MANCHESTER, N.H.—BACK in June, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton took the stage for a Democratic debate with a visage so flawless it started a flurry of Botox and plastic surgery rumors. In October during a Republican debate, Mitt Romney proved once again that he'll never show up with a hair out of place and always exude an enviable degree of perfection. And earlier this month, during the most recent televised exchange among candidates, Fred Thompson, the real-life Hollywood actor who should know better, appeared with bags under his eyes so noticeable you'd think he hadn't slept since the first season of "Law & Order."
FOR THE RECORD:
The 2008 election is the most profound image contest in U.S. political history. The protracted media coverage -- back-to-back debates and 24-hour TV exposure -- is certainly one reason, but so is the remarkable range of candidates separated in age by nearly 25 years, with white hair, gray hair, colored hair and no hair, and the first serious female and African American presidential contenders. With the primary races running as close as they are, the pressure to look good has never been more important.
Which makes it all the more surprising that one woman stands behind them all -- Democrats and Republicans -- helping present their faces to the American electorate, while quietly shaping the way we view those jockeying to lead the country.
Hollywood celebrities have Paul Starr as their go-to makeup guru, fashion designers have Pat McGrath -- and the political world has Kriss Soterion, a former New Hampshire beauty queen with a lower back tattoo and the distinction of having powdered the noses of every major presidential candidate for the past 16 years. She went from small-town makeup artist to master of the political face, not by playing up features or shaving off years, but by achieving the kind of no-makeup makeup that we're accustomed to seeing on the campaign trail -- a healthy, shine-free sameness, no matter the age, race or gender.
Soterion has made up members of both parties in the last seven primary debates sponsored by CNN, and she'll be waiting in the wings, sable brush in one hand and mineral powder foundation in the other, when the remaining Democrats take the stage in Myrtle Beach, S.C., Monday night and when candidates from both parties face off in Southern California on Jan. 30.
"Most political scientists would say image doesn't count so much," says Shanto Iyengar, who teaches political science and communications at Stanford and has authored several books about media and politics. "But in close contests like this one, there is a big emphasis on issues of attractiveness and appearance."
Iyengar cites the famous 1960 Nixon-Kennedy debate at which a profusely sweating, unshaven Richard M. Nixon refused makeup and came across as untrustworthy to the TV audience (radio listeners gave him higher marks), as well as the 2000 debate between then-Vice President Al Gore and Republican presidential challenger George W. Bush during which the Gore appeared to melt in front of the cameras.
"It's never good for a candidate when you are talking about their makeup the next day," says Alan Schroeder, author of "Presidential Debates: Forty Years of High-Risk TV" and a professor at Northeastern University.
"The ideal is to have a high-energy, invigorating appearance, which suggests you are action-oriented, and likely to be a doer, not a talker," Iyengar says. "You don't want to be seen as sedentary, weak or passive." But if you are too made up, you risk alienating the people who are inclined to vote for you and opening yourself up to criticism about superficiality.
Which is where Soterion's famously light touch comes in.
'A blank canvas'
"I'm probably the only person in the entire world who has had such intimate contact with every presidential candidate in the past four elections," Soterion says, curling up on the couch of her Kriss Cosmetics salon last month in Manchester. She decamps here between freelance gigs, teaching women of the Granite State how to apply makeup and selling a namesake line of cosmetics that includes lipstick colors "Bombshell," "Betrayal," "Surrender" and "Sheer Chocolate Cherries."
Soterion's routine for preparing a male candidate begins with a camouflage concealer to cover any trouble spots, followed by a cream compact foundation. "With men, you're just matching skin tone -- creating a blank canvas," she says. "I know [Sen. John] McCain's skin tone, [former New York Mayor Rudolph W.] Giuliani's skin tone and [Sen. Barack] Obama's skin tone so well I can grab a compact out of my kit without even looking."
She follows with a mattifying, light-reflective mineral powder and finishes with a rice-based invisible blotting powder to combat shine. "If someone is looking a little tired or under the weather, I might add a little bronzer to give them a little glow. Then I check the eyebrows, the back of the ears and neck area, maybe give 'em some lip balm, and they are good to go."
For women, she starts with a retexturizing cream and then follows the camo concealer with a liquid foundation. Both have higher light-reflective properties that, she says, help create a natural glow. And that's not the only thing that's different. "I'm putting on eye shadow colors, eyeliner colors, blush colors and lipstick colors that not only need to flatter the skin tone but also coordinate with what they're wearing. If she decided to wear a purple suit, red lipstick is going to clash."
Which is why, whenever she works with Clinton, she'll get an advance notice texted to her BlackBerry about the New York senator's wardrobe choice. "If it's something like 'tweed charcoal suit,' I'm like 'Yes!' because the cool palette is what looks best on her."
Praise from Buchanan