Three women sifted through their makeup with a top makeup artist to learn how to look like a million bucks ― without spending another penny

By Real Simple
Updated January 30, 2009
Maira Kalman

“I’m a hippie at heart, but I need a look that’s pulled-together and polished for my job,” says Debra, an executive at a biotechnology firm. The catch? “I don’t want to spend more than three minutes trying to achieve it.”

The Strategy

Reevaluate what you really need. “Debra has great skin,” says Gita Bass, a makeup artist in New York City, “so she can skip foundation and just use her concealer.” Bass spot-applied Debra’s creamy stick cover-up on areas that were dark or red around her forehead, nose, and chin. Then Bass set it with an illuminating powder, which evens skin tone and deflects light off fine lines. The finishing touch: a sweep of warm apricot blush, which enhanced the golden undertone in Debra’s cheeks.

Give eye makeup another look. Debra’s eye-shadow palette was a smart purchase, according to Bass: “With its five neutral colors, she can create a natural look for the weekend, a smoky eye for night, and the daytime look we did here.” Bass applied a wash of bronze over Debra’s lids and dusted the milk-chocolate brown shadow close to her lash lines before blending it upward. She then wet a brush and lined Debra’s upper lashes with the darkest brown shadow, making the line thicker toward the outer corner of each eye and extending it up a bit to flatter Debra’s eye shape.

Use what you have in new ways. Debra had heard about brightening makeup, but she didn’t know which products to buy or how to use them. So Bass showed Debra how one of her eye shadows, a light, shimmery beige, could double as a highlighter (a pearlescent white or pink would work, too). Bass used a small shadow brush to apply the color in a tiny V shape around the corners of Debra’s eyes, near her nose. The result: an instantly awake look. Debra can also blend the same shadow along the tops of her cheekbones to highlight her skin.

Keep expiration dates in mind. Even with a small army of lipsticks, Debra rarely wore color on her lips. “Many of the formulas were far too dry,” she says. On closer investigation, Bass learned that several of the lipsticks were from (get ready) 1998, and a good percentage were discontinued. “Ten years is too long for any beauty product to perform like it’s meant to,” says Bass. She picked out the prettiest and creamiest (and newest) shades for Debra to keep―and wear.

Debra’s take: “I could do this whole look on the train ride to work. It makes a statement, but it’s also quick and easy.”