Beauty Road-Test: KO Nailpolish
Paint it Black
Back in them olden days, the desire was for a look that made people shudder, or at least notified clearly in no uncertain terms that we were not one of “Them”! We were not part of their system of conformity. Everyday household items became a means to expressing these sentiments. Our rage combined with our fashion, and safety-pins that had once held up our diapers were now appropriated as accessories to hold together clothes or an earlobe. No-income sensibilities found creative usage for sharpies beyond tagging up LOUD FAST RULEZ on subway walls. A quick scribble on fingernails was decorative but did not accommodate a manicured pampered look. These nails were Mad Max’ish FLAT BLACK, no glitz, no gloss. And for a change-up, painting WhiteOut was the perfect antidote to those preppy girls being pretty in pink. For spice, a bit of yellow highlighter leant an ambiance of, “we will survive in the gutter better than you yuppie scum!”
Eventually, black nailpolish became the Vogue must have, but for us early punks who got our asses kicked for daring to sport dry marker on their nails, seeing models pose in Chanel’s black-polish felt somehow heathen! But we also knew, they still didn’t get it right. Our nails weren't a mirror for the soul -- all shimmer and shine with their glossy counterfeit black. Our ink was the certitude of tenebrous bleakness. Ours was the dead end we felt was offered us -- as the Sex Pistols gospel held it, “No Future For You!”
But then, something happens if you don't hit an early extermination. Suddenly you find yourself in your 30s or 40s and pink doesn't look so bad anymore. Actually it’s kinda cute. Maybe. And coating your nails with sharpies just doesn't have the same Raison D'Etre when you’re helping your child with homework and preparing school lunches. And you start to care that walking around with the scent of WhiteOut on your fingers might make other parents think you are a low-rent glue sniffer.
When my son was five and his new playground pals gathered round me to point at the piercings in my nose, eyebrow, under chin, and around my ear, and inquire loudly why I had metal in my face, the last bit of visual punk in me stepped aside. I always thought I’d raise a punk rock kid, but this is not how my punk ethic needed to express itself -- humiliating my son.
I have had only two manicures in my life, when it was a gift from someone else. I found it painful to sit and have someone I didn't know hold my hand with the touch of a loved one. They didn't want to converse, they wanted me to soak my hands in the pretend Palmolive, act pampered, and shut up. I didn't dig any of the colors they had on their wall for me to pick either. I suppressed the desire to ask for the marker that the receptionist was using to label plastic bottles. I just did cliche red and felt like a harlot sell-out.
Then one day my friend, the iconic makeup artist Mike Potter, pops on me that he is making nailpolish, and before I can sputter, “Et Tu, Bruté,” he pulls out what looks like a small flashlight. He says nothing, just takes my hand in his as a beloved would, twists the top, and the magic wand is painting. And it's a Proust Madeleine moment, I was a teen living by wits in New York City with street punk on my finger. I look up with him, tears welling in my eyes. He smiles, the arch grin of Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka: I make the impossible possible. This is necromancy in a bottle -- pure flatte black is here! It even applies like the spongy sharpie head, uniform, no brush strokes. It’s so innovative that if your nails were painted with this stuff and Matisse happened to time travel and was strolling by a café where you happened to be nursing a macchiato, well, he would stop dead in his tracks and do a portrait of the being who had managed to display gouache on, as the dictionary calls it, “the flattish horny part on the upper surface of the tip of each finger.”
It wasn't a stunner to find out Potter was christening his line K.O. -- as in Knock Out. It was Rock'em Sock'em Robots to me, I was floored.
And then it got better.
He took out another flashlight. He took my other hand. I closed my eyes.
I felt the vague dampness glaze my fingernail. After I opened my eyes the tears jumped ship and gushed down my cheeks.
“OH, oh! It’s WhiteOut! With highlighter mixed in" -- but not the look of yellow snow. It’s called Powder and it glows, but in a matte way.
“Who can take a rainbow...”
The punches kept ah’coming. He did my pinkies in Liberty-– the color of an old school oxidized penny or our lady of the harbor.
The sound of flip-flops, the pungent scent of chlorine filled my nostrils as the color of damp cement was spread on my middle fingers, it is called Flatte Top.
The Coup De Grace hit my toenails, red of the cheap splatter film color, getting its point across, vivid but no gratuitous shine. It is fittingly named after its inspiration, Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.
For the first time I have given a gift of PINK nailpolish to a grown woman. But with KO’s Calamine, I did not have the icky feeling that I was colluding against the feminist movement. It’s a decoration in remembrance of things past -- when that pigment of red mixed with a lot of white covered all mosquito bites. I could feel my momma dabbing it on with a cotton ball and uselessly admonishing, “Don’t scratch.”
With his his trunk-sized Louis Vuitton suitcase of makeup and brushes spread before him, Mike Potter conjures legends. He is the artist that created the famous Hedwig look for the film Hedwig and the Angry Inch. He’s the one who makes the lives of photoshop experts at Vogue a lot simpler. The only problem with being a patron of Potter is that there's no way you could ever try this at home. Potter doesn't just apply makeup, he transforms you. “How can I bottle you?!” was the constant plea his clients would pout, knowing they'd return to postmidnight Cinderellas.
Somehow Mike Potter found a way to bottle the reconstructing of who we are through our memories. I look at my nails, and it is the richness of printing ink dried. It is a teen girl encountering the world with the same passion that black absorbs in the universe and hides within. It was punk, it was a communal sense of hope within despair, a reminder that anything is possible. We will be heard. All captured in a bottle that looks like a flashlight.