How My First Red Lipsticks Shaped My Life

When I wore my signature Clinique and MAC shades, I knew that I had everything I needed to do what my heart was telling me to do.
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When I wore my signature Clinique and MAC shades, I knew that I had everything I needed to do what my heart was telling me to do.

When I turned 28 in November, I was applying my lipstick as usual when I stopped and looked in the mirror for a second. I realized, lipstick halfway up to my mouth, that I’ve been wearing my signature shade of red for 14 years. 

FOURTEEN YEARS. 

That’s a really, really long time to be devoted to one color. 

I’ll never forget my first red lipstick. I still have it in a keepsake box at my parents’ farm, and I’ll never get rid of it. Even though I have an entire drawer full of red lipsticks, Clinique’s Deep Lacquer in its trademark silver tube (ribbed for your pleasure!) will always have a very special place in my heart.

I was 14 years old the summer I bought Deep Lacquer. I’d spent most of my days checking out piles of classic Hollywood biographies from the library and reading them while floating in our above-ground pool.

Teenage me (age 16) and BFFs at a dance. Lips by Clinique. Miniskirt by American Eagle.

Teenage me (age 16) and BFFs at a dance. Lips by Clinique. Miniskirt by American Eagle.

I grew up on a farm near a really, really small town. My graduating class was 13 students, and most of them had been my classmates since kindergarten. It had its pluses, and most of my school years were pretty fun; several of my childhood friends are my lifelong BFFs even though we’re split between Minnesota and Los Angeles. But I knew quite early on that I didn’t really fit in. I was a dreamy child who buried myself in books from a really young age, and what I found in those pages told me that there was a big, complicated, glittering world outside of what Climax, Minnesota had to offer.

In high school, I felt suffocated. There were no AP classes or more challenging courses for a girl who’d been reading and writing since she was tiny, and I spent a lot of time in my English classes writing poems and moping while staring out the window. I couldn’t wait to get out. This wasn’t where I was meant to be, and sometimes I felt like nobody around me understood my need to leave. I wanted to write, and I wanted to lead an exciting life in a city and surround myself with beautiful things.

Enter the red lipstick. Those Hollywood books made me long for glamour, for a fantasy life I wasn’t currently living. The closest thing we had to fashion was American Eagle, so I lost myself in Jean Harlow, in Marilyn Monroe, in Joan Crawford and Norma Shearer. I wanted to be them, to wear the slinky dresses, curl my hair and slick on red lipstick. So I did what any farm-bound 14-year-old would do in a world before online shopping and I made my mom drive me into Grand Forks to the Clinique counter.

The girl in the white coat gently suggested I try a red gloss first, but I was adamant. I wanted a red lipstick, and I got one: Long Last Soft Shine Lipstick in Deep Lacquer. It was a dark, true red, now discontinued. It was precious to me. As soon as I applied it, I felt different. I felt like the woman I knew I was going to be.

I wore Deep Lacquer constantly for most of my high school years; today, I envy those high school girls who can just put on red lipstick and no one looks at them funny, because they sure did to me. I didn’t really care, though. This was my truest self, and I was gonna wear it to algebra.

Senior year, my class saved up our pennies and took a trip to Minneapolis. (A whopping five hours away!) We got to spend a few hours at the giant, mythical Mall of America (where I’d later end up working for a year) and where did I go first? MAC, of course. 

My classmates were off riding rides and visiting the novelty shops, but I had to see all the beauty products I’d been missing at home. (Clinique was about as fancy as we got.) There, I requested a new red lipstick from the makeup artist and chose MAC Red

18-year-old me in MAC Red (with '06 lip gloss on top, of course) with two of my high school kindred spirits, Brittany and Ali. Still a crew in 2016.

18-year-old me in MAC Red (with '06 lip gloss on top, of course) with two of my high school kindred spirits, Brittany and Ali. Still a crew in 2016.

The bright, retro blue-red cream lipstick was everything I had been looking for — a companion to my more dramatic and beloved Deep Lacquer. (It's currently a tiny stub of color in a precious spot on my dresser.)

Red lipstick wasn’t the key to my entire adolescence and self-discovery, but it was a really, really big part. When I wore it, I knew that I had everything I needed to do something wonderful with my life. It gave me the guts to move to Minneapolis for college not knowing a soul, because that’s what my heart was telling me to do. 

It made me feel like my most beautiful, smart and resourceful self. All those glamorous starlets in their red lipsticks were there to root for me whenever I had my red lipstick on.

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In my beloved MAC Red.

Red lipstick has been with me through the most important parts of my life, from my first sad, lost days of college to drunken frat parties to making a home with my four best friends junior year. I took it with me when I saw New York City for the first time, and I felt teenage Kara’s heart beating with delight as soon as I stepped off the plane and into Barney’s. 

It saw me through my first truly terrible heartbreak, helped me land my current job with a brand I adore, made me recognizable, and helped me figure out just who I am: a writer with an exciting life in a city, surrounded by beautiful things. Including approximately 50 red lipsticks.

Current-day photo by my BFF, Amy Gee.