The Reluctant Pinup
Before today, I’ve never owned a tube of red lipstick. Or black eyeliner or blush, for that matter. My mother is among those natural beauties that require just a kiss from the sun to sparkle and glow. So I’m going to deflect a little of the blame onto her for my bemused, red-faced, hands-thrown-in-the-air approach to the art of makeup. Thanks, mom.
But I love femininity: flirty jewels, flowing dresses and retro threads that never, ever go out of style. So when the lovely LuLu Locks of Providence Pinup invited me for a mini session at her brand new salon, I couldn’t say no. Dress-up has always been my favorite game, even long into adulthood.
In the week before my session, I daydream about playing in the back room at LuLu’s Suite Tart salon, running my ink-smeared fingers along the most charming vintage duds in greater Providence. I’d already gotten a sneak-peek during its opening week in June — it’s a dual-purpose space, with a full-service salon and retail shop out front and a pinup studio in the back — and stared longingly at rolling racks stuffed with timeless finds, some glamorous, some provocative, some tactful and sweet.
Would I try a handsome printed dress from the ’50s with kitten heels? Or maybe a costume: Am I Air Force material, or maybe an Army gal? For backup, I brought along my favorite find of the year, a navy blue polka-dotted dress with a swooshing bell skirt. It makes me feel dreamy.
But on the drive to the salon, my thoughts turn to the eyeliner. And the faux eyelashes. And the red lipstick. Would they coat my already pink cheeks with blush? Over the years, I’ve sat on floors and on edges of bathtubs as my girlfriends painted my face with everything in their makeup drawers. I always ended up looking like Christina Aguilera on a bad day.
I think for a second about asking LuLu if I could just swoosh on my own mascara and start the fun stuff, but no. I need the full experience: retro makeup, hair and ensemble. I get out of the car and approach Suite Tart, a lovely old carriage house tucked away from the hustle of Broadway. It’s dreary and muggy outside and I don’t feel like it anymore. But I open the door anyway, and am greeted by a smiling and colorful LuLu, who beckons me to take a seat and relax for a bit while she finishes up with a client. Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” comes through the speakers, and I know I’ll be alright.
I’m not the only budding pinup in the room. Scattered about are pretty girls-next-door, getting their faces touched up by Providence Pinup makeup artists Shelby White and Brandon Ward. They really are artists, but I’ll get to that later.
Kathy Gearon, the woman behind the scenes who handles all the pinup and salon scheduling, tells me I’m in the company of the girls of the Narragansett Beer 2013 calendar. Kathy promptly offers me a beer, then gives me a tour around the shop. In display cases and on calendars, I see pictures of real Providence Pinup customers, which prompts me to ask: Who does this?
“All different types of women come through here. We even went out to an airbase in Quonset for a shoot,” she says. Women of all shapes, sizes and ages take part in Providence Pinup sessions, Kathy says, which range from $150 holiday specials to costly daylong shoots. One woman in particular, who works in the beauty industry and teaches stylists how to apply hair extensions, filled out an entire twelve-month calendar by herself. It’s never polite to ask a lady’s age, but I’d guess she was somewhere in her forties. And she looked incredible.
Before I knew it, LuLu was escorting me to her chair, ready to tame my unruly mass of blonde hair. She’s ecstatic; her team just got news of their Rhode Island Monthly Best of Rhode Island award (the Best Of issue is on newsstands August 3!). But this being our second meeting, I begin to realize that maybe she’s just this excited all the time. The woman loves what she does; she has a bubbling and contagious passion for making people feel beautiful.
Originally chartered for white-collar work, LuLu, a Coventry native, changed her course and became a stylist. Her inspiration grew from the beauty and poise of her grandmother, who taught her the mid-century styles she puts to use with Providence Pinup. She has since worked “behind the chair” as a hair stylist for eighteen years, and boasts credentials ranging from a professorship in RISD’s Continuing Education program to avant-garde styling for New York Fashion Week and StyleWeek Northeast. (Be sure to check out associate editor Jamie Coelho's profile on StyleWeek founder Rosanna Ortiz Sinel, also in the August issue.)
LuLu's skill set is clear; she transforms my humid-day hair into a springy set of curls in minutes. After that, she seats me next to Stephanie, an intern at Narragansett Beer and one of the 2013 calendar girls. I’m waiting for makeup, and she’s waiting for her shoot to begin. “I just love sitting back and watching all the girls get ready,” she says. “I’m so excited to see how it comes together.”
Stephanie’s dark hair is curled short Marilyn Monroe-style, and she looks fresh-faced and stunning. She tells me that while she works in the ’Gansett offices taking inventory and organizing events, she didn’t know she won the calendar contest until it was publicly announced. “I had all my friends on Facebook, my family and even my mom’s coworkers voting for me,” she says. “But I wasn’t allowed anywhere near the computer. The other intern would just give me a look and smile,” she says.
Stephanie runs off in a striped top and pencil skirt for her shoot, her classy, playful look constructed by Amy Lynn Budd, otherwise known as Lady Miss Iris of Rhode Island Burlesque Academy fame. I remain seated, sipping on a ’Gansett through a bright blue straw. Then, makeup artist Shelby White calls me up and starts to apply my foundation. In all the excitement, my typically pink cheeks have turned scarlet, and Shelby is awarded the arduous task of covering them up.
She’s worked for LuLu at Providence Pinup and Suite Tart for about eight months doing both hair and makeup; the pair met at StyleWeek. Shelby gives me some tips about achieving the retro pinup look: “It’s all about the cat eyes and red lipstick,” she says.
And so I move on to Brandon Ward for my pinup touches. An industry veteran, Brandon moved from Rhode Island to New York City to work for a spell with MAC, but returned to the Ocean State to team up with LuLu for Providence Pinup. He also moonlights as a wedding makeup artist.
He applies my eye shadow and blush, then goes in with a jet black cream eyeliner and mascara. This was my biggest fear of the day — A sharp, prickly object is b-lining for my eyeball. No biggie, right? — but an appropriately placed skylight treats my eyes to soaring birds and bits of sunlight piercing through the clouds.
I feel at ease when Brandon goes in with the false lashes. I know I’m in good hands; every so often, Brandon surveys my face, looking at me like a near-finished canvas. After applying lip liner and creamy red lipstick, he takes a step back and admires his work.
When I hop down from his chair and take the first look at my face, I’m seriously surprised. Brandon has awarded me the elusive smoky eye without that dark and primitive look. I still look like me, but a little bit more polished. Oh, that’s what makeup’s supposed to do.
Brandon says that with this hair and makeup, I should be spending the rest of my night at the Dorrance or Loie Fuller’s. After my day in the salon is done, I opt for the familiar Hot Club. The best part? I didn’t look too done up or out of place, even with a full face of makeup in a borderline dive bar.
I then head over with Amy Lynn to peruse my wardrobe options. She pulls a velvety leopard-print top and pencil skirt out from the cluster, but doesn’t seem enthused. Then she parts the hanging garments and pulls out a clingy black dress with red and white striped sleeves. It looks a little French, and I like it. “Nobody’s worn this yet,” Amy Lynn says, looking from me to the dress and back to me again. “Try this on first.”
I follow her command. When I emerge from behind the vintage Japanese folding screen, she says, “That’s it, you’re not trying anything else on.”
I’ve got a little time before my shoot, so I sit back and watch Amy Lynn in action. She’s a whirlwind, pinning necklaces and shifting skirts and choosing the perfect shoe to match 2013 ’Gansett girl Jessica’s animal-print outfit. She’s the girlfriend you’ve always dreamed of before a big night out: honest and straightforward with an impeccable eye. She doesn’t mess around with niceties. If an outfit doesn’t work, she finds something better.
It’s my turn in front of the camera, and Providence Pinup photographer Corey Grayhorse places me into all sorts of unnatural positions. LuLu mentioned earlier in the day that a pinup photo shoot doubles as an ab workout, but I didn’t believe it until Corey had me sitting on top of a tiny blue suitcase, with nearly all of my weight balancing on my tiptoes. “If it’s not uncomfortable, it’s not cute,” she says.
I can only imagine how uneasy I look in that one — but not any worse than when I was flat on my back with my legs kicked up at a seventy-five degree angle. I’m glad she didn’t send me those photos.
For each individual shot, Corey counts to three, then I’m supposed to smile. She also smiles at that moment; I’m not sure if it’s intentional, but the mirror grin makes this established Rhode Island photographer so much more tender and approachable, qualities that help coax out the inner pinup in even the most reluctant of gals.
After some prop and pose changes (the swirly pop was my favorite), I exhale, wiggle out of the sweet little French dress and say my goodbyes. I walk out into the fog wondering if this pinup look could work in the real world. Yes, I slipped into my blue polka-dotted dress and am headed to my favorite neighborhood bar, but this was a special day. I can’t do this every night, can I?
The following evening is the Best of Rhode Island party, and I’m lucky enough to host all of the winners in the awards room. LuLu, Kathy, Shelby and Brandon walk through the room to collect their “Best Vintage Makeover” plaque, and they look like stars. While Kathy and Brandon wear modern looks, LuLu rocks a red lip that matches her fiery hair and Shelby is stunning in the little French dress from the photo shoot. So it can be done, I think to myself, which is why I’ve invested in my very first tube of red lipstick.
For more information on Providence Pinup, visit providencepinup.com or call 272-8278.