There is beauty in truth, but is there truth in beauty? If you've heard of Sali Hughes, the Welsh-born beauty journalist whose policy of warts-and-all honesty has earned her a cult following, you are likely to answer yes. On her eponymous website and in her upcoming book, to be published by Fourth Estate on Oct. 21 and called, appropriately enough, Pretty Honest, the former makeup artist and wildly popular columnist for The Guardian speaks welcome truths about grooming's role in self-expression and self-care.
One of the prejudices surrounding beauty writing, she explains over the phone from her office in Brighton, England, is the fact that both readers and writers "confuse the beauty industry with beauty."
"There are loads and loads of things in the beauty industry that I find extremely problematic," she says. "There are also a lot of things in the beauty industry that I consider very positive. But there is not a week that goes by without something landing on my desk that I think it absolutely appalling."
Among the products that especially irk Hughes are those that prey on insecurities, such as bust gels and cellulite cream. That kind of easy-improvement-in-a-jar is "a ludicrous idea – even if it did work, I have grave problems with it as an idea anyway," she steams. "Very often the beauty industry looks for new neuroses and anxieties within us in order to sell products. On top of that, those products don't actually work in any way, shape or form, so it's like a double dip, an awful perfect storm of meanness."
According to Hughes, much of today's media is complicit in this "meanness." Although she contributes to women's magazines, she feels that a mostly uncritical culture in the service of top advertisers exists at many of those titles. "Equally, I find that many women assume that all blogs are completely honest and that's not the case." Most women, she says, are aware of the "little pantomime" that plays out in magazines, "whereas blogging is more problematic. Blogging started out as a very honest, outspoken movement [through which] women could just speak the truth." But that was before paid placements and opaquely sponsored posts infiltrated the field.
Hughes seldom offers negative reviews herself, but that doesn't mean she doesn't make judgment calls: "If I don't like it, I ignore it," she says, dismissing an inferior product both effectively and metaphorically. There are exceptions, though. One is Rodial Skin Care's range for menopausal women called Cougar. "I have never reviewed Rodial positively – I just think that the way they market their products is offensive to women and I have such a fundamental problem with them. I don't even want to open the jars."
In Pretty Honest's various chapters, Hughes arms women on how best to brave the occasional snobberies of the traditional beauty counter and decries the idea often pushed by brands of buying entire ranges for maximum efficacy ("if a product can't stand on its own two feet, it has no business being on sale" she says). Hughes also cautions against celebrity perfume, which she considers suspect. (Dissing star fragrance appears, in fact, to have become a trope of late: In Michael Cho's new graphic novel Shoplifter, the heroine, Corinna, is a disillusioned writer of advertising copy for whom the last straw is coming up with a slogan for marketing scent to tween girls.)
Over the past five, even 10 years, these kinds of cynical ploys by the industry have altered the way women consider and consume beauty products, even if some players in the industry remain oblivious. During our phone conversation, I read Hughes the package insert from a French luxury brand cream: "Night after night … [it] optimizes the skin's future: its genetic aging process is delayed, and DNA is protected."
"Oh, for f---'s sake," she says afterward. "That is full bullshit. There is absolutely no way a cream alters your DNA structure. But the problem is, if a woman is feeling so crap about her appearance because of so many external factors, then she may kind of take anything." A prime example, Hughes goes on, is eye cream. "The way eye cream is marketed … makes you feel as if, if you have the right one, you will not get old. But it's purely about texture. Eye cream is just anti-aging moisturizer in a smaller pot."
Amazingly in light of such harangues, Hughes is actually and actively courted by the industry she criticizes – for her endorsements, for her imprimatur, for her approval. Today, the one thing that luxury-goods companies, including beauty brands, crave most is authenticity, which is conversely difficult to convey and almost certainly to buy. Hughes, in any case, rarely bites – "to the fury of my agent, who will call with a big deal. And I always say, 'It's £10,000 [$18,000] now, but it will cost me more in the long run.'
"The moment you get into that bed, you can never get out of it."