I Got a Radical Makeover — for Art’s Sake

Slide Show

Inside the Transformational Makeover Salon

CreditNicholas Calcott

"It started when I was a teenager. I became really interested in playing with makeup in the same way I would with any art supply," says the artist Erica Prince, 30, as she leads me up the stairs to In Limbo. The airy Williamsburg apartment-cum-gallery has been transformed into a temporary beauty parlor where, through June 5, Prince is seeking participants for the Transformational Makeover Salon. Each brave soul visits the gallery alone, and after a consultation, receives a new look. For the artist, who typically works in drawing and sculpture, this sort of intimate performance is a departure from her usual practice. "The idea of doing a relational project really scared me at first, but it's been amazing to get away from my studio and out of my solitary conversation with myself," she says. "It's an exercise in being present."

Before the makeover begins, I fill out a questionnaire the size of a diner place mat, noting my eye color (blue), least favorite thing about myself (I'm terrible at posing for photos) and the book I'm currently reading ("The Story of My Teeth"). Although the form asks for a few faults and flaws, Prince emphasizes that the goal of the makeover isn't to make me look my best. Instead, it's an opportunity to consider my everyday self from a distance — more "Mrs. Doubtfire" than "My Fair Lady," in movie-makeover terms. "I like to preface these things by saying it's not about beauty, it's an opportunity to experiment," she assures me. "There's some relationship to self-betterment, but in an indirect, abstract way."

Prince asks me to take a "before" selfie and leaves to give me some privacy while I pose, reminding me of a doctor ducking out of an exam room so I can change into a paper gown. (My selfies are a little awkward.) Then, as instructed, I sit in the salon chair, facing away from the mirror.

As Prince cleans my face with a tissue, I tell her that my boyfriend often says I look better without makeup, in a tone I hope conveys that his compliment is a little lame. Prince has heard many variations of this story over the course of the project. These confidences are the currency of the salon, and participants in the project are eager to share their beauty confessions. Another common complaint is parents who felt that makeup was tantamount to superficiality, not something smart people ought to enjoy. That w asn't the case in Prince's childhood home, where her mother was often visited by the Mary Kay lady. The sales calls left Prince with a vivid impression of the powerful role cosmetics could play in constructing an identity: "Our Mary Kay lady had a picture of herself without any makeup on inside her display. Honestly, she looked terrible," she says. "I remember looking back and forth between her and the picture and thinking, 'That's what you really look like, but this is how you're portraying yourself? Amazing!'"

Prince applies creams and powders from a product-filled trolley that once stored her more traditional art supplies. I've long ago lost track of how many layers of color have been used, but my face feels perceptibly heavier. Transformational Makeovers can last anywhere from a few minutes for a small appearance adjustment to over an hour for a full face of makeup. So far, almost 30 women and men have participated (including makeovers during the project's earlier iteration in 2014). "For one guy, I just switched the part in his hair from left to right," Prince tells me as she traces my eyelid with dark pencil. "Actually, it was a huge change for him."

Suddenly it's time for the final touches: a wig cap, which makes me feel oddly glamorous, topped with a glossy, shoulder-length wig. As the big reveal approaches, I start to get nervous. "Everybody responds differently," says Prince. "Some people are really quiet, some people start laughing because they're in a state of shock. Often people feel like they're not looking at themselves anymore."

I tell myself I won't gasp and cover my mouth when I look in the mirror, but I do it anyway. The extra moment it takes me to recognize my own reflection is profoundly disorienting. I'm looking at a stranger. Prince has broken a cardinal rule of makeup: bilateral symmetry. My face is unevenly divided between two clashing shades of foundation, and my lipstick switches abruptly from blue-black to crimson. My eyebrows are definitely not twins — they're not even third cousins. The overall effect is part punk, part glam and undeniably fierce.

As I try out my best rock-and-roll sneer for the "after" selfie, I realize how boring and safe my daily look has become. My devotion to all things sheer, natural and minimal now seems less refined and more like a failure of imagination. "You might hate this, but at least it will be an experience that helps you gain perspective," Prince assures me. "My goal is that people walk down the street afterward slightly flustered and more aware of their surroundings." But I don't hate it: I borrow the wig and wear it on the G train, all the way home.

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