For some, a lipstick is just a lipstick. But for others, it's a source of strength, creativity, and expression. In our series Power Faces, we'll explore the relationship between strong women and the makeup they choose to wear — or not. Our latest subject is Refinery29 creative director and co-founder, Piera Gelardi. This story was told to Cat Quinn and edited for length and clarity.
My mom is a feminist, and she was very conscientious about how she raised me. She was constantly scouring the library for books that showed people with all different stories and had fierce women and girls as protagonists. On the beauty front, she never wanted me to feel like makeup was something that I needed to wear, or grooming or hair removal was something that I needed to do. She left all those things up to me to decide and to discover on my own — even if that led to some misadventures in beauty.
I remember going to a bar mitzvah when I was 12 years old. It seemed so fancy, and I was really excited about it, so I got into my mom’s mascara, lipstick, blush, and foundation. She’s two shades darker than I am, and it must have looked horrific. But when she got home, all she said was, “You might want to blend that into your neck.”
I used to wish my mom had taught me more about makeup. But now that I'm a mom myself, I more deeply understand and appreciate her approach. It's how she raised me overall: to discover my path in my own way.
I didn’t start wearing makeup until my late 20s. Maine, where I grew up, is not the most exuberant place in terms of fashion and makeup. When you go to the Salvation Army, where I’ve been eight million times, you’re finding vintage Talbots and L.L. Bean. Still, as a teen, I dressed very expressively and wore go-go boots, wigs, sequins, and space buns — it being the ‘90s and all.
When I moved to New York, I started to gain more exposure to people expressing themselves through makeup. My roommate was a go-go dancer and friends with a lot of drag queens and club kids, and I got really into nightlife. My roommate’s friend, Astro Earl, was a hairstylist, and he would give me these wild haircuts with kitchen scissors and do this really dramatic, colorful eye makeup on me before we went out. I used to joke that I was their little doll.
It would be all of us pre-gaming and getting ready, and then going out to a lot of gay parties, like Foxy Fridays at The Cock and Beige at B Bar. Wearing dramatic looks to go out gave me extra bravado to do the big dance moves or sweet talk the bouncer into letting me skip the line. At that time in my life, I was exploring so much about myself; beauty became a tool for self discovery and an external symbol of internal transformation.
I also think my love of Halloween and getting dressed up in costumes made me more confident in trying thing and more excited about the artistic opportunities of makeup. It's now become a playground to experiment with new shades of self expression, and a lot of the daring looks I've worn for Halloween end up reappearing in my everyday life. I never took any makeup classes or watched beauty tutorials; it’s more about applying the basics of art school to my face. With my costumes and my makeup, you wouldn’t want to look too closely — it’s never perfect or expert technique, but I have fun with it.
When I was younger, I would be out so late that my work look was basically day-after eye smudges and maybe some tinted moisturizer. (Fortunately, I worked in a liberal environment.) Some days, I wouldn’t even go home. Then, in my late 20s and early 30s, I started wearing the red lip. When I wore it for the first time, I was like, Who is she? It gave me this new perception of myself. It sounds cliché to say, but it does make me feel powerful — like I have my shit together and am fearless. It’s become my signature.
In meetings and presentations now, I feel like my magic power is in being the most me. If someone is looking for a business woman in a grey suit with natural makeup, they’re not going to find that here. I embraced being myself and a representative of our company. I do wear a lot of suits, but they’re bright-blue plaid or hot pink, and I pair them with graphic T-shirts. I want to look powerful and in charge, but I do it in my way —and that’s with a red statement lip.
Even recently, when I had my daughter, Viva, and was on parental leave, I felt compelled to put the red lip on every day — which feels so counterintuitive to being home with an infant. Because becoming a mom is such a tremendous identity shift, putting on the red lip became my anchor to my old self as my new self was emerging. Motherhood can demand so much of you, and the red lip was my way of making room for myself in the equation. It was an active form of self care, and I got really good at doing it while holding a baby.
I’ve had dark circles my entire life. My first memory of them is my grammy telling me that I needed to go to bed because I was tired and had dark circles under my eyes. That was something she always said, but as I got older and looked back, I realized they’re just a permanent part of my face that I got from my dad.
I don’t know why people feel compelled to tell others that they look tired, but it’s something that’s pointed out to me constantly, despite the fact that I have a ton of natural energy and am very rarely tired. I didn’t really feel comfortable without makeup for a long time. I would even wear makeup when I went to the hospital for surgery, and didn’t want to hang out in my own home with my husband without wearing it. Obviously he has seen me without makeup on — I just always assumed that he thought I looked better with it. But then I realized it was really me that felt that way.
In the past year, I became a mom and I turned 39. Both brought up a lot of new emotions for me. I could feel my identity actively shifting, and I fought it at first. We also moved apartments this year and, in moving, I unearthed photos of myself from the past. Looking at photos of past Piera, I realized she was so self conscious about her appearance — she never smiled in photos because she didn't like her crow’s feet or her teeth, and she never thought she was beautiful.
And I was like, 21-year-old Piera, you’re so beautiful and amazing and cool — and look at that radical, weird thing you’re wearing. I just love you. It made me sad to think about past Piera and her negative self image and I don't want present or future Piera to talk to herself like that. I realized that I needed to let go of all my insecurities, because they’re detrimental. Now is the time to embrace myself the way I am and feel great in my own skin. If not now, when?
And so, I started to get more comfortable with not wearing makeup and showing more barefaced pictures of myself on Instagram. I always thought that a lot of people look great without makeup on because they have a face for it. But everyone has a face, so everyone has a no-makeup face. Now, instead of thinking, I’ll feel beautiful when I have the red lipstick on, or, I’ll feel beautiful when someone tells me I look great, I want to own that for myself at all times. I have never felt more beautiful than I do right now. As a new mother, I am learning to mother myself and to embrace my beauty in hopes that my daughter will embrace her own beauty, too.