The look that launched 1,000 quips: After eight hours of torture and 1,200 one writer transforms into an Essex Girl
Outside, it is minus 2c, and I’m standing in the middle of a street in Essex wearing a tiny, skintight gold dress with seven-inch heels and sporting a dark brown tan that would make Dale Winton look peaky.
I can barely see through the thick false lashes glued to my eyelids and my hair is so voluminous that if I turn around too quickly I may suffer whiplash.
I look like a Quality Street. And yet, as I peer at the women tottering around me in Loughton, I seem to fit right in.
Laura Topham as she normally dresses (left) and after her TOWIE-style makeover
Around me are dozens of perfectly-groomed Barbie dolls. Their skin is the colour of toffee, their nails are candy-coloured talons and, as for their hair, let’s just say I’ve seen more restrained extensions on a gypsy caravan site.
But as the new series of The Only Way Is Essex — or TOWIE as it’s known to its fans — continues to capture audiences on our screens, I’ve come to the county to undergo a TOWIE-style transformation.
How long will it take How much will it cost And, more importantly, will my skin, hair and nails survive intact
My own basic beauty regime involves brushing my hair and moisturising my face. That’s it.
If I’m going to fit all the treatments into one day I need an early start, so I’m up at 6am and off to my first appointment at TOWIE star Lauren Goodger’s own salon in Buckhurst Hill. First stop, fake tan — no Essex girl worth her St Tropez will be seen dead without one.
‘Women here like their tans dark — the darker the better — and everyone has a fake tan once a fortnight all year round,’ says beautician Michelle Stoneman as she sprays my pale limbs and face with Lauren’s Way Glam Tan. She’s not kidding. Last time I saw a colour like this, I was watching my neighbour creosote his garden fence.
First stop, fake tan – no Essex girl worth her St Tropez will be seen dead without one
‘It doesn’t matter that it’s fake,’ Michelle reassures me. ‘It makes you feel better and look slimmer.’
my tan develops, it’s time to tackle my hair. Off I pop to Tatiana
salon, frequented by TOWIE’s Sam Faiers and Stacey Solomon (yes, she of
The X Factor — and latterly Iceland adverts — fame) to see about hair
every woman I meet in Essex has them. The Tatiana brand is one of the
most popular, as they provide Russian virgin hair — which makes me worry
about bald young girls in Moscow, but I’m assured this simply means
hair that isn’t chemically treated. When
I tell the stylists I’m after the Essex look, they’re not in the least
surprised. ‘We’re the busiest we’ve ever been,’ says extension
technician Julia Rakovskaja. ‘People constantly come in asking for exactly what Lauren (Goodger) has.’
It’s a painstaking process. First, Julia finds extensions to match my own brunette shade, then sections off top layers of my hair, back combs the bottom and clips in the extensions so they sit unseen close to my scalp. Thankfully, it’s pain-free — though I worry about extra weight straining my own hair. This
is why I’ve refused the permanent variety most girls undergo. Those
take an incredible four hours to attach, but mine require only 30
There’s no sign of the Shropshire lass
I’m used to seeing in the mirror… It’s scary – but it’s
also quite exciting.
When I look in the mirror, I am almost embarrassed to admit that I’m pleasantly surprised by the results. My hair is instantly thicker, fuller and eight inches longer, now stopping just below my breasts. It’s when I see the bill that I understand why Essex girls need the extensions so much; paying 480 would make my hair fall out, too. Next up are the Lash Perfect eyelash extensions, as seen on TOWIE stars Gemma Collins and Jessica Wright.
‘You’ve really never had eyelash extensions before’ asked beauty technician Jordaan Warren when I visit Tahiti salon in Romford. I don’t mention that I’ve never even heard of them before.
It’s not an experience I’m eager to repeat. For an hour — yes, a whole hour — I have to lie down and keep my eyes closed while gel pads hold down my lower lashes and Jordaan glues individual acrylic lashes to my own. It is fiddly, uncomfortable and demands a lot of patience. But the results are astounding. My lashes actually resemble those in a mascara advert. And what is wonderful is that they’ll still be looking like this when I wake up in the morning.
At 89, it’s not cheap, but that still doesn’t deter locals getting them fitted every fortnight. The next feature we tackle are my eyebrows. Permanent eyebrow tattooing is popular amongst Essex ladies — but that’s not a path I’m prepared to tread. Instead, I opt for La La Brow treatment to give me a thicker, darker shape. Powder, not a pencil, is used to give a more realistic look. This takes 15 minutes, costs 20 and lasts 24 hours.
Hot spot: Laura pays a visit to the Tahiti salon in Romford
Laura gets an eyebrow treatment (left) and has individual
acrylic lashes glued to her own eyelashes (right)
'When it comes to hair in Essex, big is most definitely better,' the hairdresser explains to Laura
Then it’s back to Lauren’s salon, Lauren’s Way, which recently opened in response to public demand for her look. Outside the salon excited passers-by take pictures on their mobile phones and tell me they’re desperate to ‘look like Lauren’.
I have Gelish nails applied — like a nail polish — in several layers, each dried under a UV lamp. It costs 50 for my hands and feet, but is superior to normal lacquer because it sets hard and won’t chip — though that also means you have to go back to the salon to have them removed.
‘Women get these done every two weeks,’ says nail technician Chancie Liman, who takes 50 minutes to give me wonderfully glossy nails — albeit in a slightly sickly shade of pink. According to Chancie, much of Essex women’s insatiable beauty regime is driven by a competitive streak. ‘They want to outdo each other on the way they look, so they want the best everything — the nicest nails, the fullest hair,’ she says.
Next I see MAC make-up artist Andrea Louca, who tells me her clients like smoky-eyes and as dramatic make-up as possible.
‘Women here always want the full works,’ says Andrea, as she applies foundation and uses a palette of blacks and greys to shade my eyes. ‘But bronzer is the main thing — more is more and when I’ve finished most girls put more on again.’ That’s on top of their fake tan!
Laura tests out her new look in its natural habitat
After lashings of lip gloss, Andrea brushes bronzer all over my face, including under my chin to define the jaw line and ‘slim the face’.
For Essex isn’t the place to be chubby. If you want girls to be ‘well jel’ (translation: very jealous) of your look, you don’t pile on the pounds.
One of the biggest clothing brands in this county is Forever Unique — beloved for their flattering, figure-flaunting frocks that cling to the body and usually bare breasts or legs or both.
I hunt down their best-selling dress in Essex last year, a super-short one-shoulder number worn by TOWIE stars Amy Childs and Billie Faiers. I also pick up some big bling from Butler & Wilson. Subtle is out tonight. With my outfit sorted, it’s time for the grand finale: the blow dry.
‘When it comes to hair in Essex, big is most definitely better,’ the hairdresser explains.
Then comes the kind of torture I thought had been banned under the Geneva Convention. My hair is wound into rollers, backcombed, scrunched, straightened and sprayed for more than 50 minutes.
I crush my feet into a pair of sparkly skyscraper shoes — so much for walking anywhere — and then pour myself into the tight rubber-like gold mini-dress.
Finally, my make-over is complete. It’s taken a mere eight hours and cost more than 1,000. The result is, frankly, shocking. There’s no sign of the Shropshire lass I’m used to seeing in the mirror. Instead, I meet an extremely done-up, over-glamorous, unrecognisable version of myself. It’s scary — but it’s also quite exciting.
To test out my new look in its natural habitat, I head to Loughton for dinner at The White Bull, often featured on TOWIE. Even though I feel conspicuous, my waitress assures me much of the clientele sport the same, over-the-top look. My appearance certainly achieves the Essex girl’s ultimate aim — attracting attention. Diners turn and stare.
One man shouts: ‘You look great, babe’ — as his wife looks across angrily. Another, Barry, breaks off from his 40th birthday celebrations to come over and kiss me on the cheek. Unfortunately, female diners look far less friendly.
My 16-hour stint as an Essex lady is nearly over and it has been . . . illuminating — but it is not for me. It will be a relief to get back into my own clothes — and the shower. (Although it might take a Brillo Pad, and several weeks, to rid myself of this tan.)
‘It’s all a competition,’ says barmaid Laura Biagioni when I head to my last port of call — NuBar, the TOWIE stars’ major hangout. ‘That’s why women make the effort. But you blend in and definitely look the part.
‘If anything, you might be a bit under-dressed!’