Photo: Angela Sterling
The Foundation for ‘Rouge’ Is the Dark Side of the Beauty Industry
In Mona Awad's new gothic satire, a skinfluencer is drawn into a fairy-tale web of deceit – and Tom Cruise makes an appearance / BY Rosemary Counter / September 21st, 2023
If you’ve ever paid a $100-plus for a swanky skin serum that you don’t need and almost certainly won’t work – I certainly have, and I’m not sorry – you’ll see yourself in Mirabelle Nour, the beauty-obsessed protagonist of Mona Awad’s new novel, Rouge. Mirabelle, like Awad, and lots of other women in odd corners of the internet, has a strangely satisfying midnight habit of surfing YouTube skincare videos. “They’re just so mesmerizing and hypnotic, it became a real obsession for a while,” confesses Awad, the author of 2019’s Bunny. Then like all good novelists, she channelled that energy into her work.
With red potions and cracked mirrors, Rouge is a new take on the fairy tale, Snow White – although, in this version, who’s envious of whom is up for great debate: Mirabelle, called Belle, is the only daughter of Noelle, her movie-star-level gorgeous mother, who has mysteriously fallen to her death from a cliff. Dress clerk Belle travels from down-to-earth Montreal – where Awad was born and raised – to image-obsessed California to crash in her mother’s apartment while she settles her affairs. Once she arrives, however, Belle starts to get all-too-comfortable in her mother’s clothes, magical red shoes and, obviously, makeup.
“I went into Mother’s bathroom and triple cleansed, then doused myself with a copious amount of snail slime,” writes Awad in her fourth novel. “I then used my NuuFace followed by my MasknGLO. Then ten skins of a green tea, algae, and rice essence for much needed hydration and luminosity. Then an antioxidant serum specifically targeted toward my free radicals, followed by the Lumière Pigment Lightening Correxion Concentrate because an even skin tone is next to godliness.”
If all that read like a soft purr as you soak in a salt-water infinity tub, just wait until Belle discovers La Maison de Méduse, her mother’s top-secret, ultra-exclusive spa that may or may not be a cult. How is a visit to La Maison like a horror film? And why is Tom Cruise there, too? From her home in New York, the Giller Award-nominated novelist, who Margaret Atwood called her literary heir apparent, explains who’s the fairest of them all.
Rosemary Counter: As an admitted skin-care junkie, I feel totally seen by this book. I assume you’re guilty, too?
Mona Awad: Oh yeah, and that’s where this book was born. I started watching skin-care videos on YouTube and getting really really into it and buying all these products that I couldn’t afford that will burn my face off. My behaviour was getting pretty obsessive, but I just couldn’t stop watching, and watching myself do it, and then I’m thinking, what is going on here? The novelist in me became very interested in whatever need this was filling.
RC: What need was that? Did you ever decide?
MA: I think it has to do with the possibility and promise of transformation in everyday life. It’s almost magical, like a fairy tale. Skin-care products are like little potions.
RC: I have hundreds of them, which I like to dump all over the bed and decide what I should mix. A serum, an eye cream, a moisturizer? Then my husband comes in all, “What is this witchcraft?”
MA: I know, and that sounds amazing. It’s a very private thing, something that you do all by yourself, just you and the mirror. It’s fun and playful and magical, but there’s also something sinister about it. You can get so fixated in all the wrong ways. You think you need more; you have to rearrange the ritual. It can be crazy-making.
RC: Did you do any skin-care research? Is that even a thing?
MA: I did some treatments, got some new products, a few extra facials. Really, I tried to pay more attention to the experience, which can be a frightening thing when you think about it. Some stranger takes you into a dark room, tells you to close your eyes and relax. You’re so vulnerable, and then they shine this bright light onto your face and literally pick it apart. You can’t see them; they can only see you. It’s like a horror movie.
RC: And then, just when you least expect it, Tom Cruise appears. Why Tom Cruise?
MA: It had to be Tom Cruise, in part because I find Tom Cruise to be very mesmerizing. I’m a child of the 80s, as is my main character. She completely worships movies, just like her mother, which are like another kind of mirror really. I needed a Snow White mirror figure, who is usually masculine, so I thought, who is emblematic of elusive, mysterious, aspirational beauty? It had to be Tom Cruise. Even though he’s been so present in cinema for so long, he’s really like the last movie star. We don’t know a lot of things about him, and he’s ultimately a mystery. I find that so interesting and compelling.
RC: Plus, he’s a Scientologist, which feels thematic here. And if anyone had jellyfish-based immortality, it would be Tom Cruise, who looks the same as he did in Top Gun. Will he be in the movie of this book, which has been optioned already?
MA: It would be a dream come true. It would be incredible and I would love it. Maybe I should send him a book. Someone actually told me that he bought a cream that is supposedly the secret behind why Tom Cruise looks so young. It’s a bird shit cream from some kind of bird shit facial. You can look it up!
RC: I intend to. How much would you pay for a Tom Cruise bird shit facial?
MA: Oh my god, the sky’s the limit for that one.
RC: Clearly Rouge borrows from the fairy tale Snow White. Would you call this Snow White proper or an inversion of Snow White?
MA: I do see it as an inversion, because, usually in Snow White, it’s always the mother who is envious of the daughter, and only because the mirror has planted that idea in her heart. Instead of looking exclusively at the mother’s envy, I also looked at Belle’s envy of her mother. And I amplified the role of the mirror in the story, making him more culpable for his actions.
RC: How do you bring your reader along from things being totally normal to completely surreal without losing them along the way?
MA: That’s something I think about all the time. My answer sounds deceptively easy, but it’s not: I follow the character’s voice, I try to occupy their consciousness and I commit to the truth of whatever they’re feeling. When I do that, I find myself in the realm of fantasy so quickly, because, really, humans are always fantasizing and projecting scenarios and imagining the past and the future. If I can follow them, I can get there. Both fairy tales and the horror genre use the supernatural to explore things that are very real for their characters. If I can commit to their dreams and nightmares as real, then so can the reader, I hope.
RC: Now that the book’s complete, what’s the state of your YouTube video obsession?
MA: I’d like to think writing this sinister book cured me, but sadly, no. I wrote a piece about the video addiction recently, and in writing it, I had to watch them all again. I was hoping I’d watch them with skepticism and cynicism, that I’d be so over it, but no. I was sucked right back in.