The Product Whore of Babylon | Chicago Antisocial | Chicago Reader

The Product Whore of Babylon 

Drunk on youth serums, glossing creams, and face volumizers. Yes, face volumizers.

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Anyone who tells you she can permanently shrink your pores is a big fat liar. I know because plastic surgeon Norman Leaf and registered nurse Rand Rusher told me so, and they've carved up enough celebrity faces to have a clue what they're talking about.

I met them last week at a media preview of the new location of C.O. Bigelow, a New York-based beauty-products store, in Water Tower Place. The company began as an old-fashioned Greenwich Village apothecary 167 years ago but was bought in 2003 by Limited Brands, which also owns Bath & Body Works, Victoria's Secret, Express, and the Limited. The first location still has a pharmacy and a roomful of surgical supplies, but its outposts are shadows of the original, carrying nothing but luxe beauty products yet calling themselves apothecaries.

A supercute blond publicist named Kate ran me around the store all day, introducing me to the representatives of dozens of unguent hawkers. I asked the Molton Brown rep if he had anything for a hangover, and he handed me a sample of black-pepper body wash--one of the company's top sellers despite its spicy fragrance, which I found unpleasant. I could hardly believe it: I was dressed, blow-dried, and having conversations at 11:30 AM--and enjoying it.

When I said I was hungry the effervescent Kate brought me a sleek ceramic platter covered with little finger foods, garnished with a fresh-picked orchid. Yes, they were schmoozing me. But somehow it felt classy--nice and unnecessarily generous, lacking the whiff of desperation that comes off a lot of start-ups.

Leaf and Rusher recently started selling a beauty tool called the DermaRoller, a sort of Garden Weasel for your face. At the end of a plastic wand there's a little spool speckled with hair-thin stainless-steel prongs. When you roll it over your face, the prongs perforate your skin, supposedly making any product (preferably Leaf and Rusher's special serum) more potent because more of it gets to sink in, and deeper. DIY skin perforation is pretty creepy if you think about it too hard, but Leaf and Rusher gave me one and I'm using it and I look radiant, so who am I to judge?

Dr. Leaf's face looked blurry, like he'd made a Silly Putty transfer of himself, stretched it out, and wrapped it around his skull. Nurse Rusher--decked out in forest green scrubs--had lips like two plump, delicious hot dogs, gorgeous inquisitive eyes, and a few pleats of skin near his ears. "Maybe some light therapy would temporarily help shrink pores," Rusher said, but those sebum-plugged craters are, sadly, hereditary.

The rep from the skin-care line Murad concurred. "The only thing you can do is keep the pores clean," she said. She informed me that a pimple and a sunburn are almost the same thing: both are angry inflammations, and they're treated basically the same way. Who knew?

I was also told about Danielle Roches, a World War II doctor who is supposed to have invented a cream to help burn victims regrow singed brows and lashes. Now the technology is available to the masses thanks to a company called Talika, which also makes a fuzzy mascara wand that attaches hairlike rayon fibers to your lashes and a gel infused with those fibers so you can paint on eyebrows. The mascara made me look like Tammy Faye Bakker Messner, but when I accidentally washed the gel sample off my hand I begged the rep to paint it back on--I loved walking around the fancy store with a hairy paw.

"Now watch this," said the rep from Kevyn Aucoin, the line started by the late makeup artist. "This is sick and out of control." Tightly holding my jaw with one hand--a move so saturated with confidence that it always makes me feel safe--he dabbed sparkly white highlighter on my face. One dot in the corner of each eye, one dot in the divot above my lip ("Just like Marilyn Monroe used to do," he said), and the mirror introduced me to a brighter, poutier version of myself.

Later, the Nars rep made me up with their new eye shadow duo, a combination of shimmery brick red and lilac, smudged some black on top of that, and capped it all off with a glittery olive brown shadow called Nightlife. "Gorgeous," she said. I looked like a zombie.

I spent four hours sniffing fragrances and learning which serums--it's all about serums now--are supposed to do what and why. I tested the gamut, from supergirlie shit that smelled so sweet it hurt my stomach to thick vegan organic sludge that looked like the leftovers from brewing beer. I learned about an all-natural hair- and skin-care line based on propolis, a nutrient-rich natural antiseptic that bees line their hives with. I gobbled up knowledge about lip plumpers and exfoliators, face volumizers, fine-line erasers, skin brighteners, glossing creams, amino acid chains, and cuticle sealants till I was dizzy. I think I was the last media person to leave. If the store were a bar, the lights would've been on, the music off, and the bartender yelling at me to get the hell out of there.

C.O. Bigelow supposedly encourages sampling--at least they did at the preview, though they were germ freaks about it, using tiny plastic spatulas to dispense pinhead-size drops of cream onto the back of my hand, never the palm. But I went to their outpost in Schaumburg at Woodfield Mall last Thursday, the day it opened to the general public, and I got the impression they really didn't want me touching their pretty things. The employees were sweet and helpful, though a few seemed quite bewildered by all the products around them. But they weren't keen on handouts, and they were watching me like they thought I might steal something.

I'm usually a hippie when it comes to beauty products--if it's made from jojoba and clove extract, I'll take it. But now I don't know. This $100 Juvena eye serum I've been using for the past week, made with something called Skin Nova Technology, might seem like a rip-off--and it is--but it works, dammit. Three days after I started using it I was at a party and some 19-year-olds asked me what school I go to. When I told them I'm 28 they seemed almost grossed out. "Wow," one of them said. "I think what makes you look so young is your eyes." When my free sample runs out I might actually have to pony up for more.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Andrea Bauer.

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