How this New York City editor discovered the power of red lipstick

In The Beauty Breakdown ELLE talks to beauty obsessives about their desert-island beauty reccos, the experts on their speed dial, and everything they’ve learnt in their pursuit to achieving happy skin. This edition features Iva Dixit, audience editor at The New York Times Magazine.

ELLE: Tell us about yourself and your first brush with make-up?

Iva Dixit: I was born in Patna, I grew up across Trivandrum, Bhubaneshwar, Kolkata, Dehradun and New Delhi. I now live in New York with my three cats and I am an editor at The New York Times Magazine. My teen years were spent in Welham Girls’ School in Dehradun, an all-girls boarding school where I failed spectacularly at sports and learned that no one fights as dirty (literally and metaphorically) as teenage girls steeped in familial wealth. Living in this strictly regimented environment meant that even the slightest hint of vanity was forbidden — anything beyond the militaristic neatness of hair and appearance that we were supposed to always adhere to was treated like committing a felony, and we were watched for any signs of those with the all-knowing ominousness of an authoritarian surveillance state.

Wearing even a smidge of eyeliner on your waterline was one of the most egregious rules you could violate, which of course meant that we were all looking for any opportunity to turn ourselves into raccoons with melted stubs of Lakmé kajal. It wasn’t until I got a job assisting as a stylist on shoots for ELLE India actually, when I saw the precision and fineness with which true make-up artists, like Deepa Verma or Subhash Vagal worked on faces like Kareena Kapoor’s and Katrina Kaif’s, and then it hit me that oh, you are not actually supposed to thickly outline your entire eye in jet black waxy scrawls like you’re a toddler learning to draw? You don’t need to ham-handedly spackle on foundation all over the face like it’s an old wall getting a makeover in a Nerolac paint ad? Huh.

In 2011, I was assisting on a shoot where Lakshmi Menon was the model, and mid-conversation with the stylist and the make-up artist, I remember her saying that whenever she got married, her look was going to be “Kerala saree. Red mouth. Bare face.”  My very sheltered visual consciousness back then had been shaped by the years of overly-done up faces and industrial-strength Kanjeevarams of Ekta Kapoor TV serials, the overlined lips of the ’90s and frosty eyeshadowed browbones of the 2000s, so to 19 year-old-me, a line like that, uttered with just this throwaway shrug dripping with her quiet, casual, innate confidence — it was just the f***ing pinnacle of chic. That moment is imprinted as pure mythology in my brain.

Iva Dixit with Lakshmi Menon

ELLE: When did you start wearing make-up?

ID: The moment I started earning, the moment I could afford it, and the moment I started living independently enough for it to be no one’s business but mine. Possibly because no women in my family ever wore it and it gave my very conservative father the conniptions; possibly because my repressed boarding school equated it with the biggest sin you could commit; possibly because I had spent most of my childhood confined indoors, watching old Hindi films on Zee Cinema and mooning over Vyjanthimala’s insane eyeliner and pearly highlight in Amrapali; or possibly just because the idea of carrying colour and beauty on your corporeal being in an otherwise anodyne life brings me so much unbridled joy — I have always been absolutely, irrevocably obsessed with make-up.

At 16, I was acting in a stage musical directed by Ratna Pathak Shah, when for the first time I realized how calming it can be to take a few moments to physically tend to your face when your insides are churning with adrenaline and anxiety. Even now when I’m feeling restless, I’ll get up, watch some Lucia Pica videos and do a full eye look and then wipe it off, because it helps me feel more centred. I would have loved to become a make-up artist had the idea of pursuing it as a profession ever felt like a possibility in the very strictly regimented world I grew up in.

ELLE: Top picks from your beauty kit include…

0.1% Retin-A
I don’t care if it shreds my face like a cheese grater. I will go to my death a smooth, lineless cyborg, nary a nasolabial crinkle in sight, because of how religiously I use it.
Bioré Aqua Rich Sunscreen
All you need to know about my devotion to this sunscreen is that I’ve been using it for five years, but one time I was swayed enough to try a new one. I felt such a surge of residual guilt over betraying an inanimate object that had served me so well. How do people cheat on their spouses? I could barely cheat on my sunscreen.

Frédéric Malle Lipstick Rose
Frédéric picked this one out for me when I met him last year. It smells like generational wealth and the waxy lipstick worn by a widowed European grandmother.

I am going to cheat a bit and instead of naming just one (I tried, I could not pick only a single one), I am naming my favourites within the lipstick category:
Serge Lutens L’Etoffe du Mat lipstick in M3
There is a before and after to my life and it is divided by the day I found this wealth goth lipstick that has such depth and body to its blue-red colour that had hitherto only existed in my imagination.

Tom Ford Lipstick in Black Dahlia
A very adult cabernet colour that goes on like ASMR and fades so carelessly that you look as if you’ve been making out for hours with someone whose name you don’t remember.

Chanel Rouge Allure Velvet Extreme in Rouge Obscur
In the tube, it looks like the colour of brick left out in the sun at a construction site, but on me it goes on as a lovely muted pink, very reminiscent of the first-bloom-of-youth looks on Atonement-era Keira Knightley.

Nars Velvet Matte Lipstick in Cruella
For years I searched for a velvety bright scarlet (but with depth!) colour that I saw on Sade, in a picture of her wearing a red mouth, hoop earrings, and a billowy white shirt. Nars Cruella is that girl. I have run through five pencils of this colour since 2016.

– Armani Beauty Rouge D’Armani Matte Lipstick in 201 Nightberry
I call this my intimidation lipstick. I wear this when I want the other person to feel quietly threatened. It always works.

ELLE: What’s your biggest fixation when it comes to beauty?

ID:I seem to have made an alternate career of talking about my (formerly) acne-riddled face, and I probably should find another thing to talk about for the rest of my living years, but we would not be having this conversation if I still had the face I did five years ago. My cystic acne was vicious and painful, and several years of being on the (literally) bone-drying drug Accutane and 0.1% Retin-A were the only things that cured it.

ELLE: There are some pretty wild and obnoxious solutions for acne. What’s the strangest one you’ve tried?

ID: It was not as much an obnoxious solution as much as it was a botched attempt out of sheer frustration. When I was 22, one day before a job interview with an intimidatingly up-there fashion magazine that will remain unnamed, a volcano-sized cystic zit erupted right on my face. In the throes of desperation I decided to excavate it with the business end of a nail file. (Yes, you may look away now).

With the wisdom of age and hindsight that I possess now, I can safely say that even in a life scattered with many, many unwise decisions, this is by far one of the stupidest things I’ve ever done. I ended up giving myself an abscess wound in the face. When I saw the interviewer’s eyes keep darting to the not-yet scabbed-over hole in my left cheek, I knew I would not be getting the job.

ELLE: What’s your ideal self-care Sunday? 

ID: Oversleeping till far beyond what is considered civilized and then rewatching old Hindi films while my cats are curled up next to me.

ELLE: We love a good beauty DIY, what’s your favourite?
ID: My entire approach to maintenance is leaving the ‘D’ part to the professionals, and not trying to ‘IY’ anything after a few attempts that went terribly wrong (hyphenated eyebrows from overplucking, waxing disasters, more gross details in the next answer). I do however run my face a few times a week with Shiseido facial razors, which, contrary to the urban legends passed on through generations of threading parlours, does not make your facial hair grow back coarser.


Photographs: Iva Dixit




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