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A Closer Look at Debate Makeup

From Clinton’s lipstick to Trump’s tan, how cosmetics performed this debate cycle.

Photo: Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

By the third debate, wherein Donald Trump actually said the phrases "bad hombres" and "nasty woman," Twitter was in full fawn mode. Hillary Clinton wore a pristine white suit, and people on my timeline compared her to an angel, Jesus, Kris Jenner, and Olivia Pope. New York Times Magazine staffer Jazmine Hughes speculated that she was wearing a Kylie Jenner lip kit.

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And I heard none of the tut-tutting from the first debate, when some rolled their eyes at the focus on the first major female candidate’s looks. Maybe at least this much has become obvious, as Clinton cycled through patriotic-hued outfits for each debate, leaving white for last: Makeup and clothing are language, and they spoke to us last night about victory, history, and authority — and not just from Hillary Clinton’s side.

Clinton at the third Presidential debate. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

I admit I feel somewhat vindicated in my transgressive desire to analyze the first female presidential candidate of a major US party’s makeup, while I acknowledge how inappropriate it feels to call her beautiful — and she does look beautiful. At the debates, Clinton’s eye makeup has been minimal, just eyeliner smudged along her top lash line. Her complexion is warm, peachy, and fresh. Her hair looks like what Donald Trump thinks his hair looks like. And her lipstick is, every time, not quite red.

Clinton’s lipstick became famous during the Democratic primary debates of 2008, a blend of plum colors makeup artist Kriss Soterion created that she now sells on her website as a color called "Debate." The mixture seemed to reflect Clinton’s anomalous career, a trajectory there was no precedent for, and, therefore, no lipstick for. (Though it is, I admit, close to the Kylie Cosmetics liquid lipstick in Spice). Her 30-year public life has been a series of these kinds of image experiments, and lately she has been embracing the awkward signature looks she was once mocked for: Her Twitter bio calls her, among other things, a "hair icon" and "pantsuit aficionado." The debates have been her pretty victory lap. She met her rival with her blonde hair coiffed for the gods in beautiful Ralph Lauren pantsuits — or, as they are known when other candidates wear them, "suits."

Trump at the third Presidential debate. Photo: Paul J. Richards/Getty Images

Despite all this, Clinton’s opponent has received perhaps more attention on his hair and makeup than she has. Donald Trump looked okay at the debates, too, if, as with everything in this election, you are grading on a curve. His skin was textured and parched, but his complexion was even, and closer to gingersnap on the color spectrum than highlighter orange. He appeared to wear some bronzer to sculpt his cheeks. The writer Amanda Fortini noted that he had had a presidential blowout before the last debate, and he obviously had. Jason Kelly, a Cleveland makeup artist who did makeup for the Republican National Convention, said in an interview with Harper’s Bazaar this summer that if he did get the chance to do Trump’s makeup, he’d be prepared. "I know exactly what he does to himself," Kelly said, "the tanning bed, the spray tan, he wears the goggles and you can see the hyperpigmentation around his eyes. What I'll do is use a slightly deeper color and blend it into his tan so there's not an abrupt contrast. I'm ready for it."

With all due respect to Kelly, I doubt he ever got to put his plan to action. As the Bazaar article states, the Trumps have their own makeup artists; some observers claim Trump does his own makeup and his hairdresser is nowhere to be found. Trump’s secretive beauty routine is one of many things that mark him as a political outsider, not playing by typical rules of image and comportment. For better or worse (or better and worse), neither candidate on stage at the debates looked quite like any we’ve had before.

Articles about the origins of political makeup point inevitably to the first general election debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon in 1960. This was an early example of the power of television in elections, as a young and telegenic Kennedy, looking tan and healthy, competed against a pale and tired-looking Nixon and roundly defeated him. In this story’s most humiliating detail, Nixon wore a drugstore makeup product designed to hide a five o’clock shadow, Lazy Shave, that melted under the hot television lights, making him look strange and sweaty.

The Nixon/Kennedy debate. Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Many mistakenly characterize the different approaches of the two candidates as Kennedy wearing makeup and Nixon making the fatal mistake to refuse it. "Nixon’s the one who gave makeup artists work," political makeup artist Barbara Lacy said. But the real cautionary tale is that Nixon wore the wrong makeup, and he wore too much, revealing him as having the unseemly, feminine insecurities people wear makeup to address. Political makeup artists emphasize that while good makeup makes a (male) candidate look confident and well-rested, if he appears to be wearing makeup, voters may find him vain, off-putting, and fake. "His makeup has to be light enough so that no one thinks, 'Oh my God. What is with this guy?’" presidential makeup artist Lois Cassano told Allure in 2009.

The "what is with this guy?" question reflects the conventions of masculine strength that we expect politicians to follow — deviance from gender norms is not "presidential." But Donald Trump seems to have somehow avoided this expectation (and so many others) this election. He has received nonstop attention on his orange complexion, the result of so many spray tans un-exfoliated, creating a skin tone that one tanning professional called "rage red." His hair is a legendarily bizarre front combover, a style that Saturday Night Live has referred to as "the onion loaf."

Donald Trump at the third Presidential debate. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

This over-the-top styling is, as Priya Elan pointed out in The Guardian, "an exaggerated take on the ‘successful businessman.’ Bright white teeth, luxurious wave-parted hair and deep, deep tan. Widely mocked it might be, but it’s a look that denotes capitalist success." Allison Coffelt wrote in her study of Trump’s use of kitsch in The LA Review of Books that Trump appeals to our most basic symbols, with his hair, skin, and everything he owns painted shades of gold. In this childish simplicity, Trump’s look is, in fact, a grotesque of the successful businessman, his hair and skin tone a perversion of indicators of youth and health, his lightweight Italian suits hanging awkwardly from his body. Media stories on Trump often run pictures of him with colors adjusted so his skin looks even more angry and sun-damaged — he looks like a cartoon villain, or like he’s playing a heartless businessman on TV, which, of course, he did.

The irony is that Trump beat out so many men in the Republican primary who did their due diligence to hide their makeup, to appear natural, normal. Voters preferred the caricature to the real thing. Despite the fact that Politico calculated last month that Trump told a lie every three minutes and fifteen seconds, his wife and running mate are still repeating the meaningless line that Trump "tells it like it is." Maybe his supporters appreciate that he lies badly, and therefore obviously. Like a bad spray tan compared to a dusting of powder, Trump’s lies are glaring — and so, I guess, reassuring against typical political posturing.

Like Trump, Clinton’s challenger in the primary, Bernie Sanders, is famous for his bad hair, though it is not the same hairsprayed catastrophe. Sanders’s is ruffled and wild, and he apparently likes it that way; on the campaign trail, he instructed stylists not to touch it. His disheveled look is constructed to look unconstructed. He, like Trump, rejects the typical pretty boy styling of political campaigns, indicating his unwillingness to play the political game.

Bernie Sanders at the DNC. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

To say that this has to do with privilege almost understates the extent that this tactic is not available to anyone other than white men in politics. The ways in which people like Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are "outsider" candidates are visible and unavoidable; where white men are respected for bucking expectations, everyone else in politics must try to conform, paying homage to standards of propriety they will never meet. Fox News wondered in 2012 if Hillary Clinton had "forgotten her makeup" on a state trip to India and Bangladesh, when pictures showed her looking more natural. (She is almost certainly wearing some makeup in these photos.) When asked about the whereabouts of her makeup, Clinton replied, "I feel so relieved to be at the stage I'm at in my life right now… You know at some point [looks are] just not something that deserve a lot of time and attention. And if others want to worry about it, I let them do the worrying for a change." This seems like wishful thinking from Clinton, who knows that the insane scrutiny of her appearance has always been tied to judgments about her values and ability.

Robert Draper wrote a fascinating, if depressing, history of Clinton’s public image for T magazine, recalling how in Bill Clinton’s first term as Arkansas governor, Hillary didn’t wear makeup or dye her hair, and she was a full partner in one of the country’s oldest law firms using her maiden name, Rodham. After her husband was unseated as governor, it became obvious that Clinton could not opt not to play the game. She restyled her hair, started wearing makeup, and changed her name, and Bill won the governor’s seat back. Her early lesson was that styling was an easy concession to make if it allowed her to keep working toward her goal.

Since then, she has literally focus-grouped her femininity, wary of appearing the way Republicans cast her in the 1992 election — as a "radical feminist" or a "ball buster." At the same time, she is experimenting toward a style that will allow the American public to accept her not only as a woman, but as a woman in power. She grew out her hair and cut it again. She stopped wearing skirts and dresses in public. She embraced monochrome and Nehru collars, fashion that comedian Zach Galifianakis said made her look like "a librarian from outer space." Racked reporter Eliza Brooke called these futuristic suit cuts Pantsuit 2.0, a style optimized to be comfortable, cheerful, and neither feminine nor masculine. Magazines took note in 2015 that Clinton could potentially "poach" a makeup artist from Veep: Barbara Lacy, who had in fact worked with Clinton for years before joining the show. But there is an interesting connection here, especially in this made-for-TV election. Clinton is trying to look the part of America’s first female president, perfecting her politician drag with the help of people who create not only looks but costumes.

Hillary Rodham Clinton in 1992. Photo: Ron Galella/Getty Images

Draper’s article quotes an old Arkansas political rival of the Clintons who describes the Hillary she sees now as under "layer after layer of armor." Armor, incidentally, has often been used as a metaphor for the way women use makeup, as a mask of even features to protect one’s real face from a hostile world. This seems more apt for Hillary Clinton than almost any other woman I can think of — consider how after a sick Clinton collapsed at a 9/11 tribute, photos of her without lipstick led conspiracy theorists to question whether she had a body double.

One narrative of Clinton’s campaign has been that she has a "trust problem." The Washington Post said in its otherwise fawning endorsement of Clinton that she "is inclined to circle the wagons and withhold information." It does seem like many Americans "don’t know what to make of her," as Clinton said at her speech at the Democratic National Convention; we don’t feel like we know the "real Hillary." And we don’t. "I don’t think you can ever know anybody else," she told The Washington Post in 1995, as quoted by Draper. "And I certainly don’t think you can know anybody else through the crude instruments available to us of exposing bits and pieces of somebody’s life." She sounds like the depressed heroine of a New Wave film, fortified within herself. But it hasn’t been her choice to be withholding. Since the beginning of her career, every time voters responded well to her bend-me-shape-me-style philosophy, Clinton has better understood that America doesn’t want the real her.

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