Once a year, in late summer, Donna Mee takes her vintage makeup collection out of storage. Mee, who is known alternately as the makeup guru, the pageant guru and the queen of corrective makeup, teaches a class on the history of beauty at her Costa Mesa school, Empire Academy. The vintage makeup makes for excellent, if occasionally horrifying, show-and-tell.
An exuberant woman of 50 who looks 40, Mee has inky black hair, pale skin and pouty lips. Most of the 2,800 items in her collection are still in storage. “This is just all the shelf space I had,” she says.
Perusing a long counter that lines the perimeter of the room, she points out some of her favorite pieces: Tins of blackface and other racially offensive foundation creams (“Chink” and “Indian” and “Chinese Girl”) from the vaudeville era. Jars of Tan-No-More cream from a time when being tanned meant you were poor and had to work outside, “until Coco Chanel got a bad sunburn and all of a sudden the world thought tan was cool.” Rosy blush in an 18K gold compact from the end of the Depression, “when they felt, we’ve suffered enough. Let’s splurge a little bit.” Old lipsticks made out of wax — and dead bugs. “Because they only did reds back then. And if you kill a mosquito, what color is it? You’re basically putting on somebody else’s blood.”
Moving on to a handful of coin-sized, porcelain pots from the 1900s, she says, “But look how adorable these are.” She taps one tiny pot with a manicured fingernail, shaking the lavender powder inside. “Rouge violet. Hideous blush color. I’m sure it’s probably toxic as hell. They didn’t know. So there’s lead and mercury. But it’s history. It’s truth.”
Mee started collecting the makeup in earnest some two decades ago while antiquing with her mom. They’d go to Long Beach swap meets, to the Pasadena Rose Bowl. At the time, she had fewer than 50 pieces. Then eBay was invented. Within months, her bookkeeper was becoming alarmed. “You have to stop,” he said. “Guess how much you’ve spent.”
“Ten grand?” Mee guessed.
“You’ve spent $44,000 in the last four months.”
Mee laughs now. “I was, like, ‘Oh, shit!’ ” she recalls. “That’s when I mostly went crazy. So I don’t go shopping for it anymore, but I had the fever for a long time.”
She collected in spurts. “There were years when I just couldn’t turn it off. I’d do it every week,” she says looking around. “It doesn’t mean much to most people. Most people would think it looks like a garage sale blew up in here.” But to her, each piece has meaning.
There are pieces with celebrity connections: a beard Christopher Reeves wore in one of his last movies, with the glue still stuck on it. A book by Dick Smith, The Do-It-Yourself Monster Makeup Handbook. Smith, who did The Exorcist, is considered the godfather of special-effects makeup.
There are weird devices. Mee makes her way over to a small, round, wind-up machine called a lipstick carousel. “You put a lipstick into each compartment, sit around it with your friends, and whichever one stops in front of you, that’s the color you wear that night.” With the press of a button, the carousel begins to spin, and Mee laughs in amazement. “It used to go for 1,500 bucks but my —” she pauses to tick off the numbers on her fingertips, “—fourth fiancé at the time noticed a crack. I got it for $200.”
There are even a few photos of Mee herself. Alighting at a framed news clipping with a photo of her taken when she was “29 and skinny,” she explains that a magazine voted her “most eligible bachelorette in America.” “Cracks me up,” she says. “Because 20 years later, I’m still single.”
Then another photo, of Mee at a drag-queen show. One of the models didn’t show up, so she took his place: “Apparently I looked the most like a dude.”
In a minute, she leaves to fetch her rarest, most valuable items and returns holding two tiny, modest-looking pots. One, from 15th-century Paris, holds beauty marks — meant to cover up facial scars — cut from black linen into minuscule hearts, stars and crosses. She taps the pot and the marks flutter onto the table like wrinkled fly wings.
The other is a clay pot dating to before the birth of Christ. “They’d make stains out of rose petals, okra or whatever, to paint their lips or cheeks.” She cups it delicately, reverently. It is her oldest piece.
Reminded now of the very first piece she bought, she reaches for a palm-sized, blue satin box of Bourjois face powder. “It’s crazy soft,” she says, caressing it. She was 17 when she acquired it, she says, and already working in makeup at the time.
Mee has always worked. The box of face powder forgotten in her hand, she recalls hawking her own handmade jewelry at age 9 and outselling every other vendor at a Buena Park craft mall. She remembers being a 16-year old employee at Sav-On, asking her manager if she could work in the cosmetics department, and his mocking reply: “You don’t know anything about cosmetics.” She remembers selling firming egg masks at JCPenney at 17, dropping out of college to be a buyer for the chain at 21. Then, rising through the ranks at Nordstrom, Christian Dior, Lancôme, becoming an amazing sales person and an even more amazing makeup artist.
She trained other makeup artists — two girls in her living room at first, which became 19 girls, which became hundreds in a rented movie theater auditorium, then thousands in her own school. She was 30 when she opened her own agency.
“Most makeup artists learn from doing makeup on a beautiful girl,” she says. “Well, you can do anything on a beautiful girl and it don’t look so bad. But the average woman? That’s a challenge.”
Mee recalls a customer, a homely widow named Florence, who sent Mee a dozen roses thanking her for doing her makeup one lonely New Year’s Eve. “You’ve changed my life forever,” the card read. For the first time in the seven years since her husband died, Florence felt beautiful after Mee did her makeup. She went to a party, met a man and got married. Florence was waiting to die but now she has a life.
Mee was 19 at the time, full of the stupidity and enthusiasm of youth. She didn’t fully get it. But she does now.
“People think that makeup is so frivolous and fun?” Mee says. “No. It’s deep.”