Dominic Cadogan On Finding Peace In The Ritual Of Putting A Face On

Lately, I have been thinking a lot about Greek mythology; in particular, the story of Narcissus. This cautionary tale describes a handsome man, one so beautiful that he was uninterested in any potential suitors – in some versions it’s the nymph Echo; in others, a young man named Ameinias – and spurned all their advances. As punishment, he was tricked into falling in love with his own reflection, which unsurprisingly cannot love him back, and he ultimately perishes, leaving behind the blooms of the same name.

It’s a fable that seemingly warns of a life of solitude promised to anyone who dares to admire their own visage – the Ancient Greeks were highly superstitious and believed that one’s reflection could bring death. Or, at the very least, you would be branded a narcissist: a loaded term which our tragic anti-hero lends his name to. The story has been on my mind in answer to a repeated question that a nagging voice in the back of my mind keeps asking: “Am I a narcissist?” Naturally, a real narcissist wouldn’t even entertain such a thought, but the concern is born from a recent, sharp about-turn in my nature, where I went from ambivalence to being entirely preoccupied with my physical appearance – namely my face.

Woefully, up until this recent revelation, I had never considered myself beautiful: a statement which is not meant to inspire pity, but allude to the disappointing reality of growing up in an age of Photoshopped picture perfection and concealed celebrity cosmetic procedures. Now, after years of finding my face unremarkable, I now find myself stealing a glance in every reflective surface I pass and toting a miniature MacBook-shaped pocket mirror in my handbag in case of emergency gazing. Hello, gorgeous!

This journey of self-discovery began in another life, pre-pandemic, when I was a fledgling beauty editor in the midst of another chaotic London Fashion Week. Enticed by an iridescent purple shimmer inside a Morphe palette, I hurriedly smeared the pigment across my lids with my fingers before dashing out of the door to the Fashion East show. I felt ethereal and otherworldly as I coquettishly peered out into the world with brand new eyes, though without primer, the glamour quickly faded, my seemingly unsupportive, sweaty eyelids working overtime to revert me back to my ordinary self.

Despite my intrigue, the siren call of make-up was one that I had long ignored, a luxury I wouldn’t afford myself before coming to terms with being non-binary, as if razor-sharp winged eyeliner or a seductive smoky eye were flashing neon signs announcing: “GENDER DEVIANT HERE!” Yet, into the beauty realm I ventured, in search of this powerful, transformative feeling I had stumbled upon, finding hidden treasure in the jewel tones of eyeshadow palettes that seductively whispered my name.

Locked away in my bedroom each night after work, I would paint my face as beautifully as I dared. Harsh, unblended colours, wonky liner and fighting an ongoing (losing) battle with glitter, my first timid beauty steps were unassuming and endearingly juvenile, though gazing in the mirror at my handiwork, I felt as if my face had been beat by the legendary Dame Pat McGrath herself.

“It’s ritualistic and very calming doing your make-up,” asserts fellow make-up aficionado (and artist) Sean Brady, who began experimenting on himself during the pandemic and now counts assisting make-up master Thomas de Kluyver on Simone Rocha and Gucci as a handful of his beauty accolades. “I do it to look different or interesting, so it doesn’t feel self-indulgent or selfish, it feels more creative and cathartic than that.”

The further down the rabbit hole I fell, I too discovered limitless opportunities on who or what I could be. As a secret sci-fi nerd, I imagined my outlandish make-up looks existing somewhere outside of our galaxy: the rhinestones encircling my eyes could be worn by Prime Minister Lama Su of Kamino from Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones, the sharp lines of my cat eyes belonging to the menacing Bene Gesserit of Dune and the sparkling black glitter that outlined my singular red iris was (in my mind at least) a yassified version of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator.

As far-reaching as my irregular inspirations were, the mundanity of everyday life transformed before my eyes into a fruitful source of beauty too. I giggled to myself knowing the shape and colour of a glossed brown look was inspired by a coffee bean, while the hot pink and electric blue graphic liner exactly matched a soda can I’d seen in the corner shop near my house. I wondered if anybody would notice that the strategically placed crystals mimicked the eight-eye cluster of a huntsman spider or that the delicately curling lines I’d drawn took inspiration from a calligraphy video I swiftly swiped past while in a TikTok hole.

Dominic wears top by RICHARD QUINN

“I ventured down the path of make-up trying to find out who I was as a person,” says Elliott Banks on their make-up aspirations – artistry that last year made it to the Super Bowl of beauty, the BBC’s Glow Up, to be scrutinised by the dynamic duo Val Garland and Dominic Skinner. “I didn’t want my work to be gendered, so I painted myself different colours and erased any masculine or feminine features. It’s very inhuman and more about being a mood or emotion.”

For me, make-up was a disguise, not to conceal or conform but, rather, to cosplay as the best version of myself, one I was yet to meet before that point, as if my sparkling eyelids were a superhero mask. I honed my skills and refined my craft, evolving into softer blends, perfectly symmetrical wings and not a speck of glitter out of place.

Slowly, for the first time in 27 years, beauty – a convoluted concept that had previously made me shudder when uttered – felt within reach… and the world around me began to notice. “You are the most beautiful person in the room,” gushed a stranger at the blackout performance of Jeremy O. Harris’s brilliant play “Daddy”. I felt like it too, my eyes delicately outlined with glittering red devil horns.

Though, as I outwardly radiated beauty, the ugliness of the world was sometimes reflected back at me. I was taunted, teased and, on occasion, terrorised by men I would encounter in the wild. “Ugh… faggot,” my seat neighbour on the Piccadilly line exclaimed, with the disgust of somebody who had uncovered a maggot-covered compost heap, at the mere sight of me applying lip gloss, before moving as far away as the carriage would allow. In that moment, I felt less of a make-up maven and more of a Buffalo Bill.

A deeper, nagging feeling persisted, a reminder that, frankly, it’s a terrifying time to be visibly queer in the UK right now: the 2020/21 reporting year saw 18,596 sexual orientation hate crimes, and those were only the ones recorded. Whether day or night, I scurried to and from the city with oversized Prada sunglasses on to hide my art and carried a break-in-case-of-emergency supply of micellar water and cotton pads if I needed to erase it for my safety. While furiously scrubbing away a holographic, figeater, beetle-inspired look on a train hurtling out of Waterloo, I thought about kohl-wearing ancient Egyptians and the fabulously pompous eighteenth-century men known as Macaronis and wondered when male-presenting figures donning make-up had been downgraded from a signifier of wealth and intelligence to something to be ashamed of.

Even the Neanderthals understood the power of self-adornment, using minerals such as haematite and pyrite to create colourful pigments for their faces. I questioned whether or not it was the medium of make-up – a kaleidoscope of colours and shining rhinestones – or, rather, the act itself, the final result a testament of time spent in front of the mirror preening myself. When I applied make-up in public, or regularly checked it in my compact to make sure it remained pristine, I recognised the same look of derision given to women who dare to apply beauty products anywhere other than in private at their vanity mirror. Much like Narcissus, I thought, I was finding myself punished for appreciating my visage, though inside, I knew the connection was deeper than that.

“When you are doing make-up on yourself you spend so much time on it, and when you’re staring in the mirror at yourself, it’s a therapeutic moment of self-reflection,” says Banks. “You can shut out everything else on the outside.” Similarly, beauty became a safe space solely for me. Even on the days when I wasn’t wearing make-up, I luxuriated in getting ready. Standing in front of the mirror gently massaging Augustinus Bader’s The Cream into my face with my fingertips, I noted every crease, fold and wrinkle that made up the complexity of my face – a canvas that was uniquely mine and the foundation for the make-up that followed.

Now, when I look at myself in the mirror, I’m not met with critical eyes that envision necessary nips and tucks, or even doleful ones that wish for a totally different face altogether. Instead, I see confidence and contentment, knowing that regardless of the kaleidoscope of colours or crystals adorning my face, I’m living authentically as myself and nothing is more beautiful than that. “Make-up is such a true expression because it’s literally your creation,” muses Brady on its elusive power. “When you’re pursuing something with passion and drive, people will respect you. You give them no other choice.”

Similarly indignant, I’m continuing on the pursuit of beauty, my eyes lined in bright fuchsia or punctuated with sparkling rhinestones, with compact in hand for mandatory reflection-gazing. After an arduous climb to the summit of Mount Everest to find enlightenment, why the hell wouldn’t I stop to admire the view?

Photography by Joshua Tarn. Taken from Issue 56 of 10 Men – PEACE, COURAGE, FREEDOM – out now. Purchase here. 

@dominic.cadogan

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