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‘One customer said my colleague looked like a porn star’: my life as a makeup artist in badly behaved Britain

When I trained as a makeup artist 20 years ago, it felt like a glamorous, exciting career. My expertise was valued and I loved working with people to help them feel good about themselves. But all that has changed since the pandemic. I used to get a rude comment every few months; now, it’s at least once or twice a week.

I work on the makeup counter of a department store. Once, after handing a customer a mirror, I was told: “You’ve made my eyes look like sparkly ball bags!” I had spent 30 minutes perfecting the smoky eye she had requested and her horrible response felt really unnecessary. I had no idea what to say and the awkward atmosphere was unbearable. I have never been so relieved to see a customer walk out.

The job has always involved managing people’s expectations, but, thanks to the rise of social media, it has becoming harder to do that. I will be passed images of a heavily made-up, airbrushed Kim Kardashian and be expected to recreate the look, or told that I’m doing my job wrong because they have seen a teenager on TikTok doing it differently.

One customer requested a Disney princess look for her birthday party. I told her we didn’t have the right colours to achieve what she wanted, but offered an alternative. Throughout the makeover, she grilled me on my credentials, making me feel that I wasn’t good enough. I’ve had years of experience, but she was stressing me out so much that I was getting the sweats.

Another customer asked for a lipstick that was “nothing like the one you are wearing”. When I suggested she opt for a red colour similar to my colleague’s, she told us she didn’t want to look like a porn star. It’s as though people have lost the ability to censor themselves; they blurt out these rude, unfiltered comments, like real-life social media.

Since Brexit and the pandemic, we have run into more frequent stock issues, which drives people crazy. I have had so many people storm out because we don’t have what they want – one man even accused me of being “too lazy” to go to the stockroom when I offered to order the lipstick he wanted for his wife. I told him I was paid on commission and it was in my interests to sell products, but he didn’t believe me. I think people got so used to being able to order everything at the touch of a button during lockdown that they can’t cope with the real world.

One of the scariest changes is the rise in thefts. I feel sorry for those who are stealing things such as deodorant – I know many are struggling with the cost of living crisis – but we are also seeing more people taking expensive items and behaving in a really aggressive way. A few weeks ago, my colleague tried to prevent a man from stealing a bottle of perfume. He threatened her with violence if she didn’t let him go. Things like that are horrible, because you expect a department store to be pretty safe.

That said, there has been a positive flipside. Before the lockdowns, people would stay silent on the rare occasion that another customer was being rude. Now, I find that people are more confident to call them out on it or come over and check you are OK. It’s a good reminder that there are still plenty of polite, kind people out there.