Wednesday, February 10, 2010


As a child Padma Lakshmi spent hours imitating cover models’ makeup in the mirror. The she became a model, too…

I’m old enough to remember when  Vogue covers were just portraits of one flawless face after another, rather than the varied covers we see today. Actresses had yet to rule magazines, and these mysterious beauties would smile coyly in close-up rather than allow us to study what they were actually wearing. I recall going to the supermarket and, while all the other children were begging their parents for candy by the register, always pleading with Mom to buy  Vogue. Every month I hungrily studied the faces in the magazine and tried out the new things I saw.
The covers of July and September 1984 were the epitome of my beauty ideal back then: a pristine, angelic face with wide eyes softly lined, lips stained shinily into a pinkish-berried pout (in those days we weren’t into the big, collagened mouth), and just a hint of blush. And let’s not forget the high, upturned bangs and the large earrings that defined the era. The eighties were about decoration and self-adornment. My fascination with beauty began just as the model Kim Alexis was atthe height of her career.

I was raised shuttling between southern India and the United States, from my grandparents’ home in Madras to my mother’s apartment in Manhattan. In India even children are made up with kohl around the eyes, so my relationship with makeup started very early. I loved delving into my mother’s red Samsonite beauty case every time she came to visit. The box seemed to contain the mysteries of her glamorous life in the States. She lined her suitcase with back issues of Vogue so my aunts could get a glimpse of the sophisticated world of Western fashion. It was at the bottom of my mother’s suitcase that I first saw Kirn’s face: The last winter of the seventies, Alexis landed three covers in a row. At that time, for most middle-class Indian women, makeup consisted of eyeliner pencil, Pond’s talcum powder, and some vampiric lipstick. Mom brought back palettes of eye shadows and lipstick with names like Robin’s Egg Blue, Candy Apple, and Wine with Everything, and a blush called Raspberry Mist. I had never seen a candy apple or robin’s egg, let alone tasted a raspberry.
Later, I moved to America to join my mother. She and I lived in an apartment on New York’s Upper East Side and yet, on her nurse’s salary, we were miles away from Madison Avenue. But we could still look exactly like the faces in Vogue. On sunny Saturdays, we’d go to Central Park and have my face painted by the clowns (something I quickly outgrew). On cold or rainy days, we’d stay home and pore over fashion magazines. My mother allowed me to use her face as my practice canvas, and I spent hours doing her makeup; those afternoons are some of the happiest memories of my childhood. I soon became so good at cosmetic artistry that my mother often used my services before she went out for a date.

By the age of ten, I was practicing on myself. I couldn’t wait to copy what I saw on those covers on my own face. Often I found I could replicate the same look on my darker skin by increasing the pigment intensity. If they used a baby-pink blush, I’d try something more fuchsia. If Kim had a medium-blue eyeliner, I used cobalt. I learned the important skill of adapting what I saw to fit me. Vogue became my first how-to manual of beauty.
For me, fashion started with the face. As young girls, we become interested in our hair, our makeup, and only then, after attending to accessories like ribbons, headbands, and earrings, might we notice that our clothes are all wrong. I looked nothing like Kim Alexis, and neither did anyone in my family, but it never occurred to me that I wasn’t blonde or blue-eyed like Kim. It would be years before I heard the labels ethnic and exotic in reference to my own face. In those carefree days of girlhood, I had yet to see myself as the world saw me. I just recognized a beautiful girl and wanted to look like her—even in her Chantilly perfume ads, in honor of which I tried very hard with curling iron and hairspray to will my own hair into the tousled, tumbled-out-of-bed look Kim portrayed with such apparent ease.

We had two makeup drawers in our bathroom. The top one was for items my mother couldn’t fit in her makeup bag, usually brands like Lancome and Estee Lauder, and the bottom one was for bits and pieces I had inherited—usually Revlon—and products I had splurged on in the local dime store, like Cover Girl or Maybelline. Things would often move back and forth between the two drawers. My mother had a serious makeup habit in those days, which meant she bought about five versions of the same color of lipstick or eye shadow, so I usually made out quite well and amassed a large array of cosmetics. I earned my allowance by doing chores, vacuuming and dusting, but the biggest money came from charging my mother a whopping $5 for shaping her eyebrows every week. I became an adept beautician and used my profits to reinvest in my business.
Years later, when I began my career as a model, I couldn’t wait to quiz the makeup artists for their secrets. I picked up all sorts of tips at shoots and backstage at fashion shows. I learned about Joe Blasco and Make Up For Ever from Kevyn Aucoin, studied how to highlight my cheekbones with Mary Greenwell and how to make my eyes look bigger with Bobbi Brown. (And was taught how to contour my nose by the model Tyra Banks.) I rummaged through all the kits I could talk my hands into. Eventually, if I found myself working with a lesser makeup artist, I could gently tell him or her what might work better. Or, many times, I finished off their work for them, allowing them to move on to the next girl. I’d suggest that the more peachy or apricot tones looked better on my olive skin than the cooler shades of pink. I found a fabulous beauty case at a vintage store and filled it with my many treasures.

That case is still one of my most prized possessions, although now it has numerous scripts piled on top of it. As my career ambitions moved from fashion to TV and film, I found that less is definitely more. What works well on the runway does not exactly translate well on-screen, and I’ve had to curtail my more flamboyant tendencies. In the movies, makeup is dictated by the character one is playing, and everything shows on-screen. So I’ve found that the more natural my makeup, the better I look.
Which takes me back to Kim Alexis in the eighties: It’s no accident that beauty and fashion trends rotate in 20-year cycles. The ethos of those clean, groomed covers is coming back, especially among young Hollywood actresses. Just a bit around the eyes, a ripely colored mouth, some drippy earrings, and our faces are ready for the red carpet.

– Padma Lakshmi, American Vogue, May 2004

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