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October 8, 2008

Good in Red

Naked without her ruby lipstick, beauty queen Poppy King mouths off about the look that's changed her life.

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Photo Credit: T. Schierlitz/Getty

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If I were a superhero, red lipstick would be my cape. With it, I feel confident, proud, empowered. Without it, I'm invisible.

My romance with red started when I was 11. Growing up in Melbourne, Australia, with just one older brother, I was a somewhat lonely child. Pale and petite, I worshipped my glamorous mother and desperately wanted to be grown-up. Then I discovered lipstick. It was a blood-red Biba shade from my mother's vanity, and it made me feel instantly feminine. Well, as womanly as one can be at 11.

The moment I finished high school, I started wearing red exclusively. I rushed out and bought a tube of Helena Rubinstein Autumn Red - a perfect, rich, brick hue that was creamy and subtly scented with French perfume. It symbolized freedom and my first opportunity to stake a claim to womanhood. I felt such a surge wearing it that I started my own lipstick brand - called Poppy, naturally - just six months later. And for the next decade, I traveled the globe, shilling my tubes and pots. Being that this was the early '90s, the genesis of the lip-gloss era, the brand became best known for its glosses, despite my fierce personal loyalty to lipstick. I never did anything public - give a speech, have a business meeting, board an airplane - without my signature red.

CELEBRITY LIPSTICK GUIDE: Who's in Club Red?

When I shut down my line and moved to New York 12 years later, it was this devotion to red lipstick that helped me establish a community: Women - many of whom I now call friends - would approach me asking about the shade; children would smile at me; men would holler, "Work those red lips, gorgeous!"; shopkeepers and restaurant owners would remember me for my five-alarm pout. In some circles, people were more familiar with my Lipstick Queen moniker (the name of my current lip-product line) than with my actual first name.

While this did wonders for my business, relationships were a different story. I could always trust that the men attracted to red lips weren't afraid of a woman's sexuality; rather, they encouraged it. But it's a love/hate dynamic. One boyfriend, accustomed to a lipstick-free smooch before our outings, knew things were over when I opened my front door one afternoon, already clad in my red. And I'm never surprised when the same men who initially adored the rouge ask me to stop wearing it as things get serious; they don't appreciate the attention it draws. For me, it's a no-brainer at that point: Lose the man, keep the lipstick.

Regardless of the changes in my love life, my work, my family, and even the hemisphere where I choose to live, red lipstick has never disappointed. It has been my constant. Wearing it has helped me find the courage to do many things that I never knew I was capable of, from starting my own businesses to writing books. Yet more important than the big stuff, this bold stroke has shown me that it's in pursuing simple everyday actions that true heroics can be found.

Ultimately, red lipstick is to women what sports cars are to men: an icon of lust that leaves them asking, Can I pull it off? To which I say, Of course you can.

FIND A SIGNATURE RED: Red Lipstick Guide

Lipstick 101

  • In general, fair coloring looks best with a bright, yellow-based red; blue-based, pinky reds suit darker skin and hair.
  • Red lipstick is best applied straight from the tube on smooth, bare lips. Blot with a tissue, then apply a dab more.
  • If you can't find a lip liner that matches your lipstick exactly, then opt for some concealer around the outside of the lips prior to application.
  • To avoid looking like you've just walked off a stage (or out of the '80s), always pair bold red lips with little or no eye makeup.


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