I’m lying on my back, eyes closed, in what might be the pinkest room in New York City: pink walls, pink pillows, pink shelves displaying pink doodads. This shrine to all things ultragirly is the midtown HQ of lash technician Courtney Akai, who is leaning over me, painstakingly painting a black jellylike substance onto my eyelashes with a tiny brush. The treatment I’m getting is the LashDip, a semipermanent mascara created by makeup artist Jessica Harley and Gina Mondragon, a hair colorist and former chemical technician at Vidal Sassoon; “dipping” is currently available in about 50 salons across the country. Akai promises that the coating, which essentially shrink-wraps around each lash once she dries it with a handheld fan, will last two weeks—or longer, if I get touch-ups—and render my fringe impervious to sweat, tears, water, and steam. As I sit up, she declares, “You look like a Barbie!” And when she hands me the mirror, I have to agree. My lashes are obsidian dark, dense, shiny, and, to be honest, a little stiff. Here in this pinkest of rooms, I have been literally dolled up.
From Kim Kardashian’s eyebrow-touching lengths to Anne Hathaway’s crystal-studded Oscar-night falsies, lashes are very emphatically having a moment. Prescription growth serum Latisse’s headline-grabbing debut in 2009 seems to have unleashed some kind of lash hysteria: We want them bigger, bolder, and blacker than ever before, even if we’re not prepared to pony up the $120 it costs for a month’s supply of the drug. The arsenal of available mascaras has expanded exponentially: Be your lashes stubby, straight, or sparse, there’s a lengthening, strengthening, thickening, eye-color-enhancing solution. There are vibrating wands and spiky spherical applicators that resemble medieval torture devices from which no renegade lash can escape; there are formulas that contain volume-boosting fibers, and those that “tube” around each hair, peeling off like tiny rubbery spiders when washed with soap and water. There are even those that present themselves as Latisse alternatives, said to deliver follicle-stimulating peptides and flutter-fortifying conditioners that extend the life cycle of each lash. Urban Decay cofounder Wende Zomnir, who recently developed three new mascaras—one for extra curl, one to promote growth, and one strictly for use with false lashes—says that “Latisse opened up a whole market for nonprescription lash enhancement, and there are a lot of high expectations. Consumers are pushing the technology as much as the beauty companies are.”
Lash lust has been afoot for centuries, of course (as with so many things cosmetic, Egyptian women were pioneers, applying a mixture of kohl and crocodile dung to their lashes with ivory sticks), but we’ve come a long way since our great-grandmothers’ era, when a commonly used lash-darkening concoction was a mush of coal and elderberries. After director D. W. Griffith invented false eyelashes in 1916 to enhance the eyes of a starlet for his film Intolerance: Love’s Struggle Throughout the Ages (he hired a wigmaker to create them out of human hair and gauze), they became a Hollywood necessity—Bette Davis even quipped, “When I die, they’ll probably auction off my false eyelashes.” In the mid-nineteenth century, at-home acquisition of fabulous fringe was given a history-making boost when French perfumer Eugene Rimmel launched a combination of compressed black pigment and petroleum jelly, applied with a brush. Soon after, in 1917, American chemist T. L. Williams, inspired by the mixture of Vaseline and soot he saw his sister Maybel applying to her eyes, created a cake mascara he dubbed Maybelline—and a phenomenon was born.
Surprisingly, the mascara wand didn’t emerge until the late ’50s (early iterations were essentially a metal rod with grooves, onto which mascara was squeezed from a tube), and the wand-in-tube configuration that’s standard today was first introduced by Maybelline in the early ’60s with Ultra Lash. In those exaggeration-embracing years, it was de rigueur for women of all ages to sport outlandishly outsize faux lashes à la Twiggy; and beginning with the era’s kohl-eyed girl groups such as the Supremes and the Ronettes, mascara became a rock ‘n’ roll must that has endured via rockers ranging from ’70s gender-benders the New York Dolls (whose music was referred to at the time by New York magazine as “mascara rock”) to smeary-eyed grunge-era Courtney Love to OTT-falsie-favoring Lady Gaga.
Made-up lashes can bestow instant glamour, just as they can impart a suggestion of wide-eyed youth. Depending on how they’re done—long and lush or dense and slept-in-looking—they can render a glance either anime sweet or rock-star fierce. And who doesn’t want to blink, Bambi-like, at one’s beloved? It’s little wonder we’re so obsessed with wielding such magic wands. According to L’Oréal makeup artist Collier Strong, tactical mascara application can even visually adjust face shape: “If you have close-set eyes, you can create the illusion that they’re wider apart by playing up the lashes at the outer corners of the eyes, top and bottom. Or if you have very round eyes, you can make them look more almond-shaped by wearing mascara only on the top lashes.”
Thanks to recent innovations, lashes are no longer something we merely paint mascara onto—they’re a canvas we can manipulate to our liking. So when I report that I’m not entirely gung ho for the LashDip—though it ends up lasting over a month without touch-ups, I don’t like the feeling of having my fringe so stiffly shellacked—Akai suggests customized extensions, which I love. “The LashDip is for the client who wants to look like she has mascara on all the time—when she wakes up, at the gym, whatever—but for people who want a softer feel or who want a lot of length, extensions are more versatile,” she says. “If I have someone who wants a natural look, I’ll use mink lashes, but if I have someone who wants to go all Kim Kardashian, I’ll use synthetics, although you have to be careful that they don’t get too heavy. Silk lashes are the newest option—they have a high diameter but are incredibly lightweight.”
For those not prepared for the expense or maintenance of salon-applied extensions, which can run from $250 to $500 for a full set, at-home falsies have evolved from the days of those caterpillar-like strip lashes that made anyone who wore them look marginally insane. Strong (who favors Eva Longoria’s ultraplush lashes) suggests a low-tech way to get the kittenish look I’m after: “Just a few artificial lashes on the outer corners of the eyes can make a big difference,” he says. “Be sure to glue them to the lid, not just to your natural lashes—that will keep them from drooping or falling off. For extra security, I crimp the lashes together ever so slightly with a curler, then add a coat of mascara.”
No matter what method you use to boost your blink, the result will depend to some degree upon the health of your natural lashes. “If you’re going for extensions, have your technician evaluate the strength of your real lashes first,” Akai says. “Trust me, nobody wants them to break off.” Zomnir, who recommends using an overnight lash conditioner as well as a daily primer, says, “In the same way that conditioned hair looks more beautiful, lustrous, and longer than dry, brittle, frizzy hair, or the way that foundation looks best on top of good skin, you have to do your part to keep your lashes in great shape. Mascara can do a whole lot. But it can’t do it all.”