Columnist, author, broadcaster and beauty industry insider, Sali Hughes is regarded as one of the most respected names in journalism thanks to her straight-talking style, wide-ranging portfolio of work and her new BS-free beauty bible, Pretty Honest .
With a wealth of features under her belt for top titles such as Red, Grazia, Elle, Cosmopolitan, Glamour and Stylist, and having risen through the ranks from an assistant makeup artist to Features Director at The Face, The Guardian Weekend’s beauty columnist and founder of salihughesbeauty.com , we caught up with the hugely successful writer to ask her for her top career advice, her tips for success and about her journey so far.
If you’re looking to pursue a career in journalism or hoping to get your voice heard in the sea of media jobs out there, let her words of wisdom act as some serious workplace inspiration for making your career aspirations a reality.
GTG: What attracted you to beauty journalism?
SH: I never actually decided to be one - and I still don’t think I could really be classed as a proper one, as most of my writing is on other things. I started out in beauty, then for 16 years or so, I wrote mainly features, interviews and opinion columns. I got the Guardian beauty column entirely by accident when the editor of the paper, for whom I already wrote a great deal, saw me tweeting my girlfriends that the Weekend beauty page was nowhere near good enough. She asked me to prove I could do better. That was four years ago and although I know things turned out well, it’s still the case that whenever I see groups of beauty editors at events, I always feel like the outsider, however lovely everyone is. And I’m content to admire what they do so brilliantly whilst having no personal desire to do that job myself. I love beauty madly, but don’t think I could be focused so exclusively on any one area of journalism, or any one medium, in all honesty. I’d be bored.
GTG: What has been the toughest part of your career to date?
SH: There was a particularly horrible period when The Face, where I was Features Director, closed. I loved that magazine, adored my job and I was good at it. I went to the BBC to be deputy editor of another magazine, and it was the wrong decision. Then I had my first child and lost my father within a 12 week period, got post natal depression and thought “that’s it, my career is over.” I felt utterly bereft and tearful. It was an absolutely ghastly time - I shudder to even think of it now.
Gradually, I got well and bounced back. The launch of Grazia was a big help, and I’ve been a regular contributor ever since. And Red always wanted my writing. I owe both those titles a lot.
GTG: Do you have a mentor and how have they helped you?
SH: Yes, my dearest friend, Julia Marcus. I was a 15-year-old runaway, she was a 27-year-old record company manager and my then-boyfriend’s flatmate. She took me in, introduced me to useful career contacts, refused any rent money, booked me for makeup jobs on upcoming artists’ pop videos…her support and belief in me meant everything and helped me beyond belief. We became the best of friends and 25 years later, we still are. My book, Pretty Honest, is dedicated to her.
GTG: What was the worst job you ever did?
SH: When I first ran away, I worked in a Mayfair hostess bar for about four hours. My job was to sweet-talk men into buying me revolting sparkling wine for about £100 a bottle. It was beyond bleak. I lasted until an American businessman grabbed my hand and plonked it on his crotch. I was expected to just giggle and tell him to stop being cheeky. I’m afraid that’s not even within my capabilities, and so I walked out, having earned precisely nothing.
GTG: What has been the biggest learning curve of your career?
SH: I’ve been a journalist for a very long time and I’ve learned so much that I barely know where to begin. I think the most important thing to learn in any job is that hard work is absolutely essential. I have a million faults, but no one could ever say I’m not a grafter.
Career success comes when good luck is exploited through hard work. I’ve also learned to keep my nose clean - I never get involved in industry feuds and sniping because you will work with absolutely everyone again and relationships are everything in this industry, so it’s simply not worth risking future opportunities. And the key lesson I’ve learnt this year is, “Just because you can write it down in a diary, it doesn’t mean you can physically do it.”
GTG: What was the best advice you have been given along the way? And why?
SH: “No one owes you anything but good manners.” It is so completely true. A sense of entitlement is extremely unhelpful to your career, especially in this industry. You can’t be precious and expect to get ahead. Those who stand out are those who are fully committed to the work and will do whatever needs doing without moaning.
GTG: What advice would you give to someone just starting out in this industry?
SH: Writers write. So stop saying you want to be a writer and just do it. Start a blog, keep a diary, pretend you’re already on a magazine and start writing stories to imaginary deadlines. And if you specifically want to work in beauty, think about what it is you’re bringing to the industry that perhaps it doesn’t already have. When I took over The Guardian column, I had very specific things I wanted to say that I didn’t think others were saying at the time. I had a sort of personal mission. It’s far more helpful than to try to be like others, because they will already be doing it way better. Am I ever going to be able to style some breathtakingly gorgeous 8-page beauty shoot in Glamour? No way. But I can write you 2000 words arguing that lipstick is a feminist statement. It’s better for your career to be good at being you, rather than being a crap version of someone else.
GTG: What is your team management strategy and how do you organise your time?
SH: Hahahahaha. Oh dear me. I don’t. I’m a disaster. I work far too much, sleep far too little, and at least three quarters of my book was written sitting up in bed, while everyone else in the house was fast asleep. It’s the nature of being a single mum and freelancer. You just do the work or you don’t get paid - and you may not get the same chances next year.
As for team management, it’s the one thing I miss about being an editor. I loved finding new talent and nurturing it. Nowadays I work mainly alone. I have a lovely and helpful part-time assistant called Lauren but I delegate very little because I’m a complete control freak, which is an unhelpful flaw to have.
GTG: What is the one piece of advice you would give to your 17-year-old self?
SH: Stop worrying. You’re going to be fine.
GTG: What does the future hold?
SH: God, who knows? To think you do is death.
Pretty Honest: The Straight-talking Beauty Companion, £22, is out now, published by 4th Estate. Buy online here .