I often admire it when a journalist incorporates ambient and personal description into a feature. That’s probably because I’m so bad at it.
I’ve gotten better about incorporating interviewees’ ages into profiles (although I have a standard, not-very-journalistic way of asking a person’s age: “I’ll ask, but you don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to, how old you are.”), but it always feels way too clumsy to go on to describe the person’s tendrils of raven hair or strong hands or whatever.
Even eye color is a major problem for me. I’m always afraid I’m going to say a person has green eyes when the person thinks they’re really hazel, or that someone’s eyes will look brown to me, when they’re really just that dark a blue.
Then along comes an interviewee who is practically begging to be described—and I can’t do it, because it would just sound mean.
She’s a sweet, sweet, scary scary lady. Perfectly friendly over the phone, when we arranged the interview.
When I walked into the showroom—her company makes innerwear that can be worn as outerwear, if you maintain that level of self-confidence (although I get the feeling most of it isn’t worn for any length of time, if you know what I mean)—the plump, mature ladies who greeted me were friendly and reassuring.
Then the proprietor emerged from her office. I can only hope that my eyebrows didn’t shoot up into my hairline, my eyes didn’t goggle, and my mouth didn’t drop open. But I’m not optimistic on this score.
Her hair was red. Ish. Well, a lot of it was kind of tawny-colored (not the roots), except for the big hanks that were gray. It was pulled tightly back from her forehead with a jeweled ponytail holder.
She wore pants tight enough for a “Grease” cast-member, and V-neck sweater that offered a view I could have done without. (But that’s nothing to the view she offers on the latest company postcard, which features five models in the company’s top products. She’s the one in the center.)
And then there was the makeup.
I’ve read an awful lot of magazine articles that recommend applying lipliner after lipstick, so that you don’t end up with a weird stripe around the lip perimeter when your lipstick wears off. I don’t think she’s read those articles. I didn’t count how many colors of eyeshadow she was wearing, but I know at least one of them was gold. (This was on a Tuesday at 10:30 a.m., in case you’re interested.) And then there were the false eyelashes. Beneath the goop, her eyes were friendly—but who could manage to look beneath the goop?
So we’re doing the interview, and she’s mentioning names that she evidently thinks I should know (and all I can think is, that must be a porn star—who else would have a name like that?), and she’s telling me about her challenges with running a company in this climate. We’re getting along famously when she mentions that her husband died earlier this year—just as matter-of-factly as she speaks about making women of all sizes look dynamic in her fashions.
I’m warming to her. Really! I find it easier and easier not to be distracted by her eyelashes. Sure, her appearance is unusual, but she’s a tough businesswoman with a … unique product. And she’s kinda fun.
So she’s telling me about how busy things have been lately, that business is picking up, and in fact she’s so wrapped up in the business, she says, “I’m even having trouble dating!”
Then she smacks me on the shoulder, cackling, and adds, “And I’m looking!”
This raises all kinds of issues I’d rather not think about. All of a sudden I can only see the lipliner, the gold eyeshadow, and the wrinkled cleavage. My façade is cracking fast. And she obviously expects a response.
I manage a weak chuckle. She cackles again and smacks me again and then we return to the comparative safety of the catalogue.
Her single status has no place in my featurelet about her business--and, I decided, neither did her appearance. (She's a businesswoman, after all; shouldn't appearance be second to ability?) So I followed my modus operandi, keeping the description down to just two words: “Antoinette, 78.” (And I didn’t even have to ask her how old she was—she brought it up of her own volition!)