Michelle Muntean has painted a face or two in her life, from nervous television presenters to would-be newsmakers. These days, her challenge is to put the best possible face on the Prime Minister -- and the government's task is to put the best possible face on her employment.
Ms. Muntean, Stephen Harper's image adviser who selects his suits, adjusts his ties and applies his makeup, was thrust into the spotlight after the government refused to answer repeated questions about who pays her salary, or even how much she earns.
Layer on the revelation that the woman managing Mr. Harper's hair is a self-described psychic, and opposition members have the bones of a political comedy they have been helpless to resist.
"Canadians speculated for months whether the PM was sporting enough eyeliner to make an eighties rock band proud," Labrador Liberal Todd Russell told the House yesterday.
"Today, we learn he has been consulting the stars, looking into a crystal ball, all with help from his personal clairvoyant, his psychic makeup artist. . . . The Prime Minister of Canada goes from the Canadian Alliance to the psychic alliance."
Ms. Muntean did not return calls yesterday. A spokesman for Mr. Harper said that neither the Prime Minister nor anyone on his staff pays for any kind of clairvoyant services.
Friends and former colleagues describe Ms. Muntean as a warm, empathetic person.
She was a makeup artist for both the CBC and CTV networks. She moved from Ottawa to the Toronto area when she got married. Her husband, a firefighter, died a few years into their marriage, and Ms. Muntean continued to care for his daughters, a former colleague and friend said.
Noreen Young, creator of the 1980s children's show Under the Umbrella Tree, where Ms. Muntean worked, said the makeup artist has a spiritual intuition.
"She has a gift that she can kind of tune into your personality really well. That can be very reassuring," she said in an interview yesterday from her home in Almonte, Ont.
CTV's chief news anchor Lloyd Robertson had his makeup done by Ms. Muntean when he worked at CBC and then for a time at his current network. She was a caring, competent person, he said.
"To me, all this psychic stuff is eyewash," he said.
Mr. Robertson added: "She was always purely professional and never tried to draw me into the psychic world."
After working at the networks, Ms. Muntean struck off on her own as a private consultant. She began advising Mr. Harper during his leadership race and continued through two elections.
She travels with him, having attended the Vimy Ridge ceremonies in France this month and the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation forum in Vietnam last year.
It is unknown if Mr. Harper has received occasional spiritual advice during his journey. If so, he would not be alone in the political arena. Prime Minister Mackenzie King believed he spoke with spirits, including his dead mother and dog. Former U.S. first lady Nancy Reagan consulted an astrologer. And Montreal psychic JoJo Savard offered advice to Aline Chrétien.
Conservative House Leader Peter Van Loan, who has been handed the unenviable task of answering questions about the stylist, responded with a jab at his own attire.
"Nobody in this government is consulting JoJo," Mr. Van Loan said. "But I have had suggestions that perhaps I should consult Cojo," the better-known name of Steven Cojocaru, a caustic fashion commentator.
Mr. Russell, however, was not about to abandon his line of attack.
The Prime Minister "thought this blemish would stay concealed," he said. "One would think the Prime Minister would blush with embarrassment at being caught out on such inconsistency. . . . It contradicts the makeup of his supposed fiscal responsibility. It just does not gel with the Canadian public."
In a later telephone interview, Mr. Russell was still cracking jokes. But he said there is a serious aspect to his line of questioning.
The government has "gutted funding for literacy programs across the country that are very vital to northern and remote and rural Canada," and there have been cuts to student employment programs and the court challenges program, he said.
"And here we have a Prime Minister who is splurging trying to make himself look good, for whom we wonder, at the taxpayers' expense."
A spokesman for Mr. Harper said yesterday that Ms. Muntean is employed part-time and does the work of three people who assisted former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien.
But repeated attempts to find out how much Ms. Muntean earns for the services she provides to Mr. Harper have proved futile.
The New Democratic Party has submitted a formal request through Parliament demanding to know how much she is being paid, her official title, the name of her supervisor, the departmental budget from which she is paid, details of any expenses she has submitted, and what other similar contracts have been approved by the Prime Minister or his staff. Mr. Harper has 45 days to respond.
Judy Wasylycia-Leis, the New Democrat behind the request, said she is frustrated with the fact that there have been no real answers to any of her questions about the stylist.
"There appears to be no denial that this person is on the public payroll in some way," Ms. Wasylycia-Leis said. "This is an important issue from the point of view of a basic principle. It's about what public dollars, hard-earned taxpayers' dollars should be used for."