By Jamé Jackson Michelle Lee has never been afraid to take risks. The editor-in-chief of Allure covered crime, cars and parenting before making her way back to beauty—she even taught herself web design before it became a crucial resume builder. Lee’s taken all these talents to the top of the masthead and is making waves with bold covers and political Twitter convos (and she has no plans to pump the breaks now). Ed2010 caught up with the superstar EIC on all things publishing, beauty, and the growing diversity in the industry.
How did you get your start in the industry? Did school prepare you for the “real world?”
I had a somewhat unconventional college experience. During my last two years at the University of South Florida, I only took night classes and I worked full-time during the day. By my senior year, I was working as a staff writer at a weekly newspaper in Florida called The Weekly Planet, writing features and cover stories. I was doing a lot of in-the-field reporting and was naively fearless, reporting on law enforcement in drug-infested neighborhoods (shhh…don’t tell my parents) and other local issues. My first cover story was about a guy named Petr Taborsky, the first person in the U.S. to be prosecuted for stealing intellectual property. I reported the hell out of that story. I was even there at his parents’ house the day he was released from prison and got the first interview with him.
One of my journalism professors saw the story and suggested I apply for the American Society of Magazine Editors (ASME) internship program. Out of the list of participating brands, Glamour was my top choice—and I got it. I realized how big a deal it was after I got to New York because many of my fellow interns were from Ivy League schools.
I’m glad I got my degree in magazine journalism, but I always tell students: don’t rely entirely on school. I truly believe that my work experience during college prepared me for “the real world” and gave me a huge leg up when I finally moved to New York.
Can you walk us through your career to your current role at Allure?
Looking back, I always felt like an underdog, which turned out to be a great asset, because it meant that I had to work twice as hard. My first full-time job was as an assistant at Parenting magazine, where I edited the children’s health and entertainment sections.
Through the years, I’ve written about extreme sports, celebrities, tech, business, cars, health/fitness, politics, and race, and have been published in Elle, Marie Claire, Paper, Lucky, Women’s Health, Cosmo, and more.
After spending the early part of my career in print, I threw myself fully into digital and social media. If I don’t know how to do something, it’s very much part of my personality to teach myself. I taught myself UX and UI design, CSS, video editing, photography, so many things. Now, I always tell people that one of the secrets to success is staying hungry and learning for the rest of your life. And I think learning all those skills has made me a better editor. I’ll probably never become a web designer, but I can more effectively communicate what I want with our designers and dev teams. Most recently before Allure, I held a dual role of Editor-in-Chief and Chief Marketing Officer at NYLON. In addition to overseeing all editorial, I was also in charge of branded content and launched NYLON Studio. It was a fun, incredibly creative place to work, but then Allure came calling and it was an absolute dream position.
Since coming to Allure, what have been some of the big changes you’ve implemented?
When I started, Allure had a lot of great things going for it. There’s so much power and authority behind the brand, like the Best of Beauty Awards, for example. My big goal, though, was to refresh its message on every platform, to focus on being more culturally relevant and to examine what modern beauty is today.
Allure had been slow to the game when it came to digital, video, and social media. I saw the brand as a potential powerhouse on all platforms—and in the last year, we’ve been growing by leaps and bounds on all of those fronts. Our video views are up more than 1000% year over year! I’m also a big fan of being real. I do think that fashion and beauty media should have an element of aspiration and inspiration but, as a brand, I’d say the Allure voice tells you like it is. Our February cover with a glowing, makeup-free Alicia Keys is so refreshing because you see freckles, wrinkles, and pure joy on her face.
I’m also very excited about incorporating technology into everything we do. We launched an augmented reality app in December so readers could make magazine pages come to life and could take a selfie with our cover star Gigi Hadid. And we’re growing other arms of our business like our monthly sample box, the Allure Beauty Box, and our cool web-based sampling program that’s in beta right now, called our Try It program.
Nowadays, the publishing industry is a lot of digital married to print. How do you juggle those two separately?
It’s about priorities. I can’t possibly obsess over every caption in the magazine—it’s not a wise use of my time. I very much follow the 80/20 rule now, and understand that 20 percent of my activities account for 80 percent of the results. Also, it’s absolutely vital to have a team you trust. It’s impossible to micromanage when there are so many irons in the fires so you have to have the right team around you and empower them to do great things.
I’m an editor who’s truly excited by the digital world. I love talking about UX and UI, new products, and cool multimedia projects. We’ve changed the entire way we work at Allure so that no idea is flat. We’re constantly thinking about how concepts can live on multiple platforms.
The industry still has a long way to go when it comes to diversity. How do you help promote diversity in the industry, at Allure, and in the discussion of beauty?
Listen, diversity isn’t just a trend. It worries me a little. In the same way that Brazilian models were the hot new thing and then Korean models…there are some people who may view diversity as a passing fad. As an editor, a woman of color, a mother, and a human, I feel a responsibility to showcase a wide range of what’s beautiful. It’s who we are in this country and who we are in the world. Only showing a narrow sliver of beauty and creating an unattainable ideal doesn’t help anyone. But it’s ongoing. We have to get away from tokenism. Our April cover features three gorgeous brown-skinned models—Dilone, Imaan, and Aamito—with the line ‘The Beauty of Diversity.’ Inside, we talked to 41 women of color about racism, colorism, diversity, and representation. The response to the cover has been amazing. I’ve had so many people writing to me, saying that they were in tears when they saw it because they finally felt like they were being represented in the mainstream media. But it’s not a one-time thing. And I think that’s what’s important. We can’t just do a diversity cover once a year and pat ourselves on the backs and be done with it. It has to be part of almost every decision we make.
What’s the best career advice you’ve ever received? The worst?
I got the best career advice when I was an assistant dealing with an angry phone call. I made a huge mistake and said to the person, “Can you just be quiet,” which, needless to say, did NOT go over well. I was young and didn’t know any better. One of the editors overheard and after I hung up, gave me some advice that stuck with me. She said, ‘When someone is upset, they sometimes just want to vent. They’ll eventually tire themselves out. If you interrupt too quickly, it’ll just escalate.’ It seems like such an odd piece of advice to stick to but I’ve really used that tactic a lot in life. I even apply it to how I deal with upset people on Twitter now.
I had a woman write a very angry tweet saying something like “Stick to beauty products—you’re ruining Allure by talking about politics. I get enough of that in my feed.” So I tweeted back to her very respectfully explaining why I believe politics DO relate to beauty—that beauty is all about your appearance: it’s gender, race and ethnicity, ageism, body positivity, so many things. Long story short, she was very angry at first but I stayed genuinely curious and respectful the whole time. By the end of it, she deleted all of her previous tweets and sent me a thank you! I don’t think she imagined that a real person, let alone the Editor-in-Chief, would hear her out and have a conversation with her.
The worst advice would be anyone telling you to stay somewhere just for a paycheck. I’m a strong believer that you have to enjoy what you’re doing and feel like you’re making an impact. Otherwise, a job that’s only done for money can become pretty soul-sucking.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to break into the beauty industry and be an editor-in-chief someday?
My advice would be to write a lot and write for a lot of different outlets. Also, be a multi-layered creative person, someone who knows a bit about photography, design, science, technology. All of these things will help you in the future. And my biggest advice is to learn about business and marketing. As editors, we often get on a track: journalism school and then work our way up through the ranks as ‘words’ people. But then, somewhere along the way, you’re thrown into management roles, and then dealing with budgets. If you’ve never dealt with business before, the terminology can even be confusing. So start out reading about business and technology when you’re just starting out and you’ll have an amazing foundation of knowledge by the time you’re ready to move up in the world.
What are your favorite beauty products at the moment, and your makeup must-haves?
How much time do you have? [Laughs] Let’s see….for skin care, I love Environ products. They’re a brand from South Africa that’s beloved by a lot of professionals. Their Intensive Revival Masque is next level. I also got turned onto the double-cleanse last year and I’m a devotee now. I start off with Tatcha Cleansing Oil to remove makeup. It’s genius.
Anyone who knows me knows that my go-to makeup look is winged eyeliner every day. My two current favorites are Kat Von D Tattoo Eyeliner and Tarte’s Tarteist Liner. I’m also a nail art fanatic. Deborah Lippmann gel top coat is like magic. My favorite mascara is Maybelline The Falsies Flared waterproof mascara.
Any last words of wisdom for Ed’s whippersnappers?
I remember when Ed2010 first started, and I was a young editor hoping to be an EIC by 2010. For all of the young editors who are reading this, remember: it’s a challenging but important time for you to be working in media. Do things with integrity and you can help change the world!
Jamé Jackson is a fashion and beauty writer and motivational speaker based in New York City. She can be seen spreading love and female empowerment through her Instagram, TheBlondeMisfit and website, Theblondemisfit.com, which chronicles her life adventures.