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The State Of Me: Bad Boyfriends, The Legal Drinking Age & Adult Acne

How bad boyfriends, the legal drinking age and adult acne have influenced RHONA McAULIFFE‘s look.


Compliments in my house were rare. You were more likely to be slagged about your nose’s disproportionate growth spurt – puberty, you old prankster! – than praised for anything other than scoring a rugby try. Most of the time, my parents were healthily disinterested in how we looked. It took an angry boil or gleaming whitehead for my mother to drop everything, bubble up a poultice and excitedly drink in our young faces, sterilised needle in hand. Medical emergencies, skin aberrations, pilonidal cysts, she was your woman. Beauty and personal grooming advice? We might as well have been raised by wolves.

This, coupled with a joyous lack of self-awareness, the fact that I was an ardent realist – wholly disconnected from fantastical magazine spreads – and closer in outlook to Steve Martin in The Jerk than ’80s Queen of Pop Madonna meant that navigating the world of beauty was only ever going to be a haltingly slow and reactive exercise. No planning, no research, no inclination towards self-enhancement; it took some mandatory-response incidents, straight- talking friends and a dusting of sour experiences to help me find my way. Here’s how it went down…

THE PUB BOUNCER …or the sole reason I even contemplated painting my face. We’d graduated from drinking cans on the beach, but were still a couple of years short of being legal. If I couldn’t fool him into believing I was 18, I risked relegation to social purgatory. Cue the trowel! I’d never worn make-up before and committed heavily to shimmery bronze – lips, eyelids, cheekbones, T-zone, wherever it stuck – and 40 coats of mascara. The result was more man- in-the-mirror than incandescent goddess, but needs must. Once I was legit, I ditched the lipstick – the clear dad-in-drag offender – toned down the lashes and eased off the Egyptian Wonder. I’ve progressively denuded since then.

THE BAD BOYFRIEND …who earnestly said to me, about six months in: “You’re not like ‘good- looking’ but there’s something about you. Maybe it’s your tits?” So much irritation – the magnanimous delivery, the fact that his breasts were almost as big as mine, the lingering, confidence-stabbing sense of “not being enough”. But logic prevailed and lessons abounded: Never go out with someone who doesn’t think you’re a total banger – inside, outside, upside- down. If your partner’s not sure about you, you’ll never feel right about yourself, no matter how much CK One you’re packing.

ADULT ACNE Sure, who wants an easy ride, right? When my jawline and neck erupted in a throb of headless carbuncles – totally unresponsive to the stabbings of my mother – no one knew why. As well as caustic topical solutions, I was prescribed three rounds of different antibiotics with no success. I hid, chin-deep, in oversized polo-necks for a year and ceased to mingle. Come on down, acute self-consciousness! This is when I started to get serious about skin, opt for quality, simple products and reassess my Mars-bar-for-breakfast routine. Ultimately, it was an oestrogen-loaded contraceptive pill that got me back on track, but the lifestyle changes stuck.

THE RONSEAL EFFECT The scene: An intimate summer wedding in a 12th century bijou castle. Skin goals: A sun-kissed Cindy Crawford. Starting point: Cadaverous blue. Limbs exposed: Two (legs). Magic maker: A premium false tan swiped from my mum. Result: Creosote-streaked fence posts in Karen Millen sling-backs. Verdict: Just say no.

TWO HOWLING FRIENDS Okay, this may veer into personal hygiene. Discussing manicures with friends one night, I mentioned that I never paint my nails because it’s like decorating a butcher’s at Christmas – futile. I am incredibly thankful to have functioning, mobile hands, but do not feel the need to advertise them. The conversation moved on to pedis, where I innocently revealed that I didn’t cut my toe-nails, they just “fell off”. Guffaws all round at the hobgoblin exposed. It was a belated reminder to start tending to my feet, which are really rather nice.

A STRAIGHT-TALKING BOSS …who, with some concern, told me I looked absolutely knackered on the one day I forgot to wear mascara. Thus, I found my don’t-leave-home-without-it essential.

THE BAD HAIRDRESSER In celebration of my acne- free, silky smooth jawline and clearly off my head, I begged my hairdresser for a pixie cut, which was closer to a blade three once shorn. No, I do not have elfin features. I spent the following two years auditing my unusually slow re- growth and clipping wisps. Ready for a tidy-up, but having moved to London in the meantime, I went to a well- known hairdressing chain and spilled the “history of the thatch”. Two hours of razoring and toxic emulsion later, I emerged, the fuzzy spawn of Andre Agassi circa 1991 and Ginger Spice. Think Melanie Griffith in Working Girl, but more brassy. Thankfully, a friend intervened – as I was at risk of getting used to the follicular funfair atop my brows – introducing me to her hairdresser at a local Aveda salon. Botanical hair colours, a tonne more common sense and a hand massage? I was in, and am still flying the Aveda flag now that I’m back in Dublin (*bangs chest and salutes*).

BEAUTY SALES Working at various glossy magazines over the years, these bi-monthly smash-and-grabs were legendary. Already a skincare-obsessed geek, I scored some epic luxury booty in the early days, when few yet recognised the names. The many therapeutic afternoons I’d spent sniffing, dabbing and spraying delicious products in Space NK and Selfridges beauty hall had trained me for battle. My elbows did the rest – although, height was an advantage. I was also introduced to my most favourite brand ever – the quietly divine Sisley – at a beauty sale. I first bought the moisturiser and cleanser for the grand total of £1.50. RRP for both at the time was £150. I fell so hard for this brand – the texture, fragrance, how it made my skin feel – that I have, by luxuriating in every last drop of it, just about maintained the habit to this day. A prominent beauty guru recently included the range on a list of products to invest in “if you’re a billionaire”. I am not a billionaire. So thank you, beauty sales, you’re the reason I don’t buy clothes.

STARING DOWN MY DAD IN THE MIRROR This time, I’m not wearing lipstick. It’s the “laughter” lines, the baby jowls, a curiously familiar look witnessing my rolling transformation. Despite all of the above, I’ve never thought too much about how I look. Perhaps the self-limiting toenails were a giveaway? Now, I catch myself in strange mirrors, new lights, train windows and jump. Who’s that bird? My six-year-old son calls me “butt-head” in homage to the deep frown line dividing my forehead, and it’s all got me thinking about a strategy, how to accept and nurture my natural state, as I always have, and not resist the process. I see three distinct camps: The Agnostics, who have more important stuff to be getting on with than this faff; The Jabbers, who will fight ageing to the death by any means possible; and The Oilers, who will massage the hell out of their faces while watching back-to-back episodes of True Detective.

MY DAUGHTER …who already wants to shave her legs at the age of ten. When I explained that lots of girls choose not to remove their leg or under-arm hair, she asked me why I chose to do it then. I couldn’t give her a straight answer because the answer is I’ve blindly followed beauty industry constructs and never questioned them. And just like that, my resolve to age “naturally” was ironclad, the decision hugely simplified. So, in ten years’ time, when I’m plucking whiskers in a rocking chair, she damn well better not be Kylie Jennering.


This article originally appeared in the April issue of IMAGE magazine, on shelves nationwide now. 

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