This is going to be one of those nostalgic posts where someone lets you in on how old they are by telling you about how great things were “back in the day” (but not in a creepy, racist “Make America Great Again” kind of way), but because it’s me it’s going to be a nostalgic post about makeup. I recently picked up the 25th anniversary addition of the original shade of MAC Viva Glam, and it brought me back to my earliest experiences with high end makeup and reminded me of when MAC was the absolute leader in pigmented, high quality cosmetics.
In 1994, I was still a confused closet case in Bowbells, ND with a fascination with RuPaul’s 1983 debut single “Supermodel” and a subscription to Details magazine (only partially because there was at least a 65% chance that each issue would have several shirtless, gorgeous men). I don’t know exactly when I first say the ad for MAC’s original shade of Viva Glam, but once I did, I was absolutely obsessed. Even though I had a decidedly different body shape than RuPaul, that ad would influence my budding drag persona and lead to any number of ill-advised purchases of corsets and thigh high boots.
I didn’t have any sense of queer theory at that time, but when I saw the ad with RuPaul laughing and proudly proclaiming, “I am the MAC girl!” something was stirring in my mind that would continue in my own play and struggle with gender roles for years to come.
I was a freshman in college when Viva Glam II came out, and once again MAC was going way against type in selecting a very masculine woman as their spokesmodel: lesbian icon k.d. lang. The more I think about it, the more I wish I had known about queer theory; I would have had even more appreciation for what it meant, at that particular moment in our culture, for a major cosmetics company to choose a drag queen and a butch lesbian to be the representatives on its newest products.
I had been playing with makeup since I was a kid, but as I started to develop an interest in exploring drag, I built up a small collection of drugstore and Walmart makeup that I played around with and tried to create some sort of interesting and glamorous look. But I kept thinking about that matte brick color from the ads, kept seeing RuPaul in that patent leather corset and thigh high boots. I started doing some research on the internet, and found out that you could purchase MAC products across the border in Winnipeg, Manitoba at the Hudson’s Bay Company. I was on a mission.
Nowadays, MAC is known for their signature bullet shaped lipstick packaging. In fact, it’s that signature packaging that you could argue lead to people starting to refer to traditional stick lipsticks as “bullet lipsticks” (though Urban Decay and their late 90s shotgun shell lipstick tubes probably had some influence as well). But when I made my way up to Winnipeg in 1998 with my friend Ramonica (I don’t know why I remember this, but she opted for a plum shade called Cyber), the lipsticks were still in classic MAC packaging with an ever-so-slightly domed, flat top tube. When I finally broke down and brought my lipstick into a MAC store to be recycled, (at least a decade after I bought it), the employees were stunned; most had never seen that old style of packaging and I wasn’t able to track down any images of the old packaging in my google searches.
But that’s what I purchased – an original Viva Glam matte lipstick in a flat top tube. I think it was $14 Canadian, but this was a time when the exchange rate was about 40%, in favor of the US, so buying high end makeup was much cheaper up in Canada, even with all of the taxes. ANd when I say it was matte, I think it can be hard for people to understand that given the rather liberal application of that word to all kinds of products. I mean, now we’ve got brands who are putting out “matte metallics” or “satin mattes” and all manner of bastardizations of the term.
But Viva Glam 1, in it’s original formulation, was matte. It was brick red, felt like thick clay going on the lips, and I swear it seemed to pull the light in around it. It was matte, really and truly. It wasn’t terribly comfortable on the lips (though compared to a lot of matte liquid lipstick formulas, it wasn’t bad) but it was absolutely beautiful. The color is still lovely, but it’s just not the same. It now has this subtle satin sheen, not frosted by any means but certainly reflective, and the color is a beautiful, true, bright red but it just isn’t the same.
In addition to the gorgeous color, the lipstick also impressed me because of its charitable component: since it’s launch, and with every shade released in the last 25 years, every cent of the retail selling price is donated to charities that support people living with HIV and AIDS. That was actually my cover story: up to that point, my experiments with makeup were done in the privacy of my dorm room and my drag persona was still a year or so from its official debut, but I made the argument to my friends that I wanted to buy the lipstick to show the support for the MAC AIDS Foundation.
In another funny story, I went out to go party at Club 200 that night, and my friends decided to ditch me and go to a reggae club, promising to be back to pick me up between 2 and 2:30 AM. This was the late 90s, and while my friend had a cell phone, I was still a few years from my first mobile. When the party started winding down at 2 am, I checked outside but my friends weren’t there. I wasn’t too worried: there were plenty of people around and a line of cabs. I had spent most of my cash but I figured I could just run into the house and grab my wallet if I ended up needing to take a taxi. And I was drunk, so I just kept partying with my new friends. 2 became 3, and the party spilled out to the street, and still no sign of my friends. I kept chatting with some of the night’s revelers while making trips across the street to use a pay phone to try calling my friends.
The first time I got my friend Maxine, she said that the club she was at was staying open but that she would call her boyfriend Mark and send him to come get me. I had his number, so I called the house as well and got the answering machine. I was still in a drunk haze, but starting to get a little worried. Before I knew it, all of the other bar patrons started to make their way to their final destinations for the night, and the line of taxis had vanished during one of my trips back and forth to the phone booth. Suddenly it was almost 4 and I was all alone on the streets of downtown Winnipeg. I was sitting on a curb, drunk, with only a Twoonie (a Canadian $2 coin), a couple of quarters, and my tube of MAC Viva Glam.
Finally, with my last quarter, I went back to the phone and made another call to Maxine’s boyfriend, and once again I got the answering machine. Just as the message was finishing up, my phone booth (which very creepily did not have a door of any kind) was suddenly visited by a large, shuffling homeless man who reached around me like I wasn’t there to check the coin slot on the phone. As soon as the beep on the answering machine went off, I started going off into this drunken, slurred rant about how I was going to die with nothing but a Twoonie and a tube of lipstick, and hung up just in time to see Mark pull up in front of the club across the street.
Viva Glam will always have a special place in my heart. I was a broke ass college student trying to build a drag persona on a very limited budget, and I would save up little stashes of money to make fast weekend trips up to Winnipeg and buy as much MAC makeup as the exchange rate would allow. It was the first makeup product I really fell in love with, and those trips were where I discovered my love of Thai curries and Canadian men. As Viva Glam turns 25, it reminds me that my own adventures with makeup and drag are nearly that old. I think about all of the experiences I’ve had and the amazing people I’ve met in that time, and so many of my memories are connected to makeup and skincare and cosmetics products.
When I went to Ireland, I had to pick up some LipFinity from Max Factor – it was the first matte liquid lipstick that I remember seeing on the market and I remember playing with them around the time of my first every show in 2001 at the Highlander Lounge. I can’t bring myself to smell Estee Lauder’s Beautiful since it was the “signature fragrance” I bought myself for my wedding. I have a MAC Lipglass from the Trolls collection that I can’t bring myself to declutter because I got it from the first guy I seriously dated after my divorce; I don’t use a lot of glosses, and the color is one that I have a dozen times over, but it was such a sweet acknowledgement that he appreciated all aspects of me, including the performer. So many products, so many memories.
But you never forget your first love.