Rosy December cheeks

and Michelle Thomas

Makeup counter makeovers can intimidate even the most daring beauty buff. You worry about encountering pushy sales staff who will insist your life is simply incomplete without that 25-shade eye-shadow palette. Or you fear that fellow shoppers will hover nearby, sneaking peeks at your fluorescent-lit face while silently rejoicing that they're not the ones getting the clown treatment.

Still, some women insist that hitting the counter can be a great way to check out beauty trends and learn application tricks &

especially around the holidays, when you're hoping to look fabulous at any number of fetes. We wanted to find out if this was true, so we selected four fearless readers to send incognito on free, unscheduled visits to test new holiday looks at makeup counters in and around Washington.

Would they leave with party-perfect faces or wind up coated in metallic blue eye shadow and slicked with fuchsia lipstick? Let's see.

Shilpi Paul, 26, Washington

Her beauty look: A water-only rinse is about as much as Paul can handle in her no-fuss morning cleansing routine, which she follows with loads of moisturizer (she uses Burt's Bees Radiance day cream) and simple makeup: Lancome kohl eyeliner, Aveda mascara and Clinique face powder. "I actually find that my skin is a lot healthier when I don't use a lot of products," she says. For a night out, Paul adds eye shadow and a dab of sheer lip gloss.

Her counter encounter: The MAC Cosmetics store's enticing holiday display, all shiny shadows and extravagant palettes, drew in Paul. She loved the gold-lined eyes shown on one of the shop's posters, so the makeup artist created a vibrant, dramatic eye by blending layers of shimmering gold, beige and bright violet. She brushed on a light foundation-moisturizer blend and dotted on under-eye concealer, finishing with a swipe of sheer, natural-looking lipstick.

Makeover magic: Paul liked that the artist paid close attention to her preferences by asking how much foundation she usually wears and what lipstick shades she tends to use. The result of such a tailored makeover? "Even though it was a lot more makeup than I usually wear, I still felt like myself," she says.

Makeover mishap: Paul would have liked a few more tips on how to match a lip shade to her intense eye-makeup look, and she wasn't thrilled with the too-heavy eye concealer. "It wasn't invisible," she says. "It looked makeupy."

Her rating: 7.5 (out of 10).

Her pick: Paul invested in a set of five MAC brushes ($49, with fabric clutch). "I thought, if I'm even going to try to re-create this look, I need the tools to do it," she says.

Jess Dillman, 24, Fairfax, Va.

Her beauty look: Natural is Dillman's mantra. After a daily dose of SPF 30 moisturizer, she applies concealer and loose powder, then brown Revlon eyeliner, a swipe of blush and dark brown mascara. Sometimes she adds some brown eye shadow &

if she's feeling wild. "I generally wear the same makeup no matter what I'm doing," she says.

Her counter encounter: This makeover first-timer visited the Dior counter at Macy's, where she asked the makeup artist which colors flatter her fair, freckled skin, red hair and green eyes. Turns out Dillman was already getting it right: Earth tones are her best bet. Dillman requested a "cocktail party elegant" look, and the artist showed her how to create a glowing base by applying a good moisturizer, makeup primer and a light foundation to clean skin. After every step, the artist had Dillman check her look in a mirror so she could adjust if Dillman didn't like it or wanted something more dramatic. She blended neutral, earth-tone eye shadows to create a smoky but not overly dark effect. Then she dusted a shimmering body powder over Dillman's face and neck.

Makeover magic: Dillman was impressed with the artist's frequent check-ins and appreciated the woman's care to keep her clothes clean &

even offering a hair clip and covering Dillman's neckline with tissue.

Makeover mishap: Dillman would skip the shimmery body powder. "It looked beautiful on, but I was wearing a black dress, and I had trouble keeping the powder on my skin and not on my dress," she says.

Her rating: 9.5.

Her pick: Dior Addict Ultra Shine Sheer lipstick in Shiniest Style, a peachy-brown shade ($24). "It had a little bit of shimmer, was a nice color without being too bold, and finished off my look well," she says.

Susan Jacobsen, 37, Alexandria, Va.

Her beauty look: Jacobsen's mother gets the credit for her regimen, which starts with Dermalogica cleanser, toner and moisturizer. She swears by foundation and concealer from Make Up For Ever and finishes her look with translucent powder, plus eye shadows and lipsticks in many colors from a range of brands. This tester knows her way around a makeup counter.

Her counter encounter: Jacobsen had barely set foot inside Neiman Marcus when three saleswomen pounced on her like a pride of hungry lions (if lions hawked mascara). One wanted to show off her line's holiday makeup, while another had some brush sets that Jacobsen just had to see. The Nars counter, with its quiet, polite makeup artist, seemed like an oasis of calm in comparison, so Jacobsen made a beeline there. The artist used the brand's Violetta eye shadow duo to create a dramatic eye, balancing it with a berry lip. She explained the concept of a "deeper" eye (basically, a softer version of the smoky-eye look) and gave tips: Use a base eye shadow to keep colors in place, and apply foundation with fingers (instead of sponges) for a natural look. When the lipstick the artist had used turned out to be out of stock, she arranged for a tube to arrive at Jacobsen's home three days later.

Makeover magic: Jacobsen was pleased to learn she can wear darker eye shadows "without looking too made-up." The makeup artist skipped blush and swept on a dusting of bronzer, which gave Jacobsen a beachy glow that didn't distract from her eye shadow.

Makeover mishap: Being corralled by voracious saleswomen was not the swank experience Jacobsen had hoped for at Neiman Marcus &

especially when one artist pleaded with her to do "just one eye!" as Jacobsen slowly backed away from the counter.

Her rating: 8.

Her pick: She was taken with Nars' lip products, especially the barely pink Foul Play gloss ($23).

Brandan Wilburn-Herbert, 30, Washington

Her beauty look: Wilburn-Herbert's routine consists of mascara and lip balm, though she occasionally adds lip liner and gloss. "I don't like the feeling of 'stuff' on my face," she says. Once she turned 30, though, she wanted a more polished look. "I realized that I can't just walk out of the house as I do, with just mascara and maybe some lip gloss," she says. "That just won't cut it."

Her counter encounter: At the Georgetown Sephora boutique, a makeup artist took Wilburn-Herbert on a tour of the store and chose a selection of products from brands including Smashbox, Lorac and Nars. The artist explained each step as she applied shadow to one eye, which came in handy when it was Wilburn-Herbert's turn to do the other eye by herself. Well, she tried: The artist came to the rescue and finished the eye, then applied a Smashbox primer and Cover FX pressed powder. To help our tester re-create her look at home, the Sephora artist not only listed all the products she used, but applied each one to a sheet of paper bearing a drawing of a face.

Makeover magic: Wilburn-Herbert's skin was luminous after her makeover, assuaging her fears that she wouldn't look like herself. "I can't believe that I actually didn't mind the foundation," she says. Even better, the artist showed her how to tame her curly eyebrows. "A miracle in itself," Wilburn-Herbert says.

Makeover mishap: She may have been pleasantly surprised by the light foundation, but the lipstick felt too out of character. "I'm used to nude colors, or at least something closer to the color of my lips," Wilburn-Herbert says. "Wearing something that was more berry-colored wasn't comfortable."

Her rating: 9.

Her pick: Wilburn-Herbert liked the Showstopper Palette ($35) from Lorac and Miss Davenporte. "I can buy one eye shadow (compact) with four different colors and get countless looks," she says.

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