Bigger, bolder, brighter: The age of fake beauty

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When did neon nails, orange suntans and pink dye-jobs became the norm?

It's Friday night in central London and Renata, a 22-year-old student, is batting her lashes at me.

Long, lustrous, comprised of thick black feathers, they're almost certainly not the ones she was born with – but, thanks to a few layers of eyelash glue and a bit of careful application, they've supplanted her usual features, rendering her already-striking face that much more... distinctive? Eye catching? Other-worldly? Whatever, I can't help staring. "I wasn't sure whether to go with these or something more subtle," she says, shrugging her shoulders. "But I like these. They're a bit more surprising."

Friday night is witching hour at the Shu Uemura 'lash bar' in Covent Garden. Open all week, it's this particular slot that gets booked up in advance. "Customers come in to have their eyelashes applied, and can go straight out looking great," explains 'senior artist' Mei Rees. Treatments range from the subtle – semi-permanent eyelash extensions and barely-there overnight 'falsies' – to the outrageous – giant blue pairs for special occasions, diamante-encrusted lower lashes and cartoonesque curls. Tonight it's the outré 'Radiant Blue' and the more conservative 'Smoky Layers' that are the big sellers. Both can be applied on a Friday night, taken out before bed, and re-used up to 12 times.

False eyelashes are big business in 2011. Away from the chi-chi confines of Shu Uemura, several thousand are shifted each year. At Superdrug, sales are so strong – up 10 per cent since last year – that they have decided to launch their own, in-house range. At Debenhams – home of another lash bar, the Powder Lounge – that figure is more like 1,000 per cent. Once the preserve of the under-dressed and over-made-up, falsies have, in recent times, become an almost routine bit of personal decoration, a bit of fun to be embraced in much the same way as hair straighteners and nail polish. Among brides, having eyelash extensions put in is so commonplace that, when Kate Middleton opted for plain old mascara, the decision was widely remarked upon.

The thing is, it's not only eyelashes that have been given a fake-fabulous make-over. Sunless tanning – the kind from the bottle, the booth or the spray gun – is the great beauty innovation of our times. The mercury needn't hover much above 20 degrees for the smell of Holiday Skin, Piz Buin and St Tropez to begin its annual infusion of the atmosphere. And then there's our hair – ironed, extended, dyed whatever shade we fancy, none of them natural – our nails – coloured, acrylic, stencilled – and our teeth – straightened and, in increasing numbers, brilliantly white.

Part of this is down to the fact that the treatments on offer are better than ever. They're less brash, more luxurious. Slapping on fake tan needn't mean stepping out like Victoria Beckham circa 2006; instead, you can look like Victoria Beckham in her Royal Wedding incarnation: luminous, not Day-Glo. But there's something else going on, too. Fakery isn't the taboo it once was.

Perhaps we should blame Katie Price. She is, after all, the poster girl for all things ersatz: fake hair, fake tan, fake lips and a pair of highly lucrative fake breasts. Forget improved treatments and 'natural' cosmetics, she has embraced enhancement in all its glory – and it shows. Back in 1996, when a trip to the plastic surgeon saw her bra size inflate from a 32B to a 32D, The Sun booted her off Page 3, and the public turned up its nose. Yet, somewhere along the line, she spawned a style.

While Jordan circa 1996 may have looked more freak than chic, the very same aesthetic, transplanted to 2011, no longer raises eyebrows. It has been imitated too many times, by too many people. Not just Price's fellow glamour models, but a stream of reality TV stars, girl bands, and – significantly – ordinary women. For all the style snobs who sneer, there are countless women who choose to look that way. Not because they "don't know any better", or because they've been tanning so long they can't see light from dark – but because it's an aesthetic they prefer. It's more fun. Just ask Amy Childs, the beautician star of The Only Way is Essex, about her self-styled 'corned beef' hue.

Something else happened, too. The trappings of the Price look have trickled down, broadening their appeal as they do. The fake look has been normalised. "For all sorts of women, tanning has become a routine," observes Jane Cunningham, author of the influential britishbeautyblogger.com. James Read, a private tanning artist, agrees. "I have a whole range of clients: from brides who want it for one day to ordinary women who prefer an all-year tan."

One of Read's most high-profile jobs has been as tanner-in-chief to Lady Gaga. When the pop star first arrived in the UK, it was he who was responsible for coating her in a burnished orange glow: "I'd really layer it up on her and she'd go straight out afterwards". The curious thing about this – about Gaga's embrace of such a dark shade, darker even than Price's Tango'd look– was that she chose to couple it with a high-fashion aesthetic. Instead of Juicy Couture tracksuits and pink hot pants, she was defiantly avant-garde. "It was a whole new thing," reflects Read. "The ultra-fake tan became fashion."

On a windy stretch of road in Dalston, east London, is Bleach London, possibly the most influential hair salon in the UK right now. Bracketed by chicken shops and dry cleaners, it's an unassuming place. The styles that come out of it are anything but; under the experienced hand of Bleach's creative director, Alex Brownsell, clients leave sporting hair in an artist's colour wheel of hues. Initially catering to a discerning, in-the-know set, Bleach recently went mainstream thanks to a TIGI collaboration which has seen them installed in Topshop's flagship store.

When we meet, both Alex and her business partner, Samantha Teasdale, are sporting white-blonde, bleached hair, Alex's with a few lingering traces of washed-out pink. Neither looks remotely 'natural' – and that's the point.

The salon's most famous treatment is the so-called 'dip dye', which sees the bottom half of the hair dyed a different colour from the top. Done subtly and the effect is less Courtney Love, more semi-grown-out highlights. Still, the fact that, less than a decade ago, growing out your highlights was seen as such a fashion faux pas that magazines advocated elaborate partings as a method of disguise, is an irony not lost on Lauren Murdoch-Smith, a beauty editor at Grazia. "Dye isn't shameful – it's fun. Yes it's fake, but shows your inner creative."

As novel as the Bleach approach may be, it isn't simply a place for punks and hipsters. "Those are the people doing it DIY in their bathroom," says Alex. Get a dip dye, as I did in March, and you start seeing them everywhere: women walking around, flaunting the fact that their colour is not their own.

"There has been a huge difference in what women see as normal," observes Lesley Keane, senior artist at Mac cosmetics. "Hair and make-up are seen in the same way as a new pair of shoes – as part of a look." Recently, that old cliché of women buying more cosmetics during a recession – the so-called 'lipstick effect' – appears to have rung true, with sales climbing in spite of economic gloom. The reality, says Keane, is more complex. "There's a whole new type of style icon. People like Lady Gaga and Jessie J have a specific look."

Mac's big sellers at the moment are their 'fluidline' liquid eyeliner in dramatic black and an equally bold kohl pencil in 'smoulder'. Over at Chanel, it's the yellow Mimosa nail polish that is causing a storm, prompting the customary waiting lists and copious high-street imitations. Before that it was Jade – and next season it looks likely to be Peridot, a kind of shiny, metallic green. The minimalism of the Nineties and early Noughties – an era of clear mascaras, cream blushers, and all-in-one maquillage sticks – feels very far away indeed.

Yet if the taboo around 'enhancing' your appearance, around wearing that fact on your sleeve, has faded, that's not to say everyone is walking around with orange skin and pink hair. While a new breed of style icons has made the unnatural more acceptable, and places like Bleach London and Shu Uemura have introduced them to the mainstream, a string of technological advances have made the treatments on offer – from make-up to skin lotions to hair treatments – that much better.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in dentistry. At the London Centre for Cosmetic Dentistry, Mervyn Druian has witnessed an explosion in what we're willing to do for the sake of our enamel. "Popular perceptions have completely changed," he explains. "Dentistry used to be an emergency-based profession – now people really want their smiles to look better." Veneers, contouring and tooth whitening have taken off in the mainstream as never before, thanks in large part to the improved procedures available. "Every year things progress. We're able to make changes more effectively than ever before."

To have Druian whiten your teeth costs between £225 and £495 a pop – and it is a procedure that needs regular "topping up". Herein lies the downside to all this fakery: it costs. A bottle of acid-yellow nail polish may be just a few pounds (if you buy the Chanel imitation) – but opt for the latest in nail-strengthening, semi-permanent technology and you're looking at forking out 10 times the amount. Treatments may have improved, but they're not becoming any better value.

No surprise, then, that we're spending more than ever before on our appearance. A woman will spend £133,575 over the course of her lifetime, according to one recent study (men will spend £75,030). Is it a sign of shallowness, a misplacement of priorities, that we're willing to spend so much money on our looks? Perhaps. But it might also signify something more positive, a show of confidence on the part of those who revel in it.

For one thing, women don't seem to be faking it for the sake of sexual attractiveness. Men are notoriously turned off by bold fashions – a truism confirmed by Alex Bilmes, editor of Esquire: "We fancy natural-looking girls, not Lady Gaga". Given this, can we detect a hint of liberation about the new fakery? Quite possibly, says Ruth Holliday, Professor of Gender and Culture at Leeds University and author of the forthcoming book, Kitsch: A Cultural Politics of Taste: "Traditionally, there has been a tension between the 'natural' look, representing respectability, and therefore marriageability, and the 'fake', 'glamour' aesthetic which was seen as the opposite. For modern women it's no longer important to appear marriageable."

Not only does a willingness to embrace the fake indicate a sense of sexual liberation, but, more pertinently, the way in which it has been done – the overt, self-conscious fakery of recent trends – might in itself be seen as a subversion; an up-turning of long-prescribed gender norms. "It was [post-structuralist philosopher] Judith Butler who pointed out that women were expected to be 'in drag' all the time," says Holliday. "It was necessary for the binary gender system. Making a show of your fakeness – with red lipstick, or a statement fringe – is a way of not conforming. The most pernicious form of 'femininity' is the myth of the natural."

Perhaps it's no surprise, then, that we can find parallels with that great era of women's social emancipation, the 1920s. Then, for the first time, points out Caroline Evans, Professor of Fashion History and Theory at Central Saint Martins, "the 19th-century idea of femininity as natural was destabilised". The mass availability of red lipstick, nail polish and a fad for dark eye pencils combined with the emergence of cosmetics big hitters like Max Factor and Elizabeth Arden to create a theatrical look not a million miles away from today's bold image.

Whatever you say about the current fashion for fakery, one thing is clear: women are making their decisions based on what they think looks good. The 'new fake' isn't about fooling people into thinking this is how you really look. Just like the 1920s flapper aesthetic, it's about having fun – whether than fun takes the form of a dip dye, a pair of feathered eyelashes, or a mega-watt tan. And what is so wrong with that?

Fake it till you make it: Top treatments

Bold

Dip dye: Hair is dabbed with dye to create a colour contrast between the top and bottom halves. Fans include Alexa Chung and Drew Barrymore. From £80; Bleach London, 420 Kingsland Rd, London E8

Eyelash extensions: 'Falsies' come in all shapes, colours and sizes. Try Shu Uemura's peacock feathers, or Powder Lounge's diamante-flecked flutterers. From £17; Topshop, 216 Oxford St, London W1

Nail art: Operating out of Bleach London, Wah Nails have spearheaded a revival in acrylic nail art. From strawberry print to tartan, designs are witty and wild. From £12.50; address as above

Brazilian blow dry: Hair is boosted with keratin before being ironed into submission for a wash-proof blow dry – lasts for months. From £175; Taylor Taylor, 137 Commercial Street, London E1

Brash

Lip embellishment: Violent Lips offers temporary lip tattoos such as zebra print, polka dot or a Jessie J-style Union Jack. From £18; Total Renewal (020-3092 5978) offer an at-home service

Hair pieces: From instant beehives to clip-in fringes, hair pieces are in, thanks to Lily Allen, Daisy Lowe and, of course, Amy Winehouse. From £30; Selfridges, 1 Exchange Sq, Manchester

Bio Sculpture nails: Applied by a manicurist, Bio Sculpture affords growth-boosting, semi-permanent colour. From £36; Jemz Nails & Beauty, 265 Basingstoke Road, Reading

Bizarre

Facial horns: Not for the faint-hearted, these have lately been championed by Lady Gaga. Subtle prosthetic horns are applied to the face to give it an other-worldly appearance. From £600; Hybrid FX, hybridfx.com, 0113 217 1300

Dental embellishment: Kanye West recently unveiled a set of diamond 'grills' on his lower teeth. Elsewhere, whiter-than-white enamels have been sported by Cheryl Cole and Cat Deeley. From £245; grillzs4u.co.uk

Vajazzle: Thanks to The Only Way Is Essex, the 'vajazzle' has gone mainstream. The procedure – which can be done at home or at beauty salons – sees diamante designs being applied to the nether regions. From £8; Strip Salon, 112 Talbot Road, London W11

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