Each week our no-holds-barred contributor Grace Gold picks apart a hot beauty topic. It’s our version of an op-ed—with hair, eyeliner and lipstick.

At Makeup.com, it’s no secret that we love our lip gloss (and nail polish and eye shadow and so on). But what we love even more are women who inspire us with their unique sense of beauty bravado. This year many ladies in the spotlight dared to push the notion of what it means to be gorgeous in a new direction. Here is a roundup of all those we couldn’t stop following and talking about in 2012.

The Trendsetters

The red carpet is a place where traditional notions of beauty reign supreme. But not this year. Emma Stone experimented with changing hair color that showed any shade can have the most fun, while Kristen Stewart and Rooney Mara went for gothic-glam choices for an offbeat sensibility. Jennifer Lawrence wore smoky seductress and girl-next-door looks with equal aplomb, and Lana Del Rey remained unpredictable with beauty themes ranging from retro Hollywood winged liner to the avant-garde burgundy lip. Solange Knowles emerged as one to watch in naturally big, fabulous hair. And from truly audacious makeup to hair color to dress, Rihanna showed us that all style rules are made to be broken.

The Modern Faces of Beauty

The faces that grace the world’s cosmetic ads can have an incredible impact on how we think of beauty, and how we see ourselves. L’Oréal Paris chose two empowering visions this year. Julianne Moore, known for embracing her red hue and freckles, shows us that a 52-year-old mom of two can become a beauty brand icon. And Lea Michele, who has publicly said she’s resisted years of industry pressure to get a nose job, shows that beauty is all about being yourself. Maybelline sought out model Charlotte Free of pink ombré hair fame as its newest face, encouraging a whole generation of girls to think pink in an entirely different sense of the phrase.

The New Crop

Who would’ve guessed that one of the year’s biggest celebrity hair trends would be going under the razor? Milla Jovovich exuded style with half her hair shaved, while Miley Cyrus and 12-year-old Willow Smith went for close buzz cuts punctuated by platinum blonde and hot pink mohawk-like centers. (Smith’s shave wasn’t without controversy, which mom Jada famously stepped in to curtail via Facebook.) Anne Hathaway didn’t reveal skin, but her very short pixie cut—a result of getting into character for her role of Fantine in Les Misérables—was greeted with gasps to which she replied by making the look one of her most iconic and loveliest to date.

The Tipsters

If there was one transcendent beauty trend this year, it was the mass acceptance of nail art fueled by celebrities who embraced the previously maligned form of expression. Who could forget Zooey Deschanel’s sparkling retro television manicure at the Emmy’s, or Jessica Biel’s dip into mother-of-pearl caviar beads on her tips at the Hitchcock premiere? And then there was Kelly Osbourne’s $250,000 black diamond polish that was met with anger over the expensive extravagance, though the reality star later tweeted, “Please forgive me for not regretting it. It made me feel like a queen!” As any woman could attest, it’s true that sometimes you just need to feel like royalty.

The Washingtonians

The nation’s capital got its groove on this year, thanks to First Lady Michelle Obama’s love of trendy nail color. At the Democratic National Convention, Obama’s gray-lilac nails launched beautyholics into a buying frenzy and introduced funky lacquer into a conservative arena where it rarely strays from a red or pale pink hue. Moderator Candy Crowley also set tongues wagging when she eschewed the standard straight Capitol Hill blowout for sexy waves at the second 2012 debate between President Barack Obama and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney. It’s a look she continued to wear in spite of criticism that the style is better suited to the beach and party situations.

The Independents

Standing your ground during a media frenzy takes gall. Yet 16-year-old gymnast Gabby Douglas gave the world a lesson in the skill when she refused to change up her half-ponytail bun amid flack that her style was too casual for competition. She took home an Olympic gold medal; her detractors got nothing. Ponytail snark also followed Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who favors the easy style while on exhausting diplomatic treks around the world. “If I want to wear my hair back, I’m pulling my hair back,” she told reporters, who questioned the appropriateness of the look. And she did—sometimes even with a scrunchie. Meanwhile, Puffmaggeddon ensued when Ashley Judd responded to cosmetic surgery rumors circulating over her “puffy” face. In an op-ed for The Daily Beast, the 44-year-old lambasted the media and urged readers to retire the patriarchal practice of what she termed “bodysnarking.”

The Artists

Doyennes like Cindy Sherman and Anna Piaggi transcend beauty trends to use makeup as the ultimate form of artistic expression. Piaggi, an Italian fashion writer known for her eclectic wardrobe and doll-like application of cosmetics, passed away this year at the age of 81 and left a unique style legacy that will be referenced for decades to come. Sherman, a photographer celebrated for her conceptual portraits, staged a retrospective at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art that showed makeup does not just enhance or express, but completely transforms for a range of thought-provoking results.

Photos: Getty Images; Cindy Sherman, Untitled #465, 2008. Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York © 2011 Cindy Sherman.