A Word from the Trenches: Communicating in the Beauty Industry

by Alla Lemberg

At a PR job in a cosmetics company a long time ago, my boss once told me a simple truth: “I hired you because of the way you looked.” In astonishment, I opened my mouth to ask, to protest, to question, but she stopped me mid-sentence and said something I’ll never forget: “Face it, Alla. We’re in the beauty business. Whatever else we may be, we have to be beautiful.”

That was that. Nothing else could be added. As superficial as those words sound, I’ve spent many hours pondering over their meaning. Was beauty really what it came down to? Growing up in a hard-working family, I was taught that I must labor, I must achieve, I must accomplish. I had to get a full scholarship, I had to have the best grades, I had to be the one with six internships at the end of my college career, and so on. I finished my undergraduate Journalism degree with a 4.0 GPA and three job offers. I worked for a couple of local Atlanta newspapers, as well as a small PR shop. I spent long hours, nights and weekends crafting press releases, concocting story pitches, and cooking up events for clients, all in an attempt to prove myself in the communications world. And then, several years later, with solid experience under my belt and almost an M.A. next to my name, I was suddenly told that what really mattered was my appearance. I was in shock.

Now, years later and still working in the “beauty industry,” I have a better understanding of what my former boss meant when she said she hired me for my appearance. The truth was, whether because of appearance or not, but I had to work harder than anyone else in the company. I felt that I had to prove myself to everyone around me, to show that I’m more than a pretty face – I am a serious PR professional. Once again, I was pitching stories, staying up late nights, mailing press releases, inventing clever event ideas, and vigorously trying to stay afloat in the rippling waters of the publicity world.

While doing all that, appearance was never far from my mind. I knew that this seemingly small factor mattered a great deal in my field. When getting ready for an event, I always made sure to carefully apply my makeup and do my hair. Preparing for work in the mornings took at least two hours, due to the “beautification” process I made myself undergo every day – tweezing, plucking, lining, coloring, pinning, and so on. Since I was around beautiful models quite often and looking at beauty and fashion magazines every single day, I felt that I had to keep up a certain image. My image was “an attractive young PR professional.” And I knew that, for better or worse, my superiors placed a lot of emphasis on “attractive” and “young.”

Maintaining that image took money and time. I spent hours in spas and salons, getting facials, manicures, waxes, and other torturous treatments that women commit themselves to, in the name of physical perfection. I spent my weekdays in the office, creating the perfect story. I spent my weekends in the various beauty establishments, creating the perfect look. After a while, both felt like tough jobs.

At a cosmetics trade show one spring morning, a vendor came up to our booth and chatted with me for a good 20 minutes. At the end of our conversation, she tried to compliment me by saying: “Boy, your company really did itself a favor when they put you in this booth! It’s like putting a model in; you’re the best advertisement they could get.” I thanked her dutifully, though inside I didn’t know whether to be pleased or disappointed. Yes, I’ve spent hours and hundreds of dollars on my face and body. But I wanted to scream, I am more than just a pretty face, here to sell some makeup. I have a Master’s Degree! I recently gave a talk at the Young Communicators’ luncheon! Instead, I swallowed my pride quietly, remembering my “image” – young, attractive PR professional.

Because appearance was so important at my company, I often looked around the office, taking note of my colleagues’ best and worst features. It was awful, but I couldn’t help it. That’s what 24-7 beauty industry does to you – you start scrutinizing everyone, subconsciously picking up on their exterior flaws, and envying their small perfections. The hip 30-something HR lady had piercing blue eyes. That girl from Consumer Marketing had heavy bags under her eyes, though aptly covered with good concealer. The guy from Accounting was cute, but had a bump in his otherwise perfect nose. Everywhere I looked, I concentrated on the physical.

Once I was having lunch with an Associate Editor of Teen magazine. I was there to sell her on the idea of running a story about how teen girls can camouflage their pimples with our makeup. The conversation was flowing smoothly. We were in a café on a street corner. I was dressed to the nines, with perfect makeup (from our line of course) and carefully pinned hair. However, all I could focus on was a huge pimple on this young woman’s face. To me it seemed enormous! I was supposed to be speaking about how helpful an article such as that would be for Teen’s readers and how much teenage girls would appreciate learning some tips and tricks from makeup artists about applying foundation correctly. But all I could think was, Please woman, put on some concealer – this thing is the size of Oklahoma!

I won’t lie and say that being a PR pro in the beauty industry was easy. It was not. And it is still not. The words of my former boss still ring in my ears every day as I stand in front of my mirror: “We have to be beautiful. We have to be beautiful. We have to be beautiful.” Although professionalism counts, and skills count, and creativity counts, I always felt that, somehow, (though no one in HR will admit it), beauty counts more.

I am in the same industry today, which always surprises people. Why am I still here? Because beauty is addictive. The more you are around it, the more you want to stay there. It’s a tough business of beautiful people. But I love it. I enjoy socializing with editors of fashion magazines. I love being at photo shoots with gorgeous women. Like a girl true to her “image,” I love playing with makeup and hair. I love dressing up. As the years have gone by, I’ve come to embrace my appearance and even appreciate it. I now consider it an asset to my career, where before it was somewhat of a hindrance. I know that I am a good PR professional. I have the awards and recognitions to prove it. But being attractive didn’t hurt either. So what? We are in the beauty business. We have to be beautiful.