Bring Back Nancy Red!

“I can’t believe I’m living with two low-contrast Autumns,” said my bloke, with more disdain than was really necessary. After all, weren’t we members of the same cult? The cult of Color Me Beautiful ?

We became devotees of C.M.B. in the late 90’s. Finding our colors not only helped us find our true identity, it helped us buy sweaters. Two of us are low-contrast Autumns (me and the dog), and my raven-haired boyfriend is a proud Winter. We don’t make too many decisions without consulting our leader, Carole Jackson, and neither should you–especially given the unprecedented tsunami of colorful garments that will hit the stores this spring. Carole’s ideas might seem very 1982, but that’s exactly the point. Earth to you: There’s an 80’s revival going on!

Carole Jackson exploded onto best-seller lists over 15 years ago with Color Me Beautiful. The basic premise of Ms. Jackson’s seminal work is that women can be divided into two groups: gals with warm skin tones and gals with cool ones. These two groups can then be divided–like life itself–into four seasons: Autumn and Spring (warm); Winter and Summer (cool). Each season has a set of complimentary color swatches that provide poor, lost souls the tools to cobble together a coordinated wardrobe for themselves. We cult members call this process “having your colors done.” Color-me-Carole spawned millions of swatch-wielding followers and apostles: In swanky living rooms and tawdry trailer parks across the nation, Color Me Beautiful consultants courageously attempted to cut the cackle out of clothing consumption.

“Just like with the Moonies, there are some really great ideas in this philosophy,” says celebrity hypnotist Jessica Porter. “My mother initiated me. She’s an Autumn, and, as it turned out, so was I. It was in the early 1980’s; I was only 14 at the time. I was taken to a Colors salon in Toronto. A fat lady put a big swatch of pink fabric on my chest. My cheeks looked sallow, like I was going to puke. That’s when they told me I had orange skin.”

After her life-changing consultation, Jessica became a zealous Autumn. “I bought the autumnal Color Me Beautiful makeup, and that’s what I used for years. I even took my colors [bag of swatches] with me to Brown University.” Classmates remember Ms. Porter as “a swatch-crazed but well-coordinated Autumn.” She, like me, remains an unapologetic devotee. “Carole Jackson is correct. I look best in earthy tones and I always will,” she said. “It was a positive experience, a mother-daughter thing, like EST. My mother just redid her house in muted Autumn tones.”

Many cult members I spoke to had mother-daughter initiation stories, not all of them as warm and fuzzy as Ms. Porter’s. Midtown executive secretary Patricia Collins had her colors done in 1992. “My mother got hers done by some woman in Valley Stream, Long Island, who told her she was a Spring. Overnight, Mom switched to pale colors in everything. Somebody told her she looked like a corpse. She didn’t care,” said Ms. Collins. “She bought me a consultation for my birthday, and she got very excited when this Valley Stream woman told her I was a Spring, too. She thought we could share clothes. My mother has terrible taste. Anyway, the consultant made me up, and she sold me a bright orange lipstick. It was called Poppy Frost–very Jewish-lady Miami. I wore it for years, and a few people I dated commented on this lipstick right before breaking up with me. A girlfriend finally convinced me to get rid of it. I’m still not sure whether I’m a Spring or an Autumn. Carole Jackson has a lot to answer for.”

I’ve heard horror stories of other followers who were bamboozled by overconfident color consultants into kamikaze-style decisions, like getting married in teal! Some women, after hasty consultations, threw out rails of quality drag, only to find they had been assigned the wrong season. They rushed back to Goodwill to reclaim their castoffs, only to be confronted with droves of “poor and needy folk spewing into the parking lot” wearing–and looking fabulous in–those erroneously discarded duds.

The most disturbing example of C.M.B. misdiagnosis occurs in Michael Moore’s documentary Roger & Me. Janet, a bouncy Amway gal and Color Me Beautiful consultant from Flint, Mich., insists on being refilmed so she can let the world know that she is not, as stated in earlier footage, an Autumn, but rather a Spring. Her profound distress begs the question: Does Ms. Jackson have a lot of explaining to do?

I reached my guru by phone and was mildly devastated to find out that she had retired. “I sold the cosmetics and kept my books,” she said. But Virginia-based Carole firmly believes in the continuing relevance of her ideas. I asked her how the C.M.B. system works with today’s designers; Armani, for example, specializes in sludgy colors. “I recommend Giorgio for Autumns,” she replied.

When I challenged her about the rigidity of her original edicts regarding black–”Black is too strong for all but a Winter”–she admitted to having “softened my position on that issue.” But only slightly. “There are different shades of black: Autumns with dark hair and dark eyes can mix a warm black with their Autumn colors–for example, camel and black. Summers and Springs with flaxen blond hair can wear soft blacks. Winters are the only season not in danger of being overpowered by blacks.”

Is Carole hoarding the coolest color for herself?

I asked her for amusing anecdotes from the heyday of C.M.B. and she said, “I’m afraid I don’t know any.” She did, however, have heartwarming stories about people who kept their colors close by them when they were terminally ill, and who even had their casket interiors swatched to compliment their season. I quickly realized that my guru is not exactly what you’d call a barrel of laughs. Maybe that’s just how Winters are.

I asked Carole if she enjoys being a Winter. “Liz Taylor is a Winter. Yes, I like being a Winter,” she said. “My daughter, an Autumn, is a medical student at Mount Sinai. She doesn’t look so great in those white jackets.”

Why do Winters love to cast nasturtiums on us Autumns? This discriminatory superiority is really starting to harsh my mellow. In her book, Ms. Jackson lists well-known Winters: Ms. Taylor, of course, heads the list. The rest are, predictably, very Jackie O. and Audrey H.-ish. And who do we Autumns get? You guessed it: Toni Tennille and Carol Burnett. Bias much, Carole?

I decided to call David Kibbe and see if he knew of any personality correlates for evil Winters. David’s an image consultant and sage operating out of a 57th Street office, and he has color-consulted with over 30,000 women since 1982. “I don’t know of any personality correlates, but I can tell you that Winters are by far the most prevalent. Autumns are next, then Springs”–Marilyn Monroe, Sally Struthers.

“There are very few true Summers–Cheryl Tiegs, Nancy Kissinger. Pure Scandinavian coloring is very rare.”

I insisted that Winters suffered from a snotty sense of superiority, eliciting a slight capitulation from Mr. Kibbe. “Well, they definitely throw Liz Taylor’s name around, but that’s because there are no famous brunettes right now and movie stars have become generic types–Sandra Bullock is the new Geena Davis. Pop stars are blond and all look the same–Britney, Christina–so Miss Taylor is still a potent icon.”

But there are more recent examples: Nicole Kidman, Faith Hill, Matt Damon and Jude Law, all Springs; Charlize Theron, Elizabeth Hurley, Cameron Diaz, Justin Timberlake and Steven Spielberg, all Summers; Ben Affleck, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Christina Ricci and Dylan McDermott, all Winters (Keanu Reeves is a high-contrast Winter); and Hilary Swank, Julia Roberts, Russell Crowe, Brad Pitt and Penélope Cruz, all Autumns.

David is not just an image consultant; he’s a style historian. “The 1970’s were about beige. When jewel tones erupted in the 80’s, women couldn’t cope. They needed Carole. That’s why Color Me Beautiful was such a hit. But it got a little out of control. During this period, I used to see 30 or 40 women a month who had been misdiagnosed.”

But is it still relevant? “By the 90’s, color had disappeared. Now it’s back, and my business is thriving.”

A private series of consultations with fascinating and un-weird (for an image consultant) David Kibbe will cost you $2,300 (459-9210). If you’re not that confused (or rich), then come to his $300-per-session group workshops. David will not only give you your colors, he will also do a style profile, hair and makeup consultation (he has his own makeup line), plus you will get to witness this often-hilarious process on other people. But watch out for those toffee-nosed Winters.

If you don’t have $300, then at least buy a copy of Color Me Beautiful ($12 on Amazon.com).

As I said, a new and potentially lethal blast of color is about to hit the stores, and you have no bloody idea what you’re doing. Why would you? You’ve worn black for the last 10 years.

Don’t try and navigate spring 2001 without joining our cult. Let Carole Jackson be your Jim Jones–minus the Kool-Aid.

Bring Back Nancy Red!