What is the real price of beauty?
How would the beautiful Victoria's Secret Angels look without the fake hair, lashes and tan?
Inside a magazine isn't the obvious place to renounce magazine images. The advertisers aren't well disposed. And if you're not a model, no one listens if you condemn the fashion industry for its underhand and sleazy tricks. You stand accused of being ignorant and jealous.
Because let's be honest – all girls want to look like them. But this is the thing; it isn't them. It's fake. Applied, enhanced, erased and digitally remixed.
You knew that, of course. So did I, but I didn't know that for about €360 you too can turn yourself into a living doll, of sorts.
September is close and the fashion editors are shrieking from their lairs. For the month that's in it, I've agreed to undergo two days of self-flagellating beauty procedures, with photos, to see what goes on before that glossy airbrushed image hits the catalogues. It's a bit like the time Dawn French did the catwalk for Pat Kenny, or Ted and Dougal got lost in the lingerie department. Only it's closer to the bone and it's not so funny.
Grooming for a shoot – as opposed to its upwardly mobile cousin, pampering for a Harcourt Street nightclub – entails what you would expect: waiting around, not eating, being plucked and dyed and painted and curled, imagined, invented, sculpted, white-smoked, photographed 500 times and edited to a waify silhouette of what you look like.
And something else happens – all your thoughts, they go away.
Like Debenhams and the British MP Lynne Featherstone did, you start off on a crusade to end exploitation and airbrushingbut you forget all about it. You forget everything you ever thought about anything. You realise you like being dollied up. Because you get all the attention; everyone is so nice.
And it takes so long and costs such a bit that if the photos don't end up perfect then yes, do airbrush down that left hip, and whiten those teeth while you're at it.
Even the recent order from 'Style' magazine to be 'Fit not Thin' isn't to be trusted, because it really means you have to be fit and thin, so double the work. And airbrushing – Photoshop's most cunning tool to which Angel Marisa Miller lost an entire arm in one Victoria's Secret catalogue – is not ephemeral. It's going nowhere.
So on a dank, apocalyptic Thursday afternoon, I repair to Pure Beauty in Clontarf for HD brows (€40) and a spray tan (€20). They're pure nice here, though isn't beauty from products a most impure kind? Who cares, I decide, taking shelter. The salon is a cosy harem of nail-filing and sisterly understanding. Women relax, talking of families, bereavements, holidays. They mind each other. And then the games begin.
HD – high definition – eyebrows are all the rage with Cheryl Cole and the gang, I'm told. As I lie on a heated plinth listening to opera, Sam gently tells me she'll be "measuring, waxing, tinting, threading, plucking and trimming" my eyebrows to achieve a "tattooed" look.
"They used to be called Scouse brows – you know, Essex girls?" She tells me this now. There is a ripping sensation. My eyebrows, which I quite liked, are exchanged for a new futuristic pair.
Spray tanning is performed in a box room before a silky black curtain. It might be a magician's stage at some indecent circus. There is the sound of a jet propeller and an aroma of squashed peaches and, ta-dah. I've chosen "light" shade, but the colour produced, after the rain has spread some on my clothes, is of a woman on a wicked, predatory mission.
That said, four days later it's good. The colour works. Hell, I'm dreading its absence.
"Are they your real eyelashes?" Christoph asks. I have long eyelashes. It's not a boast, it's a fact, and one that renders pointless, I think, the trip to Christoph Eye Couture in the Powerscourt Centre for lash extensions that cost €99 and take an hour.
Or is it pointless?
"I use my skill to decide what length and what thickness are perfect for each person, without them looking over the top," Christoph says fabulously, and I'm drawn in. He grew up on a farm in Westmeath and, at 27, his clients already include Nigella Lawson and Dannii Minogue.
The procedure is only mildly evil. Open-heart-surgery tweezers and medical glue are used to apply, one by one, silk lashes made in a small factory in Seoul. The result is droopy and amorous.
"They look like your eyelashes," Christoph concludes. So what was the point again? The point was, they are a coat of mascara you don't have to apply yourself and they stay on for two months. I rather like. Flutter.
Day two. Dylan Bradshaw Salon is a temple of grooming, pampering, lotus-eating narcissism, where women and men get bleary on Champagne and 'Hello!' magazines, Lindt chocolates and intimate conversation under mood-enhancing lights, and where real hair extensions start at €800. It's a great place, very professional.
We go for a hair match in Hairspray and buy eight clip-on pieces of real, 'European' hair for €100, fitted on and curled with a blow-dry by Danielle, for €40. Nail polish and make-up sessions follow.
Salons should offer the perfect opportunity to gather one's thoughts, reflect and plan for the future. Only the problem is always the same: the mirror. I am the last person I want to gaze at for three hours. It is so uninteresting, at first. But as they add more layers, more fake strings to my bow, I start to look quite alluring.
The hair is phenomenal. I wonder who these lustrous tresses belonged to. Maybe, like Jo from 'Little Women', my hair twin wept bitterly after shearing her head. Turns out they belonged to multitudes of Europeans and emerged from a factory mixed, treated and dyed. It is a melting pot, a shifting repository of human hair. My, it looks good on. More Austin Powers than Bond girl, but still. I lose a few more brain cells admiring it.
They say models are too hungry and moody to chat to their beauty therapists but, by God, do I spill my heart to make-up artist Michelle (full make-up at Dylan's is €40). She magics up "dewy, soft, fresh" and finds out everything there is to know about me over the 45 minutes in which we become close confidants.
The manicurist, Patrice, applies powder-pink Shellac nails for €30. We have a great chat, too. Wow. I feel as if I'm going to the prom with John Travolta. How my nails gleam, as I type. They stay on for three weeks, and what am I going to do then? Get more, I suppose.
Getting stuff done reminds me of Roald Dahl's 'Witches'. The child sees one purple-eyed woman, they all start appearing, and soon there's a convention. Everyone is hiding a secret – tan (of course) and more insidious ones – tumbling hair, razor-sharp eyebrows, vertical lashes. That's every face in every magazine, and even every face you pass. They're all doing it and it looks very good.
The professionals at Dylan's all agree that, it being Friday evening, it would be a shame not to stick around town to show off my new bangs, tan, nails, lashes and HDs. Why would I go home to a boring computer looking like this? What a waste of youth.
But at the last stage of the styling, things take a turn. The one place where you can't recline, flop around, chat and giggle at will is the photographer's studio. Here it's business, and you're running it. If you don't, someone else will. Photographer Mark Nixon does his best to be a fashion sleaze and, I might say, he pulls it off.
"Look cheeky. Look mischievous. Do that little smirk again." It is utterly exhausting. He asks me to do the 'S' shape, whatever that is, and to pull faces expressing things I don't feel.
Why would I feel cheeky in a swish studio? I feel like going over to the sofa. I feel like... I forget what I feel, because all anyone has been doing is looking.
I'm wearing a silk robe (which Mark suggests I lose – "can't see the body") and a 'babydoll' nightdress. The mood should be nocturnal, but my bedroom eyes look confused and owlish. The line between a seductive stare and a grimace is very fine, very precarious. My face aches.
How do the Angels do it?
I'm unsteady in these three-inch boudoir heels that have been employed to achieve a tauter leg. And I'm hungry: to be extra sporting I fasted all day, so at 7pm all I've had is coffee, pineapple and two Lindt chocolates.
I realise that this, to a real lingerie model, would be money for jam. It would be a tea party compared with what they go through. If it were real, the photographer would dump me in the morning for a better version. Because models, like babydolls, go in and out of fashion with casting agents.
There are, after all, only a dozen or so Angels in the Victoria's Secret hierarchy at one time.
The shoot ends. I look somewhat in drag, and somewhat like a Fellini heroine. I feel aged.
Still, it would be a shame not to go out and show off, before it all melts. Everyone says women enhance their looks for themselves and men take no notice, but can that be true? As I walk through town, there are catcalls. Wolf whistles. Everyone is on to it. And it's suddenly very disturbing.
You fools, I want to shout. You've been hoodwinked, none of it's real. Come up close and you'll see.
But the photos are safe. No matter how close to a photograph you get, you always believe it.
Because models are people for whom the minimum of airbrushing is needed. And that still means a frightful amount. When I see the final image a malaise settles over me. I want her skin.
But I also feel like telling the girl in the picture there's nothing to be smiling about. Because she's never going to make it. She should really go home and eat dinner.
Photography and after-effects by Mark Nixon; additional photography by Dave Meehan