Through her wildly popular YouTube channel, weekend column in The Guardian and her own website, SaliHughesBeauty.com, Welsh journalist Sali Hughes evaluates more than 2,000 beauty and skincare products a year. Her new book, Pretty Iconic, follows up her 2014 bestseller Pretty Honest (a candid companion to beautification) and is written with well-researched and -reported vigour – and the same conspiratorial, no-bull brio – that Hughes practices as a popular culture columnist for Empire magazine and the website The Pool. It includes rite of passage products, like Bonne Bell Lip Smackers, and game-changers like the Canadian cosmetics companies M.A.C, Moroccan Oil and CoverFX, as well as cultural moments in the history of beauty. I sat down with the Brighton-based journalist in Toronto last month to talk about nostalgia, Photoshop facials and why Hughes, a former makeup artist, calls Pretty Iconic "the mixtape" of her life.
Given the digital and social media revolution in makeup artistry and beauty journalism, why did you choose to do this as a lavish book, rather than something like an app?
I think in this day and age, when books are so expensive to produce and digital content can cost nothing to produce, when you're writing a book you have to really be able to justify why it's a book and not a magazine feature, not a blog post, not a video. I personally can't see the value in a step-by-step makeup tutorial book any more – what's the point? Certain kinds of beauty books have been outmoded by digital content. However, one thing a book does have is real permanence and it gives writing space; it affords writing respect and prominence. It looks so much more beautiful than anything online. It's an object. It can be gifted in a way that appears thoughtful as opposed to an e-card or whatever. It's a beautiful thing in its own right. And you are halfway there with the beauty reader who loves lipsticks and perfumes because they love beautiful objects. Beauty books have to be beautiful. If they're not, you might as well watch someone's video DIY filmed in their messy bedroom.
Most of the contemporary beauty products in the book are gendered. Do you think that will change?
I feel very funny about the gendered thing. I feel conflicted in many ways. I don't know what it's like in Canada, but in Britain more men than ever are getting beauty treatments, more men than ever are getting plastic surgery – we're still talking about comparatively small numbers to women, but it's more than ever. About 18 months ago, a surgeon told me for the first time in his career he'd done more pec jobs than boob jobs. That's not cheering. It doesn't fill me with joy as a piece of news. I want women thinking maybe they don't have to do as much [to themselves]. I don't see equality as everyone under crazy pressure. And also – I probably shouldn't say this, because it's really ungracious of me – but I slightly don't want them to have it!
You're raising two boys…
I live in a house full of men, and I really like having that part of my life to myself. I was talking to a girlfriend recently who said when she was growing up she would feel really sad because she was never allowed at her mother's dressing table where she kept her perfume and cosmetics. You weren't allowed in mummy's bedroom when mummy wasn't there. It's only now as a grown woman, now that she has two kids, she totally gets it – that it's a sort of sanctuary of womanhood. This is me looking in the mirror, time for me, self care. I do feel a little bit like that about beauty. I'm not saying that's the only benefit of being a woman – there are lots of other benefits, makeup is just one of them and so on, but I do quite like that it's mine. I don't really want to be waiting outside the bathroom for my boyfriend to get ready.
In the last section of the book, you predict a few future iconic products, like Tria's blue light acne device and EOS lip balm orbs. If you had to speculate further about where most future innovation in beauty will be, is it in the product formula itself, its packaging or mechanical technology?
The Dyson hair dryer came out after the book was finished, and it would have gone in. But we're now in a society where people expect their films instantly, their music instantly, their TV shows binged and they also expect to look better instantly. When you look at the stats, [sales in] long-term skincare, traditional skincare, is pretty much flat or down. The growth is in makeup.
There's such impatience, and with most skincare products consumers can expect to see results only after 30 or 60 days of use, if not longer.
These figures stem from the fact that nobody can be bothered to wait for anything any more. They want it now, now, now. That's why the race is on for the skincare product that makes you look Facetuned [an app for retouching portraits and selfies], with immediate visible benefits to make you look better in a picture. What the industry is beavering to create is the product that makes you look Photoshopped that also has long-term benefits. It's the product every single brand wants to make and the first one who does that is sitting on a gold mine.
This interview has been edited and condensed.