From ages 1 to 4, my great-aunt Theresa was my “nanny,” though I never called her that, because to me she was always just aunt T. (I’m from the Midwest, so it’s pronounced "ant te.")
Aunt T is my grandmother’s older sister; she worked for 20 years as a beautician. One of my earliest memories is when I would ask for “lips.” She would leave the lipstick cap on and pretend to put it on me and say things like, “Ohh how nice you look!” I attribute a lot of my love for beauty to spending so much time with my aunt. So I decided to interview her about her experience working behind makeup counters, and what she learned then that is still relevant now.
Tell me about how you got started. How did you end up working in cosmetics?
"I started out working for Bonne Bell and that was at [Montgomery] Wards in the early '60s. Then I went to Sears and worked there for a couple years. Now remember, Wards and Sears was not what you'd call a 'prestige store,' so you worked all the cosmetics. One day this salesman came in and said, 'I need to talk to you.' I thought I did something wrong. Then he says, 'I like the way you look. You wear your makeup well and your hair is very nice. We're bringing in a new line at the J.L. Hudson Company.'
Then my heart started to beat fast because that was a real prestigious department store. I was all excited about that because it was a new venture in my life, especially if I was making more money because that was shortly after I had my divorce and I was self-supporting. I started working for the L'Oreal Company at Hudson's in 1969. First they brought in the hair coloring and it was to be purchased over the counter with a consultant. I had to go to their schools and study hair, and then later cosmetics."
Why did you love working in cosmetics?
"I was very passionate about it. I like people and I enjoyed talking with the ladies. If I can help someone feel good about themselves then that was important to me. Even as a young girl, I loved cosmetics. I loved to go to the show, the movies that had technicolor, because you could see the makeup. Makeup brings out the features you have that's hidden without color.
It's really amazing what cosmetics can do. Some women have a lot of beauty but you don't see it because maybe they look washed out. No one is ugly, you have to bring out the beauty that they have, emphasize. Being a consultant you study your customer's face and know what to draw out and how and where to draw the line. Same with their personality, if they have a bold personality then you can recommend bolder things. I would never recommend bright colors to a shy person.
What do you think about beauty consultants nowadays?
"In the schools they also taught us how to apply the makeup. Some consultants that you go to don't bother, they don't want to spend the time with it. I had four stars on my badge and the reason was because I took the time. I had my files with each customer: what hair color they were and what they are now, and the makeup that they wear, perfume, etc. Then after a while I knew their name and I could say, 'Oh, you must be getting low on…' I think it's more emphasized about the money now than the service and being really concerned about your customer.
Every time a customer tinted their hair a different color I always asked them to come back because I'd like to see what it looks like. I told them if it doesn't look right, to bring back the box and we'd change it, free of charge. That only happened to me once. That's why I had a big clientele. If we ran specials I would look clients up in my files, and based on their coloring and preferences, I would call and tell them. Even if it was something that was in a different line and I wouldn't make commission from it, I would call them because I wanted them to know I cared."
What was your favorite thing to sell?
"Well, I like lipstick because your mouth moves and with the color it always makes your teeth look nice. But I also liked eye makeup because your eyes also move a lot. When you talk to someone they either look at your eyes or they look at your mouth.
I'm happy to see that the red lipstick is coming back. I have a nice tube and I do wear it. It's an old shade they've had for years--it's Revlon's Fire and Ice, number 720. I wore that when I was a teenager, they’ve brought it back. I also wear Revlon's 525 which is Wine and Everything, and their 423 which is Pink Velvet.
We also carried fragrances. They weren't necessarily by the companies we represented. The most expensive one we had was Joy. I couldn't stand the smell of that. It was very expensive, $175 for a small bottle. It was my least favorite thing to sell."
Tell me about some of your experiences with customers. Do you have any memorable moments?
"I remember I had a customer who had mousy brown hair and fair skin, she said her husband wasn't really paying attention to her anymore. She said she thought maybe she could come here and get help. So I talked her into a new hair color, I said, 'We'll mix these two shades and you'll come out with a beautiful dark blonde color.' I told her even if she wanted to come in with curlers on that I'd do her hair. She said she didn't really know how to do anything and I said, 'That's what I'm here for.'
She came in and I made her up. When I finished everything she said something like, 'I love it. I'm never going to wash my hair or face again!' I told her, 'Yes you will. Don't be afraid, that's your face. Now you just have to put the frame around it.' After, when she'd been coming to me for a few years, it seemed like she had a little more gumption or was more open--like she really became a new person--and that's what cosmetics can do for you. They can lift you up.
Do you have any other makeup tips?
"Use loose powder all over, lightly over your lips too, it helps to set everything. [Don't go] heavy with blush because it is what it should be 'a blush,' not red. Years ago they called it rouge for the simple reason that it was red, and they used to put it on with a little pad with a little puff and it would always be bright. Also, fluff up your hair or give it volume, because after all that's the crowning glory. When wearing lipstick, eat more with your teeth and not with your lips so it stays on longer. Also, drugstore lipsticks, I noticed they also sell them at Bed, Bath, and Beyond. I saved about three dollars or more on each color. Plus, those 20 percent off coupons that they have.
Always be gentle with your face, treat it tenderly. Use a cleanser not a soap. Soap will dehydrate your skin. Don't put really hot water on your face either because that will also dehydrate it. When applying anything to your face, motion upward and lightly tap. Any time you put anything around your eye, use your middle finger and not your pointer finger, because it has less pressure. I'm very conscious of pulling around my eyes. I don't mind everybody knowing I'm going to be 87 in a few weeks. I don't mind being old, but I don't want to look old, there's no need for it."
Good stuff, eh? I want to hear the best beauty wisdom you've learned from your aunt T's (whether they're great-aunts or grandmothers or just someone you hold close) in the comments.