Pretty: Beauty eds with cred (an oxymoron?)

I am slowly making my way through Mia Freedman's memoir, Mama Mia: A Memoir of Mistakes, Magazines and Motherhood (out September 1), not because it's boring or I have the reading ability of a five-year-old (debatable) but because it's the sort of book you don't want to end – like the Lindt Ball of literature, it is to be savoured, not scoffed.

I felt the same way about India Knight's The Shops, one of my most beloved 'girlie reads' (not 'chick-lit' but 'girlie', as there is no female protagonist trying to find happiness; it's mostly just Knight waxing lyrical about her love of shopping), as well as Knight's newbie The Thrift Book, which would seem to contradict The Shops in purpose but doesn't. We girls are excellent at sharing information and when it's done in a creative, entertaining way, with pretty packaging, we eat it up.

Anyway, both Knight and Freedman delve into the role of the beauty editor in their respective books, providing some insight into one of the most important (but seemingly not) roles on a magazine. While ostensibly glamorous, it's a sucky sort of position, as if you have any inclinations towards being taken seriously, as a "proper journalist", you find yourself spending a lot of time and energy validating what you do (to wit: write about lip-gloss and peptides).

Which is silly and sad, because, frankly, girls like to read about lipgloss. And if there's no one prepared to do it, because it's not a lofty journalistic calling, how would we learn to decipher our Dior Addict from our Dior Kiss; our AHAs from UVAs? Getting your first Lancome Juicy Tube is like a right of passage. But is this because magazines have CREATED this right to wear $40 shiny-sticky lip stuff to suit Lancome's business interests? Or do we just REALLY LIKE expensive shiny-sticky lip stuff?

Knight warns her readers: "Please do bear in mind that editorial coverage of beauty products in your favourite glossy magazine is inextricably and fundamentally linked to advertising, that no glossies can survive without advertising, ergo that id X's new cosmetics line is an utter disaster, you're unlikely to read a trenchant critique of it in Lovely Me magazine. When I worked on a glossy, in the early 1990s, we'd shoot the cover girl and then simply invent whatever products the make-up artist was supposed to have used on her to match the brand name of the expensive ad on the back cover. So if Dior had spent thousands and thousands advertising on the back, we'd say the make-up used on Miss Supermodel was by Dior. We made it up... I used to wonder about the poor girl who'd saved up to buy the lipstick Christy Turlington was supposed to be wearing, and who'd ask herself why it looked so different on her."

Freedman leaps to the defence of her beauty editor comrades, intellectualising the role and giving credit to the magazine reader: "A smart beauty editor can lubricate the passage of advertising dollars from the client into the magazine. She understands both the implicit and explicit connections between advertising and editorial. She knows how to keep clients happy without compromising her editorial integrity. Well, no more than she has to, anyway. It's an open secret that big advertisers are looked after on the editorial pages of virtually every magazine in which their ads appear. There is so much competition for a limited pool of advertising dollars that ethical lines are often blurred. The basic equation is simple: we'll give you positive editorial mentions for as long as you give us advertising dollars... But it's not quite as simple as a cash-for-comment. Not always. If an advertiser pays tens of thousands of dollars to buy a dozen ad pages in your magazine, it will only be because their products are targeted directly to your readers' demographic. Chanel won't buy pages in Dolly, they'll advertise in Vogue. So it's not exactly a stretch for Vogue to write about Chanel lipstick."

Freedman goes on to suggest that a good beauty editor will find a way to present advertiser products in a fair and creative way: "Writing beauty copy is part science, part politics and part bullshit with a sprinkling of journalism on top. There is a language of beauty writing steeped heavily in cheesy cliche that's best avoided if you want to succeed."

I was a beauty editor once upon a time and it was really hard work, albeit with a lot of nice rewards. Prior to taking on the role, I'd also spent 12 months making remuneration sound interesting in a corporate PR role, as well as penning copy about Yu-Gi-Oh! and DragonballZ for a kids' magazine, so the prospect of waxing lyrical about the latest L'Oreal product didn't seem such a stretch. Easy peasy! But when you have to write about said L'Oreal products month after month, and find yourself caught in a monotonous cycle of hair/skin/perfume/body stories and attending launches for leg-wax when you'd rather be at home on the couch, it's hard to muster the enthusiasm to write chirpy copy about teeth whitening. Which is why beauty editors need all the inspiration and encouragement they can get – and a little respect*.

In Freedman's conclusion to her tenure as beauty editor of Cleo, she writes: "Like working in a chocolate factory, the perks soon lose their perkiness. There were only so many posh restaurants you could be wined and dined at. Only so many lipsticks and mascaras and mascaras and nail polishes you could wear. Or give to friends. Or stash in cupboards for future use. Only so many glasses of champagne you could sip while discussing the relative merits of free radicals as a skincare ingredient. It was a dream job in so many ways. But I had a different dream."

And, on that note, I'm off to get my hair cut and coloured with a stash of magazine references in my satchel!

See also, 'In Defence of Beauty Editors'.

* That said, I'm not a huge fan of some of the beauty writing suggesting that all our prayers will be answered with a tube of $400 face cream or jab of Botox!

Yours truly,
Girl With a Satchel


Lauren said...

I was off sick yesterday and read Mia's new book from cover to cover. Was desperately hoping you were doing the same thing! I loved it. Lots of points for being totally honest about all her jobs - especially the Channel Nine year.

Rochelle said...

Great post! I am soooo jealous that you already have Mia's book. I am absolutely counting down the days until it comes out.

Looking forward to reading your review, too. :-)

Anonymous said...

There are some truly truly amazing beauty writers out there - namely Zoe Foster and Amy Starr, but there are also some who basically regurgitate the press releases and may as well write breakout boxes that say "this is only here because X is advertising on the next page." Those are the girls who give the beauty beat a bad name.

SheilaK said...

Great to hear someone finally admit that the notes on model makeup on the covers are themselves made up. I'm yet to meet a makeup artist who uses Chanel or Dior anything on their clients...
Unfortunately it's this kind of lack of integrity and respect for the readers (who cares if they love that shade of lipstick and drop $50 on the wrong brand because we told them to?) that is most upsetting about the glossies. The inescapable link between advertising and editorial is one thing, but clever, dedicated writers can work with this and maintain a level of integrity. Blatantly lying when you're looked to for advice is plain bitchy.

hopscotchgrace said...

Fab post! I am so glad that you have spoken the truth about what goes on with beauty products advertised in magazines and editors who promote these products in the mag pages because they have to due to advertising commitments. It really puts a different spin on beauty products. It is so easy to get caught up with what is being promoted month after month and lusting after 'new' and 'improved' products. Having worked in marketing I know the product life-cycle and the pressure to bring out new products all the time that respond to consumer needs. I have also worked on the other side of the fence in magazines and have seen first hand the way the advertisers get priority over what products are being featured in the magazine pages. It is up to the beauty editors to make you desire these products so that you go out and buy them. Don't get me wrong - I simply adore products and have a healthy stash of my own. It is up to consumers to be discerning and buy products that genuinely are effective for them. I think independent voices of bloggers like you Erica help people 'cut through the crap' and enable them to make better decisions.

Sally said...

Ooooh I can't wait to read Mia's book! I have to admit I hardly ever read the beauty sections of magazines now - having seen how they work, I'm completely cynical about everything written. I'd love to hear more about the handful of good beauty writers that really know what they're talking about...

ex ad gal. said...

i used to be in an ad team on a very well respected mag and i would overhear girls PROMISE editorial pages to clients,the phrase "don't worry, we can put in whatever you want us to" occured so often in my team it would make me sick. the audacity of the head sales people was out of control, they basically told clients that THEY dictacted the beauty section.
WHICH THEY DID!! The poor beauty editors just had to suck it up.

not as well known, but usually the jewellery section is another sucker for these "promises"... surely luxury magazines wouldn't promote a certain ugly overpriced charm bracelet if the cash wasn't dropped.

sorry for the long post!!