Saturday, March 21, 2009

Beauty editors: love 'em but don't necessarily believe 'em

It's hardly a trade secret that beauty editors get sent ludicrous amounts of product - entire make up ranges each season, boxes of dermatologist brand face creams at $300 a pop, hair products. You name it, it eventually ends up on our desks. Laymen often get envious streaks across their faces when contemplating that much free loot, but giving it to editors to try out makes sense: there's no magazine budget in the world that could afford to buy it all to test, and no one wants to read a magazine that only reviews $5 lipsticks.

Of course it's impossible to try everything, but a good beauty editor will work through as much as she can and will certainly have a much wider knowledge of the product on the market than any layman or blogger can ever hope to have.

However it's not quite that simple. Make up & hair products are easy to evaluate quickly: they either work or they don't. But given that it takes at least a fortnight, & usually a month to see even minor results from one face cream and, at any given moment, I might have had thirty entire ranges waiting for evaluation under my desk, how can you be sure that the editor in question really believes in the solution she's pushing?

I'm afraid the honest answer is that you can't. So, if there just isn't time to try everything properly, on what basis is it being recommended? Sometimes a beauty writer will get a chance to write about something she personally really likes (preferably if it is from a major advertiser), but there is nearly always a vested interest for a product's appearance on a page. Usually it's a direct link to advertising, but maybe the writer has a great relationship with the publicist or her dermatologist who is giving her free facials. Sometimes it's a trade off: maybe the beauty brand will broker access to one of its celebrity faces and the payoff will be lots of love for their products. Or perhaps the writer went on a fabulous all expenses paid press trip abroad with the brand and is now duty bound to return the favour.

Worst of all is the the celebrity recommendation. You didn't actually think the celeb used that product, did you? Sure, the publicist may have sent her a carton of the latest unguent but there's no guarantee it went anywhere near her skin. More likely that her agent or assistant benefited. This reminds me of an film actress friend who had heard about the beauty gravy train and decided to hop on (this was a few years back before celebrity gifting really got out of control). In her next national interview she was asked about her trademark dewy skin. Oh Creme de la Mer, of course, she breathed, although her beauty routine was more likely Ponds Vanishing Cream. Next day, she gleefully told me, the Estée Lauder publicist biked over a carton of the stuff.

Beauty editors will rarely tell the reader about bad experiences or products that don't work, which I think can be as helpful as reviewing the good stuff, for fear of offending the advertisers or the people who paid for their freebie facials or spa treatments. Worse still, they sometimes write about stuff that is terrible, but pretend it's good under pressure from management.

I will never forget going on a select little editor outing to a spa in the north of England where the facialist practically removed my epidermis. We editors all agreed the place sucked (sucked: very professional summing up there). Imagine my surprise when a positive review appeared in a VERY high circulation mag a few months later. Turns out that the editor in chief was fed up with the magazine's London-centric view (admirable) and wanted more regional coverage. So the crappy spa was included regardless of the fact that they left me and the other editor with raging skin after our treatments ((not so admirable).

Of course there are great beauty editors out there but they are the exception rather than the rule. I've lost count of the number of fawning press round tables and presentations I've been to where no editor has had the balls to ask tricky questions about a product's efficacy or, frankly, the insight to do so.

The great exception is the legendary take no shit Kathy Philips, ex Beauty Director of British Vogue. I first met her in a car on a way to a beauty event and she scared the living daylights out of me. As a fellow Vague House inhabitant, I sometimes got paired with her for intimate product presentations, and will never forget a beauty meeting some ten years ago where she took the publicist to pieces over a spurious aromatherapy claim on some face cream. It was a joy to behold.

Look out for beauty editors who write about products from small independent companies as much as those from the corporate behemoths with large ad budgets. There's a fair chance that their recommendations will be worth taking. The only reliable source I know (ahem, apart from me) for completely unbiased beauty information is the anonymous blog Miss Malcontent Seeks Truth in Beauty by a beauty editor who really knows her stuff.