lips dripping in mirror-shine gloss. All glammed up at the end of our shifts, it seemed a shame to waste such a work of art, so with about £100 worth of product on our faces, we’d nip across to the Henry Holland pub for some quick liquid refreshment in the form of the cheap house plonk.
Of course, one drink never quenched our thirst, so several bottles on empty stomachs later and suddenly one of us would have a great idea. “Let’s go to a club!”
We’d slide off our barstools, tease our aching trotters back into pointy heels and totter off to Pop, L’Equipe Anglaise or some other edgy local establishment. The flowing drinks made us forget the pain in our feet and we’d dance with gay abandon at G.A.Y until we realised we were about to miss the last train back to the ‘burbs, so like Cinderella we’d dash out just as the clock struck midnight.
After a few dozy circuits of the circle line, I’d snap out of my trance and make the final train from Charing Cross by the skin of my furry teeth before slipping back into Slumberland and waking up in an empty carriage at the end of the line.
Eventually home, I’d carefully take off my make-up (well I do work in beauty, Dahlink!) despite the late hour, then slip into bed for a few hours’ shut-eye before that dreaded alarm announced the new dawn once more…