The front woman of Garbage, musician Shirley Manson is one of the most iconic figures of 90’s music, both in terms of her extraordinary style and exceptional talent. Famously outspoken, she engaged audiences around the world with her intimate, vulnerable and honest lyrics about gender, identity and self-acceptance whilst simultaneously inspiring a generation into a self-styled DIY feminist aesthetic.
Dismissed as ‘the face of Garbage’ by mainstream media who presumed her ‘sex-kitten’ image couldn’t co-exist alongside the creation of rock music, Shirley’s sustained success has aggressively disproven the disappointing misogynist narratives that stalked her early career. We talked to Shirley about what it was like to be musically ignored because of her looks, her insecurities in the public eye and, of course, what lipsticks work best on stage.
We’ve spoken before about your insecurity growing up… how did that manifest when you were a kid?
I dealt with a lot of insecurity about my appearance when I was young: I was red haired, so I was different right from the start. But one day, I was getting ready for a school play of the Wizard of Oz – I was playing the wicked witch of the west – and I painted my face green, with lots of black eye makeup. I remember looking in the mirror thinking, ‘I’ve never looked this good’. Then I saw Siouxie and the Banshees on Top of the Pops, completely transformed by makeup, and I fell in love. Makeup has been a huge part of my life: I used it for escape, for transformation, for joy, as a tranquilizer, because when I’m getting ready, it calms me. And I always had a fascination with it… I was always keen to read articles in female magazines, how to do this and how to do that.
I love that now you can get YouTube tutorials.
I can even watch Shirley Manson tutorials! They’re funny.
Does anyone get it really wrong?
Not always but sometimes it’s really funny how they go about trying to emulate my makeup, it’s sweet. The problem is that how you evolve as a human being is through failure. But the idea of failure has become so ugly and it’s worrisome now that you can learn to do everything perfectly following people on YouTube. But, hey ho!
It’s funny how things have shifted from women in music when you started, with DIY post-punk feminism and riot grrrl, to the immaculate pop phenomenons at the moment…
[Laughs] Everyone comes out of a box now, with stylists and makeup artists. Nobody is stumbling out of the box making mistakes and doing ridiculous things like we did in the 90s. Gwen [Stefani] and I had a discussion recently about how when we came out we didn’t have makeup artists, we didn’t have stylists and we put ourselves together. And looking back at the pictures now, it’s patently obvious we did it ourselves, but there was a certain uniqueness about each person as a result.
And anyone who does stumble in the public eye is berated.
Yes! There’s pages in magazines devoted to ugly faces singers pull on stage… and it’s so destructive to the fabric of our society! The message sent to the general populous is, ‘if they’re criticizing her, how must they look upon me?’ As a result, you have so many women scared to take a chance, pull a funny face, to fail at something. They’re so scared of being imperfect. You see the same girls pulling the same face in the photographs that they take of themselves with their iPhones: safe face, safe angle. And all the girls on the red carpet pull the same positions for fear they’re gonna get laughed at.
And it’s so many girls. There are so few older women celebrated for being beautiful, being powerful, it seems like it’s becoming exclusively youth that is safe, that is seen as empowering.
I find it laughable that 19 year olds feel they have all the power because I feel like if any young woman should come into MY den, we’ll see who’s the alpha female! [Laughs] “Alright little girl, let’s go, let’s see where you can take this.” But that’s something I’ve learnt over years of trying to navigate the world feeling less than, just because I wasn’t 19 anymore. Young women undoubtedly have power – I love watching it, I love its interplay and innocence and its beauty but age definitely has its compensations. And what saddens me now is that I heard stories just over the weekend of young girls, 21 years old, having boob jobs and nose jobs and botox! At 21! They haven’t even learnt to enjoy their own face yet!
As if the worst thing that could happen to us all is age! It’s nuts. The pubescent idea is so disempowering in the first place. I feel like it’s the biggest heist that has ever been played on women, this obsession with something we can’t control. We’re all obsessed with the fear of aging, of the physical attributes of a fully empowered woman and as a result, everyone is chasing a nubile image that we can’t possibly hold onto: we’re expending all our energies grasping at sand. One wonders what we would do with all our mental powers and our faculty and our energy if we weren’t focusing it on something we have no control over and instead putting into something we do.
That’s what I love about cosmetics – they are a temporary way of expressing yourself however you want, they can be empowering rather than reductive.
Yes! I loved makeup, I love to feel beautiful, I love the fact I can play with my image and use it to my advantage much like a peacock uses its feathers to pull a following… it is powerful. I always loved Ani DiFranco’s line: “Like lipstick is a sign of my declining mind”. I wish I wrote it.
What are your favourite products?
MAC’s Lady Danger, always. And what I can’t live without is Chanel Vitalumiere, it’s my favourite foundation, dewy and delicious. And there’s a new very strange lipstick that I’ve fallen in love with, called Lime Crime… they have weird matte sticks you can put on all night long. The lipglosses are called Velveteens. They’re amazing and they have amazing neon eyeliners, too: electric blues and oranges. They stay on forever, even when you’re on stage.
Olivia Singer discusses the role of beauty with the fabulous, the subversive, and the always cool industry-insider leading ladies. She’s Editor of Under the Influence magazine and a freelance writer who focuses on feminism, beauty, politics and the relationship between the three.
Words: Olivia Singer (follow Olivia on Twitter @oliviasinger)