September 11, 2000 12:00 PM

It’s one of life’s enduring minor frustrations: Why can’t you get the products you loved at the cosmetics counter to look right when you put them on at home? “The way you apply them to your face makes all the difference,” says Laura Mercier, the makeup artist from Aries, France, who is famous for giving stars such as Julia Roberts, Ashley Judd and Heather Locklear the appearance of perfect, naturally glowing skin.

The unmarried Mercier, 41, a former artist who moved to New York City in 1985, launched her own line of cosmetics in 1996 (fans include Oprah Winfrey and Madonna) and a line of skin-care products last year. In Flawless Face, a video released last month, she demonstrates her tricks for achieving a perfectly finished look. “Everybody was bugging me to do a book, but I don’t think that’s the greatest way to learn makeup application,” she says. “A video goes to the point directly: This is how you apply concealer. There is no magic.” Mercier shared her tips with deputy New York bureau chief Elizabeth McNeil in Manhattan.

What is the most common makeup mistake?

Hiding flaws, like wrinkles, with too much foundation. In the South, women’s skin is often so covered you don’t see a pore. But the more foundation you put on, the more wrinkles show. Makeup sinks into creases, and by the end of the day they look deeper.

Should you skip foundation?

You want to make the skin look as natural as possible with the least amount of makeup. If you don’t need foundation, don’t use it. It’s perfectly all right to show skin. Julia Roberts has beautiful skin, very transparent, so I use very little foundation or tinted moisturizer. Her face enhances the makeup rather than the makeup enhancing the face.

But what if you do have something to hide?

Apply concealer with a brush to the imperfection. If you have acne, apply a thin layer of oil-free foundation or a moisturizing foundation that contains noncomedogenic [nonpore-clogging] oil and then a dab of concealer. For crow’s-feet, put a little foundation around them—not on them—then concealer and powder.

What’s the biggest skin-care mistake?

Abusing skin with too many anti-wrinkle products that contain Retin-A, alpha-hydroxy or fruit acids. They often make the skin hypersensitive—dry and flaky on the surface and oily underneath. When these products first became popular, I was shocked to see what over-treated skin did to makeup. The foundation doesn’t blend well on the dry skin, and the oil underneath makes makeup disintegrate. It makes no sense to have a canvas like that underneath.

Aren’t these products supposed to help?

With some women, Retin-A and Renova are a success, but often at a smaller dosage than prescribed. American women tend to think that because it burns or tingles, it works. That’s not the case. Choose beta-hydroxy acids instead. They are much gentler than alpha-hydroxys but still exfoliate.

What about applying makeup?

Always put on foundation with a sponge; the finger can give uneven coverage. Start with a few drops and then build up. For powder blushes and eyeshadows, brushes are essential for a nice blending job. You cannot blend with your finger; it’s too big.

What makeup colors will be hot this fall?

The eyes are becoming more smoky with lots of color, such as khaki or muted gray-green shades, which can work for a lot of women. And look for strong red lip colors, like brick red, orangy red or berry.

Will those colors work for everyone?

You can soften them—like toning down red lipstick with gloss. You must suit your personality and coloring. For Susan Sarandon’s red hair and green eyes, I use makeup in warm and golden tones, such as khaki, gold-green or caramel on her eyelids, a red-brick on her lips and a russet blusher on her cheeks. For Heather Locklear I use different colors—purple, pink—because her blue eyes are magnificent.

How do you feel about plastic surgery?

Plastic surgery, when overdone, can annihilate the personality of the face. For lesser problems, I tell clients, try to find a way with makeup. Makeup can sometimes work miracles.

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