Which beauty products could help tell your story? After reading Sali Hughes’ new book, Pretty Iconic, we couldn’t help taking a look back and wonder which ones we'd pick. A smell, a touch, a name - each can conjure up a multitude of memories in an instant and act as signposts for some of the most significant moments in your life. Suffice to say, it struck a chord with us.
A beauty mixtape of the world's most influential products, it serves as a biography and encyclopaedia in one - a must-read for those eager to know which products are really worth the hype and those whose claims are hugely overblown ( read our review here ). A tour through history with one of the country’s most trusted beauty writers leading the way, we caught up with Sali to talk about icons past, present and future and the products she can't do without.
GTG: What inspired you to write Pretty Iconic?
SH: We talk a lot about music, places and smells taking us back to a place or time, but I am just as likely to remember the beauty products I was wearing on my face or in my hair. I was explaining this one morning to my partner, as he complained about all the past-their-best beauty products in the loft and before I knew it, I had a list of over 300 products I felt had impacted either my life or those of the men and women around me. I was being nagged for a second book and so it suddenly occurred to me that this might be it. Luckily my publishers agreed.
GTG: What makes a product iconic in your opinion?
SH: Everything in Pretty Iconic had to tick at least one of the following boxes: Did it change the beauty industry? Did it change how women groom or make up? Did it mean something important to me? It wasn’t good enough to simply be a great product. Heaps of my favourites don’t appear in the book for that reason. “Good” is not the point. Objectively, Mariah Carey is a better singer than Madonna, but Madonna is the true icon. For this book I was interested only in the latter.
GTG: What product do you think people will still be raving about in 100 years’ time?
SH: I think perfumes have the most longevity in terms of taste. Skincare and makeup technology move on, textures improve, formula is refined, but a beautiful scent is timeless. In a hundred years, today’s state of the art skincare products will be old hat and much improved upon. But I think we’ll still have Chanel No5.
GTG: Who are your icons and what to you, makes someone an icon?
SH: Madonna, for sure. No one in the history of the world has explored and exploited the possibilities of hair and makeup so fully. She understands its power and creativity, its ability to transform, to express an idea. But I have so many beauty icons, and wrote about several of them in my first book, Pretty Honest . I adore Barbra Streisand, Liza Minnelli as Sally Bowles in Cabaret, Josephine Baker, Kate Moss, Diana Ross, Isabella Rossellini, Christy Turlington. But I suppose my ultimate would be Elizabeth Taylor. I can’t think of a sexier, more powerful, more feminine beauty than hers.
GTG: In Pretty Iconic you talk about the need for greater inclusivity in the beauty industry - which brands do you think are doing a good job in this regard at the moment?
SH: I never thought I’d say this about any mega corporation, but I honestly think L'Oréal brands are suddenly making crucial and industry-changing strides towards greater inclusivity. Lupita Nyong’o and the return of Isabella Rossellini for Lancôme, Helen Mirren, Diane Keaton and Susan Sarandon for L’Oréal Paris - these are extremely encouraging signs that the group is taking seriously the need to broaden commercial beauty ideals. I was lucky enough recently to host a video for Boots No7, in which I interviewed writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. No7’s decision to sign her, a woman of colour, an opinion former and an intellectual, as their new face is such a positive and important one.
There cannot be one look. We’ve come too far as women to celebrate only one physical archetype
GTG: Where do you see the future of beauty going? Are there any lessons from the past that we can apply today?
SH: All I want is for our definition of beauty to become broader. I am all for that contoured face / sharp brow Instagram look if that’s what you really want. But for me, there has to be more. Not everyone needs a skinny nose to be beautiful. Not everyone needs long straight hair extensions and false eyelashes. And certainly, not everyone needs to be young and white. There cannot be one look. We’ve come too far as women to celebrate only one physical archetype. Things are changing but not fast enough.
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GTG: What are your thoughts on an iconic product being relaunched or reformulated? Have there been any that have been particularly worthy successors in your experience?
SH: I think it was right and proper that Clinique’s Dramatically Different Moisture Lotion , £29, was reformulated to include hyaluronic acid, for instance. There’s nothing that isn’t improved by hyaluronic acid, and technology and consumer tastes had moved on. MAC’s decision to make its iconic Strobe Cream , £22.50, in alternate skin undertones is a very good one and in line with MAC’s reputation for ethnic inclusivity. I am a bit miffed with Dior currently, as I’d intended to include the wonderful Glow Maximiser primer (one of my desert island products) in Pretty Iconic, but when they discontinued it I had to eliminate it. Now I hear it’s coming back. Great for me, disappointing for the book.
GTG: How do you personally go about writing a book? Do you have a process and did it differ to when you wrote Pretty Honest?
SH: I wish I had a silver bullet answer, but the truth is that writing a book is very hard. You either do it or you don’t and if you don’t, you’ll be heartbroken and have to give back the advance (an upfront sum of money paid by your publishers upon signing a deal). I had a very different process for this book, which was much harder than the first because I basically had to think of over 200 ways to write a beginning, middle and end that differed from the last. It was often hell in all honesty, and I was riddled with self doubt, as well as being bereaved at the time. I also found many of the brands surprisingly unhelpful and unenthusiastic about supplying me with archive imagery, information and so on. It’s very interesting to see them publicly celebrating their inclusion now! Some were extraordinarily helpful though and their trust in me, when I wouldn’t tell them exactly what I was doing, meant a great deal.
GTG: Would you ever launch a range yourself? If so, what would you have in it?
SH: I have been asked on occasion and while I’ve learned to never say never, I doubt I’d do it. I really admire people like Liz Earle and Bobbi Brown but the truth is, I would absolutely hate to work in an office, dealing with business forecasts and the like. I have no entrepreneurial spirit. I also know that the products would need to be fantastic for me to put my name to them, and that would take time. I’m a writer and I don’t want to do anything that prevents me from doing my real job. This is not a springboard for me, or a stepping stone - it is all I’ve ever wanted to do and I already feel like I’ve won the lottery. I host lots of events, do heaps of radio and write about lots of different things, so I’m never bored. I think the only thing I’d consider is a guest-curated range within an existing brand. I’d love a capsule collection of red lipsticks, for example. Or some face palettes for different skin tones. Or one scent and matching candle.
GTG: You’re such an authority in the field - who else’s opinion do you respect in the beauty journalism and blogging spheres and why?
SH: In terms of opinions, I almost never read other writers’ reviews of products, purely because I don’t want to be influenced by them. I may respect the writer hugely, but I don’t want my judgement to be clouded or steered by their positive or negative analysis. It can be frustrating, because I know I’m missing out on some great content, but I can’t work any other way.
As for respect, there are loads of great, authoritative journalists, bloggers and vloggers. There are too many I respect to single any out - I’m scared I’ll forget someone! I am friends with some, a distant admirer of others, but I will say that all those I respect are a) Honest. b) Decent. To maintain a great career while remaining a good person who is supportive of others should be everyone’s ambition. Any hissy fits, feuding, diva behaviour, jealousy and public slanging matches make me want to die of embarrassment. It’s born from insecurity and is a really bad look, as well as stupid - you’ll work with everyone again and need their help in some way. Just do your job.
GTG: We recently wrote a feature on the beauty products we get most complimented on - which ones do you get most complimented on?
SH: Every time I wear Charlotte Tilbury’s Stoned Rose lipstick , £23 (which is a lot), someone will ask me what it is. It’s the perfect nude for anyone who still wants some colour. I’m complimented on my skin a fair bit, which I can safely put down to Suqqu Cream Foundation in 15, £62. I wear it for every photo shoot, every big event and have done for years. It’s still the best. My most admired perfume is YSL Rive Gauche , £42. I think people forget how wonderful it is. They catch a whiff and are instantly transported to childhood and blurt out how much they loved it. That’s the power beauty products have, and why I wrote Pretty Iconic.
Pretty Iconic: A Personal Look at the Beauty Products that Changed the World by Sali Hughes, photography by Jake Walters, published by Fourth Estate, is priced at £26 and available to buy online here .
Follow Sali on Instagram @salihughesbeauty and Ayesha @Ayesha_Muttu .