Friday, December 21, 2012


An Interview With a Former Beauty PR Manager

Jane Marie: As your friend, I know that you used to work in the New York beauty PR world — calling around to get products into magazines, always smelling great and having awesome eyeshadow and stuff. That's how I would describe your old job, if pressed. You wanna give it a shot?

MacKenzie Lewis: My official title was PR Manager. My unofficial title was press liaison, pitcher of stories, planner of events and writer of press releases. It was a great gig because no two days were ever the same, and I was able to work on projects like Fashion Week and events with Colette in Paris. But budgeting, strategic planning and analysis make up the less glamorous side of things. There's this misconception that PR is all about socializing at cocktail parties — that's part of the job, but a very small part.

Okay, so the impetus for this interview was that the other day I was on Sephora.com and on the home page they had this "Shop Allure's 'Best Of Beauty'" feature. You know, that annual list in Allure magazine of the "best" beauty products? Of course there were a bunch of the usual suspects in there — the Clarisonic face brush, Bobbi Brown gel eyeliner (yes!) — but then I kept scrolling and there was all this other stuff that I had never heard of, nor would I ever play with at Sephora. So it got me wondering how that shit gets on the list, you know? Could you maybe walk me through how a beauty product gets featured in an average editorial — that is, not an advertisement — in any magazine? 

Okay, well let me preface whatever I’m about to say with a disclaimer that neither Allure nor any other magazine has ever let me sit in while they compile their “best of” lists. But I do have friends who are editors and am not completely oblivious to what happens around me. I’m also an editor now, though in a country where publishing functions slightly differently than in the US.

But back to the question. I guess the first factor in getting on the list is the most optimistic: the editor genuinely likes a product. Most things in life prefaced by the word “best” (movies, New York style pizzas, friends) are subjective, and makeup is no exception. Consider just how many boxes would have to be ticked off before you’d call a dry shampoo, for example, your favorite. How many of those are personal preferences (good packaging, for me, is essential)? And then consider how many things affect that dry shampoo’s performance on you, personally: your hair color, texture, shampooing habits and even climate. I might love one brand of hair powder because it disappears on my hair and gives it just the right amount of body in my humid climate. But on your shade it might leave white residue and feel dry, or the fact that it doesn’t wash out easily could be a deal breaker.

Then there’s the practicality factor. Editing a magazine is someone’s job, and sometimes she has to make concessions for the overall good of the story. For example, maybe she’s doing a “Best fall fragrances” piece, and the art department told her she needs to include eight fragrances for the layout to work. But what if she only likes seven? That eighth “best” scent is going to come down to a) whatever’s already in the magazine’s beauty closet, b) whichever publicist sends her an eighth perfume first, or c) whichever beauty publicist she’s better friends with. 

Which brings us to the next factor: relationships. A big part of public relations is building relationships between your brand and the media. Because brands are built by humans and humans run the media, this relationship — especially in the beauty industry — often boils down to your run of the mill work friendship. When I was in PR, I had an expense account and a quota of breakfast/lunch/dinner or drink “meetings” I had to go out on each week (seriously). We didn’t have new products launching that often, so I wasn’t always there to pitch a specific story. A lot of times I was there to get to know the editor better so that pitching her in the future would be easier for both of us: I wouldn’t feel uncomfortable calling her and I’d already know how and what she likes being pitched. But, like with other work acquaintances, if you go out for company-sponsored cocktails enough it’s easy to become fast friends. When you inevitably get to the stage where you’re sharing boyfriend drama, it’s not awkward to start a phone call with “I need a favor…”

But let’s be honest, you want to know about advertising. While most magazines won’t agree flat-out to give editorial coverage in exchange for advertising dollars, there’s often an unspoken (or maybe whispered?) rule that advertisers get priority. Publishing is a business, and more so than subscriptions or newsstand sales, advertisers pay for the offices, the computers, trips to Fashion Week and of course the salaries of the editors putting the magazine pages together. So if some makeup company buys $1m worth of advertising a year at a beauty mag, and then that magazine runs a “Get Your Flirtiest Lashes Ever” story without including their mascara, the magazine is going to have one very pissed off client. On the flip side, if a magazine does a product roundup that includes shoes from Prada, an Alexander Wang bag, a Thakoon dress and a jacket from Guess, flip through the rest of the magazine and see if there are any Guess ads. That might account for those “one of these things is not like the others” stories — or oddball products on “best of” lists.

Aaah, thank you! That was like scratching a serious itch. So, that all makes a lot of sense — but the part about the advertisers really pisses me off. Ha! I mean, grow up. You might not get picked every time, you know? Make better products if you want on the list. And so on...

Babies, maybe, but they’re more just being businesses. “Best of” lists drives sales far more than most advertisements, so from a money-making standpoint they’d kind of be bad business people if they didn’t at least attempt to leverage the money they invested into more bang for their buck. It might not be the most ethical strategy, but questionable ethics aren’t unique to beauty companies.

But also, wait. When you say "I need a favor" to your cocktail friend/beauty editor, that's the thing that seems so wrong to me. If the product was awesome, would it need a favor? And it's unfair to the readers not to disclose which products are great and which are there as the result of a friendship. Which is the thing that gets to me, it all seems so phony.

Sorry, I think I oversimplified it for the sake of explanation! No editor who’s even remotely good at her job is going to write about perfume that smells like burning plastic just because a friend makes a few pleading phone calls. Most editors take their jobs very seriously and are obsessive about beauty products — they know their stuff and they’re not going to risk their reputation just to help a friend out.

But think about it this way: every fall there are dozens of new product launches. I mean, you know how overwhelming it is to walk into a Sephora and be bombarded with all the new lipsticks, eye shadows and perfumes. It’s not that different for an editor, who just gets to see them before everyone else. So maybe the editor has decided to do a “Five Best Fall Lipsticks” story and has narrowed it down to, I don’t know, her top six. If my client is one of those six, my phone call could be the deciding factor between it and an equally great competitor.

The bottom line is that there might be a hundred truly awesome products launching every season, and an editor can’t write about them all. Is choosing one of those hundred because your friend is nudging you any worse than picking one out of a hat? Or, more realistically, picking one because it happens to be on your desk at that very moment?  Or — and this happens — because its shape looks good on the page?

As for it all being phony… we’re still talking about fashion magazines, right? These are the magazines that convince you your life will suck without this season’s $2,000 “it” bag, and that a man will never love you if you get a pixie cut. They’re also the magazines that rely on Photoshop to “fix” flawless 16-year-old girls. Can we really expect them to be completely unbiased news sources? Is that even their purpose? I’m not saying it’s right and I’m not defending it, but I think we have to acknowledge this particular media for what it is.

[NOTE: have you seen the September Issue doc about Vogue?]

YES, and it is wonderful and infuriating. Switching gears a little, did you ever have a product, and you don't have to name names, but something you really didn't believe in but you somehow got a beauty editor to give it props anyway?

As boring as it is, not really. I was really lucky with the clients I worked with. I guess the closest thing would be pitching a perfume I can’t stand and having an editor rave about it — which happened a lot. But again, fragrance is especially subjective, so I never thought “well, this must be a shit product because I don’t like the way it smells.” I just pitched it for what it was and let the editor make her own decision.

Even if they don’t believe in something 100%, most PR people don’t have sinister plans to trick editors into loving some horrible product. Our job is (or in my case, was) to promote a product by focusing on its best qualities and what makes it stand out from the rest. Just about every product has something good about it, even if it’s just the packaging.

If you had the power to change the look of any, say, three products out there so that they would photograph well or look better in magazines or whatever, which three would you transform?

Anything white. I used to do PR for a hair care company that launched a line of products with minimalist packaging. The bottles were white, the pumps were a very light silver and the typeface was simple. This stuff wasn’t cheap and it looked sleek, but on a white page filled with colorful lipsticks and bright nail polishes? No one would feature it because it disappeared on the page. For the record, it was a great product. I’ve heard a rumor that several years after being discontinued they’re relaunching it. No doubt it will have different packaging the second time around.

In terms of my own personal taste, anything from Estée Lauder. The gold packaging with the EL logo just looks dated. It almost has a vintage glamour feel, but somehow always ends up looking like something you’d find at the bottom of your mom’s makeup bag.

And because you asked, Maybelline Instant Age Rewind Eraser. Have you tried it? It’s great. I’m actually not sure whether it’s meant to be foundation, but I use it as a (very big) concealer, especially when my skin gets dry in the winter. The only thing I’d change about it is the packaging. It has a twist applicator with a giant sponge tip, so it’s really hard to control how much of the product comes oozing out the top. I’ve wasted a ton by misjudging the number of twists. This has nothing to do with how it looks in a magazine — I just wanted to use this opportunity to vent a bit.

What products should NEVER be taken off the Awesome List in any beauty magazine?

For budget-busting products, it’s Clé de Peau concelear and By Terry lipstick. No other concealer comes close to Clé de Peau, but the Maybelline Eraser is still a good option when your money has to go towards groceries rather than makeup. By Terry lipstick lasts forever, is super moisturizing, comes in universally flattering colors and smells like berries. Consider it $40 well spent. Because By Terry hard to find the in US, MAC's Russian Red is my back up. It has similar qualities but doesn’t smell like berries.

Here's one of those WTF products from the list. Is it made by THE Jack Black? Just buy Vaseline!

Ha! That would be an interesting side project for THE Jack Black, but no, I don’t think it’s him. (Side note: I know it’s common name but wouldn’t you choose to call your brand something else if you were another Jack Black, to avoid this misconception? He seems like a great guy, but is THE Jack Black really what you want associated with your grooming brand?)

And yes, we could just buy Vaseline. But if we did, Sephora wouldn’t exist. It’s like if we all used olive oil on our hair and those underarm rocks, we wouldn’t need expensive hair masks or deodorant. Some of it has to do with the quality of what we’re buying, and some of it has to do with the image a brand’s selling us. Maybe some people really do just want lips like Jack Black’s?

Also, can you believe this is still here

Ugh, no. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years, it’s that I will never, ever understand what the majority of people see in a perfume. You couldn’t pay me to smell like Taylor Swift, but give me my grandmother’s Shalimar and I’d never need another fragrance.

MacKenzie Lewis lives and writes in Lebanon, where she’s Managing Editor of Time Out Beirut.

60 Comments / Post A Comment

fondue with cheddar

Why do all the posts today have pictures of liquids in glass?

marty jones

@fondue with cheddar Does anyone know what that perfume is in the picture? I remember my mother having that bottle on her dresser.


@Mardia Hill@twitter It's Givenchy Organza http://www.fragrantica.com/perfume/Givenchy/Organza-4.html

marty jones

@joridpanda@twitter Thank you!


is nice ♡♥♡@j


"There's this misconception that PR is all about socializing at cocktail parties — that's part of the job, but a very small part."

Haha wuuuut. I'm a member of the "P" part of PR, and I never get invited to cocktail parties :(


Between the cocktail/meals funding at her last job, and the fact that she currently lives in Beirut, I'm very jealous of MacKenzie Lewis.

Plant Fire

I think with the "favor" part of PR, and I should mention I don't nor have I ever worked in PR, it might be like college applications? You know when they have two kids who are both awesome and good fits for the school and one plays the french horn and the band director is like "omg I need a french horn player bring her to me" and so the horn player gets in and the other one doesn't. It's just giving an otherwise good product a boost.

Nancy Sin

Wow, is Romance universally hated? I don't own it but I've always enjoyed it. And the Shalimar story made me smile, and is also why I could never wear Estee Lauder anything (it reminds me of my Meeeemaw).


@Nancy Sin I don't think it smells bad, but I wore it in college, and now it is permanently etched into my brain in association with that time period, so I can't really wear it now.


Oh man, I totally love Romance. I barely ever wear perfume, but when I do, it is that. Well, considering I am not particularly beauty-product saavy (and haven't bought a fashion magazine in ten years), I am not too surprised that my perfume rates an "ugh"!


I just want to note that the Jack Black lip balm is actually the best! And I've used tons of alternatives...Rosebud Salve, various kinds of Chapstick, the Fresh Sugar Lip Treatment...this is the only thing I can put on at night (it's too thick to wear during the day) and actually end up with not-dry lips the next day. Truly magical.

every tomorrow@twitter

@tearsforaffairs augh yes it is amazing. I have like 5 tubes of it in various stages of used up. It is the only thing that will keep my lips from falling off in winter. I use it during the day too if I'm not wearing lipstick.


@tearsforaffairs The great thing about the Fresh Sugar Lip Treatment is that you get that shit free during your birthday month from Sephora. I turned 28 like, 3 times in October.


My first one is on the way! They sent out an email for anyone who didn't claim it in '12, and I only became a member mid-year (January birthday...) so I got one when I ordered some gifts, and now I get another gift next month!
I'm really falling in love with Sephora. Finally.


@NeverOddOrEven I believe everyone about this Jack Black stuff, I'll have to check it out, but I LOVE Sugar. It's great.

Sephora is like a candy store for your face.


@tearsforaffairs Agree! I adore that Jack Black stuff, I need to buy some more. It's cheap, it goes on smooth and not shiny, and it's super moisturizing. I need to buy more to put by my bed.


@katiemcgillicuddy Ugh, I totally should have turned 28 more in June. YOU ARE A GENIUS.

Also, awesome lip stuff is way better than shitty cake-smelling bath crap I kept getting year after year. "No thanks," I would say, "Are you sure?" the girl would ask. "Oh, I'm sure."


I think my palate for perfume is becoming increasingly unsophisticated with age; I want to love Shalimar because it's timeless and glamorous and comes in a great bottle, but sadly, every time I smell it, it smells like Eau de Stankfoot.

Meanwhile, pregnancy-related smell aversions have driven me back to one of my old favorites, which is Clean. I just picked up a new bottle of it, and now whenever BO smells and trash can smells and my cat's brutal prescription cat food smells get to be too much, I can spray the Clean all over and bask in the soapy goodness. AHHHHH.


@werewolfbarmitzvah the smell problem is the worrrst, I am at the point where we didn't get a Christmas tree because of it and I look forward to allergy attacks that stuff up my nose. I can't even stand the smell of stuff I like, let alone other people's perfume.


@werewolfbarmitzvah I only smell good in cologne. But I am OK with smelling like a sexy dude, so it works out.


@Megano! Yes! Men's deodorant forever!


@werewolfbarmitzvah That mens cologne sample they sent out with the November birchbox? Artisan? Oh my god I want to smell like that forever.
It's all so expensive though >.<

Theda Baranowski

So is Russian Red really the ultimate red lipstick? Because I have been trying for years to find one that doesn't make me feel like a clown, and given that I just got paid today I'm throwing money at the internet anyway.


@muzivitch I personally don't like Russian Red, but I'm really pale, and lipsticks will sometimes do strange things on me. I love the Sephora brand red lipstick, which is called 04 Classic Bright Red.

Unrelated, what up, Givenchy Organza! Such a pretty bottle!


@SarahDances: Does Givenchy Organza smell like cinnamon buns? From some angles, it looks like Princess Leia.


@laurel It does not, in fact. It was my mom's regular perfume for a while, but it's probably been reformulated and/or discontinued since then.


@muzivitch Hourglass Extreme Sheen lip gloss in Siren. Fully pigmented, metallic red-orange. Since you say you feel like a clown in red lips, I'm guessing you're going more on the blue-red spectrum. Try a warmer red. And it doesn't get any more awesome than Siren.

Plant Fire

@muzivitch Russian red doesn't look that great on me BUT the first Mac Viva Glam lipstick is the one and only lipstick that I can wear and look pretty instead of like a clown.


@muzivitch I know not too much about cosmetics, but I'll throw in my two cents because I am IN LOVE with YSL Pur Rouge/Rouge Couture lipstick in colour 01. Fairly certain it is a universally flattering fantastic red.

It smells real nice, it's super moisturizing and it comes in a snazzy gold tube. But best of all, I ate a massive steak dinner and it stayed on (!).


MAN! I found this to be a VERY satisfying read Jane and MacKenzie! Awesome awesome. I don't read beauty mags but I have wondered about the playoff between advertising and what gets published, although always suspected there was of course a relationship.

The magazine (haha yes singular) I read has a "best employers of 2012" kind of feature and then usually in that issue there are lots of ads for those best employers (with things like "named best employer!" in the ad) and it makes me SO CURIOUS how that process gets developed.


@redheaded&crazie note: I have never worked on a "best employers" list but I currently work in magazines that do best of lists, and I have worked for a company that was named best employer, and most of the time people are notified that they will be on the list early enough so they can buy an ad.


@redheaded&crazie I interned for a magazine in college (not going to call them out here, but it wasn't a "lady mag") that did a "Best of" list and while I assumed that those lists were always a little biased, I was shocked to see that even if one company actually won the reader vote, our editor might name a different company as the winner just to try to get ad space from a company he'd been struggling to get it from. He'd call the company and say "You won our reader vote, wouldn't it be great to put an ad in our magazine that had a big 'Named Best X!' banner on it?"

This is also how I imagine that crap-tastic "GreatLash" mascara keeps popping up in the Best Of lists, despite being a pile of garbage.


Jane, Jack Black lipbalm is THE BEST (especially the lemon chamomile flavour). All other lip balms pale in comparison. I was also dubious until my best friend married a Sephora store director and I got some free tubes, and now I am hooked for life!

Lisa Frank

I thought the Allure beauty awards were voted on? That's why I thought they were more reliable than most editorials in magazines where the line between editorial and advertising is very, very thin.


Hey I have the Jack Black lip balm and I really like it. I bought it because I like to have nice things and my lips are always a mess. Vaseline I will buy and forget about in an hour. This I always know where it is and use it often. Also it smells good. That is all.


Just curious: Does that Maybelline Great Lash in the ugly tube still make it onto every "Best" list? I don't use it now, but I have tried it and I thought it was crap--and then was envious of the people who liked it because they were able to buy their perfect mascara for cheap and in every store in the entire world.


@Hellcat It does indeed, and I think it sucks.


Pretty sure it does, but I rarely open a beauty magazine anymore.
Full 'N Soft is my jam, though.


@NeverOddOrEven Someone in here told me (or, more accurately, told everyone reading) about Physician's Formula (I think--it's in a beige tube with an ugly shiny green leaf-shaped top) and it is fabulous and available pretty much everywhere. The only downfall is that it will run or smear with the slightest mist of rain or if your eye waters even a little. I haven't found a waterproof version yet (though, I hate those; I can never get that shit off! Ugh, I sound like a damn drugstore makeup diva today). But overall, it is lovely and my eyelashes look fabulous all day...unless I have a sneezing fit and my eyes water (but I look generally terrible after that happens anyway).


I've heard good things, but considering the frequency with which I tear up (at least 2x a day, usually) since going back on anti-depressants, I think I'll have to pass.


@NeverOddOrEven You've got your Full & Soft, so you're covered. But on the Great Mascara Hunt of 2012, I also tried an Almay one--Get Up & Grow--that is waterproof and wasn't even lying about helping restore thin lashes. I don't know what happened, but I somehow got a blank spot--maybe my curler pulled them out or maybe I've fallen prey to the latest scourge of women in their 40s, eyelash loss. Either way, they're back now! It's not as nice, IMO, as the one with the green leaf top but a better choice for me in the rain and snow.


@Hellcat Ha! I just commented about GreatLash a minute ago. That shit is terrible.


@KeLynn Haha--yet it always makes these lists! Or, it used to... I rarely read those magazines (with the exception of Lucky) unless I am getting my hair cut and colored.


@NeverOddOrEven Does it give you raccoon eyes? I finally got so tired of having to wipe under my eyes every hour that I caved and bought the $19 tarte mascara (the same day I bought a $44 foundation, which, I mean, really? But I love it and now I'm hooked. Ugh.) and I love it but I don't know that I love it enough. So I guess I was wondering if it was just my eyes being weird or if everybody has that problem and I was just feeling whiny and rich that day.


The Full N Soft? No, never had much of a problem. For a few months now I've noticed I get some very light smudging under my left eye, but only the left, so I think it's me and not it. Maaaayybe some flaking sometimes, but I think when that happens it's eyeliner and not mascara.
Overall I find that it's not clumpy, gives good volume (my lashes are long but thin and pale), holds up great against tears or rain even though it's not waterproof, comes off easily, and is cheap.


@NeverOddOrEven Yeah, I loved it until I started getting all raccoon-y. Maybe I'll try it again when this tube is done.


Can't hurt. I'm pretty sure at least a few drugstores will take makeup returns too.


This is great! I don't think a lot of people realize how much PR and magazines (even websites) are interrelated (and it's not even just women's magazines). However, I do sometimes feel that they should be a bit more upfront about this.


Adding my voice to the Jack Black chorus. That shit is so much more than Vaseline. I can't explain it.


And, hey, you guys, mascara? Tip: Anastasia makes a brow gel that is a) amazing at taming brows and holding them in place, but b) more importantly (well okay not more importantly but I'm not going to write a novel about brows here EVEN THOUGH I COULD), a magical product that, when applied atop mascara, completely seals it. Waterproof, still flexible, doesn't flake, won't smudge. At. All. There are mascara waterproofing coats out there, and there are waterproof mascaras, but I am telling you: Use jojoba oil (or an oil-based makeup remover) to remove your eye makeup so it all breaks down easily, and use the Anastasia gel overtop whatever non-waterproof mascara you please. Every mascara problem you ever had with flaking and smudging will go away. It is the greatest makeup jerry-rig I have ever come across.


@catsuperhero Thank you! I have terrible flaking/smudging problems, so I can only use the 1 mascara that combats this for me (Clinique's High Impact Curling Mascara). I do like it very much, but I'm sometimes sad my mascara-experimenting days seem to be over. So! I will try this!

A. Louise

@KeLynn I love their Lash Doubling mascara - it doesn't hurt that I get all of the free samples out of my mom's and grandma's Clinique makeup bonus kits but I have been really happy with their mascaras - this one in particular.


Good article, but it would've been interesting to discuss the future of these types of mags vs popular 'personal' columns or blogs (such as Sali Hughes in the Guardian) which in theory have way less influence from advertising (but in the case of amateur blogs, probably more influence from FREE STUFF). I know I ignore every single product I read about in a glossy mag unless I just want it for the packaging - whereas I listen to a professional make-up artist blog with seemingly nothing to lose from being honest (and experienced).


For the record, I'm MacKenzie's mother and no Estee Lauder has been in my handbag since 1976.


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