How I discovered the truth about the skin trade

From the age of 11 I worshipped at the altar of self-improvement. Given the raw material of my genetic inheritance it wasn't surprising I looked in the mirror and felt miserable. I had big, sticky-out teeth, National Health glasses like milk-bottle bottoms, long legs like sticks, a completely flat chest and beige hair that lay flat on my head, and wasn't the slightest bit interested in being wavy, curly or interesting.

When I was smaller my mother would tear up strips of old sheets and tie my hair in rags, night after night. But every morning Mum would unwrap these tight twirls of cotton, and hey presto – my hair sank limply on to my head, straight but with a weird kink halfway down. By the time I was 14 I was determined to go blonde in the name of glamour, but dyed hair was forbidden at school. In desperation I noticed that new brands of toothpaste were emblazoned "with added peroxide", and so I would sit in class, toothpaste tube hidden under the desk, methodically rubbing Colgate into my hair for hours at a time. After a few weeks it resembled a set of matted dreadlocks, but when I washed off the accumulated gunk, I was left with the same flat, boring beige hair I'd had before I started.

Next, I bought a spray to dye my hair silver and used that whenever I went out clubbing. It was fine, so long as no one actually touched my head, as it came straight off. I tried false fingernails and was embarrassed when dancing with a cute boy and they too dropped off, like nasty bird talons, in his hand. I got fabulous false eyelashes, but I didn't glue them on very carefully and they would eventually start to come off and droop over my eyes like sagging venetian blinds.

Over the years I changed my glasses and my hair more than most people change their underwear. The results were generally horrible – I have had pink hair, orange hair, black and white extensions, a yellow star dyed in my hair and dreary blonde streaks. It's been bobbed, cropped and left to fester, long and lank.

All this has convinced me that if the beauty industry had to go through the kind of checks imposed on the cars we drive or the food we eat, it would go out of business. Has there ever been such a massive industry built on wishful thinking? Just as nine women out of 10 aren't happy with their body shape, four out of five of us think that in a laboratory somewhere a miracle worker of a scientist is going to come up with a cream to stop the ageing process, iron out wrinkles, tighten up flabby chins and take a decade off our appearances – if we slavishly slather it on day in and day out. But there is no such cream and probably never will be.

It takes 30 years of failures to find a haircut that works

Here's my advice: forget everything you read about fashionable hairstyles, there's only ever going to be one that works on your head anyway. Why I grew my hair long I do not know, because I have no idea how to put it up or style it in any way. It was probably because I couldn't face telling my hairdresser that I didn't like the way he cut my hair, but because he was so nice I couldn't face sacking him either!

The photos of me over the years are living proof that a hairdresser can be a woman's worst enemy. I'm tall, so why would I want really short hair unless I were as skinny as a supermodel? If you are taller than average and more than a size 10, once you pass 30, just forget getting your hair cropped, no matter what your hairdresser claims. You'll just look like a clothes peg.

Hairdressers talk a load of bollocks about the gunk they slap on your hair – "products" called things like ANTI-FRIZZ, RELAXANT, VOLUME CONTROL – but they all mean one thing: you'll never achieve the same look at home. And they're all designed to get you back through the salon door on a weekly basis.

The reason why my own hair always looks really shiny – it's dyed! God knows what horrible grey colour exists under the bucket of red vegetable colouring that gets dumped on it every three weeks. I certainly am not interested in the natural look, nor should any woman be over the age of 40! So how do you get great hair?

I have to have hair that looks good for filming and TV work. It has taken me 30 years to find a nice, non-egotistical hairdresser who comes around to my house on his scooter, and cuts, dyes and blow dries my hair in record time. Whatever he costs is certainly cheaper and less stressful than schlepping to a salon, buying cups of coffee, being charged for water, and listening to some skinny bitch in the chair next to you whingeing about her au pair, her cleaner, her nanny. Now I have hair that looks the same week in and week out – perfect! It's cut so that I can wash it, rub my head with a towel, and it comes out approximately the same.

My advice is to get a hairdresser you know and trust to come around to your home or office after work, and get a couple of friends to combine their appointments with yours. That way they can make a decent living, and you can all sit around having something to eat and a drink. That way, getting your hair done is fun.

Life's too short to spent a fortune on face cream

I am 60, and I might be a bit lumpy around the midriff, but I have great skin – it's one of the few things I can sincerely thank my late mother for. I have small wrinkles around my eyes, bags under them after a late night and a saggy chin, but every day of my life someone compliments me on my skin and says I don't look my age. Well, I do look my age if I feel miserable, am sulking or falling asleep, believe me!

Women often ask what are the secrets of good skin – genetics apart – but they're simple: not smoking; refusing class-A drugs; drinking loads of water; sleeping at least six hours a night; wearing sunblock; and enjoying life (miseries do look wrinkly, don't they?). I look at the Duchess of Cornwall, younger than me, with horrible pleats all around her mouth from puffing on dozens of cigarettes a day for decades. Even if she's given up now to please Charles, it's too late, the damage has been done. It doesn't matter what crap is written on the tube of face cream, once you've got wrinkles they are not going to go away.

Luckily I wore specs all the time until I was in my fifties, which protected the skin around my eyes from wind. Now I have had my eyes lasered they are more exposed but my wrinkles are still relatively fine. I do have facials every couple of months but, honestly, it's more a way of lying down and being pampered than making any radical improvement to my appearance. At home I use the Bharti Vyas Skin Wisdom range from Tesco, none of which costs more that £10 – and I guarantee it gets the same results as moisturisers like Crème de La Mer at £80 a pot.

The trick with skin care is to keep it simple. Get up, wash your face with cream or cleanser (I haven't used soap on my face since I was 14). Put on moisturiser. Put some crème or gel around your eyes. THAT'S IT.

At night I cleanse my face, even if I am so drunk I can't talk. I slap on moisturiser and eye cream, then hit the pillow. That is the sum total of my so-called beauty regime. If ever I am tempted to use some of the anti-ageing crap I'm sent, I can guarantee you that within a week the area around my eyes will start to go red, and my skin begin to itch and feel over-sensitive.

Such a lot of drivel is written about "hydrating" your skin. But you cannot put water back into your skin, no matter what you might read. All creams do is enable your skin to feel softer and more oily, not wetter. They can contain sun-block, which is good, too. But no one wants to make it sound that basic, do they?

How not to have bags under your eyes

Feeling particularly tired one day I made an appointment with a cosmetic surgeon who specialised in removing the bags under your eyes by making an incision that would hardly be seen. He took one look at me and told me I needed a full face-lift as well to deal with my sagging chin. It cost £750 for a consultation and the basic operation for my bags would have cost £7,000. I felt repulsive after 30 minutes of talking to this patronising man. A month later, I went on holiday, didn't take my computer, stopped drinking half a bottle of wine a day and slept properly. The bags under my eyes reduced immediately and I spent the £7,000 I had saved on having my garden landscaped. Hoorah!

Once you go down the Botox route there's no turning back. The way I look at it, a lot of cosmetic surgery is more to do with psychological problems and general insecurities than anything else. The surgical removal of the bags under my eyes would not get me a better sex life, it would not get rid of my fat stomach and it certainly wouldn't get me better, higher-paid work. And the chances are that within a couple of years I would need to have the operation done all over again.

Facelifts have to be re-done regularly, and soon you start to look like a startled goldfish – like many rich, expressionless American women I know, with no ear lobes and whose age can only really be determined by looking at the backs of their hands and their neck. Once you start injecting your face with Botox and fillers, then you have embarked upon a process that is highly addictive in itself.

As for attending "Botox evenings" – forget it. Why bow to peer pressure? Why not accept the ageing process and its effect on your face? A mobile, active face will always seem more youthful, and you can do facial exercises if you think they will tighten your jaw line – just don't let anyone see you.

We are bombarded with unrealistic images of other women and therefore feel we don't make the grade. On my desk is a page torn from a best-selling women's glossy magazine. The journalist is describing something called the "Ultimate Face Lift Treatment", which costs a whopping £450 for the first appointment. Apparently this experience involves "a combination of bipolar radio frequency and optical energy (either laser or light)". So far we are in mumbo-jumbo land. The writer's face was zapped with these rays – I assume on a free treatment – a procedure which, according to her, "heats the dermal tissue to 55 degrees and stimulates collagen production, to tighten the skin". But how does she know? Five sessions are recommended – in other words a whopping £2,000!

Get a grip, girls!

Airbrushing is commonplace in the world of beauty mythology and women's magazines – and it is thoroughly evil. It just makes readers feel inferior and inadequate. This is unattainable perfection.

We all live real lives, with noisy kids, irritating partners, demanding jobs. We don't live in airbrush world, and it is always a shock to meet anyone very famous, because you see them as they really are, and not how some magazine editor would like to project them. From Elle Macpherson to Kelly Osbourne to Kate Winslet to Sienna Miller – all look normal, albeit very attractive, in the flesh – and, to be fair, all have said that they don't like being altered in this way.

Look at the cover of any women's magazine – the face gazing out at you will have been doctored by an airbrush technician, removing wrinkles and sags better than any cream could ever do. And yet the result is presented to us as reality, something that we should aspire to. It makes me feel physically ill, and is causing a whole generation of young women to grow up with a warped idea of what their bodies and their faces should look like. Recently, two makeup companies have been found guilty of manipulating the truth about mascara – using fake eyelashes and airbrushing in their adverts. You'd never get the same look by just slathering on their products.

Beauty editors – how do they sleep at night? Traitors to their sex, the lot of them!

This is an edited extract from 'Life's Too F***ing Short: A Guide to Getting What You Want Without Wasting Time, Effort or Money' by Janet Street-Porter (Quadrille, £12.99). To order your copy at a special price (including postage), call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798897