Monday, January 24, 2011

All Made Up: Thoughts on Being a Bombshell for a Day

At the end of my interview with makeup artist Eden DiBianco, she said, “Tell you what: Why don’t you come over to my place tomorrow and I’ll do you up? It’s one thing to talk about people communicating what they really want to look like, and it’s another to experience it yourself.” In the name of research (not vanity, my kittens, never that!), I accepted her gracious offer. 

Before and after: Dispatch from inside the Pussycat Dollhouse.

Thoughts on being a bombshell for a day:
1) It takes a lot to look this way. 
It took an hour and a half for me to go from Autumn to Bombshell. Eden used no fewer than 12 products on me, probably more. She used some tools I own at home and yielded vastly different results than I do—I haven’t tried applying false lashes for years, because I thought they made me look like a knockoff Kewpie doll, but you really wouldn’t have known from Eden’s application that I was wearing them.  

So the vixen look takes a lot of time, money (I should note that the products were a mix of affordable drugstore stuff and more high-end things—”Whatever works,” Eden shrugged), and skill: None of which I have or am willing to invest. Not to mention that while I didn’t have to touch up the makeup (I got a little shiny but all the color stayed in place for 12 hours), I was also hyperconscious of how I was eating so as to keep on my lip color, of not touching my face, of not wearing a hat in the frigid winter so as not to muss the curls. Looking this way ain’t easy, kids. 

2) Yet being a bombshell takes nothing at all. 
While the time, effort, and skill that go into creating the look are scarce, the effect is inevitable once you’ve got the basic structure in place. When I look at the photos of myself that my friend Lisa took that night, I see that what makes me look “good” at first glance isn’t the intricacies that also make it a skilled makeup job on Eden’s part, nor is it my God-given features; it’s the signals of beauty that do the trick—and a trick it is.

Bombs away, boys!: My sleight-of-hand.
You see a woman with long wavy hair in a red dress. She is wearing bright lipstick and is in a pose that is intended not for anything practical but only to be observed. These elements are what creates the bombshell, not what I bring to the table. I say this not to put myself down but to highlight the power of the signals, which transcend the individual. As Sarah, my first interviewee, says, “I can dress a certain way, put on makeup, style my hair, and make a stir when I walk into a room. But it feels like a sleight of hand. Where I succeed, the effect is more than the sum of its parts only in other people's heads. The imagination fills in the gaps.”

3) I am incredibly uncomfortable trying to look beautiful. 
A few days before the makeover, I interviewed photographer Sophie Elgort, who said the difference between people who are photogenic and people who aren’t isn’t so much genetic gifts as it is comfort in front of the camera. I recognized myself immediately: As a rule, I look okay-to-great in candid shots, and okay-to-horrendous in posed ones. And it’s because I’m trying so damned hard to look pretty when I know I’m being captured. I pout my lips, suck in my cheeks, freeze my eyes—all this without realizing I’m doing it. It’s reflex. And it’s not just in photos: The minute I recognize that I am supposed to be playing the role of someone beautiful (a slow-mo moment on a date, knowing that I’m being eyed by someone across the room), my face involuntarily contorts into this weird position that isn’t me. The irony, of course, is that it eradicates whatever beauty I might have at any given moment. As Sophie said, “How can you expect to look like your best self if you’re putting on a ridiculous face?”

So then there I was, sporting false lashes, heavy black eyeliner, bright red overdrawn lips, and a cascade of curls. I was telegraphing trying to look beautiful more heavily than I have since senior prom. It was terrifying. My normal look is low-key enough that if somebody happens to single me out as beautiful—well, whoopsie here! My, I wasn’t trying, I was just sitting here picking dandelions and choosing a nonfat latte flavor, and gosh that’s so nice of you! 

When it looks like I’m not trying to be pretty, I can act as though it’s all one big accident somehow, a happy bit of serendip that you, sir, found me attractive in this cosmic wormhole of a moment. But when you’re sending out these blaring signals of beauty—red lips! exaggerated eyes! was that hair in Gilda?—you are blatantly asking for attention, even if only of the visual sort. You are making a request, and that request can be refused. I tend to give a lot of eye contact on the street, but I found it very difficult to look strangers in the eye when I was so dolled up, because I didn’t want to see how they would respond to my implicit question. I didn’t want an enthusiastic, leering “yes,” I didn’t want the contemptuous rejection of a “no,” and I sure as hell didn’t want the “what? who??” of the invisible—even though normally I’ll default to that, my muted self-presentation giving the world permission to overlook me with little protest.

In my day as a bombshell, I gained an admiration for those women who take the hard sell, who dare us all to look at her and find her beautiful, or not, or to think she’s gaudy, or to make assumptions about her self-esteem. I tend to think I’m in control of my appearance by being so low-key—I believe that nobody will look at me and assume anything about me. That’s naive: By appearing to be a blank slate I allow the world to project quite a bit onto me, actually—and nobody’s a blank slate anyway. (The average person would probably guess at first glance I’m middle-class, and a professional in a relaxed job environment, and not a native New Yorker, and that I will happily tell you whether you’re on the right train to get to Times Square, and they’d be right.) 

The siren, the bombshell, the woman with a shade too much lipstick: She is telling you to think she’s a sight, that she is absolutely worth your attention, and that she is doing her damndest to tell you what she wants you to think of her. Perhaps I’m romanticizing, and I’m sure that these lipsticked creatures have reasons as varied as my little-makeup sisters do for our minimalist approach. And regardless, I'm going to stick with my soft-sell approach—less effort, more versatility, more in line with my personality. Still: Being a bombshell takes guts, and right now, tonight, back in my disheveled French twist and barely-there mascara, I salute them all.


  1. Interesting. I wear make up for job interviews only, but I do some fairly flashy things (I think) sartorially and when I feel dressed in my own personal best, I really feel beautiful. Then I know I look attractive because I'm confident and the attention from men and women seems to just flow.

    But yes, when I'm "dolled" in this way or am having a picture taken it's difficult to maintain eye contact or not look frozen in front of the camera. I think my experience is that I'll never wear a shade too much lipstick, or be a bombshell in this way, but things that push the limits for me personally, like really quirky shoes or a shorter skirt splits the difference. And I can feel "minimalist" and comfortable with that.

  2. I like that notion of "splitting the difference," and indeed that's probably what is turning out to be a recurring theme among the ppl I'm interviewing--that it's about finding your personal best. A shorter skirt is revealing more of you and can be done in a way that's still authentic to you, whatever your taste. Because who really is a bombshell in her heart of hearts? Maybe they're out there but I don't know 'em!

  3. Hey Autumn!

    It is so nice to read your blog. How can I follow you? I must say you look pretty amazing as a bombshell, but I too am partial to the more laid-back look. That's not to say I won't throw on some red lipstick and liquid eyeliner for a night out. I actually love to do that.

    Anyway, I am moving back to NYC in April and would love to meet for a drink when I return. Oh and here is my blog, it has taken quite a fashion-y turn as of late.


  4. Autumn, you're always HAWT! xoxo

  5. I really like this post. I do the winged eyeliner thing more days than not, and I've just come to expect that it will take me about 45 minutes to an hour to get ready, from shower to jewelry. But it doesn't seem like work at all - to me, it's great fun! I like experimenting and changing my look, from Goth to Punk to Retro '50s. So it just feels like playtime to me.

    Interesting dichotomy, though - as much as I like to keep to the background, I dress in a way that draws attention to myself. Perhaps it's the Leo in me asserting itself?

  6. But Jean, haven't you read the latest? You're actually a Cancer!

    That is interesting that you feel more comfortable calling attention to your looks in that manner--I wonder what that's about? A sense of play and engagement with your self-presentation?

  7. I say that you look gorgeous in both, but I do know what you mean. Sometimes I have my fellow spa girls do up my make-up and tell them not to go crazy but sometimes they do, and they give me the whole works, and if they know my style and who I am and it can look pretty fab. And, I do find myself posing in the mirror. ;-)

  8. Thank you! And I think you hit on something important: That if someone knows your style and who you are, getting that glamorous over-the-top thing can be really awesome. I didn't know the makeup artist who did me that well, but she's really good at reading people (that's part of what makes her good at what she does) and it showed, because even though I felt uncomfortable for the reasons I wrote about, I also felt pretty awesome too, you know?

    What do you do at your spa?

  9. Great Article!
    It's funny, as much as the camera guys like catching me here and there in the audience, invariably once i know the camera is on me, I get the deer in headlights fixed grin stare thing going, because I'm trying to look "normal" lol

  10. Thanks, Zuba! Isn't it the strangest thing, how utterly unnatural we look when we try to look normal? I've really tried to stop doing so, with mixed success--instead I just put on a big grin, figuring that even if I look fake at least I might learn how to fake a good smile...

  11. Hey, I think you look great as a bombshell, but also great au natural!! It's hard to pull of a natural look, you look quite lovely without any makeup :-)

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