At 18, I was in a car accident that crushed my face and knocked out most of my teeth. People told me I was lucky to be alive, but what I mostly felt was ugly. At night, after my family stopped tutting at my side and begging me to suck soup through the hole where my teeth used to be, I assessed the face in my bedroom mirror like I would a stranger’s. My head was a lumpy moon, the sallow color of congealed butter, gashed with stitches around the eyes and mouth; my left eye was loose and crazed looking, rolling in its crushed socket. When I pulled my lips back, I could see my tongue resting in the pit of my mouth through the gap where teeth used to be.
As a child and in high school, I’d won awards for my beauty — never for my personality, and certainly not for my apathetic performance in school, where no one handed out prizes for napping in the back. I mourned the loss of my face like I would a loved one. As my friends went off to college, I became the Emily Dickinson of Old Palmetto Road, hiding when the doorbell rang to peer through a back window until my visitor gave up and went away, staying up all night to bake strawberry cakes for my parents or draw myself from old baby pictures in notebooks. I looked the same at 18 years as I had at 18 months, toothless and fat-faced.
After I got a new cheek made of metal and silicone and a row of large, white false teeth, I still didn’t look like myself, but I did look more like a person and less like a patient. I still wasn’t ready for my small town to see me. “Why don’t you go somewhere?” my father asked, slipping me the keys to my long-parked car as if he were offering me a bribe. It wasn’t a request. I drove around the block a dozen times and told him I’d been to Dairy Queen.
During the months I was healing and then the weeks I hid in my room, shy of my prosthetic face and terrified of pity, books kept me company — namely, the Kevyn Aucoin makeup tutorials Making Faces and Face Forward. Like me, Aucoin was a Louisiana native from some tacky backwater, and on Oprah he was humble and funny but surrounded by famous friends. That was the life I’d dreamed of for myself when I was sleeping through geometry: something sunny and Pacific, full of beauty and soft edges.
In those books, Aucoin used makeup to reshape the faces of celebrities, and sometimes even regular people, into old Hollywood movie stars. Like water into wine, he turned Gwyneth Paltrow into James Dean and a male acquaintance from a dinner party into Linda Evangelista. I studied those images alone on my childhood bed in the middle of the night, hungrily tracing the contours of famous cheeks with the ridge of my nail, open compact ready beside me.
I read those books so obsessively that the directions for beating my face took on the shine of gospel. On the back cover, Aucoin’s sweet, pretty face looked less like a celebrity and more like a savior: St. Kevyn of the Perfectly Arched Eyebrow could make a starlet into a man, a man into a supermodel. Here was the man who could teach me not just to look human, but to look beautiful.
I was filled with the hope of the newly converted, rapturous at the idea that my own face was as malleable as it had been when it shattered. My lumpy cheeks and the scars through my eyebrows, even the ragged left side of my upper lip where my teeth had torn through as they made their dramatic exit, could be painted over in someone else’s image. My face was as blank as a piece of drawing paper, and alone in my room, I drew what I wanted.
Back then, there were no such things as contouring kits or highlighting powders. At least not in Benton, Louisiana. I used brown eyeliner blended with a stiff paintbrush to draw on Faye Dunaway’s sharp cheekbones. I mixed white eyeshadow with loose glitter to recreate Ann-Margret by way of Nicole Kidman’s soft pink pout. During the day, I blended a complicated concoction of brown blush and dark concealer coupled with pink blush and golden bronzer to trick everyone into thinking I’d healed.
In Louisiana it’s not uncommon to wear this much makeup on a daily basis; in fact, it’s more odd to go barefaced. “You look great,” I was told over and over. Each time I heard it, I worried my false teeth with my tongue, the ceramic taste a reminder that underneath the illusion, I was still broken.
When I finally got to college I became a minor saint myself, someone who knew how to heal insecurities by contrasting light and dark. Girls lined up in my room, waiting their turn for cat eyes, higher cheekbones, a stronger chin, a smaller nose. Brown eyeliner in one hand, paintbrush in the other, I knew how to give them what they wanted.
But as I got older, I became comfortable with the face I had, gradually losing layer after layer, until sometimes I showed my naked face in public without worrying if anyone could see it was broken. As I stopped worrying about being pretty, I became obsessed with getting smart, collecting letters behind my name and reading books with no pictures. A few years ago, I looked for those old makeup books, but I must have lost the gospels of St. Kevyn somewhere between one ivory tower and another.
My contouring skills became a party trick. Throughout grad school, I’d inevitably lead some girl into the bathroom after a third vodka soda, and she’d come out a completely different person. “Do me,” the other women would demand. Soon a line would form, and I’d enjoy it. I contoured cleavage for special occasions, mostly weddings and divorces, and once raffled off a makeup session in a charity auction. It only made 20 dollars, but I had fun with my brushes and eyeliner for a couple of hours, just like the old days.
A few years ago, seemingly overnight, the Kardashians made contouring A Thing. Suddenly, techniques mostly left to professionals and performers were now de rigueur for an everyday face. Instagram, YouTube, and the aisles of Sephora were full of tips for any willing woman or man to brush and blend their way to a brand new bone structure. But the mainstreaming of contour wasn’t as exciting for me as it would have been a decade before. I bought a nice kit and better brushes, but still relegated them to special occasions. I could no longer reach the levels of religious ecstasy that had kept me up all night as a teenager, performing beauty for myself in an empty bedroom.
Then I got cancer, and that became my Thing. I was the girl with the double mastectomy, the only young woman at chemo, the terrified person whose pubes fell out in a giant clump one day. Then the hair at the front of her head, then from her eyebrows, arms, armpits, legs, until she was once again an adult baby, ruddy and round, hairless, sexless, and often crying.
I came back to St. Kevyn in my hour of need, suddenly finding the canon packed with new idols: Anastasia, Kat, Laura, Jeffery, and of course, Our Holy Mother Of Light, RuPaul. I’d watched Drag Race for six years, but now I watched it like a congregant, with Instagram profiles and YouTube tutorials in browser tabs, like open Bibles, in the background. Kits, palettes, powders, and brushes arrived in little boxes outside my apartment door. “What is all this?” my partner asked. “Just makeup,” I said.
It was a lifeline. Giant Joan Crawford brows got me through the day when a bad reaction to some immune-boosting medicine left me in too much pain to sit or stand or lie down, so I crouched in a hallway, whispering “Please, please,” to no one. Or maybe it was to Ru. Or to Joan.
As my white blood cell count fell and the risk of infection increased, my doctor told me to stop eating raw fruit and riding the subway. Eventually, the constant fevers and body pain from fighting off other people’s germs became so overwhelming that the outside world didn’t seem worth it. Waking and baking with Ben Nye Super White Translucent Face Powder gave me something to do, even if a few hours later my pretty highlighter was streaked with tears as I sat in the window, an older Emily Dickinson now, watching life in Brooklyn swirl below without me.
I drew teeny-tiny 1990s Drew Barrymore eyebrows sometimes in the empty spaces where my own eyebrows had been just a month before, heedless of the current Delevingne fashion. Who would see, anyway? I drew giant Detox-style lips and filled them in with blue liquid eye shadow to look like I was drowning, but in a sexy way. I ringed my eyes with iridescent highlighter, dusting it back to my cheekbones like the pretty boys on Instagram did; I drew big black cat eyes with razor sharp tips. On the TV, I listened to Drag Race as I painted; Phi Phi O’Hara told Sharon Needles to go back to Party City where she belonged. “I like Party City,” I chanted with Sharon in response.
“Can you tell I’m not a man?” I texted my best friend, who was himself bingeing on Drag Race across the country, and attached a picture of two hours of my hard work. “You are at least as good a female impersonator as Kylie Jenner,” he lied.
“Is this how girls do their hair?” he asked, beneath a picture of his new wig. Behind the blonde wig in the foreground, his TV screen glowed with the image of the pink Drag Race workroom, full of men in sequins, false hair, fringed black lashes: the sacraments of beauty. “Yes,” I lied. On my own screen, Jinkx Monsoon promised that hardship was as fleeting as water off a duck’s back.
I leave the house now under cover of knit caps, pulled down over my forehead in a way that best showcases my artfully drawn eyebrows: some days Crawford caterpillars, other days Barrymore commas. The first Drag Race All Stars winner and my favorite queen of all time, Chad Michaels, named day drag as one of his least favorite things, right after sports, and he’s right. The queens do look odd in daytime, the light and shadow of their artful trickery easier to spot in the unmuted sun. My cancer drag doesn’t hold up well in the daytime, either.
At night, my eyebrows look like they might be a choice. The hollows I’ve stenciled beneath my cheekbones and the highlights I’ve painted above them could maybe make it seem like I’m a wannabe Kardashian, just following the fashion. Even the silk headscarf tied at the shoulder and flowing like a colorful ponytail could be a wink to Little Edie, by way of Jinkx Monsoon. In the day, it’s easier to see what I really am: just someone who’s been sick for a long time.
But even if my idols are false ones — men lovingly shrouded in female beauty, or celebrities painstakingly painted to look like icons — at least the illusion covers me. The makeup grants me sanctuary until I’m ready to reveal myself again.
Emily Alford is a writer living in Brooklyn. She recently completed her first novel, Bless the Girls.
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