The Vagenda

The Lipstick Years


Confessions of an Ex-Beauty Journalist
Hello. My name is Amy, I’m 31 and I write content for a living. I help generate the persistent buzz and background noise that persuades people to buy into my various benefactors’ products and brands. My 10-year career is split firmly between The Lipstick Years, where I was a trade beauty journalist and consumer freelancer, and – where I currently find myself – The Lawnmower Years, as a business-to-business PR.
I’d like to talk to you about The Lipstick Years.
My career showed vague promise. Aged 23 I was deployed to Dublin to edit a trade beauty magazine. I later launched a rival mag. At the same time, I freelanced for a couple of Ireland’s glossies and the Irish Independent newspaper. Because the Irish media is largely serviced by London PRs, I got to play with the big consumer girls in Dublin and the UK. I’d be so bold as to say I was a medium-sized fish in a small pond. But then, just as I was growing into a fish on the phone to InStyle, I packed it all in.
I didn’t leave because I had (or have) any lofty principles or protests. I left because I’m often quite confused and conflicted as a person, a woman, a collagen depleter and a purveyor of things that briefly make me feel better about myself. I went back to uni for a year because I wanted to write scripts for film and TV. I now write about turf maintenance. What I did was, and still is, widely regarded as career suicide.
Do I prefer writing trade PR to pedalling my vacuous lies about lipstick? I honestly can’t decide. To reiterate: I wrote content; fillers, fluff. Many thousands of forgettable words. The door I got my foot through led into the glossies, doing bread-and-butter stuff like editing competition pages, etc. But the problem was, actually reading women’s mags – even the ones I wrote for – made me feel inadequate, depressed and, when I saw a sycophantic celeb interview, like blinding myself with a rusty fork. So, much as I was attracted to the glamour, I didn’t much fancy working for Glamour.
I’ve long felt that I was a freak, and a failure as a woman and a professional. But I recently stumbled across The Vagenda and basically yelled ‘halle-fucking-lujah!’ at my screen. To see fellow foot soldiers and more influential journalists starting a sensible debate about so-called ‘women’s interest’ publishing was so refreshing. But it also gave me the courage to add my voice by confessing the following…
1. The beauty industry is predicated on young, impressionable and (mainly) female journalists being lavished with free massages and creams and stuff by very personable PRs and companies keen to gain column inches. It is magnificent and to be highly recommended. But… This. Is. Not. Real. Life. I try to keep that disconnect in mind whenever I read a magazine for my target demographic that’s been so kind as to endorse a £300 facial some celeb ‘swears by’. My professional insight informs me that I’m the only person in this supply chain expected to pay for the damn thing. But, as a fallible human being, I still ‘treat’ myself to a £30 pot of something and pledge to take that ‘deserved’ spa break soon. Then I remember I’m £10,000 in debt and am not a wealthy celebrity. So I feel rubbish about myself for being a sucker. Because, while I no longer work for it, I am still susceptible to powerful media messaging about this supposed ‘aspirational’ lifestyle women should be leading.
2. Being so spoilt brings out the Veruca Salt in the best of us. In a rare trade coup, the day 21-year-old me persuaded the PR for Yves Saint Laurent to send its latest collection for ‘research purposes’ was the day I discovered the art of ‘the blag’. Yes, I/we wrote better copy, but I valued the thrill of the blag and handbag full of makeup w-a-y beyond my means more. A highlight of my consumer career was calling in, and thus recommending to my peers, a pot of Crème de la Mer body cream. It was nice, but not revolutionary. It in no way corresponds to what I now use. That I had the audacity to compare it to a £40 cream in a ‘splurge versus save’ item makes me want to punch the old me in the face. I still struggle to come to terms with the fact that this freeloading lifestyle I helped to promote is not normal or attainable for the masses. The semi-literate tweets of TOWIE-type stars, giving the benefactor of, say, their newly whitened teeth a ‘big-shout-out’ to a blissfully ignorant following keen to emulate them puts this practice to shame.
3. To give you a feel for how much stuff I was sent – my stockpile lasted me a good three years after I left the beauty biz. And, thanks to a couple of lax press lists, I’m still sent random samples of toothpaste, on occasion. (Thanks, chaps.) But, alas, one by one, the premium face, body, hand, elbow and bust creams ran dry. I cursed and shook an angry, unmanicured hand to the heavens that I, Amy Ellingham – faithful reporter from the frontline of beauty, fearless tester of colonic irrigation, celebrated author of InStyle’s October 2006 guide to Ireland’s very best spas (my seminal work) – that I should have to pop to Boots and buy markedly less expensive versions of the bare essentials. But, bizarrely, I’ve still got shitloads of nail polish and hair products. I was sent so much hair wax I wondered if there was a conspiracy going on… Maybe me and these pots of wax were mere pawns in a giant game where women are manipulated into wasting time, money and emotion coveting pricey material shit in the pursuit of a make-believe ‘aspirational’ lifestyle? Or maybe no woman needs the amount of hair wax I was banging on about? Draw your own conclusions, people.
4. Of course, no one will give you freebies or advertise in the publication that employs you unless you pay them back – in words. This is the quid pro quo of the journalist-PR relationship. I did not lie, mislead or act unprofessionally. I omitted plenty of products and puff, and was ready to defend myself to publishers or advertisers. But here’s the rub… What’s not to love about luxury goods and the people throwing a launch party for them?! Nothing – that’s what! We all love a good buffet. Plus you’re décolletage- deep in a world that’s pressurising you to splurge on shoes and accessories, too. So I didn’t hesitate to give a £250 set of travel toiletries I used and loved the thumbs up. But, as a consumer who’s now just cankles-deep in aspiration, I know what it is to ponder whether to get that or the equally costly dress fashion says I need (on credit).
5. Having developed a taste for the finer things in life, I invented ever-more extravagant articles – so that I could indulge these tastes. My personal favourite is a piece I wrote for Prudence magazine (the irony was lost on me at the time), where I recommended products and treatments totalling £320 containing ‘luxe’ ingredients, called ‘Diamonds & Pearls’. What larks I had dutifully reviewing all these marvellous products and mani-pedis! Without for a second considering that what I so earnestly recommended you regularly buy likely cost four times my monthly wage. No wonder Ireland went bust if its women were reading my bilge.
6. My young self wasn’t always so at ease with what she wrote, though… I once attended a live hair show, where a hip hairdresser from a top brand recreated a hairstyle, which – if memory serves – had featured on a Vogue cover and caused quite a stir. The Vogue picture was fab – a hip model with bleached hair half in a quiff and half shaved. To dramatic music and lighting, the hairdresser announced that he was going to recreate this ‘look’ for our viewing pleasure. A model was duly wheeled onto the stage… Except she wasn’t a model-model, because modelling agencies are, of course, reluctant to allow working models to have their lovely locks cut off for no good reason. No, she was a fresh-faced girl of, I’d say, 17 who looked like she was into netball and Westlife. She was fighting tears as a madman hacked off her long, mousy-brown hair in what remains the most uncomfortable quarter-hour of my life. Dublin’s foremost beauty editor and I exchanged glances. The thought of this girl trying to pull-off a crazy punk haircut while playing wing attack on the netball court kinda made me want to cry… And yet I still wrote really positive bullshit about this brand and its dumbass haircut.
7. I regularly wrote about diet, fitness, health and wellbeing for both consumers and those, theoretically, advising them. I was, am and will probably always be between one and two stone overweight. I binge drink and am a bit bulimic. I once thought I was actually going to die after following a massive portion of fish and chips with six laxatives. Whenever I participate in Daily Mail-type celebration/beration of a female celebrity for ‘flaunting’ her curves or her thin ‘frame’, I consider how thoughtlessly I wrote about weight issues while my fingers were down my throat.
8. Suffice to say I was/am horribly insecure. My indoctrination into the beauty industry certainly didn’t help. Hilariously, upon arrival in Dublin, the various trades vied to ‘beautify’ me. Firstly, my pale appearance had to be masked by fake tan. I conceded, but my eventual refusal to be varnished like a piece of teak furniture was a constant source of disappointment for the fake tan brigade. Secondly, nail companies were falling over themselves to glue bits of plastic to my fingertips. I relented. I walked taller knowing I was now a woman who received regular (free) manicures. I wrote honest, informative stuff about the pros and cons of having ‘nail extensions’ – without reference to my inability to open the boot of my car. Then I snapped my glued-on nail, which snapped my actual nail, which hurt like hell. I cried when it and the rest of my talons were pried off by the nail technician. It took a year to get my nails back to normal. But the third and most important thing was sorting out The Hair Down There. Like a marine getting his first buzz-cut, Ireland’s new trade beauty editor got a Brazilian. I now consider it necessary and normal to get Brazilians.
9. I tried many things in the name of journalism, vanity and insecurity, as I bowed to both external and internal pressures. The most extreme and disturbing of which was micropigmentation, while in a salon having my leg hair lasered. I decided, on a whim, that obtaining perfect eyebrows was the final piece in my own aspirational lifestyle puzzle and allowed a total stranger to TATTOO MY FUCKING FACE! Now, the strokes they tattoo are twice as thick and dark for the first few weeks. So I spent that night in my hotel room sobbing hysterically into the mirror at the face of Ming the Merciless. I looked evil. For a year. But micropigmentation and its practitioners are not evil. I’ve seen it used to great effect. For every snake-oil seller and woman treating her body like a child’s sticker-book, there’s a teenager with acne and someone with a genuine solution. I was seeking yet another flaw to improve or put right on eyebrow-day. If I hadn’t started to feel disillusioned with this world I wrote so breathily about, I’d have gladly stuck around to get the (free) Botox a cosmetic doctor advised my 25-year-old- self I’d need when I turned 30. Whether the person who first thought an arse might look more aesthetically pleasing if it were stripped of hair, bleached and dotted with a few diamantes was a buyer or seller is, for me, now a moot point. All I know is that a mainstream media that relentlessly urges women to ‘keep up’ with the latest ‘trends’ and ‘advances’ in arse presentation has never helped my self esteem or pocket.
10. My final confession: I sold some of the stuff I was sent on Ebay. Yep, told you I was a spoilt brat. But this aspirational lifestyle masquerade had gotten me into such a mess – oddly, no one sent me free handbags or Belazu balsamic vinegar? – that I subsidised myself with credit cards. On being sent my third limited edition GHDs (and already being a bona fide buyer of my first pair), I remembered how some of my big- brand PR contacts had complained about the growing number of journos flogging stuff on Ebay. So I sold the GHDs, the £250 gift sets and 100 more fabulous things. But don’t worry – I ploughed my earnings straight back into accessories so as not to upset the aspirational-lifestyle applecart. I even bought a £350 chair. Because I was also a spendthrift twat. Still am. I’m not here to speculate about the number of journos evil twins of unwitting journos doing the Ebay thing, then or now. I confess this only because it shows how these products, sealed yet still written about, had lost all intrinsic value and become much of a muchness to me – a final slap in the face for the women coveting these pots of promise in the beauty pages of magazines.
Ideally, I’d now write a rousing conclusion to this confessional about how I, a la Dorothy, am drawing back the curtain on ‘the great and powerful Wizard of Oz’ to expose him as a fraud. But, when I checked on Google, it turned out that Toto, the dog, did the curtain-pulling bit. So hopefully you can forgive this Dorothy for her confused retreat back down the yellow brick road to an ordinary job in munchkin-to- munchkin marketing-communications. She remains in awe of the wizard. She mourns the days when ruby-red slippers magically appeared on her feet. What can I say?! I’m too cowardly a lion to claim I can change the status quo. And who knows what damage this aspirational-fairytale does to any woman’s brain or heart.
I wrote this because, like a lot of women, I feel wholly disenchanted by the publications that claim to represent me and the lifestyle I aspire to. But, professionally and personally, I’m not naïve. No advertiser or publisher will fund a magazine called ‘Pictures Of Stuff You Can’t Afford’. And who, given the choice, wants to curate articles entitled ‘Shit Things Poor People Buy’ in the midst of such riches?
I’m conscious that many successful journalists and editors will argue that they do write for the Average Joanne and are somehow immune to spending their formative years and the duration of their adult careers immersed in an industry that’s now turning its attentions to ‘rejuvenating’ our vaginas. But witness ye here the perks, perspective-ravishing experiences and plain weirdness of my entirely mediocre and forgettable career. Had it continued, would I now be writing credibly and usefully for my peers about ‘Things We Buy From Boots When There’s A BOGOF On’?
The bigger the fish the better the free spa break, in my experience. I’d be writing about Botox.
Pumping my insecure self full of the stuff, probably. Practising what I preach. Climbing the career ladder. Just one of the many well-meaning, but confused and still-wrinkling people working behind a big stupid curtain…
How many of them are waiting for a helpful dog to show up, I wonder, so that women on both sides of the page can gladly end this charade?
- Amy

11 thoughts on “The Lipstick Years

  1. The whole article made me sick! Particularly point 6. To blame indoctrination, socialization and your insecurities for colluding with them in selling all those lies to those women is just morally wrong (but I hope it helps you feel less guilty).

  2. Mouse – I’d like to think that’s exactly the point. I was 21 when I joined this industry. I don’t for a second pretend to be influential or, back then, thoughtful/responsible – but that kind of rubbish makes up the vast majority of what we read in women’s media. It is all around us and it takes its toll. To say I was a foolish individual is true, but I believe it detracts from the wider point.

  3. Thank you so much for writing this. It’s so close to my experiences as a former make up artist that I spent the whole thing cringing in recognition and basking in realising I’m not the only one…

    I look back and want to die of shame from working unquestioningly in the beauty industry. Even though I often told my clients they didn’t need certain products like wrinkle creams aged 23, I certainly contributed to making them feel crap by suggesting solutions to other imaginary problems they didn’t know they had. This was partly because I earned very little and needed the commission and partly because I thought everything the cosmetics industry had to be true. I mean, it was science, right?

    I mean there’s no harm in wearing and enjoying make up and not having it crease or smudge, but I feel awful that I made those women feel like they HAD to wear make up or be seen as a lesser person. I sold them a litter of pups as the products and myself were fakes. I was starving myself and wracked with self hate the whole time I worked in that industry and it was such a toxic environment I thought that eating one meal a week was not just normal, but something to be proud of. In fact I judged other women for being weak for not being as thin and not making the effort like me with their clothes and make up and grooming and diet.

    I am much happier now I’ve left that job, that industry and all women’s magazines behind. I’m much nicer to other women too. And since I started using £3 moisturiser instead of gold plated dolphin piss that cost £600 a microgram, my skin has never looked better…

  4. Hi gherkingirl – thank you for sharing, too! It was really interesting to read your experiences and to know I wasn’t the only one, either. This is exactly the sort of debate I hoped to spark among other women (or men) who work/worked in women’s magazines or related industries who feel similarly.

    I completely hear what you’re saying about being nicer to other women – it’s not that I was mean, just more critical and competitive, and generally more suspicious of how other women looked so good. I am a much kinder person for being away from that world – and for generally avoiding women’s magazines like the plague these days!

  5. Brilliant article thanks for writing and tearing down illusions! I hope every reader of magazines reads this. I always used to skip the beauty pages when I read womens mags, but its good to know I wasn’t missing anything!

  6. Thanks so much for writing this; it made for fascinating, and at times incredibly sad reading. I really admire you actually for not having a happy, sunny ending but admitting that that’s the way it is, and nothing’s changed.

    I consider myself to be a relatively intelligent and aware woman, and yet I still fall for the blurb in magazines and believe that I need this cream or that process . . . I do genuinely find myself thinking “well these people know what they’re talking about, and they wouldn’t recommend it if it didn’t work”. I stand in front of expensive products in high-end salons and remember that positive article I read in a magazine a month ago and persuade myself that owning it will improve my life because the journalist said so. And although I usually persuade myself not to buy it because I don’t have the cash (thus leaving me depressed at the fact that I am obviously a) earning significantly less than my contemporaries, and b) unable to manage my finances because I should be paying for lotions, not electricity), on the rare occasions that I do, I use it once and it doesn’t work. And then I think “well it must be me, I’m the freak with the weird skin / bad hair / dodgy face who doesn’t respond to the treatment, since it works for everybody else. What’s wrong with me?”

    To be caught up in all of that must be soul-destroying, ultimately, yet virtually impossible to break out of the cycle. I guess the only people who make it to the top are either vacuous or selfish women who don’t stop to think about the impact they’re having on the rest of womankind. I admire you for getting out when you did and I hope that you’re happier for it.

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