Paul Starr on Beauty: Conversations with Thirty Celebrated Women

by Paul Starr
DK Melcher Media
October 2005

Joni is a woman on my mind. I've been a fan of her music and a lover of her looks for as long as I can remember. We met at the Matthew Rolston studio in Hollywood, and we bonded over the buffet before we'd even been formally introduced. Joni arrived fully made-up - she was accustomed to doing her own face - but when it was explained that I was there to do her makeup, she washed her face and put herself in my hands, an act of faith that sealed our friendship. We spoke in the Brentwood home where Joni has lived for more than thirty years, a warm, eclectic blend of influences reflecting the individualism that is her defining quality.

Can you remember and talk about some of your biggest makeup influences?

I started going to public dances when I was about twelve - it was right about the time that rock and roll first came alive - and I met a street kid who danced his way into my neighbourhood. The girls around him were really tarted up, they may have been only fourteen or fifteen, but the makeup they used was quite garish. Blue and green eyeshadow were the norm; they had a conspicuous makeup line at the neck. Sometimes I would paint my face that way, but it never really suited me. When liquid eyeliner became the rage in the 1960s, some older girls decided to paint my eyes up like Brigitte Bardot. You'd have thought it would work, because I had good bone structure and all, but somehow it didn't. it was like a lie on my face. I'm kind of a guileless female, and that kind of makeup is synonymous with guile, so on me it was a kind of contradiction. I was in London during the extreme Biba makeup period. That was too much for my face also, but I did come back with false eyelashes. It was David Crosby, during the fresh-scrubbed California girl period of the 1960s, who convinced me to scrub my British Mod face and go back to the no-makeup look. It was very liberating. I stuck with that look long after the hippie movement was over. I became accustomed to the liberty of not wearing any makeup.

What do you think about makeup? How does it change the way you feel?

Watching the Motion Picture Academy pay tribute to Sophia Loren at the 2004 Oscar ceremony, I was struck by two things. First of all, they took this fine actress and instead of showing her best dramatic moments, they showed her kissing every leading man in Hollywood. But more important, in the close-ups, what you saw was the history of makeup. You watched as they tried to diminish that wide, sensual mouth. You could see the lines where it was painted to make it look smaller because large mouths like that were not in vogue at that time. Instead of enhancing her beauty, the naturalness and the uniqueness of it, they tried to reduce it to some vague ideal. In other words, they painted the face of the time onto her in spite of the individuality of her features. You know, I never liked makeup that much. it didn't seem to suit my face. It made my eyes look hard. My lips had high colour anyway, and I just preferred the convenience of not wearing any. I didn't have time when I was on the road to be hours in the bathroom before we went to the airport, so no makeup was more practical. And when I did find myself in situations where my face was to be painted by a stranger, usually they didn't assess my face as an individual but headed for the paint pots and went straight into painting the contemporary look on me, whether or not it suited me. So the fads in makeup kind of annoyed me. before I started working with you, I would usually say, "No makeup, I'll do my own." Since working with you, however, I was truck by the fact that you were immediately able to find the line on my upper eyelid that enhanced my eye. I would have said there isn't such a line. As a painter I know that if you do anything too extreme on the upper lid, it makes me look like the woman in the comic strip "Terry and the Pirates," or a Mata Hari type, you know, an evil spy woman. But you went straight to the areas and to the features that could stand enhancing or a slight exaggeration and you were never heavy-handed. You are a beautiful face painter. Also, you incorporated products that I had discovered for myself, which was nice. At one time, not so long ago, only whores painted their faces. Ladies of the aristocracy did their own hair and stayed out of the sun. A suntan was not chic, but rather the hallmark of the day labourer. Ladies pinched their cheeks for colour before a social encounter, especially with a gentleman. I think the whole concept of makeup is to excite or to simulate excitement. If you're sexually aroused, theoretically your cheeks go flush and your lips plump up and become redder. So the whole concept behind lipstick and rouge seems to be to mimic the flush of sexual excitement, but being perpetually in s a state of seduction always struck me as peculiar. Do you have toe seduce everybody? Shouldn't that be more of a private dance?

But do you use many cosmetics? Do you carry any makeup basics with you?

Nowadays, I use a little blush, a little concealer, a dash of mascara, a little colour on the lips, and a light coating of powder if I'm wearing foundation, to make it less shiny. And that's it. I don't like to think about what I look like. I'm an artist; I'd rather concentrate on what I feel.

How do you take care of yourself? Are you careful with your diet?

I take guidance from my mother, who has remained beautiful and virile all the way into her 90s. She doesn't take any herbs or vitamins, but believes in eating seven small portions of fruit and seven small portions of vegetables a day. Living in a northern climate, she's not adverse to meat, either. She also drinks a lot of milk, so she has very strong bones. I probably don't drink enough water or milk. I wouldn't say that my eating habits are spectacular. Sometimes for breakfast I just dive right into bacon and eggs and pancakes.

And do you have an exercise regimen?

I have a tai chi routine that I try to do. I don't exercise enough to be buff, just enough to keep my joints oiled and my metabolism up. I probably could do more, but I'm addicted to painting, so I'm sitting on my duff for fourteen hours a day. I'm so taken away by the creative process that sometimes I almost forget I have a body. I can be really negligent about self-maintenance.

For as long as I've known you, you've been a smoker. It seems like such a natural thing for you. When did you start?

I've smoked since I was nine years old. It was a grounding herb for me as a child, a secret pleasure. I'd ride my bike out into the bush, sit there, light up, and watch the birds fly in and out. I was in heaven. It's been a companion and a solace to me. My mother is always on me about it, but I love it. I am a confirmed smoker.

How do you take care of your skin?

Mostly I use Oil of Olay products: their body lotion, night cream and Olay Complete, which has a mild sunscreen in it for day. I use their Age Defying cleanser for my face. Nothing will alter the fact that I've been here sixty years, but they keep a little light exfoliation going. It's a pretty simple regimen. For me, the best products are not necessarily the most expensive ones.

How do you feel about aging? How has it affected you personally?

Nowadays, I'm content to be loved by my animals and my friends. I enjoy being middle-aged. I have grandchildren. I'm happy. People say I look good, and I think the reason is because I am happy. You have a certain radiance if your spirit is healthy.

One of my favourite lines that you've written is "Happiness is the best face-lift."

It's a truism, like "Who you gonna get to do your dirty work when all the slaves are free?"

Can you describe yourself as though you were a disinterested observer?

Describe myself as a stranger might see me? I don't think I can. What woman, under what circumstance? I mean, give me a couple of drinks and cut me loose at the Vanity Fair Oscar party or a formal event and I'm full of mischief. I'm like a kid in church; I want to giggle. I'm mischievous after all. That's the way we partied in Saskatchewan. Slightly rowdy.

How do you define beauty?

You can look at beauty in different ways by putting on different hats. There are women my age who have obviously had face-lifts. Seeing them, I've thought, Maybe it's time. I've gone to the mirror and lifted my jawline up as it would be after a face-lift, then let it drop back down. But when I lift it up, it doesn't match the rest of it. In a way, it looks better with the jowls and everything. There is a look that you get in your sixties, and if you're a healthy, happy version of that look, that's beautiful. If you try to contrive the jawline of a thirty- or forty-year-old, but your hands are all liver-spotted and crinkly, the moment you put your hand up to your face, as you would in the course of an evening, your wrinkled hand next to that tight little jawline looks ridiculous. So now what, do you start sewing your hands? To me, the whole idea of it is really one of the modern tragedies, that so much emphasis is put on something so superficial, and that people can be so unhappy that they do that to themselves. I think it is symptomatic of a greater problem, which is not being addressed: that people are entering into middle age in some kind of spiritual void, and by spiritual I don't mean religious. Their spirits are depressed. Only a depressed spirit would go to one of those butchers and let him cut her face all up and stitch it into some macabre resemblance of youth. Plastic surgery nullifies the character that shows the patterns of people's lives - how much they've laughed, how much they've grieved. This surgically altered look has become so commonplace that no one seems to see it as grotesque. There's no wisdom in this culture, now love of character.

Why do you think cosmetic surgery can tend toward such extremes?

It's the stigma of growing old. Why is youth so precious? Youth is a period of life insane with hormones. Why do we want to extend this insanity or incorporate it into our lives? I mean sex is nice, it's beautiful under the right conditions with the right person, but why do we want to be objects of sexual desire every moment of our lives, as if sex is all there is to life? Nobody's that sexy.

Who are the women you most admire, and why?

I admired Katharine Hepburn for her individuality and self-confidence, which gave her the ability to age gracefully. I admired Esther Williams as a child. I joined water ballet because I wanted to be graceful in the pool like her. I met her when I was in my thirties. It was a gathering with all of old Hollywood in attendance, and in the middle of the evening, I heard her voice rise up out of the crowd, saying, "Bullshit. He likes me fat. And he likes me thin. And he likes me at home." I found myself pulled from my seat as if by invisible strings. I stood up in the restaurant and gave her a solitary standing ovation. I was still young, but I thought, Okay, I don't have to go in this macabre direction. She didn't. I guess it comes down to the man you choose. If he likes who you are, then you'll have to do some inside work, not some outside work. If you're trying to hold your man with face-lifts and al that, what are you really trying to hold onto? There's something wrong with the fact that we've been told that wrinkles are an imperfection. They're not an imperfection, they're an inevitability, a result of living. In Asian culture, the way lines pleat on the face tells a lot about the person's character. If you were to see a baby born in its sixth month, all its lines are there. I saw a baby born three months prematurely, and his face was full of lines, and the lines were very like his grandmother's. By the time he was three months old - which means when he should have been born normally - there wasn't a line in his face. So, the lines in our face seem to be predestined. We think we earn them, but it's as if the body knows what grief is in store for it. So their emergence is not the tragedy that we think it is. We're in cultural error, thinking it's some kind of calamity when the wrinkles appear. Speaking from a middle-aged perspective, as a grandmother and an older woman, I think that if you have a place to put your tenderness, and a heart willing to receive it, then you're beautiful.

Joan, can you tell me ten things you love in life?

I love sitting on the porch of my house in British Columbia with my caretaker, Hans. His dream was to live where the mountains meet the ocean. My dream was less defined, but we love that place, and because of me, he can live there, and because of him, I can live there. I love to paint. It shuts off all dialogue in my head for prolonged periods of time, which I need for mental health, because I've too active a mind. It's the best form of meditation I know. I can't sit idly and meditate at the same time. Painting makes me happy, and allows me to feel relaxed and productive. I love dancing. I love my friends. You and I have been friends for a long time, and old friends are gold. I've made some new friends recently, too. I've found a few places where I like to eat, and I go alone and invite conversation. I feel a sense of community when people come up to me with their children. I've made a neighbourhood out of an impersonal town, and that's something that I need to be happy: a sense of extended community. Yoga and exercise make me happy. I love to swim. I love colour, whether in music, painting, or in people. My home is very colourful. I love my animals. They make me feel like a preteen. I sleep with two cats and a dog and when I wake up and see all those cheerful faces, it's a joy. In my lifetime, I've lost things and then regained them, which always makes you appreciate them better. I had polio at nine and lost my ability to walk or stand. There was no guarantee that I would ever do either one again. So, standing and walking again, I've celebrated my legs in dance. I lost my daughter when I was twenty-one, and got her back when I was in my fifties, thirty-odd years later, and although there was a period of adjustment, the relationship is now ground and healthy, which gives me great joy. My two grandchildren, Marlon and Daisy, give me great joy. I feel my relationships are in good order.

What, to you, would be the ultimate compliment?

My favourite compliment that I ever received came from a blind, black piano player named Henry. He said, "Joni, you make raceless, genderless music." That's my favourite compliment.

What is your fountain of youth? What keeps you young?

Joy. I'm blessed with some really fun-loving friends. We play pool. We have outings every once in a while. I can go anywhere with these guys and know that we will be having a good giggle all night long. You're one. I have friends with a capacity for fun, and a great capacity for joy. I've taken them to Saskatchewan, where I come from. We go walking in the country and it's full of revelations for them. My best friends are like happy children. That's not to say that we don't have adult down days, but we buoy each other up. I remember seeing a documentary on a group of middle-aged Israelis who had grown up communally from early childhood, and, huddled together for a group portrait, they all looked like they were about seven years old. The benefits of prolonged friendship between a group of people are the comfortability, the inside jokes, and the hard teasing that comes from a strong bottom line. All of that is a joy to me.

These photos capture the Joni I know and love - wise and reflective on the one hand, joyous and playful on the other. For a woman of her accomplishments and intellect, and her strikingly unique looks, natural makeup - with features well defined - is best.

Printed from the official Joni Mitchell website. Permanent link:

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