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A Guide to Red Lipsticks for Brown Girls

Bollywood star Deepika Padukone
Bollywood star Deepika Padukone

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Even with the rise of internet and YouTube beauty tutorials, I have yet to come across the Michelle Phan for Indians. For this very reason, I’ve spent the past decade utterly clueless and completely obsessed with one of my favorite topics: makeup.

My preferred way to waste an hour is to go to a drug store and peruse the cosmetic section. I’m the person who picks up and puts back every product I touch — not because I don’t want to buy it, but because I don’t know what the hell I’m doing. This is especially true when it comes to lipstick. How does someone pick between 27 different shades of red? The colors that look most pleasing sitting on a store shelf often look ridiculous on my face.

I’ve spent nearly a decade and a half reading an endless stream of women’s magazines, Bobbi Brown books, and YouTube tutorials, but I still don’t really know how to do my own makeup. Sure, I’ve graduated from my tween days of swiping gloopy glitter gel across my eyelids to knowing that BB cream really is a miracle worker (and that glitter doesn’t belong anywhere on your face), but I still don’t own one of the foundations of any good makeup bag: a classic red lipstick that looks great with my skin.

Priyanka Chopra at the Planes premiere. Image: Robyn Beck/Getty

And that is not for a lack of trying. However, no matter how many issues of Glamour and Allure I would purchase, I couldn’t ever find the answers and guidance I was looking for. All of the women — and in turn all of the product recommendations — were based on variances in caucasian, black, and East Asian skin tones. There was never anyone who had brown, South Asian skin like me.

Most brown beauty blogs are run by people in the Middle East who have access to a very different set of products. When I asked makeup-savvy friends, they would tell me that "any shade of red" would work with my skin. Even so-called makeup experts could never help me find a good red: After three trips to Sephora and two to an Ulta, I walked away frustrated with suggestions that only washed out my face.

After three trips to Sephora and two to an Ulta, I walked away frustrated with suggestions that only washed out my face.

While my mom is always a great source for wisdom and advice, I could never turn to her for beauty tips because she, and my aunts — all of whom are Indian immigrants — are, in a way, still figuring out make up for themselves. Maybe this comes down to India’s cultural lack of focus on makeup. Vogue India contributing editor Parizaad Khan explained to The Cut that Indian women "don’t wear that much makeup. The focus is on hair," adding that unlike in other countries, "makeup trends tend to stick around for a while."

There is however one situation in Indian culture where makeup is placed front-and-center: at a wedding. Whenever I would Google "Indian makeup artist, hoping to find someone who could teach me, my screen would be flooded with results featuring the phrase "bridal makeup." But bridal makeup is much heavier (presumably to balance out heavy, intricate wedding outfits) than what I was looking for. I’ve always wanted to find a red lipstick for everyday wear. I decided to reach out to someone who clearly knows brown skin for help: Cindy Williams, makeup artist to actress Mindy Kaling. Kaling’s makeup — whether on her show The Mindy Project or on the red carpet — showcases her features properly. Whether it is a bold bright pink lip or a classic red look, Kaling’s face never looks washed out or overly done to bridal proportions. Williams, with 25 years as a working makeup artist,has been working with Kaling since the the show started filming, and is a big proponent of a red lip: "I think you can wear red lipstick anytime, even with a jeans or t-shirt. It doesn’t need to be reserved for holidays and formal outfits."

Mindy Kaling on The Mindy Project. Image: Universal Pictures/Getty

Williams offered up a few key pieces of insight on how to find the right red lipstick that pops on brown skin. Most importantly, a brown girl should search for a red that has blue undertones. "They are much easier to wear than orange-reds," explains Williams. "Blue-reds tends to be safer and easier to wear than orange-reds. If you are going to wear an orange-red, you should have a warmer skin tone — something with more gold or yellow, otherwise your face might get washed out." Williams further warns that those with brown skin should shy away from red lipsticks that are "too neon or too bright." She explains, "These colors tend to clash a little more with brown skin." Red lipsticks with brown undertones are also a worthy bet.

While Williams reveals that testing red lipsticks can be tricky ("sometimes you just don’t know until you put it on, truthfully"), she likes to dab a little on the inside of a person’s arm, near their wrist. A color may look great in a tube, but testing it on your hand is a good way to see if grabs with your skin tone. "I’ll put three or four different colors that I’m thinking of using on the inside of a client’s arms and usually a person will know right away which color looks right."

"If it looks good without anything else, it’s going to be a good shade for you."

To ensure a red lipstick is the right shade for you, Williams recommends trying it out in the morning with no other makeup on. "If it looks good without anything else, it’s going to be a good shade for you," she notes. "You want the lipstick to match the undertones of your own natural, make up-free skin. I see girls in the gym that have no makeup on and they will throw red lipstick on and their hair in a ponytail and they look fantastic."

Once the right shade of red lipstick has been acquired, Williams recommends putting a little foundation around your lips "to get a cleaner line." She then says to line your lips with a natural color lip liner — one that matches the color of your lips. "With red liner, it’s hard to get the perfect shape, and easy to get crooked lips." The third step is to dab or pat the lip color on lightly, and build it up from there ("red colors are often very strong"). Williams then cleans up the edges with the natural colored lip liner for the perfect red lip.

As for a good color, Williams is particularly fond of these choices: