Comedian and writer Pippa Evans is currently going without makeup for 100 days, making her the perfect person to chat to ace beauty writer Sali Hughes.
As part of my 100 Days as a Biscuit, Standard Issue sent me to meet makeup guru and all-round superstar Sali Hughes to talk about makeup, feminism and her new book Pretty Honest: The Straight-Talking Beauty Companion. I was nervous to meet a makeup overlord with none on my face. It turned out not to matter one jot. Below are just the highlights of our conversation as the full transcript is about 12 pages long – turns out when you aren’t wearing any makeup, you have a lot of questions for the makeup oracle.
Pippa: You seem to have loved makeup from a very young age.
Sali: It was never my ambition to work in beauty. In fact my ambition was to be a fashion writer. But in terms of a personal obsession, from a really young age I was always very fascinated by makeup. My mother left when I was very young so it was just me, my Dad and my three brothers. I wore their clothes, got my hair cut at their barbershop and I was happy as a clam. But I just loved looking at the girly stuff. I never wanted to be a boy. And I really loved all that feminine stuff that wasn’t happening in my home. I think I craved it.
P: People often go either way in a single-sex dominated house, becoming either very masculine or very feminine.
S: My obsession with clothes and makeup is very feminine, but my personality is particularly masculine. I am not a girly-girl. None of my friends would describe me that way. I am not bubbly and soft.
P: Your writing tone is that of the big sister who’s let you in their bedroom to look at all their big-girl treasures.
S: People say my column is like a very strict best friend. I am happy with that.
P: A bit like Delia when she wrote How To Cheat At Cooking, I imagine things will fly off the shelf once this comes out. That’s quite a power!
S: It’s a power and a responsibility. Every now and then I’ll read on a forum someone saying, “I bought this product Sali Hughes recommended and I am really allergic”, and I just feel gutted. But there will always be one person who might react to a product and you just have to accept that. It is horrible if someone doesn’t like [something you’ve recommended] because you think, “Oh, that’s their money!”
P: The book alternates between advice and etiquette. The “makeup on public transport” issue is interesting: some stuff is fine; other stuff not so much…
S: What the fuck is wrong with people? I have seen some crazy shit.
P: I saw a man clipping his toenails on the tube once. I couldn’t approach him.
S: I would have! It’s simple. Anything that comes away from your personal space into someone else’s is unacceptable. It’s all manners – everything in the world is manners. With that in mind, groom [in public] accordingly.
P: I once saw a girl get on the train and she had terrible skin. She immediately got out her makeup and started putting it on. When she got to her destination she looked amazing. Now, how do you compliment someone on that without mentioning the first part? I mean, I’d be horrified if someone said to me, “You looked awful at Ealing Broadway but by Oxford Circus you’d really scrubbed up well.”
S: I would say, “Excuse me, I’m sorry to trouble you. I’ve just seen you putting your makeup on; would you mind telling me what foundation you are using, because you look fantastic.” I think that’s pleasing. Compliments are so important.
P: What makes us so self-conscious about giving and receiving compliments?
S: I think it’s a British thing. And also women spend their lives indirectly being told they aren’t worthy. So when you give someone a compliment they immediately start arguing with you about why you’re wrong. “LOOK – I’ve got a spot! My roots need doing!”
Compliments are like medicine – you may not want to take them but they ultimately do you good. You have to swallow them.
P: A large section of your book is dedicated to how to deal with counter staff. Why do they wield such weird power over us?
S: There are so many things going on with that dynamic. Firstly, British people are so polite that even when someone is being ghastly to them they swallow it and still spend £100 on something they don’t want.
I also think the dynamic of the beauty counter is unique because they are talking about your face. You’re not buying a tumble dryer. You can’t just buy the one recommended in Which? magazine. It’s very personal so it’s hard not to take it personally. If they say, “This would make your eyes look bigger”, we hear, “My eyes are too small”.
So I think it is very complicated. On one hand you’re British and therefore going to be a bit of a pussy in that situation as we all are, but on the other someone is critiquing your appearance, which is terribly personal.
P: How much responsibility lies with the beauty consultant?
S: Beauty consultants are just people and all people have good days and bad days. I worked in retail for a long time and I don’t like it when people slag off beauty consultants. It’s like any generalisation about any group of people – it’s just not on. Some beauty consultants are brilliant, some are changeable, some are not very good. The vast majority are people working really hard for not very much money – and the good ones can transform your day.
In retail a customer may experience a rude assistant once in a month. When you are a beauty consultant you encounter many rude customers every day. They have to balance commission and sales targets with being a good person.
P: You are keen to encourage parents to let their teenagers experiment. Most of us have a memory of being told, “You are not going out looking like that!”
S: See, I never had that. By my teens I was living with my mother. She was a feminist and never interfered with how I looked. It’s only through meeting other people that I realise how lucky I was not to have a mother who thought women that wore makeup were slags or that women had to look moneyed or appropriate or demure.
I wasn’t a pretty child. I was incredibly plain but wasn’t really aware of it as we didn’t have that dynamic in the family. My mother was very good looking but she never highlighted my shortcomings. In fact, now I think about it, my interest in makeup never started as anything to do with looking prettier. I think it was about being fun and creative, drawing and painting.
P: I definitely started wearing makeup to get boys to like me. I went to an all girl school. I think that had A LOT to do with it. We used boy interest as a way of measuring our success.
S: I find that interesting. I think that because I lived in an all male environment and went to a mixed school, I find my attitude towards men very different to that of my female friends, particularly those that went to all girl school. I am not intimidated by them and I don’t need them to fancy me. I want my boyfriend to fancy me of course, or if I fancy someone of course I want them to fancy me, but I don’t need to be validated by being fancied at all. There are lots of other fucked up things about me, but that’s not one of them. You will see no change in my character when men are around. I have a load of platonic male friends that I don’t remotely fancy and who don’t fancy me. I think that comes from growing up around boys.
P: Despite having started off wearing makeup for male attention, I don’t believe it when people claim all women only wear makeup for the benefit of men.
S: There are women who live in far less fortunate circumstances than we do. Who risk imprisonment to go and get a facial. Who do it because that is the way they are wired. And they are directly opposing men who could stone them, by going to get a beauty treatment. Anyone who dismisses that activity – and this is, of course, an extreme example – anyone who dismisses that simply knows nothing about women. I am offended by the idea that I do things always to please men. It’s just simply not the reality. You will never see me more dolled up than when I am out with my girls. It’s fun.
P: And what do you say to the people think you are shallow if you are interested in beauty?
S: By that rationale every mammal is shallow. They groom to attract mates. We didn’t invent that. Makeup has been worn for approximately 6000 years by men and women. It’s only men that have fallen out of it.
We are marketed at to death because as soon as commerce becomes involved, which it wasn’t to begin with, it becomes a darker thing. But the instinct to groom, to look beautiful, is innate. I don’t need someone making me feel worse about it. The instinct is what it is.
I object to anyone explaining how a woman should look. The minute someone says, “A woman should…” something in me changes and it’s, “Back the fuck off”. I mean, I don’t give a shit if you wear it or not.
Sali Hughes’ book Pretty Honest is out now, published by Fourth Estate, RRP £22.
Pippa Evans is a comedian, improviser and the co-founder of Sunday Assembly. She lives in London.