by Drew Taylor
When I heard recently that bottles of Chanel’s Le Vernis nail color in Blue Satin were going for upwards of $100 a pop on Ebay (original retail value: $19), I had to wonder: what goes into the making of a cult beauty product? How does a seemingly ordinary little bottle of lacquer turn into a country-wide (and sometimes international) craze?
The old adage “you always want what you can’t have” applies perfectly to the ever-changing, new-product-a-minute beauty industry. With so many options at your local drugstore/department store/beauty mecca of choice, what makes that small handful of cult classic beauty products so special? Often it’s as simple as two little words: “limited edition”.
Makeup chains release limited-edition colors to their existing lines to create customer buzz. For example, nail polish favorite OPI releases a new collection of colors each season, with quirky names like the “Russian Collection” and the “Deliciously Darks” line. This way, when you pop into your favorite nail salon for a fresh manicure, you know you’re rocking the most au courant, of-the-moment shades. The makeup wizards at MAC nearly started a mutiny when they discontinued their popular “Parrot” eyeshadow, a bold turquoise shade. Fans were trying everything to get their hands on even partially used (!) packages of the color. Finally, MAC reintroduced “Parrot” to their repertoire this past December – but good luck getting your hands on it. MAC stores report that the shade flies off shelves within days of being restocked.

Beauty products always seem more exotic when you know they’ve been formulated somewhere faraway, like France.  Who doesn’t want to feel like they’ve been let in on some beauty secret of the Parisian chic? Drugstore brands L’Oreal and Nivea both sell different formulations of their products overseas, and North American travelers in-the-know stock up before they head home. Voila – a stateside cult craze is born.  L’Oreal’s Elnett Hairspray, renowned since 1961 for its soft yet long-lasting hold, is only available in Europe, further adding to its mystique.
But if you’d like to get global with your beauty arsenal, have no fear.  Since 1998, European beauty retailer Sephora has been bringing product lines from around the world a little closer to home. Feeling French? Try the Paris-based fragrance line Comptoir Sud Pacifique. Or go Greek with all-natural bath products from Korres, which hails from Athens. (At
Sometimes cult classics are just those products that have withstood the test of time and earned the recommendations of hundreds of demanding beauty junkies. These products often come with a unique history, having been on the market for so many years, and the quirky stories behind the product can become as much a selling point as the product itself.
Elizabeth Arden’s Eight Hour Cream Skin Protectant is one such case.  While this super-moisturizer is widely used today as a combination lip balm/crack-repairing cream, back in 1934 the original Ms. Arden reportedly applied it to the legs and hooves of her Thoroughbred horses! San Francisco-based beauty company BeneFit has also seen their products used in more, ahem, innovative ways: their hugely popular liquid cheek-and-lip stain, Benetint, was originally used to add color to the nipples of exotic dancers.

In case you’re thinking that only luxe labels can attract a cult following, consider this: the number-one-selling mascara in the U.S. is none other than the $5, pink-and-green staple, Maybelline Great Lash. It’s estimated that every two seconds another bottle is sold in North America alone, proving that while beauty crazes come and go, some classics are here to stay.
What’s new on the cult beauty front? NARS, the company that brought us “Orgasm” blush (beloved by makeup artists and celebrities alike), has spawned a lipgloss and now a new nail polish in the same shade. Like Chanel’s “Blue Satin” and so many other shades before it, it’s been stamped with the limited-edition label – which means that if you don’t snatch up this special set soon, expect to see it on Ebay in a month or so… for at least five times the original cost. (Available at