Guest Post, Meg Johnson: When in Doubt, Put on More Makeup: A Brief Autobiography in Cosmetics

dancersWhen in Doubt, Put on More Makeup: A Brief Autobiography in Cosmetics

If I had lived during the Victorian era, I definitely would have ended up with lead poisoning from piling on the period’s dangerous makeup. Luckily, I was born in the 1980’s. I received a Lil Miss Makeup doll as a gift. You could apply and remove her “makeup” with hot and cold water. I remember wondering why anyone would want to take her makeup off. Something was stirring in my little girl body. The beginning of a love story. An addiction, a language, a vow. On Full House, Becky said to D.J., “The secret to wearing makeup is to make it look like you’re not wearing any.” Even at a young age, I knew there were other ways to live.


Before I was a writer, I was in the performing arts. I was in a modern dance company. The company had a large stash of MAC Cosmetics we used for shows. For several productions, MAC makeup artists created the makeup designs. Because of this, I unintenionally think of MAC Cosmetics as serious makeup. My first book came out in 2014, when I was a grad student in an MFA program. It was a poetry collection titled Inappropriate Sleepover. I didn’t start to feel really nervous until the final galleys were in to my editor at The National Poetry Review Press. One day, after the galleys had been sent to the printer and several readings had been set up, I found myself pacing around the University of Akron student union. I went from floor to floor, plopping down on padded chairs in common areas. I started popping into different restrooms to reapply my burgundy colored MAC lipstick. Again and again. I don’t know how to have a book come out, I thought to myself. “I don’t know how to have a book come out,” I said to my advisor the next time I saw her. “I just keep putting on lipstick. MAC lipstick.”


Being in a modern dance company wasn’t exactly lucrative, so I had to hustle. I signed with some modeling and talent agencies, and most of the jobs I got through agents were acting in industrial and promotional videos. In three unrelated videos, my character’s name was Sophie or Sophia. The agent I worked with the most would call me about auditions and no matter who the client was, would tell me they were looking for someone fresh faced. (Light, neutral colored makeup, looking as young as possible.) Fresh faced, Meg I was told firmly over and over again. I loved stage makeup. I loved jewel tones. I saw a drag show for the first time when I was sixteen. Drag queen style makeup in the daytime seemed ideal to me. Sometime around 2006, I had a photographer take some pictures of me on my own time. I did my own hair and makeup. I liked the way some of the black and white headshots turned out. When the head of an agency I was with saw the photos, she emailed me that I could not use any of the photos at auditions. I was told I looked “too Addams Family.” That I should continue auditioning with what they had approved, a comp card with me dressed in outfits that a middle school girl would wear.


In 2016, I was hospitalized when I became seriously ill with Guillain-Barré. I eventually made a full recovery, but it took physical therapy and lots of rest. I didn’t feel like myself when I was sick. While recovering, I wondered if any celebrities had suffered from Guillain-Barré Syndrome. I wanted to read about someone impossibly beautiful and impossibly glamorous who had overcome the same struggle. It turned out the most famous person to suffer from GBS was Andy Griffith. While I admire that he recovered from GBS and worked most of his life, this was not the glam role model I was looking for. I decided I would have to choose a pop culture patron saint that was not connected to GBS. As I rewatched episodes of RuPaul’s Drag Race, it became clear to me that no one is more beautiful or glamorous than RuPaul. I first saw RuPaul in The Brady Bunch Movie as Jan’s guidance counselor. As a kid, I wasn’t sure what was going on, but I was dazzled. I find watching the drag queen contestants apply their makeup on Drag Race episodes to be incredibly soothing. After watching the contestants get ready, a made-up RuPaul emerges on the runway. When Ru is sitting still at the judges table, I make a mental note of what eye shadow color (or colors) s/he is wearing that day. I feel a little stronger, a little giddier. More like myself. Andy Griffith could never make me feel like this.

Meg Johnson

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