When I was in high school, it was always very exciting to go to the mall. Though this is admittedly embarrassing in hindsight, I've spoken before about how in my hometown of suburban Ohio it was common for us to hang out at the mall in lieu of getting into other sorts of trouble (we were not very original teenagers, what can I say?). For my friend group specifically, the mall offered a location that had food, other people, and copious amounts of visual distractions, which was apparently all we needed in 2004 to fritter away an entire afternoon.
Not-so-shockingly, my personal favorite visual distraction was always the makeup counters. I was consistently fascinated by the colorful products underneath the glass, the plethora of free samples (so enticing to a high schooler with no disposable income), and, most of all, the inscrutable women that stood behind the counters dressed in all black. These women were always rocking perfect makeup that was seemingly dexterously applied in the style of their given makeup brand, and to me as a young teenager with little to no makeup experience, they were the gatekeepers to a world of flawless cat eyes and effortlessly applied foundation that seemed completely out of reach.
I can vividly remember the first time that I got my makeup done by one of these amazing women behind a makeup counter. I was getting ready for my sophomore year winter formal (girls asked guys, which is a whole other story for another time), and my friends and I spent the morning at the mall doing last-minute shopping. When we entered the Macy’s at the end of the corridor, the decision was made that we would try to get our makeup done. We still weren’t quite sure if the makeup application was free or not, but none of us had the money to make any serious purchases, so I’m pretty sure we were banking on the fact that we were clearly nervous 15-year-olds.
I approached the counter hesitantly, but once I managed to whisper that I wanted to get my makeup done for a school dance, the woman working the counter jumped into action. For the next 30 minutes, I was positively giddy as she applied products to my face and chatted with me about my dress, my date, and the fact that my school had recently instituted a “no grinding” policy (“Dance like your grandparents are here too” was the unofficial adage). I left the mall probably still looking slightly like a clueless 15-year-old, but I felt like a glamorous Julia Stiles–meets–Alicia Silverstone hybrid.
I’ve come a long way since that day in 2004 (most notably, I am now able to write articles that include lines like “I’ve come a long way”), and in that time I’ve been lucky enough to work with and interview many amazing makeup artists. Yet, I’ve always maintained a fascination with that makeup counter experience, and have therefore, over the years, asked many makeup artists if they had ever worked at a makeup counter in a mall or store, and if so, what it was like. Apparently, for many of these makeup artists, my teenage makeover was completely banal compared to the hilarity and ridiculousness they've experienced.
Below, I’ve collected five of the best makeup counter stories I’ve heard from the makeup artists I know (some names have been changed to protect privacy):
“My most hilarious experiences working at makeup counters were always the hungover girls. The first mall I worked at was in Philly, and the counters would open right at 9:30 a.m., when the mall opened. Occasionally, girls would run in to redo their makeup, and it was clear that they had made aggressive choices the night before! My favorite was always on weekdays when girls would try to play it off like they just were doing some random early Tuesday shopping. We played along, but we always suspected the truth!” —Kim, makeup artist, Chicago
“I worked at a makeup counter for 10-plus years. My craziest story, aside from customers being gross and regularly trying on unsanitized lip and eye products, was this one lady that used to come to the counter when I worked for MAC at Saks [in NYC], and she used to tell us all that she was one of the presidents of Saks Fifth Avenue, and she was checking out our counter. She came in regularly with this story. How did we know that this was (most likely) untrue? Well, she used to come in with her own containers (about the size of a Rosebud Salve tin) and make her own testers of our products. Now, I never had an issue making a tester for a customer with our own store tester containers, but with the larger containers she had, it was pretty ridiculous. She wouldn't even ask; she would just go to town and start squeezing so much product into her containers that she basically walked away with free products, regularly.
"It became such an issue that I finally had to confront her and let her know that basically she was stealing and she couldn't continue to make her own testers. She argued with me for so long (she was the president of Saks Fifth Avenue, after all) that I finally had to go to get security to stop her. At this point, I was also fairly heavily pregnant, so as I walked my overly pregnant belly toward security, she started following me and getting in my face, trying to be intimidating, I guess. Everyone was worried for me, especially because I was pregnant, but I didn't care. I wasn’t down with her stealing right in front of me! It turned out, as I suspected, that she was not, in fact, the president of Saks. She was, however, made to leave the store.” —Brenda Colon, makeup artist, NYC
“I was a makeup artist at a counter in the early 2000s, so I was very into most of the makeup trends of the era. I think my weirdest story or confession is that the one trend I was really not into was the thin brow thing that people were doing then. When women would ask me to pencil in their brows, I would sometimes purposefully make them thicker than they had asked because I thought it looked better. Probably not the most professional thing to do, but maybe I convinced some people to go a bit bigger before it was cool.” —Jess, makeup artist, Columbus, Ohio
“My boyfriend worked at NARS at Bloomingdales in NYC, and he told me that on multiple occasions women would come in and ask him to recommend products that men liked on women (ostensibly because he was a man, he would know). Basically advice on how to use makeup to be more attractive to men. He always gave them his true opinions, but ultimately sometimes he had to admit that he wasn't exactly an expert in being sexually attracted to women!" —Jeremy, hairstylist, NYC
“I worked in Macy’s Herald Square years ago for about five years. There was a lady that would come in all the time who was quite the character. She would take Kleenex from her purse and cover them in the Purell and makeup remover we had at the counter, and then stuff it all back in her purse (creating her own makeup removal wipes, I guess?). She would then proceed to the lipstick area to break off full sticks of our Ruby Woo lipstick. She did this so often that we all started to call her 'Ruby Woo.' She was a regular.
"One day, Miss Ruby Woo came in and saw a customer wearing a loose bronzer called Golden Bronze. She liked it so much she decided to pour the whole container of loose bronzer into two Kleenex napkins and take the whole pile of it and throw it at her face. Imagine a big puff of bronze shimmer everywhere — all over the counter, the floor, and her clothing. She looked like one of the bronze statues on 42nd Street, except with Ruby Woo lipstick on. I just stared at her like a deer in headlights. Amazingly, she walked out with total pride." —Shaina Eve, makeup artist, NYC