My Makeup Journey

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My makeup journey begins in primary school with a bid to cover acne and overcome self-consciousness. It eventually becomes a favourite form of Gothic self-expression, later takes a detour via vintage glamour, and currently resides at a playful hybrid…


Today, I am a makeup enthusiast, but as many of you can likely relate, I’ve had a shifting relationship with makeup across different life stages. At one time it was a crutch to help me have the confidence to literally leave the house.  Thankfully, I’ve since been able to embrace its creative potential and now have so much fun exploring different looks associated with my varied passions: from alternative cultures to the vintage swing dancing scene!


My classic vintage-style makeup for swing dancing


I enjoy the process of applying makeup and find it almost like a moving meditation…

I value makeup as an outlet for my “arty” side. I used to paint a draw a lot as a child and I see applying makeup as a pretty literal equivalent, just with different paints and my face as the canvas! I enjoy the process of applying makeup and find it almost like a moving meditation: it’s necessary to have a steady hand and calm breathing to apply liquid eyeliner, so life stresses have to be put, temporarily, aside. I also see it very much as part of a night out or a podium dancing shift because of the transformation involved. Yes, I certainly could go out without this makeup, but I love spending this time getting centred and in the mood for what’s to come.


Thinking back through various makeup phases in my life, certain looks, influences, and iconic products have defined these eras. This piece outlines the journey and features lots of photos (including some from the early 00s- eek!!) along the way…


Makeup origins: working through acne


It all started with liberal amounts of concealer to cover angry red spots. I had cystic acne from the age of about 9. I don’t remember exactly why I thought that my spots were “bad” and felt they needed to be covered (and I certainly don’t feel that way now), but that was my first motivation for wearing makeup. Perhaps it was through the beauty features in magazines that my little friends and I were getting into, and I think my first concealer was probably a free gift with one of these publications. It was likely not a great colour match (!), but I wore it most days and it helped me feel less self-conscious.


There were some more fun aspects though: another defining product of 90s makeup was metallic and glitter nail polish! I was obsessed with this and would often spend my pocket money on a new bottle from Miss Selfridge and wear it whenever we had a school disco or in the holidays- living my best Spice Girls fantasy!


90s inspired glitter nails- recreated in 2021!


It felt like one of the best days of my life when my Mum took me to the posh ladies at the Clarins counter…

By secondary school, things had grown worse with the skin situation, so I moved on to using a full-coverage foundation. It felt like one of the best days of my life when my Mum took me to the posh ladies at the Clarins counter to be matched for a block of heavy cream foundation in a chunky gold compact. This was also my gateway into other products as it created essentially a blank canvas that required definition adding back in! I started regularly using eyeshadow to achieve this; usually, a reddish-toned brown which complimented my grey-blue eyes. Then the appeal of 90s metallic kicked in and I added a purple shimmery gell eyeshadow on the lid and a darker shade in the crease- not necessarily “classy” but I loved it!


It soon became clear that layering on the foundation wasn’t enough and I needed to get some help with my skin to avoid the risk of permanent scarring. I had been on medication to treat my acne from the age of about 11.  My GP put me on a series of antibiotics that I hopelessly cycled through every 3-4 months, but none of them worked. So my amazing Mum helped me get referred to a dermatologist.  


By this point, I was 13 years old and didn’t leave the house without makeup on…

I remember very clearly my first visit to Mr Munster (yes, really!), the consultant dermatologist at the hospital. By this point, I was 13 years old and didn’t leave the house without makeup on. For the appointment though, I had to remove my makeup so the doctor could see my skin properly. I was extremely resistant to this, but my Mum reassured me that no one I knew would see me and I could put it back on after the consultation for our walk back to the car… Because life is cruel (but also hilarious in retrospect!), we entered the waiting room and I sat down directly opposite a boy from my English class!! 


Despite my teenage mortification, the appointment went really well. I was prescribed the infamous, Roaccutane (Isotretinoin), for 6 months and a further 3 months on a higher dose. This is a strong medication with uncomfortable side effects like extremely dry skin (particularly on the lips), and more serious and rarer ones like impairment to liver functions and eyesight, joint pains, and links to depression. It is also essential to avoid pregnancy while taking this as it’s essentially a huge dose of vitamin A which affects the development of cells (the idea being that it will stop the sebum cells from overproducing oils, the cause of cystic acne). My organ functions were monitored via regular blood tests and I was very lucky to avoid any serious side effects. 


My love of makeup really grew after this; when it became something optional rather than something I felt I needed to leave the house...

The progress was gradual and I noticed my skin clearing from my back and progressing up past my chest and shoulders, and finally my face. I was lucky to mostly avoid scarring and I was so happy to be free of the painful cystic spots. My love of makeup really grew after this; when it became something optional rather than something I felt I needed to leave the house. I didn’t suddenly have perfect skin by any means: I would be back on Roaccutane again for another 9 months at age 25, it would take until my 30s before I’d stop wearing foundation most days, and blackheads and minor breakouts are still a thing today, but creativity was definitely unlocking…


Goth influence: makeup for self-expression


Around the age of about 14, kohl eyeliner began to feature heavily in my life. As I’ve talked about here, I was introduced to alternative music and aesthetics by a friend who took me to the cool alternative shopping hangouts in Manchester. We regularly bought black eyeliner pencils for £1.50 from a chap with a fabulously enormous mohawk. I applied this to the upper and lower lashline, smudged it a little, and pulled it up into a feline flick at the edge of my eyes. This was the beginning of a Gothic look. I loved how this dark outline emphasised my eyes and how it made me feel “different” and a little bit spooky. 


By the time I was almost 16 and started going to gigs and parties, I graduated to using a liquid eyeliner. This allowed for greater precision and for creativity in the decoration of the looks. I also succumbed to the trends of the time, particularly in the Goth scene, and plucked my eyebrows into a thin, arched shape. I loved it, but it’s a big regret for me, as my obsessive over-plucking meant that they didn’t grow back to a more full shape that I prefer now. Oh well- just one makeup-related regret isn’t too bad, and most other “mistakes” I’ve made have just washed off!


Baby Goth Zoë way back in 2003 at my Sixth Form Leaver’s Ball!


Beyond eyeliner, I also needed to figure out the holistic look. This was all pre-YouTube, so no handy tutorials to guide me to a successful result, advise what products to use, and what pitfalls to avoid. Plus, my Mum was a sportsperson who wore very little makeup and has totally different colouring to me, so couldn’t help either. Instead, I turned to movies…


I taped the movie, The Addams Family (1991), on VHS from the TV and paused when she had her eyes closed…

Angelica Houston’s portrayal of Morticia Addams was, to me, the epitome of Gothic beauty! I taped the movie, The Addams Family (1991), on VHS from the TV and paused when she had her eyes closed, famously and very helpfully illuminated to give her an otherworldly glow. I copied her eyeshadow and thereby learned a basic smokey eye technique: white on the eyelids, grey to the brow bone, black in the crease, finished off with cat-eye eyeliner and a black lip. True story!


Photo from 2010 illustrating my go-to Morticia Addams-inspired look!


Vintage makeup: embracing a more “classic” glamour


I started swing dancing in 2012 and my new obsession became various shades of red lipstick! While embracing a 1920s-1940s aesthetic isn’t required, it’s an element that I really love exploring, particularly as it’s so different to my Goth looks but still has a lot of personality.


My classic vintage-style makeup

I did some research on historical makeup and watched a lot of vintage films for inspiration on the shapes and colours of the look. I usually go for a full and defined brow, a subtle smokey eyeshadow in brown tones, a baby feline flick of eyeliner (a more subtle version compared to the Goth looks), and a juicy red lip. I’ll add a shimmer or even full glitter to my lid, darker definition, some fluttery fake eyelashes, and a classic half-moon manicure for special occasions.


Burlesque icon, Dita von Teese, is an ultimate inspiration for me…

I love how these makeup looks make me feel properly “grown-up” and like a film star. Burlesque icon, Dita von Teese, is an ultimate inspiration for me, so channelling her confidence and elegance, especially when going out dancing, is something that has really helped me.


Aside from the aesthetics, I had to customise the technical elements of this look to make it suitable for a whole night of swing dancing in hot venues to avoid it sliding off my face! Check out my YouTube video below for my tips and tricks on this:

My current makeup evolution

Today, it would be difficult for me to select just one product that defines my makeup, as I’ve expanded to incorporate different influences, and in turn, a more diverse colour palette, application techniques, and product range. I’ve found that YouTube and Instagram have made it far more accessible to find inspiration and learn to create successful looks from professional makeup artists and super talented club kids. Makeup brands have also emerged, like NYX, Illamasqua, Urban Decay, Sugarpill etc., offering affordable and edgy products to create something a little bit different.


A playful hybrid of Goth, Vintage glam, and Drag!

I’ve experimented with the fishnet-tights-over-the-head trick from the 1980s…

In some of my favourite looks in recent years, I’ve experimented with the fishnet-tights-over-the-head trick from the 1980s to create a textured, almost mermaid scale look (I sometimes get a comparison to Dax from Deep Space Nice, too!). I have used this technique to embrace my inner Viking Shieldmaiden for some “messy”, post-apocalyptic-inspired faces. It was initially a challenge for me to stray away from the “tidy” and “pretty” looks I’m used to, but also fun to literally use my fingers dipped in gel eyeliner to create smudges and lines!


Viking/post-apocalypse-inspired style


Some of my other favourite looks have been borrowed from the many spectacular drag queens I follow on social media. I’ve been practising partially covering my eyebrows to create a larger canvas and then playing with different shapes and bold colours. I’ve also been experimenting with different shapes of graphic eyeliner and adding elements like stick-on rhinestones (hopefully classier than that sounds!), and UV-reactive details for impact at the club.


Graphic eyeliner, with glitzy embellishments and UV-reactive details


What’s next?

So, what’s next on my makeup journey? I’m a member of a medieval living history group and I’m looking into ancient Greek and Roman makeup styles and products- fascinating so far! At the other end of the spectrum, I’m also embracing makeup innovations like magnetic eyelashes (so convenient that I’ve even applied them on the tube and in a taxi!), semi-permanent eyebrow stains, and I’m looking into micro-blading as a solution to my sad little 90s over-plucked brows.


Medieval makeup- work in progress!

He’s open to more than the classic tight-lining with black eye-liner but doesn’t necessarily want a full-on drag style…

I also live with my male-identifying partner, and he kindly donates his face before we go out for me to paint and discover “masculine” styles. He’s open to more than the classic tight-lining with black eye-liner but doesn’t necessarily want a full-on drag style, so we’re seeking a hybrid. So far we’ve tried adding a little colour to the lower lash line and metallics in the tear duct (kingfisher blue and bronze), and incorporated his undercut into the style- more on this to come! 

I also must mention the rise of sustainability as a consideration in my makeup and can only see this becoming more important in future. I’ve participated in the “Back-to-MAC” scheme for years (return 6 empties for recycling for a free lipstick), and hope to see other makeup companies making similar moves in this area e.g. offering refills; making carbon-neutral pledges for manufacture, shipping, and packaging; and of course, not testing on animals.


Finally, anti-ageing procedures aren’t something I’ve considered yet, but let’s check back in another few years and see! In the meantime, I’ll be keeping an eye on whatever is coming next and continue to experiment and play with new ideas.


I love the process of painting my face and transforming my look. People often say “you look so different with makeup on!” and I always think: well, I’d certainly hope so- it’s taken two hours, several litres of paint, and years of practising to achieve this look! I love that makeup can be used as a fun tool for enhancing my features, or modifying what I naturally have to enable me to express a different side of myself, plus the power to bring a whole outfit together. I will continue to experiment and look forward to following (at an amateur distance) the continuing evolution of makeup artistry!


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