In conversation with

Lisa Niven-Phillips

Beauty writer

lisa niven phillips beauty writer

Introduction

Introduction

The beauty industry is not without its demons. From problematic depictions of the ideal form to a general lack of representation, it is – bar perhaps Glossier and Fenty – often thought of as out of date. How do we report on an industry under duress? You question and challenge it, as beauty writer Lisa Niven-Phillips does. “The beauty industry has a reputation for being shallow and for creating unrealistic standards, so you have to be constantly vigilant in bucking the trend and checking your language.”

A beauty columnist at Vogue for seven years, Lisa has recently spread her freelance wings. In her tenure at the monthly magazine she interviewed women including Saoirse Ronan and Zoe Kravitz and tried to reveal a side of beauty that went deeper than skin: “Beauty is more than just make-up and hair – it’s about confidence, and attitude, and self-care”. But it’s a more recent Guardian thinkpiece on beauty’s approach to plastic waste that she’s most proud of. “Beauty is often perceived as trivial, so it’s nice to write about something that’s objectively important.”

Question and Answer

Where did your first understanding of “beauty” come from?

I hate to say it, because their depiction of beauty has often been quite problematic, but probably Disney. I was such a Disney fanatic. I remember desperately wanting to have hair so long that I could sit on it, like Ariel, but my mum wouldn’t let me. And I’d love to say something really poetic but actually, Gladiators. When I was in primary school, Gladiators was SUCH a big deal, which is sort of amazing in a way because the women were so strong and they were definitely seen as role models amongst me and my friends. I remember thinking how cool it would be to have that much physical strength and really aspired to it (but, conversely, hated sport). And of course I thought my mum was the most beautiful woman in the world.

lisa reading lauren groff

What are some of your favourite stories you’ve created about beauty and why?

An article I wrote for The Guardian this spring on the beauty industry’s approach to plastic waste is probably the piece I’m proudest of. By nature I’m obsessively thorough, so the research took absolutely forever, but I learned so much in doing it and felt really confident in the final piece. Beauty is often perceived as trivial, so it’s nice to write about something that’s objectively important. So many brands are doing great work on reducing their plastic consumption, so it was an honour to be able to highlight them too. All of my pieces for The Guardian have allowed me to get really into the research actually, which I love.

It’s always really, really fun to interview celebrities about beauty, and I met some great people over the seven years I was at Vogue. Some of my favourites from the past couple of years have been Saoirse Ronan, Margot Robbie, Zoe Kravitz and Jessica Chastain. Beauty is more than just make-up and hair – it’s about confidence, and attitude, and self-care, and in interviewing them you want to coax out the reasons that they do the things that they do, and how it makes them feel. It’s very personal. So it has been interesting to hear those voices on that, and those four women all said really thought-provoking things.

I also really enjoy doing deep dives into emerging industry trends such as the piece I did on the rise of the “skintellectual” several years ago for Vogue, or more recently the obsession with personalisable fragrance. I love the feeling when you alight on an idea, and then when you go to gather quotes and facts on the topic they all support your initial instinct. It’s very satisfying.

How does the beauty department support the wider goal or culture at Vogue?

Vogue was an incredible place to work, and not least because there was such importance placed on being inclusive in everything we did. It wasn’t just a box-ticking exercise, it was part of every conversation. When you talk about diversity it’s not just about race, it’s about age, physical ability, socio-economic background, size and every other aspect through which we can be different to one another as people. It was particularly important to address that in talking about beauty, as to get it wrong would be to make people feel as if they weren’t being seen. The team does an amazing job.

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"When you talk about diversity it’s not just about race"

Which other titles do you love for their beauty stories?

I think Refinery29 does a great job at speaking about and to an enormously diverse range of people regarding attitudes on beauty. They’re so inclusive, and give many people who aren’t often given a platform an opportunity to share their experiences. I also love Into The Gloss for being really geeky about beauty and creating such a great community vibe. I think Fashionista also does a great job of covering beauty in a very self-aware way – they use a very light tone, which I think really works. And I think Funmi Fetto’s column for The Observer is brilliant. She’s such a great voice in the beauty industry, as well as a truly wonderful person, and I will read anything she writes. And even though I’m biased, having worked there for so long, I really think Vogue does a great job of covering a really broad scope when it comes to beauty. The team work really, really hard, and it comes across in the content.

“Be mindful of the message you’re sharing through your work”

What tips would you like to pass on to other aspiring beauty writers?

In terms of staying up to date with everything that’s happening in beauty I really think the most important thing is to read as much as you can and follow loads of the key industry players on social media. If you’re reading Funmi Fetto in The Observer, Sali Hughes in The Guardian, Lesley Thomas in The Times and Jessica Diner’s Director’s Cut column in Vogue, you’re going to be up to date on all of the newest products and brands. And then it’s about finding your own voice and trying to say something that hasn’t been said a thousand times. Being honest is the real key, I think. I’d also say, be mindful of the message you’re sharing through your work. The beauty industry has a reputation for being shallow and for creating unrealistic standards, so you have to be constantly vigilant in bucking the trend and checking your language.

What have been some key cultural shifts that have changed the narrative around beauty?

It sounds obvious, but social media has had an enormous effect in making brands and publications more accountable. Remember that advert on the tube telling women they needed to get “beach body ready”? People just weren’t willing to stand for it, and they defaced the posters, Tweeted about them, complained to the Advertising Standards Agency online. It was amazing, and it completely changed the conversation. So many summer beauty features prior to that were built around the notion of “getting ready” for bikini season, but in 2019 I don’t think you could get away with that as a title, and too right. You’re already ready! There is also now much more awareness of the importance of diversity in how beauty is presented in the media. On the catwalk there has been a huge move towards models wearing their hair with its natural texture, rather than being forced to conform to a single ideal. There’s a still a long way to go, obviously, but the change towards a more inclusive beauty industry is very palpable.

Which beauty brands are getting it right in terms of messaging?

It’s impossible not to mention Fenty Beauty when it comes to promoting diversity in beauty – their foundation and concealer shade ranges are brilliant and they use a really diverse range of models in their campaigns too. Lush and Ren are just two brands making huge steps in cutting down on plastic waste in their packaging; Lush actually has entire plastic-free stores, which is amazing. Glossier also deserves a mention for its inclusive approach and feel-good messaging – they learn from their mistakes and make changes to address them too, which I think is really important. I think brands that communicate directly with their consumers are really wise in doing so, and Glossier was one of the frontrunners of that movement.

The Storylist

Books

  1. Heartburn by Nora Ephron
  2. The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
  3. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  4. A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
  5. Fates & Furies by Lauren Groff
  6. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
  7. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
  8. Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume
  9. Normal People by Sally Rooney

Magazines

  1. The New Yorker
  2. British Vogue
  3. The Sunday Times Magazine
  4. Guardian Weekend

Websites

  1. The Cut
  2. Manrepeller
  3. Dezeen
  4. Bon Appetit
  5. New York Times

Podcasts

  1. Desert Island Discs by Radio 4
  2. Modern Love by The New York Times
  3. Today in Focus by The Guardian
  4. This American Life by Chicago Public Radio
  5. The Writer's Voice by The New Yorker
  6. The High Low by Dolly Alderton and Pandora Sykes
  7. The Guilty Feminist by Deborah Frances-White
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