Admit it, ladies: When it comes to cosmetics, one brand of lipstick is much like the next pigment in a waxy carrier, some slight variation on pink or red, priced at a huge mark-up over the modest cost of production.

But it's a rare woman who is brutally realistic about makeup. After all, the whole point of putting it on is to create a fantasy self. In a psychological sense, changing your face is changing your life.

In her entertaining, intelligent new book Color Stories: Behind the Scenes of America's Billion-Dollar Beauty Industry, Mary Lisa Gavenas deglamourizes the glamour business without forgetting that what ultimately matters is how the consumer feels about herself. A "color story" is beauty industry jargon for a company's seasonal collection of lipstick, nail polish and eye shadow, along with the advertising slogans that tie them together: "Go Tropical," "Winter Beach," "A Moment in Tuscany." But Gavenas shows that "stories" are also the very essence of the $29 billion industry, from the way a pioneering entrepreneur like Helena Rubenstein or Mary Kay created her persona to the way mall department stores sell their wares through "makeovers.'' Gavenas is herself a beauty industry vet, both as a magazine journalist and as an employee of companies as different as Avon and Yves Rocher. She's able to provide a comprehensive overview of the business in a relatively short book by leading readers month by month through the development of a spring seasonal collection.

Her lively behind-the-scenes accounts of fashion shows and magazine photo shoots broaden into informative discussions of industry trends. And while Gavenas' tone is light, she doesn't avoid the less attractive side of the beauty world, such as the industry's stubborn and largely successful fight against safety regulations.

The book is particularly interesting as it tells of the smart, hard-working women who became millionaires with their paints and powders. The Big Three were the long-gone Rubenstein, Elizabeth Arden and Estee Lauder, but it's a career still open to female talent, as the success of Bobbi Brown demonstrates. However, Gavenas also points out that men head all but one of the biggest mass market companies. Appropriately enough, Color Stories begins and ends at a Bellevue, Washington, mall, where the purchases made by ordinary women illustrate the truth that makes this industry near recession-proof. They may not be able to afford designer dresses or trips to Tahiti, but women can always find optimism at the cosmetics counter. Anne Bartlett is a journalist in South Florida.

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