Lipstick Chronology #31: NARS Mysterious Red

Name: NARS Velvet Matte Lip Pencil in Mysterious Red

Date Purchased: November 2013

Grade: A

Notes: How excited am I to write this post? So excited that I broke my (never very strict, let’s be honest) Lipstick Chronology rule in order to review Mysterious Red out of order. It’s the holiday season, after all: what better time to feature my staple red lipstick, the one I can trust to flatter me whenever I wear it?

Mysterious Red was released as part of the NARS fall 2013 collection. Assuming that it was limited edition, I used it sparingly for an entire year, mourning the transience of earthly things every time I sharpened it. But on my birthday this November, while browsing the NARS display at Sephora, I noticed that Mysterious Red had been made permanent! It felt like an especially nice birthday present from NARS to me. Plus, now I can review it without apologizing for praising an unavailable lipstick.

A year ago, I realized that I’d never found the perfect matte red lipstick. I had a few satin reds, but didn’t wear them very often. To my eyes, a red with any hint of shine reads as “sexy,” and I wanted a more businesslike red: pure pigment, no distractions. I was also curious about the NARS Velvet Matte Lip Pencil formula, which seemed to be many people’s matte-lipstick holy grail. Wary of buying a limited-edition lipstick that I might fall in love with and never be able to replace, I tried on two cool reds from NARS’ permanent line: Dragon Girl and Cruella. But white-based Dragon Girl was too bright, almost neon, while Cruella was darker and purpler than my Platonic matte red. Finally, a Sephora employee suggested that I try Mysterious Red. The second I put it on, we both agreed: yes, that was the one.

How to describe the sensation of connecting with a lipstick? Not putting it on and thinking “it’ll do,” or “this will look good when I have a bit of a tan,” but “holy shit, I just got ten times more attractive”? It’s sort of like falling in love, except it’s not free. (It’s $25, in Mysterious Red’s case.) Or maybe it’s like reading a book and seeing your own experiences and memories reflected back to you, made brighter and warmer by the author’s powers of perception.

Love is a great mystery, but perhaps the greatest mystery of Mysterious Red is the matter of its undertones. Various bloggers have described it as “subtly warm-toned” (Temptalia), “warmish brick red” (Makeup and Beauty Blog), “a real wow red [with] a nice blue lean” (Perilously Pale), and “perfect cool red” (Beautezine). I notice that the bloggers who describe it as warm and cool are themselves warm- and cool-toned respectively, which might explain the divide. Personally, I see Mysterious Red as a neutral red leaning very slightly cool; then again, I’m neutral leaning cool. Maybe this is the sort of magic red that adapts itself to everyone’s complexion. Though I usually roll my eyes when I see a lipstick described as “universally flattering,” I can’t imagine a skintone that wouldn’t harmonize with Mysterious Red.

To shed some light on the undertone problem, I’ve made a few comparison swatches below. Left to right, warm to cool: Revlon Fire and Ice, NYX Alabama, Mysterious Red, Maybelline On Fire Red, NYX Bloody Mary.

Mysterious Red is cooler than both Fire and Ice and Alabama, but warmer than cherry-red On Fire Red and pink-red Bloody Mary. It also sits in the middle saturation-wise: more subdued than Fire and Ice and Bloody Mary, but more intense than Alabama and On Fire Red. Mysterious Red is just red, no qualifiers needed. Not particularly bright or dark, warm or cool. Mysteriously un-mysterious. Bafflingly simple.

Anyway, here it is on my lips. This photo was taken outdoors in late-afternoon indirect sunlight.

As you can see, the NARS Velvet Matte formula is very matte indeed (though with a hint of sheen), which means it feels a bit dry when worn. It glides on smoothly and deposits a spectacular amount of pigment, but it does make my lips uncomfortable after a few hours, which I expect from any lipstick with a finish like this. Mysterious Red doesn’t come off when I drink, and it stands up decently to food as well. It’s completely scent- and taste-free. The one big drawback to the NARS lip pencils, which many others have noted, is that they don’t twist up. Sharpening them wastes product, and fishing the shavings out of the sharpener and smearing them on one’s lips is a lost cause. I’ve just had to resign myself to feeling a pang whenever I hear the sharpener’s blade rasp against the wood of the pencil.

Over the past year, I’ve taken a truly embarrassing number of selfies featuring Mysterious Red. Let’s pretend that I’ve done this for the sole purpose of showing you how the color looks in various lighting conditions. How admirable of me! First, a photo from today. Taken outside, in the same cloudless late-afternoon light as above:

November morning, on a train:

Back in March, at night, with artificial lighting and pixie cut:

These three photos reveal, first, that I wear too much black; second, that Mysterious Red is always intense but never showy. I think NARS must have added a hint of brown to mute what would otherwise be a screamingly bright red. Because of this effect, I feel comfortable bringing Mysterious Red into polite company: in fact, I wore it to give a conference paper in May.

So far, I haven’t been tempted to buy another NARS lip pencil, because they really are expensive for their size and for the amount of product that disappears with each sharpening. But I suspect I’ll repurchase Mysterious Red when it runs out. It’s my red, a red I don’t have to think about. It just works. Few things in life just work; when you find something that does, it’s a good idea to keep it.

19 thoughts on “Lipstick Chronology #31: NARS Mysterious Red

  1. Ah, the sensation of connecting with a lipstick!! It feels so good, doesn't it?Mysterious Red looks amazing on you under any lighting!I haven't tried any NARS lip pencil yet, but am curious now especially about this particular red. I hope NARS makes the pencils twist. Their eyeliners do. I don't see why they can't.


  2. That looks lovely! Sometimes a pencil that requires sharpening is a superior type of packaging, because it prevents volatile ingredients from drying up/evaporating better than a twist up package that would leave a gap around the outside of the product. So it might be necessary in order to keep a formula that performs so well stable. Just a guess!


  3. That's a really good point! I'd never thought of it that way, but I wouldn't be surprised if that's why NARS hasn't switched to twist-up packaging for its lip pencils. Writing about makeup makes me regret never having taken a chemistry class in high school or college.


  4. Wow, that really is perfect on you! You're making me want it for myself, even though I have bad luck with NARS. Also, this description:\”Or maybe it's like reading a book and seeing your own experiences and memories reflected back to you, made brighter and warmer by the author's powers of perception.\”Perfect.


  5. Thanks!! It's a great red, but I don't think you absolutely need it if you already have a matte red that you love. I would recommend giving NARS another chance, though. I don't like their regular (i.e. satin and semi-matte) lipsticks, but their lip pencils and sheer lipsticks are great.


  6. O_O…<3_<3…That is one gorgeous red lipstick! I sort of found a thing like this in Lancome Rouge in Love #132 or whatever it is (they don't name them usefully here in Asia/Pacific – I think it's Caprice in the US??), but that one has a definite shine to it, and is a bit brighter. This is so elegant, and, as you say, businesslike. Hm. This is making me re-think my attitude toward matte red lips (I assume they will be too 'silver screen siren' for every day on my complexion). Perhaps I should wander past Mecca Cosmetica and give this the ol' swatcheroo.Also, since you look so amazingly fabulous in this lipstick, I don't hink you need to pretend the selfies were anything other than rightful admiration of its magnificence. 😉 Remeber, it's not narcissism unless you fall into water and drown while doing it! ^_^


  7. It's a shame we didn't get this colour in the UK. Though after a mighty mission, I found my perfect red was Dragon Girl. Greatly enjoying your blog btw – I was lead here looking for a review and I think I've read about 20 posts so far!Have you tried the Maybelline pencils that look like a budget dupe for these matte pencils?


  8. I've heard of those Maybelline pencils, but I don't think they've made it to America yet! From the photos I've seen online, they do look like closer dupes than, say, the Revlon Matte Balms. I'm delighted that you're enjoying my blog, and hooray for Dragon Girl! It's a beautiful red, just a little too bright for me.


  9. But those silver-screen sirens mean business! They get things done! I recently saw To Have and Have Not for the first time, and no one would mistake Lauren Bacall for anything but a HBIC. (Not that I know for a fact that she was wearing red lipstick–I mean, the film is black and white–but I just have a feeling.)Mysterious Red deserves the ol' swatcheroo, at the very least. I hope the shade is available in Middle-Earth!


  10. I love that special moment when you and a total stranger like a random SA can agree: \”YES, IT'S THE ONE.\” This really is an awesome red on you, and I especially like the drama of it against the darker clothing in the second pic. I'm sorry about the limited nature of this pencil though. NARS easily has more than a dozen reds but the nicest ones seem to be in that crazy pencil form and I've never been able to shell out so much for something that needs to be sharpened (YET). I have a red lipstick swatchfest coming up on the blog but I think most of them are very warm and nothing like Mysterious Red.


  11. And I knew the SA was telling the truth about Mysterious Red, because she hadn't liked Dragon Girl or Cruella on me! I love honest salespeople who don't feel obligated to tell you how amaaazing you look in everything.I wish I could wear NARS' conventional lipsticks (not the Audacious line, but the satins and semi-mattes they've always offered), since I love some of the reds in that range, like Trans-Siberian and Scarlet Empress. But I find the formula SO drying, and the matte pencils are much more comfortable. Argh. Looking forward to your red lipstick swatchfest!


  12. […] This will be my last mask-related post for a while: on Monday, when the state mask mandate for schools expires, I’m going to teach unmasked for the first time since February 2020. I plan to keep masking in large indoor crowds (e.g. school assemblies) for the foreseeable future, but I’m looking forward to uncovering my face—and finally wearing lipstick again—in the classroom. It’s going to be emotional, guys! I might or might not cry! I might or might not go back to masking after just a day! Impossible to say! One thing I know for sure, though: on Monday morning, I’ll be wearing NARS Mysterious Red. […]


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