By Jordy Yager - 10/19/10 10:57 PM EDT
As they stand in front of television cameras for their final debates and greet hundreds of voters face to face, many candidates turn to the experts to mask their anxiety, sleep deprivation and age.
“If you don’t look healthy, if you look sickly or tired, these are things that people judge you by if they’re just looking at you and not listening to you,” said Barbara Lacy, who has been Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s makeup artist for more than a dozen years. “If you’re walking by a newspaper or a television set, you’re looking at the picture and not necessarily at the content. It speaks. And that’s why you need makeup.”
Politicians’ facial appearance is so vital to their election that makeup artists, such as Pam Bass, have become associated with the winning candidates’ faces and are sought out by other rising stars who are chasing success at the polls.
Bass has done the makeup for every winning Mississippi governor’s campaign since 1990, including Republican Gov. Haley Barbour, she said.
Bass said a friend of hers recently told her that word is out in the Mississippi political world that “if you want to win, go get Pam, and if you want to lose, just don’t use her.”
Politicians’ faces, Bass explained, are often fraught with sunspots from being out on the campaign trail too long (or playing golf too much), heavy circles under their eyes from not getting enough sleep and the natural sagginess that comes with age.
Bass said every skin flaw is more pronounced on television and even the best skin won’t look good under the unkind lighting in television news studios or campaign-advertisement sets.
“I look for how I can take that away and hide that double chin to make it so when people look at them they’ll say, ‘Wow, I want to vote for that person. They look like they’re taking care of themselves. They look healthy; they look natural; they don’t look fake,’ ” Bass said in a telephone interview from her Mississippi home.
But, as Lacy observed while traveling with Clinton during her bid for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, there’s a fine line between making a candidate look good and making her look like she’s wearing makeup, which can be just as much of a distraction.
“My whole job was to make sure that people weren’t focused on [Clinton’s] face,” she said. “Her face can’t be a distraction. And that means just looking good and healthy and rested.”
The key to makeup, Lacy said, is to have it be barely noticeable.
“You’re noticing that the person really looks good, and you’re not really sure why, so you keep staring at them. And that’s the art,” she said. Lacy, a Maryland resident, also does entertainment makeup and was headed to the Washington set of “Transformers 3” shortly after the phone interview.
Political makeup dates back to 1960, during the first televised presidential debates, between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy. Those who only listened to the debate said they thought Nixon did the better job. But those who watched the debate said Kennedy won. While Nixon had declined to be made-up, Kennedy had worn makeup and looked like the healthier and more vibrant candidate, reports said afterward.
“Nixon’s the one who gave makeup artists work,” said Lacy, explaining that from that moment onward, politicians understood the need to have makeup when they appeared on television.
Outside of the facial artists themselves, no one knows the importance of a good makeup artist better than political consultants who are hired to ensure a candidate’s successful campaign.
Sarah Flowers is the vice president of the LKK Partners group, which has handled the campaigns of Sens. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Reps. Walt Minnick (D-Idaho), Peter Welch (D-Vt.) and Kathy Castor (D-Fla.), among others.
Flowers said a campaign spends most of its money on television ads so that the candidate can reach the broadest audience. It’s vital, she said, that candidates look natural and accessible to voters, but the irony is that they are using a medium that tends to make them look worse than they really do.
“We’re taking a 3-D face and putting it in a 2-D world,” said the Washington-based Flowers. “You need to add definition to cheekbones and eyebrows and eyeliner that you don’t need to naturally in real life.”
Flowers said the goal isn’t to make candidates look like someone they aren’t, “but you want to bring out those things that are most attractive about someone, whether it’s their eyes or their stature.”
But even good makeup has its flaws — the expense that politicians have to justify.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) received criticism for reportedly spending more than $5,500 on the makeup services of Tifanie White — an artist known for her work on “American Idol” — less than two months before the 2008 presidential election.
And Clinton got some heat after she paid Lacy $3,000 for makeup work before shooting a video for her presidential campaign, according to the New York Post.
While any spending that can seem unnecessary is open to attack, makeup artists and political consultants agree that makeup is becoming more accepted in the political world, especially with the advent of high-definition (HD) television.
“HD was a huge game-changer,” Flowers said. “You can see all the different layers of skin; you can get down to the wrinkles. And the kind of makeup that looks good on an HD lens is very different from what you’d wear to go out to dinner.”
Even many male politicians who have been less open to having makeup put on their faces are warming to the idea, Bass said. She’s made up Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) and former Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.).
When Cochran and Lott were in Mississippi for the opening of the Nissan North America plant in 2003, Bass had just finished applying makeup to Lott when she noticed that Cochran had declined to have any on his face. But after seeing what she had done with Lott, he soon changed his mind, she said.
“Thad said, ‘Pam, I’m going to have to come sit in that chair of yours because everyone’s walking out of there looking better than when they came in, and there’s no way I’m going to let Trent show me up on TV,’ ” Bass said.