An Interview With Sali Hughes That Will Seriously Satisfy Your Inner Beauty Nerd

"Everything in the book had to either be important for beauty, important for women, or important for me."

Scan any of the beauty titles at a bookstore and it quickly becomes clear that they are all, essentially, how-to guides, brimming with advice. That’s why beauty columnist Sali Hughes’ latest book, Pretty Iconic, stands out. It celebrates the products that changed the world, as well as predicts the icons of the future and is a much-needed bible for nerds who are more interested in discussing beauty products from a social and cultural perspective than they are in DIYs. We had the chance to mine her brain for details when she was in Toronto, which she absolutely adored visiting by the way. Sali, if you ever moved here, know that there’s a legion of women here who already want to hang out with you.

You mention that many of your own all-time favourites didn’t make it in. What are some of those?

I really love M.A.C Skinfinish Natural. I use it every day, but it’s not an icon so it couldn’t go in. I’m obsessed with the Burberry Eye Colour Contour sticks. You take one colour, smear it on, blend it in, and they do not move. Skinflash by Dior. Touche Éclat by YSL is the icon but I don’t like it. Skinflash, in my view, it’s a better product. The Victoria Beckham Estée Lauder Eye Metals Eyeshadow is my instant daytime to nighttime product. I think of it as grownup glitter. It’s a cool brown with very dense glitter instead of that fairy dust. This is Charlotte Tilbury KISSING Lipstick in Stoned Rose, which I wear most days. I only ever wear tubing mascara but I don’t like Blinc as much as I like Estée Lauder Doublewear or Clinique Lash Power.

Can you elaborate on how you vetted things as you were going through your list? How did you decide if something was an icon?

In terms of my criteria, everything in the book had to either be important for beauty, important for women, or important for me. It had to either change the industry, change the way women wore makeup or looked after their skin, or change my life. If it ticked none of those boxes, then it couldn’t go in. Very often, I chose a product that represented a sea change.

In some of these chapters there was so much backstory and information on things. I was curious how much of that you already knew just from your years of covering the beat and how much you had to do a deep dive on.

Every brand was contacted in January 2016. I think about 250 emails were sent to brands saying, “I’m working on this book and it’s about iconic products. Could you provide us with the date of release, one sample of the product for photography, any sales figures you have access to, any vintage advertisements you have access to, and any interesting anecdotes from the archives.” We did that and I have to be totally blunt with you: the response was atrocious. So many brands didn’t get back to us. So many brands weren’t that enthusiastic or they came back and sent us that much copy. I would find out the date was wrong. I did try and harvest all the data but it was really disappointing. Some people didn’t want to be in the book at all.

What were their reasons?

“We’re not focusing on that product right now.”

What!?

And there were a couple of brands who tried to buy their way into the book when they found out I was writing it. Then there were brands where I literally spent four months hassling them saying, “We need your data back.” They never gave it. It was actually not a particularly successful research operation. I did it myself. Loads of it was brain sick; it was already in there. As you know, some of the chapters are just really personal. They’re not really about the history of the product. Some of them are. You know the Estée Lauder Youth Dew story? I had been to New York a few years ago to interview Aerin Lauder. I had gone to Mrs. Lauder’s apartment and had a total nerdgasm in the apartment. Somebody at the company in New York told me the Youth Dew story. It never left me. I always knew that had to go in. I had absorbed tons and tons of stuff. I had to research dates and things.

Was there anything that was really hard to find because there was no record of it or there was no brand left to contact?

Revlon had nothing on Ultima II. We couldn’t get an image or advert. They weren’t forthcoming with it. I was sad about that. I really wanted an ad image. For me, The Nakeds was one of the most influential things that’s ever happened in beauty in terms of servicing women in colour.

When you were working on the future icons chapter, it was obviously hard to predict what their impact would be. What was the criteria you were judging them on?

That section was super hard. As I was putting it together, I knew full well that some of these things would not end up making the grade. You can’t see into the future. One of the things I wanted in there was Glow Maximizer by Dior. It’s one of my all-time favourite products. It was going in and then they discontinued it. That just shows how hard this section is! I took it out and now they’re bringing it back. Sunday Riley is now discontinuing the Artemis Oil. Luckily, I have the lineup of the oils. The Anastasia Brow Pomade should have probably gone in. I wanted that section to be the smallest section. My criteria there was, “Do I really think it’s had a moment?” Do I think it’s just amazing and people should know about it, like BioEffect? Vichy Aqualia Thermal Serum is such a brilliant product and I wanted people to know about it. I think women spend four times as much on a serum that’s not as good on a hydrating level. Sometimes it was a technological advance. I think the Clarins Radiance Plus Golden Glow Boosters were an amazing innovation. Boosters, generally, I think are a great innovation. CoverFX Custom Cover Drops are really clever and influential. I felt like they needed to have a moment or needed to be deserving of iconic status in the future because they were so good or needed to have changed the course of technology in the industry. Charlotte’s a classic example of that. Literally every brand I meet is so worried about Charlotte Tilbury. Their numbers are going down, the attention is off of them, and they’re seriously concerned about her. On that basis, there’s no way she couldn’t go in. She’s definitely changed the course of the industry.

I love that you mentioned Clinique’s Bottom Lash Mascara. It’s a personal favourite of mine. It’s so good but it’s one of those things not enough people heard about.

I think that quite a lot of things are ahead of their time and are discontinued but shouldn’t have been. Bottom Lash is a really brilliant example. You probably do know this, but Bottom Lash was one of the first products ever developed based on Google analytics. What Clinique did is that they worked backwards from Google. They noticed that “bottom lash mascara” was one of the most searched-for beauty searches in Google. In other words, women didn’t know how to put mascara on their bottom lashes. Based on those analytics, they thought, “Hey, maybe we should make a product for that.” So Bottom Lash was born. I loved it immediately. It’s also really affordable. I have no idea why it wasn’t a runaway success. Sometimes brands just don’t rave about things enough. They focus on the wrong stuff.

Even if they don’t champion the products right away, you’ve mentioned that there are some products that have been slow burners. One of them you called the Shawshank Redemption of beauty. It took years for people to figure out that it was brilliant.

I don’t think brands really give things enough time nowadays. Things get discontinued all the time that I think are quite brilliant and ahead of the curve. Stila is a good example. They were so ahead of their time and Estée Lauder didn’t know what to do with it. I think they blew it. They didn’t understand what made that brand special. There were many innovations product-wise with Stila that should have been shouted about. Cushion technology! I’m sick of people going on about how Korea invented cushion technology. They did not! Jeanine Lobell invented it. Jeanine Lobell had cushion foundation 22 years ago. It was so ahead of its time that it wasn’t shouted about. There were the lip glosses in the click-y pen. Again, there isn’t a brand in the world that doesn’t do some kind of version of that now.

I love that you’ve given items a place even if you personally don’t like them. I was laughing reading some of them, like Cetaphil and the Dove bar. Were you worried you might offend them?

I really don’t care if they’re pissed off. My job is not to please them. I’m a newspaper columnist so I don’t have to make anyone happy or maintain relationships with brands, although I do have really good relationships with brands. My job is to think of my readers. There were a couple of things. I know Charlotte Tilbury very well. I think I said, “She’s like a barrow boy.” Is that a term here? A barrow boy is a kind of man who stands in the street market shouting and selling things. She’s also amazing and so clever and talented and gifted. I happen to think that’s what makes her great. She’s a saleswoman. She reminds me of the Mrs. Lauders of the world. She’s got moxie and I like moxie. I was worried she’d feel a little bit pissed off about that. Actually, she wasn’t. I was a bit worried about Suqqu. I’m obsessed with Suqqu Foundation. I think it’s amazing. I felt it needed saying, but I said in the chapter about Suqqu foundation that they don’t seem to care about it. They seem to not want you to buy it and are always trying to steer you towards their other foundation, which isn’t very good. I thought they would be cross about that. Again, not enough not to do it because it’s not the job of a book to keep people happy.

In a book about icons, you think everything is going to be celebrated. It’s funny to come across certain things that say, “It’s an icon, but it’s not that amazing.”

I really love Madonna. However, Mariah Carey’s a better singer than Madonna. Mariah Carey isn’t an icon; Madonna’s an icon. I feel that way about beauty. To be an icon isn’t about being the most talented. It’s not about being the best actress, the best actor, the best singer. It’s about that kind of impact and familiarity. If you look at Chanel No. 5, that has to be the only product in the world where if you saw it in silhouette, you would know it was Chanel No. 5. Whether you like it or not is irrelevant. That is an icon. You’re wrong if you don’t like it. I understand why people don’t like it; perfume is so subjective. That was my thinking.

So much has changed in the industry since a lot of these have come out. What factors would you think would play into something becoming an icon today? Now a product can have success because some blogger talks about it.

It’s so hard to pinpoint it now. Absolutely social media is a huge factor. I put Eos lip balm in the book as a future icon. It’s fine. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with it. I personally find it awkward to put on. I want a stick. To me, it’s a gimmick. That is a product that has reached a level of iconic status purely through product placement and social media. That’s why I think it’s very interesting and that’s why I thought it deserved to go in. Just like the Beauty Blender—it’s a product that ‘likes’ built. It’s been built by social media endorsement, blogger endorsement, lots of likes, and lots of shares. I thought that made it very interesting.

I worry now that with social media driving some things that products that deserve to be icons might now not get the attention that they deserve.

I so agree. I quite often think that. On Instagram, when I post pictures of products, I’m interested to see which products get the most likes. Sometimes I’ll post a picture of a product I think is really good and it’ll only get 500 likes or something. It doesn’t excite people. Then I’ll post a selection of new M.A.C lipsticks and people will go insane. It’s interesting to me now that a product can live or die on how photogenic it is. There’s also been a real move towards the short term as well in terms of product efficacy. I think women, now more than ever, want instant results and aren’t really willing to put in the grunt work with long-term skincare. Every brand is now obsessed with developing instant gratification products for selfies. That’s what they’re all striving for: something that instantly makes you look a ton better or Photoshopped but also has long-term benefits.

I wanted to talk to you about the whole area of natural and green beauty. You mentioned in the book that you’re fine with parabens and you included Weleda Skin Food Dr. Hauschka’s Rose Day Cream and Burt’s Bees Lip Balm. I’m wondering about your whole take on the category.

I’m partially cynical about it. I’m an equal opportunity beauty nerd in that if I like something, I want it. If I love the look, feel, or smell of something, I’m interested. I’d never rule something out because it has a natural beauty slant. I also dislike the way women have been convinced that parabens are bad for them even though they practically eat them every day. I find that cynical. If you’re coming from a place where you really care about and love this stuff, then great. There are lots of natural brands I really like. My favourite natural products are the ones that combine science and nature. I like Sunday Riley because I think she takes the best of both. She takes these beautiful oils and puts in retinol. I like Ren very much who do the same thing. I like brands that put efficacy as high a priority as elegance and nature. I want to see stuff that works. If it doesn’t work and is just a lovely product then it needs to be gorgeous.

So there aren’t any ingredients you feel turned off by or concerned about? Maybe you prefer not to use mineral oil since you personally don’t like it?

My problem with mineral oil is that if you’re charging people £50 for a moisturizer, you shouldn’t be using cheap, crappy petrol derivatives. You should be buying nicer oils. Generally, I would tell people to avoid mineral oil unless they’re buying a supermarket product. Then I think, “Fair enough. It’s cheap. Fine.” This doesn’t seem to have any price attached to it because premium companies do it just as much as cheap companies, but I really want a fine grade silicone. Stop putting thick, gloopy silicone in things that peels off when people put on their makeup.

So the ingredients you tend to avoid are more because you don’t like how they perform but not because you feel they’re questionable?

Europe has the strictest ingredient regulations in the world. It’s hell for companies. They have to jump through hoops. Claim testing is really strict and rigorous. I’m not worried about that. I hate microbeads; I think they should be banned. It’s more to do with the customer being ripped off and environmental concerns. There’s nothing I’m wearing where I’m like, “Oh my god, I’m going to get cancer.” I want skincare companies to stop using jars. I want an airless pump. It’s exposed to oxygen and your active ingredients become destabilized. I want proper concentrations. If you’re putting vitamin C in something, don’t tell me about it unless it’s over 20% because that’s the only time it’s ever going to work. I just want transparency and hygiene.

What do you think of the whole no makeup thing that’s happening, spurred by Alicia Keys deciding to reject makeup. It brings up an interesting conversation about the politics of makeup. What does it mean to wear makeup or not wear makeup?

I think Alicia Keys is great. I think the whole point of feminism and being a woman now in 2016 or 2017 is that you should be allowed to just not want to wear makeup. I don’t wear makeup every day. Some days I just want to go out and get a cup of coffee and I can’t be bothered to put on makeup. I think the entire point is that you should be able to not wear makeup. What I absolutely hate is the qualitative judgment that is made about women who wear makeup as though they are vacuous and vain and stupid. It’s a natural mammalian instinct to groom. It’s absolutely fine to have an interest in surface. It doesn’t mean you have no depth. It’s just a ludicrous assumption to make about people. I really hate this thing about if a woman appears without makeup, she’s given this pat on the back for being so brave. I’m not brave for not wearing makeup! I just don’t feel like wearing makeup that day! I’m not weak for choosing to wear it. It makes me happy. It’s creative. It’s expressive. It’s like putting on a dress or a nice pair of shoes. I decide who I want to be that day.

What about women on social media pushing the idea of layered makeup where they literally don’t look like themselves? What do you think of that kind of makeup?

It kind of ties in for me with the no makeup thing. The thing that I like about women choosing not to wear makeup is that I think all the problems with beauty is that there’s only one beauty ideal. I like it when people look different. I like subcultures, tribes, women not wearing makeup, women wearing tons of makeup, crazy makeup. I like women in the beauty industry to be older, bigger, of colour. The problem is the beauty industry. It isn’t beauty. I’m worried that at this moment in time young women think they all need to look the same. I also worry that, as if women didn’t have to already worry about the size of their ass and the dimples on their thighs, they now have to facet their head like an emerald every morning when they wake up. Whenever I do in-store events, guaranteed the youngest person in the room is the one who asks, “How do I contour my face?” I don’t think everybody should have a thin nose. I don’t think everybody should have high cheekbones. I don’t think everybody should have massive lips and high brows. I like women looking different. For me, the problem is not that makeup. The problem is that it feels, at the moment, like there’s nothing else. Beauty is a joy. It’s an absolute joy. I think it can only be truly joyous when it’s diverse.