In 1986, during my first month of college at SUNY Purchase, I spotted a woman on campus wearing the most beautiful, fire-engine-red lipstick — and no other makeup. Just the lipstick. She had curly brown hair, parted on the side just like mine, and her red lips made a singular statement. I walked right up to her and got the name of the lipstick: Estée Lauder’s Parallel Red.
Until this point, I’d only seen girls wear glossy light pink, frosted pink or iridescent pink gloss. No one that I knew wore bold, red colors even though I grew up in NYC. The only strong red lipstick I had seen was my Mom’s stage makeup.
As soon as I could get to a department store, I bought it. From that day on I never wore another lip color or any other makeup. I didn’t need eye makeup or blush; this red was enough to light up my whole face. I wore it everywhere: to see bands, to grocery shop. Because there were two Alisons in my water aerobics class I became known as “Alison with the red lipstick.”
I was already a pro at how to wearlipstick. My mom, a ballerina for the Metropolitan Opera, had instructed me to blot my lipstick, which helped to keep it on your lips, and keep it even and matte.
As a child I’d spend many evenings sitting behind my mom as she sat at “her place” in the ladies dressing room at The Met. She had a small cubicle, a flat counter and a mirror with strips of white globe bulbs lining either side. The counter was always covered in pancake, pots of lipstick, lip pencils and lip brushes, eye pencils and tons of bobby pins. The room smelled like women’s sweaty tights and makeup. I watched as she applied her stage makeup; after applying her lipstick she always bit a tissue with her lips.
I always loved being at “the theater,” as my Mom called it. In the dressing room the other dancers loved me like aunties. I would visit some of them at their “places” and walking three rows over to the other end of the dressing room felt like an adventure.
Makeup had long been important in my family — you never left the house “without your face on,” according to my grandmother. My mother, assertive and assured, could barely talk to someone if she was preoccupied with how they looked and she’d tell them if they had lipstick on their teeth.
Maybe I inherited this trait. When I see a woman on the subway with a foundation way too dark, or way too yellow for her completion, I always have the urge to say something — thankfully, I never do.
My lipstick skills did evolve, and I had help from a pro. In 1998, while catering a party for makeup artist Trish McEvoy, Trish walked right up to me, staring at my lips. She wanted to know whose lipstick I wore and when I told her, she told me to use a liner. I told her that liners dried my lips, but she said to cover the whole lip with it instead of just outlining it and then wear the lipstick over the liner. She also taught me to stick my finger in my mouth and to pull it out to prevent lipstick on my teeth. Both really work! I used a Chanel red lip liner for years until that was discontinued five years ago. Sigh! Now I use Bobbi Brown’s red pencil that has a touch of avocado oil to make it less drying.
This new liner tip allowed me to keep my lipstick in place all day — as long as I didn’t bite into big sandwiches or eat oily salads. From this point on, one lipstick would last me about a year.
This color became my trademark and strangers complimented me, regularly. Women on the subway still stop to say that it’s a good color for me.
In 1999 or 2000 I went to Bloomies to buy a new Parallel Red and was stunned to hear that the lipstick color had been discontinued. I was crushed. That week I happened to cater a gala at the Whitney Museum for Leonard Lauder, Estee’s son. I told my story to his personal assistant and she took out a post-it and wrote down a woman’s name and her telephone number.
She said, “This is the woman who we send all of our discontinued products to. Call her. She’s in Long Island. Tell her that I sent you.”
She pressed the note into my palm as if it was a secret and I never shared the number with anyone else.
When I called, a woman answered, without hesitation I gave her my credit card number and asked her to send me as many Parallel Reds as she could find. I got about 16 of them (this is what credit cards are for). Soon after I saw my cousin who works in the makeup business and when I told her how many I had in my apartment, she said to store them in my fridge. I have ever since and they are always as good as new.
Obviously, conservation is key: I always use a lipstick brush to scoop out as much lipstick as I can from the bottom of every one. I can’t throw out the empty shiny gold cases so they pile up on my kitchen counter, on my desk, in my top dresser drawer, looking a little bit like my mom’s old makeup desk at the Met.
I never loved anything as much as I loved this color. And I never could imagine having the patience or interest to change my lipstick color according to what I’m wearing.
I learned I wasn’t the only one with a lipstick obsession. In 2016 I wandered into the store Patricia Field and Patricia was there, wearing a similar bright red lip — we fixated on each other’s lips. She took the tiniest weathered box out of her pocket and slipped it open to reveal a skinny piece of red lipstick wrapped in wax paper and a tiny brush. It was a Shiseido color that was only available in Japan. She was conserving and preserving like me.
It’s 20 years later and I am down to two. TWO! The woman in Long Island had sent me all she had.
I have been dreading this moment for a long time and am seeking a replacement. I’ve tried Sephora cream lip stain 01, a similar bright red that leans to blue but it dries my lips and is expensive because it doesn’t last.
MAC has a red that mightwork: Red Rock Matte. I tried it on and went outside to see it in the daylight. Hot tip: ALWAYS do this before you buy a new lipstick. I decided to buy it. Hours later it was still on — a plus. It feels nice and isn’t sticky or drying, two more plusses. We’ll see how it goes.
Over the last five or so years I’ve tried leaving the house without lipstick on. It elicits strange reactions from friends. They’ll ask, “Is everything ok?” or “Is this your new look?” They’re confused.
Up until my 40s I didn’t have the confidence to go outside and stand up to people without lipstick on. Now at 50 I am way less worried about being seen with a pale lip.
Honestly though, I know that everything is better with bright red lips.