Adult Education


Writer Hadley Freeman came late to cosmetics. But she’s making up for lost time.


How well I remember the first time I nervously tried to apply eyeliner. There I was, all alone in my bedroom on a Saturday night, timorously sharpening the eye pencil I’d bought from Boots that afternoon, leaning forward towards the mirror as brought it in close, visions of smokey-eyed Chrissie Hynde dancing through my head, before promptly stabbing myself in the eyeball.

I remember it well because this happened two weeks ago. My name is Hadley, I am 34, and I am trying to learn how to put on make up.

You see, I missed out on those crucial teenage years when most women learn how to put on make up, partly because I was a shy mouse who would have rather eaten my own hair than done anything that might look like I was trying to draw attention to myself; mainly because I was ill and in hospital for three years where there were limited supplies of Barry M. So when I washed up at university, my knowledge of make up pretty much began and ended an awareness that eye shadow went on your eyes and lipstick on your lips. Skincare I somehow grasped (SKII, all the way), but make up might as well have been Mandarin.

So, distantly cognisant that, at the age of 18 I was probably expected to put some kind of paint on my face whenever there was a night out in town or else risk being mistaken for a Quaker, I headed off to the local department store near my university, and bought a selection of make up that I relied on for – and this is no exaggeration – the next ten years: Bobbi Brown’s Shimmering Brick in bronze (so many colours – bargain!), Bourjois eye shadow in Vert Ondine (which I used to jam into the inner corner of my eye until my friend David finally took me aside when I was 26 and told me it made me “look weird”), Nars blusher in Orgasm and Origins’ lip gloss in Raspberry Truffle. Whenever my new friends dragged me out of my room (shy mousiness still very much in evidence at uni) and over the road for £5 cocktails at Freuds, I would shove all of the above around my face in some kind of order, look at myself in the mirror and think, “Yeah. That’ll do.”

But at some point in my late twenties, it no longer did. I felt a yearning for a darker, smokier look than Vert Ondine could give me (and one that would suit my olive Jewish complexion a lot more.) So I went to a Space NK press day because I was promised Sylvie Chantecaille would be giving make up lessons there.

“How do I put on eyeliner?” I asked her. She looked pityingly at my make-up-less face amidst the perfectly painted beauty editors at the event, an ugly duckling surrounded by swans, and showed me the trick about wetting a flat brush, dipping it in dark shadow and poking it about your eyelash line.

“This will make your eyes darker but without looking like you have eyeliner,” she said, mistaking my bare face for an aversion to make up.

Sylvie’s trick worked for a few years but, eventually, I realised it wasn’t quite enough. I wanted to go out looking neither like Divine Brown nor like someone wearing no eyeliner. I wanted, to put it more precisely, some oomph.

And that’s when I looked around and noticed that every woman on the planet seemed to know how to put on make up. My best friend, I suddenly realised after 15 years of close friendship, did amazing flicky things with eye pencil as her daily flipping look. A trip to Topshop was like one long ego pummel for me when I’d look around at all the 20something customers and shop assistants with their perfect, Biba-like eyes. It was like how I feel when I go on holiday with friends and I have to admit I don’t really know how to drive so, no, I can’t just nip down to the shops to pick up some things. Why couldn’t I do something everyone else my age can so easily?

Eventually, I reached that point of being so annoyed with my ineptitude that I decided to do something about it. I studied Sali’s videos on the Guardian website, starting with the two key looks I especially wanted to learn, smoky eyeshadow and flicky eyeliner. I obediently bought all the tools she recommended (YSL Eyeliner Effect Faux Cils, Elizabeth Arden eye pencil, Urban Decay’s Eye Primer), stayed in at night and practised. And practised. And practised.

I won’t lie – it’s not perfect yet (my handwriting is illegible – liquid eyeliner was always going to be tricky), but it’s getting there, it really is. I honestly don’t think I’ve ever been as proud of myself as they day I did an almost perfect flicky line. It is not too strong to say I felt downright liberated.

I have since branched out into more make up and realised something amazing: make up is fun. Actually really fun. I try not to get stuck in a rut of a look, like I did throughout my twenties, but some products have already become mainstays. Always following my guru Sali’s recommendations, I am now a devotee of Laura Mercier’s tinted moisturiser and always have a tube of Revlon’s Lip Butter in my bag. I have become the kind of woman who carried lipstick in her bag. You have no idea how un-me that is. Except it’s not. Anymore.

Hadley Freeman is a writer, broadcaster, author and Guardian columnist. Her new book, Be Awesome: Modern Life For Modern Ladies, is available for pre-order now.

Related - Columns
Related - Columns + see all

SALI LOVES: Lisa Macario’s slogan sweatshirts

Any words you want, hand-stitched on a flattering sweatshirt? Sali Hughes is spoilt for choice

Sacred Brows

Comedy writer Sarah Morgan gets microbladed and finally sees what all the fuss is about

Sponsored Post: Harvey Nichols Holy Grail Edit, Week 5

The best foundations, as chosen by Sali

SALI LOVES: New Look Funnel-Neck Midi Dresses

The perfectly flattering dress, for practically nowt.