Glossy Talk: Katrina Lawrence on 20 years of Allure magazine

Glossy Talk: Katrina Lawrence on 20 years of Allure magazine

On the 100th anniversary of International Women's Day, Madison magazine's contributing beauty and health editor Katrina Lawrence reflects on 20 years of the beauty expert's magazine, Allure, where makeup meets feminism. 

Allure arrived on the magazine scene with the March issue of 1991. As a law student, furiously reading Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth while fuming about our patriarchal legal system (oh, and listening to angsty tunes of Nirvana), the launch – not surprisingly - passed me by. If someone had have told me back then that I would graduate to be a beauty writer – a profession I have undertaken for 14 years, yikes! – and come to consider Allure to be a sort of bible, I would have rolled my mascara-free eyes in disbelief.

Within a couple of years, however, I had dropped law and was studying various ‘pretty’ arts subjects (French, Victorian Literature, Gothic Fiction; I even added in Italian to better appreciate Vogue Italia) while working part-time on Chapel Street, in one of Melbourne’s leading boutiques. I had taught myself to blow-dry my hair perfectly straight and was addicted to my Poppy matt brown lipsticks. I shopped for fragrance like it was going out of style and spent all my savings on Guerlain skincare and Dolce & Gabbana bustiers. In other words, the fashion and beauty industry had sucked me in.

Deep down, I knew Naomi Wolf would probably not have approved. But the early 1990s were the beginning of what I call 'The Beauty Age'. You could no longer stay immune from the influence of the behemoth that is the beauty industry – and Linda Wells, the launch and long-standing editor in chief of Allure, knew this before most of us.

Others may refer to the past 20 years as The Information Age. Same thing in a way. What the internet has done is clicked us into a continual cycle of beauty ideals, ever-changing at breakneck speed. More recently, blogs and social networking have exposed us to public view and scrutiny; in turn, everyone either wants to be a celebrity or look like one. Politicians get Botox and manicures; feminists wear bras and lipstick. To escape the beauty industry, you’d need to move to the moon.

Back in the early 1990s, Wells, along with Condé Nast, recognised that beauty was becoming such big business that it merited its own magazine and treatment. Before Allure, I have been told, there weren’t really beauty-specific shoots; hair and makeup shots were essentially crops of fashion photos. The lighting, for example, wasn’t designed to best enhance cheekbones or set off the shine of a model’s hair. To redefine beauty reportage, Wells enlisted the makeup talents of Francois Nars and the photographic skills of Michael Thompson. The resulting Allure style set the tone that all other beauty magazines, or beauty sections of women’s magazines, would come to try to emulate.

I don’t unfortunately own any Allures from 1991. My first issue dates back to February 1992. It stars vampy covermodel Shana Zadrick, wearing lashings of liquid liner while her mane of hair whips around her. Inside, Allure looks at the new minimal makeup (evidently not that modeled by Shana), how to maintain long hair, the latest eyelift techniques and the beauty transformations of Cher.

My October 1992 issue is covered by another '90s super, Cindy Crawford (cue big hair and big lashes), and features articles on nutrition myths, diet drugs, the allure of the vampire (suck on that, twihards), exhibitionist fashion and beauty, and the use (and exploitation) of locals as props in exotic fashion shoots; plus, a middle-aged writer argues against the growing popularity of face-lifts (“a middle-aged face should be celebrated as a work in progress, not scarred with knives ad smoothed into pseudo-infancy”).

For December, cover girl Claudia Schiffer smoulders in smoky eye makeup; inside Allure investigates the rise of fussy eating, fat-ism (“why aren’t the thin discriminated against?”), and our love-hate relationship with beauty, while celebrating retro-sexy swimsuits on pin-up-worthy model Eva Herzigova.

It’s a crazy, chaotic and often conflicting mix. But then, Allure is a single-subject magazine, and as such probably can’t help but contradict itself from time to time. When there are so many pages to fill each issue, you can’t be too narrow in your editorial stance or you’ll fast run out of fodder. You need to cover all angles; say, from the ‘we love curves’ to the ‘fat is bad’.

Another slight uneasiness I have noticed within Allure comes from the fact that it bills itself as the magazine of serious beauty journalists. It celebrates the pretty – after all, this is the industry that runs on lipstick sales – but it also strives to question why we want to look pretty in the first place. Over the past twenty years, I have often changed my mind about whether Allure gets the balance right; mostly, however, I think it does.

On one hand, you could say that simply reporting on Botox, for example, increases the appeal of and demand for Botox, so Allure is simply perpetuating beauty ideals; on the other hand, you know that Allure would be the first to damn Botox if research showed it to be a definitively dangerous thing to do (for either our health or psyche). Allure, after all, has gone in hard to warn readers of the health risks of silicone breast implants; it was also the first publication to raise the scary issue of excessive formaldehyde levels in keratin hair-straightening solutions.

I remember a time when Allure went through an ugly stage. It was around 1995 and it lasted a few years. I think it tried too hard to be edgy and irreverent and not beholden to mainstream beauty ideals. As such, its photographs weren’t literal and obviously beautiful; they took a tongue-in-cheek figurative approach. You’d read, say, an article on Beauty Sins, and there’d be a close-up of a spider on an eye, in reference to spidery lashes being a beauty no-no (although my memory could be making that one up; I can’t seem to locate the photo in my archives; but you get my point). Or a story on our lust for straight hair would show a model ironing her hair – as in, with an actual clothes iron. The thing is, ugly images don’t fit very well within a beauty magazine, no matter how serious a beauty magazine that magazine is. Research has shown that we complex women want to look at beautiful women and images (one reason men never cover our magazines). We want to see the perfect lashes and the long lustrous hair; this helps us visualize how we want to look ourselves, so that we can pin it on to our fridge or put it out to the universe. And who wants to have spidery eyes and crispy hair?

Allure seemed to get its pretty-mojo back in the late '90s; there was a kind of new softness to the magazine, both in terms of tone and photography. As Wells recently told Women’s Wear Daily: “At the beginning, I was trying to make a beauty magazine that was a little bit surprising and not kind of one of those handouts that you get in a salon that looks all lovely — pictures of hairdos — but doesn’t really have any teeth. I kind of went overboard on that and I think it was a little aggressive… So we beautified the magazine a lot. That’s one example of how we changed. We’re less aggressive attackers of the industry and part of that is because the industry isn’t tricking everybody as much anymore — they really have to have products that perform and if they don’t, they don’t succeed.”

As a beauty writer, I think it’s true that there’s less trickery in the industry than before. Still, the “snake oil salesmen”, as Wells calls them, do exist. And as a beauty writer or a magazine editor, you really need to have a strong, unwavering stance about how to tackle them. It’s tough when you’re reliant on beauty companies to prop up your magazine with advertising and therefore money, but if you want to be taken seriously these days – when all sorts of cynics have their say online – you have to take a tough line and commit to never re-hashing a press release.

Allure has pioneered this approach to beauty reporting. So if there is less trickery than ever before, you could argue that it’s in part because Allure has helped to keep the industry on its (prettily polished) toes. It usually enlists experts such as dermatologists and cosmetic chemists to investigate and comment on a product’s claims, and it doesn’t seem afraid to print the truth, even if that truth is that the product is mere hope in a jar.

Back over to Ms Wells again: “If you take somebody on or a product on, you then have to really be there to get the heat for it. At one time or another in Allure’s 20-year life, we’ve lost advertising from just about every company, not all of them but [many have] pulled out their advertising in anger about our reporting. I think that ultimately how we managed to handle that delicate line is that we have to be good reporters. And if we aren’t good reporters, we’re going to fail. Good reporting is the way that we can function and do a journalistic job. And also picking your battles. Sometimes parts of beauty are pleasurable and beauty products are enjoyable and you don’t have to dissect every detail and make sure that everything is proven to work all the time. If there are claims, then we need to examine the claims. But if it’s a makeup product or if it’s a fragrance, it can just be celebrated and enjoyed. It’s balancing the pleasure with the journalism.”

And there’s the rub. Good beauty reporting is a mix of beauty cynic and beauty addict. It’s about being able to raise an eyebrow – but make sure it’s an immaculately groomed brow at that. It’s like the confused issue of beauty itself. We all have a love-hate relationship with it. We enjoy the rituals of beauty, while knowing that it’s a kind of prison. We want to be taken seriously for what’s on our inside, yet would rarely leave the house without concealer and mascara. And the older we get, the more we know that beauty is fleeting and unimportant, yet – in our ageing-obsessed world – the more we fret about every line and wrinkle.

It’s silly to think that we can’t live without beauty – and it’s pointless arguing about whether magazines or advertisers are the blame; in this Information Age, beauty is here to stay – so we have to find a way to sit comfortably with it, as well as our own individual type of beauty. Wells has acknowledged the dilemma we’ve all had coming to terms with the concept of beauty over the past 20 years, in our post-feminist world:

“In a funny way, the way that women were uncomfortable with the concept of beauty personally, I think we also expressed that in the magazine, that slight discomfort with being beautiful. Once women accepted their own beauty and realized that this was not in opposition to intelligence and success and all those other things, then we also accepted the fact that we are a beauty magazine, and it’s OK to look good.”

Allure has certainly influenced a generation of beauty-obsessed women. Again, you could go into the chicken-egg argument, but I tend to fall on the side of the fence that believes that beauty magazines report and reflect, rather than overly inflate an industry. After all, even if every beauty writer schemed to report that red mascara was the new black, I doubt there would be one reader who would actually start sporting scarlet lashes. Magazines always have to stay within the realms of reality to have any power and influence.

Allure has also influenced countless beauty writers. I would be lying through my whitened teeth to say that I have not been myself influenced. As a rookie beauty writer, I hoovered up every single word and piece of advice. My editors would photocopy Allure stories for me as ‘references’. My inspiration book is filled with Allure tears, and I have almost every single copy from 1993, along with a few from the previous year, stacked in towering, precarious-looking piles.

Allure’s golden age, in my opinion, was 2006/7. It excelled at what it usually did - for example the backstage beauty reports were particularly lush and inspiring - yet it seemed to always give that bit more. Anti-ageing features became more holistic, with experts like Deepak Chopra and Dr Andrew Weil weighing in with wisdom on the subject (Deepak Chopra also wrote about Britney’s hair-shaving breakdown). Sleep quality and happiness became important subjects; an article on psychodermatology explained the new inside-out approach some derms were taking to skincare. The magazine also generously ran a feature on the beauty bloggers who were taking the world of beauty advice by storm; similarly, another article covered top tips from readers.

The personal essays were lovely, too; I remember first noticing Elizabeth Gilbert here, and reading about Minnie Driver’s struggle to come to terms with her unruly – and un-Hollywood - hair. Many subjects were quite eye-opening: the aforementioned issue of formaldehyde-laden hair straightening solutions; porn-influenced vaginal surgery; ‘Scary Skinny – the illegal drug that’s starving Hollywood’ was about a steroid-like compound originally developed to treat asthma in animals, and now keeping starlets in size-zero ‘perfection’; there was an interview with the world’s first face transplant patient; and Allure introduced the concept of ‘skinny-fat’ – slim women with no muscle tone – and a story that practically every women’s magazine around the world would come to copy. Allure could also be damn funny. One article outlined the lengths to which women went in order to hide beauty secrets from men (“no intelligent women will recite the intricacies of upper-lip waxing to a loved one”); another feature was introduced by the hilarious coverline, “What happened to Hollywood’s underpants?” (remember those knicker-less Paris and Britney days?).

While Allure seems to have lost some of the spark from these years (face it, who didn’t during the GFC years, when redundancies reduced staff numbers, forcing remaining workers into overdrive and a state of perpetual tiredness), I still religiously buy every issue. Oh, except for the last two January issues - enough with the boring makeover-themed issues please. Although, admittedly, I don’t always read it cover-to-cover, often because I feel that some of the stories are a little been-there-done-that (again, the perils of a single-subject publications). For instance, if I see any more advice on how to beat bloat, I may possibly scream. And then eat some more bread in defiance.

But if I don’t read every word anymore, I always scan Allure for the latest expert views, because Allure has unparalleled access to the best of the best in the business. In beauty journalism, after all, you’re only as good as the experts you interview. For beauty writers not working for Allure, it’s hard to reach journalistic highs without input from the likes of Patricia Wexler; still, I think that Allure style is a legitimate yardstick to have. For instance, if you ask yourself, “Would this be good enough to submit to Allure?” and can answer, “I believe so”, well you’ve probably done a good job.

Visually, Allure is also up there as one of the most influential magazines in the industry. Its execution of beauty shoots, followed by a double-page spread of get-the-look swatches, has been copied ad-nauseum around the globe. I’m also pretty sure that they were one of the first to run a behind-the-cover page. Their treatment of celebrity interviews – where they ask stars to comment on a timeline of photos – is also a cute and clever take. And there are always nice breakouts within features; for example, a photographic timeline of big lashes to accompany a feature on mascara.

I also have to give a shout-out to Allure for their annual Best of Beauty awards. Allure pioneered the beauty awards category. While every magazine seems to run some awards show nowadays, Allure is still the one that beauty companies want to star in; if a product gets a Best of Beauty gong, its sales are pretty much set for life. Apparently Allure was also the first magazine to run polls of readers’ favourite products, a genius way to make its highly involved readers even more involved.

Speaking of readers – while Allure bills itself as the beauty expert, and as such works closely with all the top industry names, Wells seems increasingly open to including readers in her definition of experts. Wells cutely calls them ‘citizen beauty experts’. Regular readers of Allure probably become experts by osmosis anyway. But in this digital age, when everyone seems to have a blog and an opinion, magazines can’t afford to be too them-and-us.

Regarding Allure’s reaction to this changing world, Wells told WWD: “It’s a multifaceted, multidimensional world right now and so we are redoing our Web site — is relaunching in March — and we are going to have product reviews and we’re also going to open up a rate and review function to the Web site. So readers will do reviews and we’ll also have our editor reviews in there… I think we have to — rather than say, “Oh, we’re the expert and they’re not” — that’s not true anymore. Everyone is an expert in their own way and we have to really find, OK, our expertise is based on this, let’s bring in someone else, let’s bring in these other voices, let’s broaden the experience and the conversation.

It may all make for a different kind of Allure in the future. But I’m sure it will continue to age in style. After all, if anyone knows all about the secrets of ageing well, it’s Allure.

Girl With a Satchel


Scarlett Harris @ The Early Bird Catches the Worm said...

I had no idea Allure was so forward-thinking back in the day:
"... the use (and exploitation) of locals as props in exotic fashion shoots... [and] fat-ism ("why aren't the thin discriminated against?")."
Sounds like something I would read in a magazine or on a blog today.