“If you play up your eyes, you’ll draw attention away from down here,” a French makeup artist once told me, gesturing to my mouth area while swirling too-dark smoky shadow across my lids. I feigned thankfulness for the tip, while inside I recoiled. He’d confirmed that my flaw needed fixing. Then he sent me on my way in quietly nude lipstick.
I can’t remember which specific defect I had that day. Perhaps it was the aftermath of a cold sore I’m plagued with every time I’m mildly sick or stressed, a patch of adult acne from wonky hormones or my previously misaligned jaw.
All of this is why—despite being a beauty editor—my personal makeup collection is stocked with mascaras and eyeshadows, but only concealer and colourless balms for anything below the nose. While so many women preach instant lipstick confidence, for me, it’s a crimson flag drawing everyone’s eyes to my most-loathed imperfections.
I suddenly find myself divulging those anxieties when I meet Giorgio Armani’s international makeup artist Linda Cantello in Paris for one of the brand’s new launches. Maybe it’s her charming British accent, or the fact that she herself is bare pouted, but, as she shows me the scintillating 18-shade range of Lip Magnet liquid lipsticks (on counters next month), I reveal why I’m reluctant to try one on.
“Horrible!” is her reaction, adding, “You have beautiful lips,” in a way that somehow doesn’t feel like pity. She then tells me that she once saw Gwen Stefani up close and noticed that, underneath her overdrawn signature scarlet, the singer’s upper lip is secretly quite thin.
I leave wearing an expertly painted-on orangey-red shade (No. 400), which, despite its colour density, sits like a veil on my lips. It’s a clever bit of science: the formula’s water content is said to evaporate upon application, leaving a film of pigment only 10 micrometres thick (the average liquid lipstick is 40; a human hair, 100). Physically, I can’t feel the colour on my lips. Mentally, I’m acutely aware of its presence. By the end of the cab ride back to my hotel, I’ve wiped it all off. Maybe after sunset, I tell myself. A bit of darkness might help ease me into it. For the release party that night, I throw on a cobalt silk dress and the flaming hue. With the lit-up Eiffel Tower behind the dance floor, the rest of the bright-mouthed crowd (it was a lipstick party after all) and a few rounds of bubbly, my bold lips fit in perfectly. Weeks later, back at home in Toronto, I’m having trouble mustering the courage to wear it again. I swipe on my Paris memento at my desk, under the office’s glaring fluorescent lights. A colleague stops to share an uncertain, “I think…I like it…?” That evening, as I hop in an Uber with a bunch of beauty-editor pals, they unanimously break out in a chorus of praise. These are my people.
Later that week, I test my lipstick look at a Saturday-afternoon BBQ, then another time for late-night patio drinks. My friends don’t seem to notice my revamp. When I kiss my boyfriend on date night, he doesn’t even flinch (nor does the colour leave him stamped in scarlet).
There’s only one time when my red lip comes under real scrutiny: as I face my own worst critic in the mirror during a recent haircut. My eyes dart anywhere but to my reflection. But as I gradually steal glances, the most shocking revelation is how fine it all looks. My blemishes haven’t jumped out from under their concealer. My mouth doesn’t look strangely contorted. I’m just a girl in lipstick with sopping wet hair. I work my way up to full-on eye contact, as the red encircles one glaring feature, amplifying it even: a smile.