Friday, 28 May 2010

Skool Visit: Christie Mellor

Welcome, Skoolkids. We have a big treat today: Miss Alexandra Oliver has invited Ms. Christie Mellor, author extraordinaire, to talk to us about her writing work in the realms of beauty and beyond. Notebooks at the ready!

interview by Miss Alexandra Oliver
bonus: book review by Miss Justine Brown

our esteemed guest

AO: Ms. Mellor, first of all I would like to welcome you to Beauty Skool. We're all tremendous fans of yours.

CM: Thank you, I am so honored and happy that Beauty Skool has invited me to gab about my new book. And just generally shoot my mouth off. Fire away.

get the book!

AO: Well, that book really is a humdinger. I have to hand it to you. Finally, a manual for the over-20 set that respects our uniqueness and inner quirkitude! I find a lot of beauty books for gals of our level of elegance and experience to be either of the "throw in the towel and wear neutrals" variety or of the "you go, girl!" fierce post-Sex and the City variety. This was a like a drink of cool water, I have to tell you. What first tipped you off that the world was in need of a book like this?

CM: Because I was in need of a book like this! Maybe it was one too many "I'm forty and FABULOUS!" magazine covers sporting those ferociously  toned, done-up women who all look like they're staring down middle age. They rarely look truly glamorous, and they often look like a caricature of "glamour," like they were dressed by a five-year old who dreams of being Miss America. When I wrote The Three-Martini Playdate, I had the same feeling about those mad parents... "If my child gets into the right preschool and is enrolled in nineteen enrichment classes, he'll end up at Harvard! Quickly! You must learn Mandarin!" I'm seeing the same kind of "I can FIX this" attitude with a lot of women, regarding their own aging selves. Also, I'm going through a number of changes myself, but I never seemed to see myself represented anywhere. And I knew that if I felt that way, then there had to be others. I think there are a lot of women out there who are edging toward that certain age, and they're not really sure exactly how to present themselves anymore... so they either recede into the background or they take a staunch stand against the inevitable with a barrage of injections and denial. But there's a lot of middle ground in there, don't you think?

AO: I definitely think so. The media is so youth-driven, and that creates a climate of uneasiness that's hard to ignore. And I think those extremes you speak of reek of that uneasiness, both the beige-and-elastic-waisted pants attitude and the hot, supercougar attitude. I think a lot of ladies are free and adventurous spirits and what makes them so, stylistically speaking, can be maintained in their lives as they press on into the more elegant years. My philosophy is this: one gets more confident about life, about love, about work and ideals and being a parent and all that. One gets a thicker skin and (hopefully) develops a sense of humor. Shouldn't that translate into maintaining one's personal style? Anyhow! I waffle! What has the response been to this book thus far, both amongst your friends and in the wider world?

CM: So far, the response has been overwhelmingly positive. (Other than the fact that there seem to be two camps when it comes to the "waxing" question.) But overall, I'd say the response could safely be called "enthusiastic." I especially love hearing things like "coffee came out of my nose," and "hilarious" from people who are not close friends or relatives. (The coffee in question was not scalding, by the way, and it apparently came out by way of an abrupt guffaw, in case you were worried.) So, yes, to all of the above. I hope my book will encourage more of the free and adventurous spirits to feel more free and adventurous. And to find and embrace our elegant maturity. But you're right... with a sense of humor. We mustn't lose that. And if we never had much of a sense of humor about ourselves, it's a perfect time to develop one.

By the way, did I mention how much I love "inner quirkitude?" Delightful. I wish that had been on the back cover.

AO: Why thank you! Neologisms are very handy! And coffee did, in fact, come out of my nose, too. Tell me, how did the research process for this book differ from, say, your research for the other books?

CM: I'm pretty sure the research for this book has been unconsciously going on for at least a few decades. The impetus to write it came more recently, but it may have started festering when I first noticed that various cosmetic procedures were no longer the purview of aging actresses-- it was trickling down to younger and younger actresses, then the female population in general. Until now it seems many women think nothing of rebuilding themselves from the ground up at the first sign of a laugh line. People's idea of "beauty" has gotten narrower and narrower, and I'm sad about that. Although there seems to be a little bit of a backlash. I love some of these big-girl models who are starting to show up on the pages of high-fashion magazines. Even if they are considered "plus size" at size 10 and 12! What a world. But back to your research question... the research for this book was the MOST fun kind of research. When I wasn't reaching back into my brain for stories, I was looking up bad plastic surgery on the Internet, ogling lipsticks and experimenting with homemade scrubs and face-masks. Whee! I've always envied those women whose jobs require them to endure countless facials and beauty treatments and massages, and then report their findings. How does one get a job like that?? I ask you. Sheer heaven.
AO: One thing that blew me out of the water about your book was the sheer volume of marvelous tips. I have personally been rejoicing in the olive oil and sugar face scrub recipe. Have you culled any fabulous beauty tips since the book's appearance that you wish you'd managed to shoehorn in?

CM: Strawberries! If you have any smooshed ones you won't be eating, mash them up with a little salt or sugar, maybe a drop or two of olive oil. There are a lot of good fruit exfoliants -- oranges, papaya. Maybe I could have stressed how easily you can incorporate some of these tips into your life. For instance, you're mashing avocados for a lovely party guacamole? Just scrape off a few teaspoons' worth of avocado and rub it all over your face. (In your hair, too, if you're planning on a pre-party shower.) Continue your party preparations with a green face, and simply remove with a warm washcloth before getting dressed for the evening. Oh! And for a great mask after cleansing, smash some banana in with a little honey and olive oil. It's messy, but so good for your skin. This one is best done while you're soaking in your bath of asses milk, or lying down in a bed of lavender flowers. It gets drippy. Yogurt and honey is a nice combination, too. I don't think I mentioned that one in the book. Did I? Maybe I did. Oh! Rub an orange slice on your face and neck, it's a fruit acid exfoliant. You know, I just had a thought--my sons like to eat seaweed, so we always have sheets of that toasted nori in the kitchen. I'm thinking that a sheet of seaweed, dampened and placed over the face might make a nice mask. Perhaps not the toasted kind. Hm, I'll get back to you on that.

AO:  Summer is almost upon us; we at the Beauty Skool are filling out report cards, cleaning off the desks, rolling up the maps of our glamour empire and generally preparing for the summer holidays. How does your beauty regime change in the summer? How can we all look resplendent at all those barbecues and garden parties and beach sing-a-longs?

CM: I don't think we want to be laden down with too too much makeup during the hotter months. And it's kind of nice going bare-faced. Within reason. You want your skin to look beautiful and glowing, so use whatever it is you like to even out your skin tone, but just use it in spots. Find a comfortable, cool summer shift. Wear a straw hat. Put your hair in braids, or slick it back into a bun. Try out some orange lipstick. It may look awful, but try it. And if it looks awful, just try a red that's brighter than what you're used to. Or fuchsia, it really looks better on than it does in the tube. Just for fun. Or a bronzing powder on your face paired with dark red lips. Or bare lips and lots of eyeliner. If it's muggy and hot where you live, you'll find you want less of everything on your face, but think gels and stains rather than heavy foundations and powders. I need a little powder on my shiny parts, but I don't want so much that a little shine can't show through. You want to see skin and a few freckles in the summer, I think.Big gold earrings, a straw hat and flip flops, a cotton shift. And a big, sunny, lazy smile. Now, go find a hammock and a good book. Maybe have a little nap before that big party. I hope I got an A in Beauty Skool! (goes out singing "Teacher's Pet... I wanna be teacher's pet...")

AO: Tan or no tan?

CM: Well, too much sun really does do terrible things to your skin. And there's something to be said for being the pale lily-skinned lovely with the wide-brimmed hat, parasol and gloves. I really try to avoid the sun -- although a little romping around in it should really be done more often by everyone. And (gasp!) without sunscreen. We're not getting enough vitamin D! Just don't lie down in it for hours on end. If you are going to be out in it for hours, wear a hat and protect your skin. I have a bathing suit with fabulous three-quarter sleeves and a zip down the front. It's from Australia, where they make fantastic sun-protection clothing, because they have a big hole in their ozone. I feel very Bond Girl in it, and it keeps my shoulders from getting sunburned. But I do like the look of a tan sometimes, so I like to find a nice bronzing powder. A little dusting of bronze with some nice dark red lips, there's a good look. You don't need to go for the whole orange-y faux-tan, please. There's a reason why faux tans usually look so faux. When a person actually gets "tan," it's a very painterly combination of colors (depending on what your skin type is, of course) -- but pinks, Indian reds, and various golds and bronzes are often involved. And the color is never distributed evenly. So the best plan for making your color look as natural as possible is to dust a little bronzing powder on the bridge of your nose, your cheeks, your forehead and chin, your collarbones. Maybe your shoulders. Don't go overboard, and let your skin show through. If you're an overly shiny person, as I am, I usually need to tamp down the excessive shine on my forehead, for fear of blinding passersby. But leave a little shine on your cheeks and a bit on your forehead, so you don't look too powdered. Mix a little blush with the bronzer dusted on your cheeks, and maybe a swipe on the bridge of your nose. You want to look as if you just ran down the beach. And then quickly went back under your big umbrella.

AO: All right, you have your tan (or not), your hat, your red lipstick, your amazing sundress. What sort of shindig do you like to throw at this time of the year? And what's the de rigeur drink of the season? I long, personally, for my father's Pimm's cup.

CM: I love to have small groups of friends over, rather than giant parties. Spontaneous get-togethers and last-minute gatherings are fun in the summer. Well, anytime, really, but in the summer the days are especially long and the working stiff might be more prone to extending the weekend, or having little cocktail parties, even on school nights. You can keep it really simple, food-wise, because generally people don't want big heavy meals on warm nights. I planted something like nine or ten different heirloom tomato plants this year, so theoretically I should be able to throw together a tomato salad in a pinch. And that would be dinner, with a crusty bread, olives, cheese. Just scour your local farmer's markets and get what's really fresh. I make a salad that everyone always oohs and aahs over, it's simply chunks of fresh orange and red onion tossed up with a little red wine vinegar, nice olive oil, some of those dry-cured Moroccan olives, salt & pepper... it's deeeelicious, and everyone always asks for the recipe. So easy. Ooh, I really need to try a Pimm's Cup, I've never had one. I will try it this summer, I promise. A gin & tonic screams "summer" to me. Okay, maybe it doesn't scream "summer," it sort of calls out lazily from the reclining lawn chair. I love a crisp gin & tonic when the weather changes and a martini just won't stay chilled on a warm evening. Garnished with lemon or lime, I'm not a stickler. And if you want to get fancy, there are some interesting tonics out there that are worth trying, ones that use actual sugar instead of corn syrup. They can be pricey, but fun for a splurge and very tasty. Mmm, what else... Campari & soda with a good squeeze of fresh orange, very refreshing on a summer night. There's this old Italian red vermouth I'm in love with, Carpano Antica. Yum. Pour it over ice, garnish with a slice of orange. Adjust the brim of your stylish hat. Sip. It's one of those bitter-ish, off-sweet tastes. So good. I sometimes make a martini with gin and Antica, with a twist. You'll really have to come over and try one. OH, by the way, I DID get an orangey lipstick the other day, never thought I would in a million years. But I took my own advice. Plus, being very budget-minded I took in six empty MAC lipstick tubes, which--if you don't know this, you should--MAC recycles, and they give you a free lipstick for every six empties. SO, since it was free, I went out on a limb and got this very bright orange-y color, "So Chaud." Paired with their "Redd" lip liner, it's really smashing. It also looks great topping off other reds and browns, to brighten them up for the summer. The other day I wore it to an afternoon party and felt just like Grace Kelly in my pale aqua cocktail dress and sandals, if not quite as svelte.

AO: Enough said! I hereby declare this summer open! (Cuts ribbon, smashes champagne bottle.) And thank you, Ms. Mellor! You're welcome at Beauty Skool any old time!

book review by Miss Justine Brown
As I was reading Christie Mellor's delightful new book, You Look Fine, Really (HarperCollins), I stumbled across a sympathetic reference to Birkenstocks. Uh-oh. Now, Birkenstocks are the subject of one of my trademarked rants. I'll try to control myself here. To those of you who say "but they're so comfortable!" I have four words : they had better be. Matters between me and Those Sandals grew worse when my college boyfriend effected what you might call a Breakup Through Birkenstock. This boyfriend was familiar, doubtless too familiar, with Miss Brown's Birkenstock rant. So I knew it was no accident when one spring day he came home resplendent in shorts and a brand new pair of 'stocks. This was not a man who liked to buy shoes, especially $100 pairs of German sandals. It was okay though, he assured me. The shoes were so well built that he could wear them for the rest of his life. He fixed me with a meaningful glare and walked away, footgear flapping. For all I know, he is wearing them today. In the 'stocks. With socks.

Christie Mellor and I may never see eye to eye on this explosive subject. But that's all right, because we're in full agreement upon pretty much everything else. You Look Fine, Really offers big laughs and beauty advice-- not something we often get paired in women's magazines, for example. Actually, it offers big laughs as beauty advice. And, reminding us that beauty is just one part of the picture, Ms. Mellor turns to other crucial topics as well, such as cooking, parties, and play. I knew I had found a kindred spirit for sure when I came upon, reproduced in the book, the classic pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey set (mask included) that still hangs upon my wall.
"I say it's high time we do less, but with more style, " Mellor declares. She encourages us to abandon the dead-serious, frantic fight against time and pursuit of perfection so typical of our era. Instead we should find our essential style recipes and have fun doing it, never forgetting to consult our friends.
Many Skoolkids will know that I like to play Desert Island Essentials. What five beauty products would you want in your kit on Gilligan's Island? Number One on Mellor's list has got to be red lipstick. Now these red lipstick ladies are lucky, because to wear it well is to look totally pulled together. A slash of red lipstick makes a woman look properly made up. It even makes her look coiffed and dressed. Red lipstick is like an entire outfit-- it creates that much impact. Though I'm not sure it could compensate for total nudity on a supermarket run, say.

We get the lowdown on the author's wide collection of red lipsticks and a list of the best ones-- Mac always please the crimson lipstick crowd, but Mellor gives us some rarer examples too. Her collection makes me feel better about my own drawer full of nude lipsticks. For although I heartily endorse the red in principle-- if you're one of the lucky ladies who can wear red lipstick, you will look like a star from the golden age of Hollywood-- unfortunately, I've never found one that didn't make me look like a Russian doll, and thus my makeup and fashion routine is horribly complex. I think my red lipstick syndrome is a rare one, however. Be like Ms. Mellor-- try lots of different shades.They say there's a red for everyone.
Miss Brown at left, directly after applying red lipstick. Cute in principle, yes...

Another strong point is the way this book takes on the exercise riddle. If you're like me, going to the gym makes you feel like a hamster on its wheel or the subject-- horrors-- of an anatomy class, all reduced to bits. Work out this cut of meat, work out that cut of meat. It's unseemly. And then there are the strange outfits one encounters (if you are stuck with the gym, however, look on it as a chance to develop your superhero persona. Choose a name, such as Workout Woman. Develop a logo and affix it to you chest. Wear a mask and cape!). Mellor for her part urges us to find some reward in exercise by choosing something truly fun. And by, as she puts it, what our forebears would call "living"-- climbing stairs, going for walks instead of driving, and so on; incorporating exercise into our lives instead of sectioning off a part of the day for something we hate. 

Several Beauty Skoolers have found an answer to the exercise riddle has come in the  divine form of Argentine tango. No, you don't have to march around with a rose in your teeth. Unless you insist. The more authentic form of tango is sinuous and smooth. Men are men and women can star in their own romantic movie. No dress, no gesture is too extravagant. Where else is it normal to wave fans between dances and whisper behind them on the sidelines like characters out of Dangerous Liaisons? Tango is something you can practice occasionally, taking the odd class and attending the occasional ball (yes, ball)-- or you can become an obsessive, spend outrageous amounts on the world's best-looking shoes, move to Buenos Aires, and open a hotel for fellow dance pilgrims. Intriguingly, Argentine tango has experienced a resurgence in the last fifteen years, and every city in the world seems to boast an active tango scene. (But I digress. This topic deserves a post of its own, clearly.)

Mellor's writing has that quality that for Martin Amis defines good style: it joins in the war against cliche. She likes to take a familiar expression and then turn it on its head. For example, discussing wrinkles, Ms. Mellor writes: "Of course I adore those little crinkles in the corners of my eyes. I've earned those delightful little laugh lines. I did not, however, earn those lines that seem to be forming around the sides of my mouth, no idea where they came from." The book itself is a useful reference guide, teeming as it is with handy hints and techniques, such as facial massage and homemade cosmetics. There is some very sound advice on organizing parties and generally creating a festive atmosphere on the fly. There are survival tips-- real survival tips, such as how to make a compass by floating a needle on a leaf. This book is much more than just a pretty face: it's a pretty face with Girl Guide skills, recipes and charm galore. Class, Miss Brown has added "You Look Fine, Really" to the Skool curriculum. And yes, this will be on the final exam.

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