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THE MAKEUP COUNTER : Power and Glory : The phrase, 'Can I help you with something?' raises persuasion and intimidation to a new height.


In this so-called Year of the Woman, when politicians are falling all over themselves to get any edge they can on their opponents, it's amazing to me that no one has thought to go to the women in this country who really could teach them a thing or two about power and influence.

No, not the women lobbyists on the hill.

Not the women executives in big business.

Not the wives of other politicians.

I'm talking about women who literally have the ability to change the face of the nation.

Yup, the women selling cosmetics in department stores.

You politicians out there can go ahead and flip the page if you want, but then you would miss out on what a lot of women shoppers have known for years: There is no one so powerful, so able to exert such a Svengali-like influence, more able to make a woman buy something she really doesn't want or need than the person standing behind a counter selling makeup.

This feat is accomplished not with great speeches or campaigns, but with a seemingly innocuous smile and six little words: "Can I help you with something?"

Oh, you can help me all right. You can help me by going away and leaving me completely alone. That's what the woman walking past the makeup counter wants to say. Instead, like a fly mesmerized by a beautiful web, she nods and points to something in the glass case.

Something she probably hadn't even considered buying until that moment.

In that saleswoman's presence, the dirt-brown eye shadow she pointed to wondrously becomes this season's richest earth tone, its color inspired by the soft nuances in rocks, stones and minerals. Applying it to the upper lid will produce a subtly seductive monochromatic look that doesn't shout, a look that is profoundly more luxurious and sophisticated than last season's colors that lacked presence. And for only $19.95.

She hands over her charge card.

Of course, there is always that moment when, like Cinderella at the stroke of midnight, reality sets in. If I could return all of the eyeliners, eye shadows, blushes, lipsticks and face powders that looked great in the store but ghoulish once I put them on at home, they probably would just about cover the Savings and Loan bailout.

The most perplexing question, of course, is:

Why would an otherwise intelligent woman and usually thoughtful buyer feel compelled to purchase a lipstick from a saleslady who has outlined her mouth an inch above her lip and then filled it in with a fuchsia-colored gloss? A product she knows from experience will end up in an unopened drawer with all the rest?

"A lot of women aren't familiar with the new products, and they get confused about what will look good on them because there are so many products to choose from," said Heather, a makeup artist from Santa Barbara who was giving complimentary "make-overs" last week at Buenaventura Mall.

Heather didn't want her last name printed in the newspaper because, she said, her father works for the CIA doing highly sensitive work in Iran, and if she gave her last name someone might kidnap her to get to him. I certainly didn't want that to happen. I had an appointment with her.

As I sat in the chair next to the makeup counter, Heather stared intently at my face. She then told me she was going to bring out my cheekbones and enhance my eyes.

"This season, the look is to bring out one feature that you have," she explained, pulling out what looked like a painter's palette. "So if you enhance your eyes, you play down your lips. If you play up your lips, you play down your eyes."

When she was through, I examined her handiwork. Above my eyes was a hazy orange shadow called "Sierra" and a darker brown shadow called "Walnut." I'd seen the same colors once when I had a bad case of the flu. On my mouth was a color of red my mother always said was worn by one kind of woman. But Heather said it looked great.

"Well?" she asked brightly.

Mechanically, I reached for my checkbook.

As I got into my car, I prayed that my face wouldn't melt onto the seat before I got back to the office. Then I thought about what could happen if the kind of power I had just witnessed were to fall into the wrong hands.

If politicians knew what women behind the cosmetics counter know, it could be a disaster. Not only could they make us vote for things we didn't want or need, but we'd enjoy every minute of it.

At least, until we got home.

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