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Brave new face wasn't all that

By NORMA WATKINS, Special to the Times
Published January 14, 2007


In New York, on the coldest day of the year, I gave myself a Christmas gift: a makeover. I'm a believer in the magical power of change, such as that a different color lipstick will change your life. I'd never had a makeover. The ladies behind the cosmetic counters in department stores intimidate me. They're like geishas, tall, haughty, masked in their product.

But here I was on the B train, headed downtown. I had an appointment with Armando at the MAC Cosmetics on Spring Street. My friend, Cathy, an editor at Harcourt, went to him and was transformed. We all thought it was happiness over her new job, but she said no: Armando.

The MAC place looked like a stage set, multicolored makeup glowing like jewels at little stations, each staffed by a person (half of them men), everyone beautifully made up.

Armando had on black, of course, with a matching watch cap, elaborate sideburns, foundation, nude lipstick and heavy black eye shadow. Cathy had warned us to always get a gay man to do your makeover. Women put too much stuff on you.

He took me to a private area in back, sat me in a high chair facing a big mirror, and sprayed something on my face to remove the modest makeup I usually wore to face the day. I looked at myself in the mirror, my plain, naked face self. It was depressing.

Makeup artists are adept at flattery. Armando told me I had good eyes, nice cheeks, and a great mouth. He said if I weren't wearing a white turtleneck, he'd give me a little bronzer under the neck to improve my chin.

He put on lotion with sunblock and started on the foundation. He rubbed concealer under my eyes (I didn't know I had anything that needed concealing). He brushed bronzing on my T-zone (something else I didn't know I had). This turned out to be forehead, nose and chin, but he also put some on the sides of my jaw, so it turned out to be more of a sideways H zone.

Armando talked while he worked. He was from Gilroy, Calif. I looked at him in the mirror, batting his mascara lashes, and couldn't picture him growing up in the garlic capital of America.

He wanted to know when I grew up. I said the '50s.

"Oh, I love the '50s," he said. "The clothes, the hair, that Greaser look."

"Believe me, Armando," I said, "you would not have loved growing up in the '50s. You would have had to do a lot of pretending."

A fluffy brush of powder over everything and it was on to the eyes. This was extremely complex. I watched, but wasn't sure I'd be able to duplicate it. Many steps, including at least three involving the area between my eyes and eyebrows. Lots of complicated lining and smudging, finished with curling and mascara on my upper lids. Nothing on the lower except a little smudged liner.

Blush on the apple of my cheeks. A nude lipstick outlined in pencil. A pink and gold gloss. I was done.

I asked my husband, Les, what he thought. "You look like you've got a slight tan," he said.

I loved it. I walked around with my new face all day. Saw a movie, went to dinner and still looked amazing in every mirror I could find: slightly flushed, lightly tanned, as if something really nice had just happened. I could hardly bear to wash my face.

I left MAC with a bagful of tubes and pastes, brushes and powders. I had my bronzer and my eyelash curler. The question was could I do it? Armando said it took a very steady hand (not to mention the extra hour). Back in Miami, I got up my courage and tried it.

At the party, someone said, "Norma, you've got on makeup. You never wear makeup." I went in the bathroom and took a look. The face that stared back belonged to one of those women I hate: painted and pretending. I had all the right stuff; I just didn't have the touch. I didn't have Armando.

I know what you're thinking: How vain. With all that's wrong with the world, you're worried about makeup? It's true. It was a momentary lapse. To make up for it, I sat down and wrote checks to all the causes I care about.

As for the makeup - the pastes and bronzers, the brushes and eyelash curler - they're in a bag under the sink. In case Armando comes for a visit.

Norma Watkins divides her time between Miami and Northern California.