A makeup kit.
A makeup kit.
Image: 123rf.com

My first job was selling makeup at the Estée Lauder counter in Edgars. On Saturday mornings, as my fellow res mates slept off alcopop hangovers, I’d catch a taxi down Cape Town’s Main Road to the Link Shopping Centre in Claremont. In Estée Lauder’s regulation navy-blue Jo Borkett uniform and matching Green Cross court shoes (ouch!), I became a different person.

With the awkwardness of a first-year university student vanquished, I fancied myself a sophisticated saleswoman, swaggering around my newly conquered, harshly lit realm of cosmetic counters and tester display stands. In my head, I was swanning about New York’s glamorous Bloomingdale’s department store.

That the good folks of the 1946-founded Estée Lauder saw it in their hearts to hire an 18-year-old speaks volumes of their optimism and faith — particularly in their own products. Today, the global beauty industry generates over US$100 billion a year and The Estée Lauder Companies Inc. (which owns everyone from Clinique to The Ordinary and Jo Malone) ranks third after L’Oréal and Unilever in making that cash. In 2022, its global net sales came to US$17.7 billion. Thanks to the internet and cosmetic innovation, the industry has exploded since I was a shop girl but, even back in 2001, the power of beauty was patently potent.

Back then, every morning before the store opened, I and my perfume-peddling brethren would put on our faces. Kneeling behind the counter we’d pile on base, blush, eyeliner, eyeshadow, mascara, powder, and lipstick and then pop up above the parapet, emerging from a cloud of newly sprayed Pleasures scent, looking like entirely different creatures. This was pre-Kardashian-style heavy face contouring, but there was, and still is, a strong argument to be made about a teenager not needing any makeup at all. Nevertheless, the warpaint worked. Customers would ask what concealer we were wearing or cleanser we used. They’d carefully inspect our visages and then buy the goods. How strange a concept is that?

In the years that I worked on Estée Lauder counters at Edgars, Stuttafords (that dates me), and Foschinis across the country, I came to know the mesmerising clout of the goods we sold and I learnt some perennial lessons. I witnessed many husbands, frenzied on 24 December, with maniacal glints in their eyes. “What’s that you’ve got on your lips?” they’d plead about the sparkly red lipstick I was sporting. “That, I’ll take that that!” they’d then exclaim in harried desperation. Thanks to this festive mania, I can wrap gifts with the speed and style of Usain Bolt.

There were people who’d come up to the counter just to have a smell of one of the brand’s older perfumes. “My late mom would always wear Youth Dew and smelling it makes me think of her getting ready in the morning,” they’d explain before wafting away. Rude customers were met with a refrain of, “Our computers aren’t working, you’ll have to join that long queue over there to pay.” Really, we’d just switched off the point-of-sales computer screen.

Of course, I learnt some hard skills working for the brand — it did intensive makeup and sales training, and so I was wildly popular back at UCT for formal-dance favours. Boy, can I still whip out a smoky eye if need be. My Psychology 101 course is a complete haze but, by comparison, 20 years later I can still recall the excellent humans I worked with in retail and the vastly different backgrounds they came from.

I know that a smile is a great selling tool, and that lore has it that someone was once stabbed in the frenzy of an Edgars Red Hanger Sale. And I still use Estée Lauder Double Wear foundation. Talk about staying power.

• From the August edition of Wanted, 2023.

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