J.Lo’s hair grazed my face once. It happened at a press event celebrating the superstar’s first foray into cosmetics, a collaboration with the Polish beauty line Inglot. As I stood in the corner of the room, watching J.Lo sway to a Migos song, I could suddenly feel her honey-blonde, Rapunzel-length strands brush against my cheek. It felt as soft as seeds blowing off a dandelion.
For the length of exactly one rap chorus, I had been this close to J.Lo. “You basically are J.Lo now,” a colleague joked to me at the time. But the next morning, I woke up with a friendly new pimple and a text from my boss reminding me to bring in her Starbucks order, both brusquely reminding me that I was decidedly not J.Lo.
These days, I have zero illusions about how far I am from J.Lo. She is currently on vacation somewhere tropical. Instagram snapshots showing her frolicking on the beach document just how physically and mentally removed she is from our imploding country.
As she models a Dior bucket hat and monogrammed Versace robe, I am like the rest of us—equal parts disgusted and afraid, fearfully peering out at CNN from underneath a ratty turtleneck.
This month saw the birth of the appropriately-titled J.Lo Beauty, and there would be no better name for the products. We all know the 51-year-old as eternally youthful, radiating a sun-kissed “glow” from her pore-less, ageless face.
Despite such mind-boggling genes, J.Lo touts a come-as-you-are sensibility when it comes to her brand. “It’s about being powerful and understanding beauty really doesn’t have an expiration date,” she said in a promotional video.
True enough, though I have never felt less motivation to look “beautiful” for a society in the midst of near-total collapse. What occasions do I have to dress up for? Unlike J.Lo, I have no plans to romp on the beach, especially while coronavirus death tolls are higher than ever.
I have not worn makeup since the last time I went to an office on March 16. I have found other ways to feel pretty that do not involve anyone else’s gaze but mine.
Earlier this week, I spent an hour crafting a one-shouldered cocktail dress using only my shower towel. As I sit at home and type this, my hair is in oversized curlers. I am not trying to style anything, rather I just want to feel like an elegant, if depressed, housewife from the 1950s who has ample access to the dankest benzos.
Feeling beautiful during the pandemic, for me, is an exercise in control. I do exactly what I want to with my body minute by minute, rather than the old ways of hurriedly swiping on lipstick and blush for 15 frantic minutes before leaving the house each morning. Some days I think: screw it, let me get a mullet and an undercut, my femininity is a performance. Other days I wish to possess the ab crack and perky Australian accent of a fitness influencer.
The night before a mob stormed the Capitol and my group chat of college friends became full of breaking news updates, I asked what made those girls feel “beautiful.” I put that word in quotation marks. My friends continued to use quotes while talking about “beauty,” as if that concept was an abstract. Right now, for so many, it is something that feels unreachable.
“I am having a very hard time feeling myself,” my best friend from college said. She thought for a few minutes, and then added, “But sometimes I will flex my bicep and that makes me feel a little ‘beautiful.’”
Feeling secure in one’s own beauty is somewhat antithetical to the whole point of celebrity makeup lines. These companies, like all businesses, rely on a consumer’s insecurity to sell product.
The idea began in 1929, at the dawn of the star system, when Lux Soaps used the jazz age sex symbol Louise Brooks to hawk its hygiene products.
“96 percent of the lovely complexions you see on the screen are cared for by Lux Toilet Soap,” read ad copy flanked by glamour shots of stars like Clara Bow, Joan Crawford, and Bebe Daniels. Later, Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn, and Natalie Wood would join in the endorsement party.
The lure of the celebrity makeup line used to be who it could make you look like. Trends came from the top down, often oppressively so. Beauty was something to attain, to buy, only inherently possessed by a few genetically-blessed, almost-always white women.
The pitch banked on the idea that women would want to carry a little bit of their favorite star in their purse, or place a skosh of richness on the top of their dresser.
Now, celebrity makeup lines walk a dizzying tight rope. As people continue to challenge these imposed aesthetics on social media, stars attempting to cash in on the $500 billion beauty market face an entirely un-pitiable dilemma. How do they make us feel good about ourselves while also using their star power to induce envy, and implore us to make them richer?
Plenty of celebrities style themselves as regular old fans of makeup, not exactly experts, but aficionados happy to join the ride alongside their “community” of fans.
For instance, this week Halsey announced “about face,” her upcoming makeup line, on Instagram. “Many of you may already know that I have done my own makeup for concerts, red carpets, magazine covers, and music videos alike for a long time,” she wrote. “It is one of my greatest loves, but I have always stood by the firm belief that makeup is about feeling cool—not looking perfect.”
Lady Gaga’s Haus Laboratories, posed as an edgy line for modern-day club kids who want a “Four-Way Shadow Palette” or lip liner dubbed “RIP,” is the product of an extremely bourgeois deal with Amazon. The brand’s tagline: “We believe beauty is how you see yourself. Be kind to yourself + others.”
Selena Gomez released Rare Beauty last year, with product titles like “Stay Vulnerable.” The singer told Vogue, “Everything that we do encourages you to wear makeup however you want while letting your uniqueness shine through.”
And then there is Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty empire, valued at $3 billion, an all-out success due to its socially driven mission. Launched in 2017, the line featured 40 shades of foundation, with an emphasis on providing coverage for darker skin tones often ignored by mainstream brands. It kicked off a groundswell of support for representation in the makeup industry—and no doubt inspired other celebrities to think they should venture into the beauty biz, too.
So it was just a matter of time for J.Lo to join in. J.Lo bottling up her “glow,” according to Allure, is “basically like Mister Rogers coming out with a collection of red cardigans.”
Representatives for the brand would not reveal to WWD any sales estimates, but the trade publication reports that “industry sources expect the brand to do as much as $150 million at retail in North America in 2021.”
It is an odd time to convince people to spend money on beauty products. Reports by The NPD Group, a market research company, found that “the overall makeup market lost about one-third of its sales volume year-to-date through October 2020.”
But 22 percent of women actually changed their skincare routine, using more products and applying them frequently. Being stuck at home with nothing to do but rub goop on your face will do that to you. This bodes well for J.Lo, off on her private beach.
The website of J.Lo Beauty now warns potential customers, “Due to overwhelming demand, please allow extra time for shipping.”
I wish J.Lo, and her baby-soft hair, all the luck in the world with this new endeavor, though she hardly needs it from me. In the meantime, I will be at home studying my naked face, eagerly awaiting a future worth looking beautiful for.