A (Very) Honest Discussion About What It's Like to Work in Beauty
Whenever I meet people who work in the beauty industry, I’m always fascinated to hear exactly what brought them to their current position. I’ve met countless editors, brand founders, and influencers who were doing something entirely different—often in an entirely different industry—just a few years prior. Every conversation is more eye-opening than the last, and it’s always an inspiring reminder that our careers are as fluid as we’d like them to be. It’s also proof that some of the strongest talents in the business have dipped their toes in a variety of different gigs—all the better to inform a well-rounded approach to their current role.
This industry is both close-knit and sprawling. There are countless sectors and sub-industries, from PR to editorial to product to talent to marketing, yet it’s all fiercely interconnected. Aside from the obvious commonality of the beauty category, I mean this in a very empirical sense: My working theory is that every single person employed in beauty can connect themselves to the next by three degrees of separation or fewer, no matter how different their jobs are.
So with this all in mind, we asked four people who each work in very different roles in the industry to discuss everything from their career trajectories and the ins and outs of their daily jobs, to how they view the beauty business as a whole. If you’ve followed along with our previous roundtable discussions, you’ll notice the format is a little different—because our panelists have such busy daily schedules and live on different coasts, we opted to give each person the same questions to address, to see how their different perspectives stacked up. Keep reading to get their insights.
May Lindstrom is the founder of an eponymous luxury skincare brand with a focus on quality, sustainably harvested plant ingredients. Her small-batch, all-natural products have gained a cult following for their sleek aesthetic, decadent feel, and unrivaled efficacy.
Rachel Goodwin is a celebrity makeup artist based in Los Angeles. You’ve likely seen her work on Jennifer Lawrence, Emma Stone, and January Jones as well as the pages of publications like Elle and Vogue.
Kelly Fobar Davis is a PR consultant. Her firm, KFD Public Relations, handles some of the buzziest niche beauty and wellness brands in the industry, including Juice Beauty, Michelle Phan, Tula, Immunocologie, and Shen Beauty.
Ursula Stephens is a celebrity hairstylist whose A-list clientele includes the likes of Rihanna, Zendaya, Kerry Washington, and Rita Ora.
BYRDIE: How did you get started in the industry, and how did that trajectory lead to your role today?
URSULA STEPHEN: I started in 1992, so that makes it 24 years in the industry for me. The decision was gradual. I knew I loved to be creative. I knew I didn’t want to be an accountant or a doctor. Did I know I wanted this to be a career? No. That was too much of a big word at the time.
KELLY FOBAR DAVIS: I didn’t know I wanted to be in beauty until I actually ended up in beauty! I decided I wanted to move from Chicago to NYC in 2008—right before the world crashed. Job opportunities were tight, and I would have taken a job doing PR for toilet bowl cleaner if it meant getting to NYC! I was fortunate to have been referred into my first New York agency, which happened to be in the beauty department. I guess you could say once I saw my first beauty closet, it was love at first sight!
My journey in PR has definitely been a roller-coaster ride. It took me a couple jobs to find the environment that made sense for me. I started in a wonderful agency working in the beauty department—but I absolutely hated being told what clients I had to pitch. All I could think was how many times can I pitch the same body lotion to an editor before they are sick of me? I was sick of talking about it myself!
So I left and went in-house to a prestige colour company, and thought, This is it—it was an amazing company, and I met some of my best friends for life. [It was] literally PR boot camp and the best education I could have ever asked for. But corporate was not for me, and I think my past bosses would agree.
It wasn’t until I left and started consulting that I really found my way. I loved my new freedom and the ability to choose which projects and people I wanted to work with. I made it my personal mission to be selective and to only take projects that I could really speak passionately about. But consulting can be lonely, so I hired my first assistant, and we literally worked from my kitchen table. Slowly but surely, projects became retained clients, and my team grew. Now we work with 10 clients in the beauty and wellness space, and we’re not looking back.
MAY LINDSTROM: I spent more than a decade in front of the camera as a model and then a chapter as a makeup artist before making the big leap and finally taking my quiet history of formulating public with the release of my collection. It was a very long time coming—I’ve been playing with formulas since childhood. It’s a true passion, and I love this work so much.
My intention from the time I was a little girl was to become a chef. Somehow, the beauty industry just happened. What I do today is not far off from what I had originally dreamed—blending the world’s most beautiful ingredients into potions I can share with those I love and care about, nurturing and reviving our own personal love stories and the connection to whole self-wellness.
RACHEL GOODWIN: I’ve worked in the business for almost 20 years. When I was 15, I attended the wedding of a family friend who was a makeup artist. It was the first time I understood that makeup artistry could be a career. Since that day, I’ve never considered another profession. I started my career journey at 18, and it’s been the only work I’ve ever known.
I started in San Francisco just out of high school, taking classes from the makeup head of the San Francisco Opera. I then began working freelance for brands like Shiseido, Make Up For Ever, and MAC. While building my portfolio, I started keying small fashion shows and worked on an independent film before moving to New York to work in fashion. I took a part-time position in the flagship MAC Pro boutique and began assisting artists like Linda Cantello, Mark Carrasquillo, James Kaliardos, and Tom Pecheux. When a photographer I was working with asked me to work on a job in Los Angeles, I jumped at the chance. While I was there, I found representation right away and made the quick decision to move west. Looking back, it was the best career decision I could have made. It was the beginning of the cultural transition from models dominating magazine covers to actresses, and the opportunities that created shaped my career.
BYRDIE: In what ways has your job—and the beauty industry as a whole—surprised you?
RG: I am constantly surprised by how many facets there are to our business. There is a niche for every kind of artist there is. As cutthroat as it can be at times, opportunities abound. As long as you are talented and diligent, you can find a loyal clientele. The clients that book you over and over are clearly “your people.” It’s important to know you’re not for everyone. Why would you want to be? I love the line “I’d rather be someone’s shot of whiskey than everyone’s cup of tea.” I love it when that special connection happens between me and a client. It’s a rare and amazing thing.
US: The level that I have taken it to surprises me. I never imagined it would be this great. I remember doing this for free—in my mother’s laundry room!
KFD: The quick shift in the media landscape continues to amaze me. The rise of the digital influencer has completely changed everything—from how brands spend their marketing budgets, execute PR strategies, and even the types of products they launch.
ML: I’ve always been drawn to the magic of plants, the mystery of formulation, and vital importance of ritual, so it’s no surprise that I adore my day-to-day so much now. But the incredible bonus I did not expect was the love of the beauty community and the truly intimate relationships I’ve been able to foster with my clients directly. This is about so much more than skincare—it’s about how we relate to ourselves, to each other, to the world. And I love being a part of that.
A photo posted by Rachel Goodwin (@rachel_goodwin) on
BYRDIE: What is the most valuable thing you’ve learned during your career so far?
KFD: Michelle Phan has been a client the last couple years—one of the brightest and most forward-thinking women I have ever met. She’s always said (and this is true for any career) you must be willing to evolve if you want to stay relevant. I have literally pivoted my entire business because of her.
RG: A hairdresser friend of mine once told me, “When you work with someone, behave as if it’s the last time you’ll ever see them and then be pleasantly surprised if you do.” This is an insanely competitive business. You need an incredible amount of resilience to handle its fickle unpredictable nature. This advice has been invaluable to me over the years.
US: That you are only as good as your last job—that is key.
ML: I’ve learned to trust myself. This entire adventure was a giant leap of faith. I started my company at 25 years old and was so scared of being called out about my age. I put every penny I’d ever saved into the first round of ingredients and glassware and refused to take on investors. Everyone told me I was crazy, and that this would fail. And I had to just believe and have faith that doing this in the way that I believed it should be was going to be enough and that people would care. They did. My mind is still boggled by this every day.
What I’m learning now is how to navigate the incredible success we’ve had and simultaneously honour my personal life. I’m currently on full bedrest with pregnancy complications and threat of preterm labour, so I’m taking lessons on a whole new way of horizontal living! Running a business and being a good mother to my 4-year-old little girl—from bed—is an incredible challenge I never anticipated having to overcome. I’m seven weeks in and have a handful more to go before our son arrives. But what I am learning is actually incredibly valuable. The company has grown so rapidly that I haven’t always been able to keep up. I’m hands-on in every element of our business, and trying to balance that with family life has not been so easy. I’m learning now the importance of delegation, of consciously building my small team and entrusting them with the care I’ve always been so attached to personally delivering. It’s a must for all of our sustainability, my own sanity, and the ability of my family to thrive. And ultimately, we have so much love and beauty to share with our clients—far beyond what I could ever deliver on my own. The added voices and hands of my incredible team will be what takes us to the next level, ever raising our commitment to providing total delight to each client.
My favorite masque treatment of all time - The Problem Solver blended with The Honey Mud. This duo is total magic - warming, nourishing, thoroughly lush and decadent and packing a powerful anti-inflammatory punch that brings instant results to every skin challenge effortlessly. #acne #eczema #angryskinbegone ????
A photo posted by May Lindstrom (@maylindstromskin) on
BYRDIE: How would you describe your community of beauty professionals? Do you network a lot?
KFD: It’s an overly used term these days, but #girlgang sums it up. I have been introduced to so many wonderful women in this industry via editor friends, other publicists, etc., and many of them have taken the leap to start their own thing too. There is something so awesome about being surrounded by a group of women who understand what it’s like to be in this industry—the highs, the lows—and I know my husband is grateful for it! I’m a PR person at heart, but the minute you start a company, you become the HR person, the accountant, etc. I feel like I have five jobs sometimes. As a new mum running a new company, the support is essential, and I’m so grateful for the ladies I’ve met during this journey. They have given me the strength to do what I love to do.
ML: I love this community! In the niche little world of green beauty, there are some truly exciting things happening and so much movement and innovation. It’s been wonderful to see how many of us are actually hands-on, making our own formulas, marching to the beat of our own drum. In years past, nearly every brand of cosmetics and skincare was made by just a few factories. It wasn’t personal or intimate or fresh, it wasn’t innovative or special, and there was no relationship to the client. This is all changing, and I couldn’t be more exciting about what that means for the evolution of the beauty industry as a whole. I’m not a big networker in any sense of the word, but I’m definitely a supporter of the incredible people behind this little movement we are in together. It is going to take all of us to make this shift, and I’m happy to just be a small part of it.
RG: I consider them my “industry family,” and I feel lucky to be able to call many of them my close friends. We have a shorthand that comes from years spent working in a crazy business. We not only bond as creative souls but can relate to each other in a unique way because we have the shared experience of living an artist’s life: an unpredictable, no-safety-net life full of high highs and low lows. The relentless devotion required to succeed in our industry is something that connects us and inspires mutual respect. I don’t know what I’d do without the support and occasional shoulders of my fellow artists.
US: I just like to be around passionate people like myself. And if we vibe, then we can build together.
BYRDIE: What do you think people would be surprised to learn about your job?
KFD: That it’s not nearly as glamorous as one would think. It’s not all parties and celebrities like Samantha experienced in Sex and the City—in fact, it’s very little of that. I spend most of my time sitting on conference call after conference call and answering the hundreds of emails I get sitting behind a desk, and they usually don’t stop until I turn in for bed! In fact, there was a point where I thought, I hate this job! I really believe that PR is what you make of it. It can make you numb if you let it abuse you. But on the flip side, it can also be the most exciting career. There is something so fulfilling seeing the work you do impact a business’s growth. From there I not only learned to love what I do; I actually became passionate about it—and in turn so much better at my job.
RG: That talent will only get you so far. You need talent first, but this job requires a high level of emotional intelligence as well. Makeup is just one piece of the puzzle, and you have to be good at dealing with lots of different personalities. Understanding your role on set and how to handle stressful situations with diplomacy is key. In my experience, knowing how to adjust quickly to the temperature of the room has been just as valuable as knowing how to create the perfect cat-eye.
ML: I touch every aspect of my business. The formulas are still entirely my own. We continue to blend in micro batches for ultimate freshness, potency, and traceability. Each bottle is lovingly filled in our kitchen and shipped out directly—no factories, labs, distribution centres, or middlemen. Our growth enables our sustainability as a business, ensuring that we are able to continue with this commitment to a truly intimate approach to skincare.
US: I think people would be surprised to learn how goes into a “look” for an artist, from creative phone calls, meetings storyboards, and all-night prepping to colouring and installing extensions. It’s not easy, but it is very rewarding.
BYRDIE: Do you have any thoughts on how the industry has evolved since you first started, especially now that social media and the online world have come into play? How has that impacted your role?
RG: This is a big topic of conversation in the industry. The rise of the social media star and the words celebrity and artist are becoming very broad terms. The business has definitely changed a lot since I started, but I honestly think it’s changed more in the last two years than it has in the last 10. Social media can be entertaining. I love it as a venue for self-expression, but it has reached mind-numbing proportions. The current emphasis on internet popularity is disillusioning to artists who‘d prefer to focus on honing their craft versus the amount of followers and likes they have. Not all of us are compelled to overshare or want to become walking, talking brands on feet. A lot of talented people are sensitive introverts who adore their craft but prefer not to invite everyone into their world at all times. Others I know have made their mark by being talented at creating savvy media personas. Both approaches are relevant and have worth. Both require a lot of work. But they are very different talents. Not all great artists are great self-promoters, and not all self-promoters are great artists. I think that’s where the conflict lies.
KFB: When I first started in PR, the idea of the “blogger” was a new term floating around. We were very much focused on traditional media, and for someone just getting into PR, that felt manageable. It was when I met Michelle Phan years ago that it became incredibly clear to me that what once was would quickly change—and that we’d need to pivot, and fast.
For me, the rise of digital media has been a blessing in a variety of ways. As a publicist, I feel so much more connected to people in the industry. Yes, I realise it sounds creepy, but I probably know if you’ve recently become pregnant, engaged, ran a triathlon, etc. And being that we now need to check Instagram and Snapchat and know vloggers, bloggers, and influencers, producers, and editors, it’s been a wonderful way to build relationships. There is simply not enough time in every day to see everyone in person.
Digital has also presented so much opportunity for my clients to story-tell. What may not work for a print (pages are limited!), may work wonderfully for dot-com—it’s about being strategic, knowing your audience, and being able to manage your clients’ expectations. It’s certainly not one-size-fits-all. And being that I work with so many successful startups, there is still a lot of testing that happens—what moves the needle for one brand doesn’t move it for another. But what I can tell you is that social influencers are actually driving some of my clients’ business in every sense.
ML: Social media has had an immense impact on the beauty world, and it’s one that I deeply celebrate. What I love is that it opened up a space for dialogue, for interaction between brand and client like there never was before. Being this visible and accessible also enforces transparency—something that has been long missing from beauty products. While social media is marketing, it’s also the antithesis of that. It’s taking away the power of traditional advertising (which I’ve always opted out of) and giving us a place to go and open up our hearts.
BYRDIE: What are some ways that you’d like to see the industry improve? How do you hope for it to evolve?
US: I’m happy about they way my industry has evolved. Social media is a great thing. However, I am ever so grateful for getting in the industry at the time I did—it wasn’t easy, and it made me the stylist I am today.
RG: I would like to see more artists giving back to the next generation in a way that creates a positive link from the past to the future. We all have so much to share that could empower young artists while navigating the shark-infested waters of freelance life. I would love to have more opportunities to do that.
ML: I yearn for even more ways to connect with my clients, a more clear view into how I can bring delight and inspire change. I hunger for a broader understanding in mainstream beauty of the importance of ingredients—what they actually are, where they come from, how they impact our skin and, on a larger level, our environment and well-being. I hope to see more innovation in natural formulation and a rise in the standards for beautiful packaging and presentation. I look forward to the day where women don’t have to see themselves as broken and flawed (and where advertising isn’t screaming this message in enforcement) in order to feel comfortable investing in themselves, and dedicating time and resources to their self-care. These moments with our skin, our largest and most intimate organ, are so precious and vital and transformative. This should be a celebration!
KFB: I work with a handful of clean beauty destinations and brands, and consequently, I’ve become pretty educated on ingredients and what to avoid in my beauty products. I have to say, I’m truly amazed how unregulated the beauty industry is, and I am a firm believer that what we put in (and on) our bodies affect us long-term. I can only hope that the entire industry takes notice—and quick.
See the rest of our (very) honest discussions on dieting, acne, birth control, and more.