Forget clowns and pass the parcel – what many pre-teen girls want for a birthday treat is a make-up party, and there is a whole new industry eager to cater to them.
All eyes are on the table as children arrive for Lexie Sibley’s seventh birthday party. It is not sandwiches and crisps the children are ogling, but something far more dazzling: make-up. Laid out in neat zones on the table at Lexie’s home are the ingredients for the beautification of eight excited little girls.
Nail varnishes occupy one corner, 40 or so of them in every hue. On the opposite side lies the hairdressing equipment – straighteners, curlers, sprays, pots of glitter and day-glo hair mascaras. Most of the brushes are pink, but there’s also a 'code red’ collection, discreetly employed for children with nits. Between these two banks of enticements lie rows of bright-coloured lipsticks and eyeshadows, mascaras and lip glosses.
'Mummy, can I have glitter in my hair?’ asks seven-year old Kina, jumping around in a pink party dress with a white fur stole. Too well-behaved to fiddle with the make-up, she and the other guests place their unopened presents in a pile, then wait to be transformed by Jane Davies, a 44-year-old beauty therapist, and her 15-year-old daughter Georgia. Davies runs Magical Makeovers – one of a host of companies that have been doing very nicely out of the beauty boom for the under-12s.
Eight-year-old Millie is agonising over which shade of eyeshadow will make her look most like Miley Cyrus, the 16-year-old who plays Hannah Montana. 'My husband doesn’t like Millie wearing make-up or nail varnish,’ her mother, Su, says. 'He doesn’t want his little girl to grow up and he always says, “Take it off.” We never do. I’m fine with it so long as it comes off before school on Monday morning.’
Today’s session will be a pared-down three-stage process: hair, nails and make-up. Davies, who sometimes does four such parties a day, keeps it simple for younger children. 'With six to eight-year-olds it is more like dressing up,’ she says. “With older children I do spa days with manicures and pedicures, and make-up lessons where I show them how to copy their favourite celebrities.’
She and her husband, Andrew, who works in hair loss, live in Surrey but have an apartment in Florida, where she is shocked to see young children with heavily sprayed hair, their skin dark orange from fake tan and often caked in foundation. 'I don’t like that American pageant queen look with the ringlets and the strong colours.’
America, home of the Disney Channel, leads the way in the tween (under 12) beauty market with a succession of child stars and television programmes such as High School Musical setting the pace. Britain is not far behind. In the decade since Davies started doing these parties, grooming has boomed: the parties are only a small part of an industry that sells ice-cream flavoured cosmetics and pampering days to an important new moneyed demographic: seven- to 10-year-olds.
Tweens are much less affected by the recession. Recent research studies have confirmed that 62 per cent of parents would rather cut back on their own spending than deny their children luxuries.
Johnny Cohen, the commercial director of the Make-Up Factory, which launched six years ago selling a Love Hearts cosmetic line, is excited by the growth. 'This May we saw a huge leap in sales when we launched our lip glosses in retro-sweet flavours, including Refreshers and Rainbow Drops. To appeal to tweens packaging has to be fresh and eye-catching; flavour is important; and the price must be affordable.’ Originally sold only in Claire’s, this autumn they will be everywhere from supermarkets to River Island.
Over the past nine years, Davies has painted some super-rich kids: 'One asked me how much I earned, and said, “I expect I get more in pocket money.”’ But makeover parties are not confined to that rarefied world. Mostly Davies works, as she is doing today, in suburban homes, hired by women who don’t approve of Lolitas, but would hate to spoil their daughters’ fun.
Publisher Ruth Logan, who hired Davies for her daughter Evie’s eighth birthday party, considered it a conservative option compared with her child’s (state) schoolfriends’ private screenings, stretch limo trips or funded shopping bonanzas. 'Everyone went away happy,’ she says. 'The girls looked delicious, not tarty. There was no mess, no crying – and no false eyelashes on the floor.’
Girls are becoming sophisticated consumers of cosmetics from an increasingly early age, Davies finds. 'These days they are very fussy about what they buy from the age of nine or even younger. All the magazines for tweens carry articles about mini-makeovers and manicures, so they talk knowledgeably about mascaras that give you a false lash effect and which star uses which product.’
She is careful which brands she uses: preferring 'high-end’ expensive brands for young faces. 'My favourites for tweens are Shu Uemura as the colours are strong and vibrant, Mineral Make Up powder that doesn’t clog the pores, and Bobbi Brown, which uses high-quality ingredients. For cleansing, I use Amie products as they are gentle. I don’t want to risk an allergic reaction.’
Our hostess today, Georgie Sibley, is no fashion junkie: she teaches four-year-olds in a private school and runs the local Brownie pack. But, like many women, she has grown up to believe that pampering is part of normal life, not an extravagance. 'I’ve known Jane for years,’ she says. 'Every six weeks she comes to the house for a waxing session. I always add a treat: a manicure, pedicure or facial. Before I gave birth to Lexie I had Jane paint my nails alternate pink and blue as I didn’t know what sex my baby would be.’
With a mother who believes in making the best of herself, Lexie caught on early to beauty treatments. She is now well past the stage of pink dots on her cheeks and now tells her mother off if she does not exfoliate properly each day. 'Lexie has always been fascinated by Jane’s visits,’ Georgie says. 'As a toddler she used to sit in the pedicure bath. When she was four she wanted her nails done. My rule is no make-up or painted nails during term-time, but I let her play around with make-up at home, so long as it is high-end, like Chanel and Dolce & Gabbana. I don’t like the cheap stuff that people give her because it stains her clothes.’
Those who throw up their hands in horror at this mini-me behaviour say that painted nails might discourage children from climbing trees or playing football. But Georgie argues that Lexie isn’t that kind of child anyway. 'I was horrified to discover she was “pink”,’ she says, having been a sporty child herself. But she had made a conscious decision to have just one child so she could provide her with private education, plus all the extras. It’s up to Lexie to choose those extras. 'Nine times out of 10 Lexie gets what she wants:
I don’t spoil her, I give her opportunities. It’s better to let her have her way,’ she says, walking upstairs to Lexie’s bedroom.
Currently it is decked out as a Disney princess’s palace, but Lexie’s taste has changed. She’s been through pink, and horses, and ballet. Now she is into music. Soon her bedroom walls will be repainted with musical notation. She also chooses her own clothes. Her mother, who sets the budget, says, 'She can wear what she likes so long as it is suitable. I don’t let her buy anything that shows her midriff.’ The tween and teen meccas of Topshop, New Look, American Apparel and Abercrombie & Fitch are a bit old for her yet. But shops such as Claire’s and H&M are perfect.
Make-up is more controversial. Critics rail against the ever-younger sexualisation of children and argue that beauty treatments encourage them to be dissatisfied with their unadorned appearance. 'I might have waited a year or two for a makeover party,’ Georgie says, 'but Lexie was desperate as one of her friends had had one. It’s no bad thing. Exposure to make-up from the beginning takes the drama out of it. She is less likely to rebel by wearing too much when she is a teen.’
Hers is the post-feminist approach: a backlash against the disapproval of all things girlie and man-pleasing. Nor can Davies, who loved make-up as a child, see anything wrong with girls enjoying cosmetics. 'I used to play around with my mother’s make-up. The difference now is that there are lots of brands aimed at the younger age group.’
Tweens first started to emerge as a market for the beauty industry in 1987 when the US giant Maybelline targeted the young with Kissing Potion – colourless lip glosses that tasted nice. The following year, when Givenchy launched perfumes for babies and toddlers, outraged commentators asked, 'Who buys such products?’ They concluded that it must be yuppie parents assuaging their guilt about working long hours by smothering their children with goodies. But by 1998 US beauty industry watchdogs were putting a figure of $109 million (€77 million) on sales of products specifically aimed at the under-12s. Combined with teenagers, tweens in the US now account for a fifth of all beauty sales.
The tween market officially arrived in 2001 when Media Week magazine devoted a whole section to advice on how to target the pre-teens. No figures exist for earlier years but in 2004 the market researchers Mintel found that 88 per cent of seven to 10-year-old girls in Britain were using nail varnish, 70 per cent lipstick, 67 per cent perfume, and 26 per cent mascara. Parents who clung to the notion that children should look like children had become the minority.
Manufacturers are wary of admitting to targeting tweens, even when they sell glitter, bright colours and floral scents. The Make-Up Factory’s Mr Men make-up lines, like Little Miss Naughty’s Lip Balm and Lip Gloss, are supposedly aimed at adults, as are Primark’s pocket-money priced products with cheerily juvenile names such as Ta Ta For Now under-eye concealer, costing £2.50 (€3). Magazines such as Sugar and Bliss, which are officially for teenagers but are often bought by younger children, usually have a free cosmetic gift stuck on the cover. Inside, children too young to get into a 12A film unaccompanied are sold treatments for spots, hair removal, false eyelashes and fake tan.
Back at Lexie’s party, the Davies production line is churning out a stream of happy, made-up little girls. Phil Sibley, the birthday girl’s father, is basking in their pleasure. As a scientist who works on fragrances for Proctor & Gamble’s beauty brands, he understands the business imperatives. 'These kids are the customers, and will be the consumers in years to come. None of the companies are charities so it makes sense to tie them in young. I don’t like it when companies go into schools delivering messages, but this party is not about getting kids into brands, it is about learning that make-up is fun. Hopefully it means that when they are older they won’t go about looking like Goths.’
There’s nothing Goth about the look these girls admire. They choose garish eyeshadows, bright hair mascaras to streak their tong-curled locks and ask Georgia to paint daisies on their nails. As a role model Georgia is perfect. Sweetly pretty and demure, she is interested in going to university as well as in make-up. 'I love it but I don’t like to wear too much,’ she says, 'and I look after my skin.’
Millie is now begging her mother to host a similar party. 'I will make sure she does,’ Su says. Neither she nor Millie are going to allow her husband’s reservations to spoil their girlie fun.