Counter Intelligence


Ever wonder about the skills of the makeup artists behind the counters at local malls? We did, so we sent our writer undercover to find out. Here’s her report.

I love makeup&emdash;so much so that I sometimes think I may be single-handedly responsible for keeping Sephora in business. The only thing I love more than makeup is being pampered. So imagine my elation when I was recruited to undergo five makeovers at cosmetic counters in area malls.

I went undercover, telling no one that I was there on a mission: to test the makeup artists behind the counters. Do they really know what they’re doing, or are they just salespeople, eager to make a buck? In the process, I hoped to learn a few trade secrets that would improve my morning swipe-and-go routine.

My challenge was to escape with my budget&emdash;and dignity&emdash;intact. Although I braced myself for the hard sell, it was a great relief when I didn’t have to clutch my wallet and back quickly away from the counter, saying I’d be right back to buy more.

It turns out that not all makeup artists are created equal: Some were born to hype, others born to swipe.
What follows are some counterintuitive observations.

• Urban Decay, Sephora at Arden Fair


I’m going to a new club in San Francisco and I want to look glam.
Fee: Free; no appointment necessary
Ambiance: Laid-back and personal; other Sephora employees stopped by to give my makeup artist, Jenny, enthusiastic feedback. It was also highly hygienic: Jenny liberally spritzed the products and applicators with alcohol before each use.
Overall: Rather than a total makeover, Jenny gave me what Sephora calls a makeup consultation: She made up half my face and led me through the process on the other side. While her tutelage was thorough, I found it easier to let her do her thing than to try to memorize the steps. Afterward, she wrote everything down on a diagram of a face, so I now have a guide the next time I want to glam up and go out.
Artist’s tip to try: Apply darkeye shadow only up to the crease; any higher and, as Jenny put it, you’ll look like someone gave you a black eye.
I might actually purchase: Urban Decay Eye Shadow in Vapor, $15.

• Bare Escentuals, Galleria at Roseville


I need to look natural but sharp for my job.
Fee: Free; no appointment necessary
Ambiance: Casually professional. Hip young things and suburban moms shared space at the large center counter where I was being made over. There were more employees than customers, so the atmosphere didn’t feel frantic&emdash;and there was no hard selling to be seen.
Overall: My makeup artist, Gina, though not one for offering much explanation, clearly knew how to wield a blush brush. She gave me a look that was certainly sharp, but less natural than natural: Layer upon layer of, in order, perfecting, warming and blushing powders gave me a distinctly smoother complexion. Because all Bare Escentuals makeup is made from naturally oil-free minerals, I didn’t feel I had to run home and wash my face.
I might actually purchase: Bare Escentuals Lipstick in Wearable Nude, $15.


• M.A.C., Nordstrom at Arden Fair


I’m going to a black-tie event and I want drama.
Fee: Free; appointment required
Ambiance: Bustling and accommodating. I had the catbird seat to observe gangly teenagers and gaggles of their comrades playing with products. Because two makeup artists were sharing a workstation, I was privy to the entire health and romantic history of the woman sitting next to me.
Overall: My gal, Heather, was a true artist. She left the chitchat to her colleagues and devoted herself to the perfect blending of my makeup. She even replicated her instructions, complete with drawings, on a paper slip that listed each product and its placement to send home with me. Not that I’ll ever be able to make it look that good again.
Artist’s tip to try: Apply moisturizer to the eyelid before using eye shadow for a smoother effect.
I might actually purchase: I did buy the concealer (Select Moisturecover in NW20, $15) and might go back for the Eye Kohl in Smolder, $13.50.

• Chanel, Macy’s at Downtown Plaza


I’m a bridesmaid in my cousin’s wedding and I need to look elegant and fresh.
Fee: Two-product-minimum purchase; appointment suggested
Ambiance: Harried and businesslike. It took my makeup artist, Linda, quite a while to begin the process, as she was the only one working her counter and was interrupted a few times to help other customers. Once there was a lull in the foot traffic, however, she was all-eyes-on-me.
Overall: Linda really knew how to hawk her wares. I was less a palette to play with than a target for the entire line of skin care, cosmetics and tools. Though I liked the results&emdash;I wished I did have a wedding to attend&emdash;the hard sell was enough to deter my repeat business. And she was mid-application before she bothered to warn me about the minimum purchase: I didn’t want to mention it on the phone, she said. Probably because I wouldn’t have chosen Chanel if I’d known.
Artist’s tip to try: When applying face powder, pat rather than rub it onto the skin to produce a softer finish.
I might actually purchase: Because I was required to buy two things, I went with the cheapest of the bunch: Automatic Liquid Eyeliner in Brown, $30, and Precision Lip Definer in Nude, $27.50.

• Clinique, Macy’s at Downtown Plaza


I need a new look for every day.
Fee: Free; appointment required
Ambiance: Friendly and hip. My makeup artist, Monica, was new to the job, so she kept up a dialogue with co-worker Jill as she mastered the process. Even though I was seated in the aisle between counters, I didn’t feel uncomfortable.
Overall: Monica clearly loved makeup and was equal parts salesgirl and artist. She made sure I was satisfied with the foundation’s coverage before moving on and asked for my input every step of the way. And though she didn’t push the products too hard, she didn’t neglect to mention which were her favorites from the line. I walked away feeling beautified and guilt-free. However, a word to the wise: If you go during a Macy’s credit card blitz, be prepared to either sign up for a card&emdash;and get 15 percent off!&emdash;or practice your decline-and-smile routine. You’ll need it.
Artist’s tip to try: Apply lip balm before lipstick and the color won’t stick to fine lines and dry skin.
I might actually purchase: All About Lips, $20.