Former Allure EIC Michelle Lee Advises Brands To Take A Beat Before Weighing In On Social Issues

About two years ago, Michelle Lee stepped down from Allure, where she was editor in chief for nearly six years, but she didn’t step away from beauty. Today, as founder and principal at marketing and public relations agency Monologue, which she started last year following a stint at Netflix, she’s as enmeshed in the beauty industry as ever.

She’s working for beauty clients such as Ulta and Landing International, advising Makeup by Mario investor Provenance on propitious beauty entrepreneurs, promoting brands like Dickinson’s Witch Hazel, Luxy Hair and RéVive on her Instagram account, and writing Substack newsletter entries about her favorite beauty products, including lipsticks (Violette_Fr Petal Bouche Matte and Lisa Eldridge Velveteen Liquid Lip Colour are among her top picks) and sunscreens (she swears by La Roche-Posay Anthelios Mineral Tinted Sunscreen For Face SPF 50 and Musely The Day Cream SPF 50).

Perennially attempting to advance conversations in the beauty industry (cases in point, her push against the term “anti-aging” at Allure and use of hand models of color), Lee’s seen how beauty has become entangled with people’s identities. “When I was growing up, you found your community in school through music. People gravitated to each other because of music. It’s a similar thing with beauty,” she says. “Rare Beauty is such a success right now, and they’ve done such a good job of incorporating the mental health aspect. You understand what the brand’s values are and that really helps to build that community layer.”

Beauty Independent touched base with Lee about her career trajectory, Monologue’s unique strengths, diversity and ageism in the beauty industry, the perception that beauty media coverage is bought, beauty product categories with growth potential, her love for a $270 foundation, and why she thinks not every brand has to weigh in on every social issue.

The Day Cream

Petal Bouche Matte

What was it like for you to transition out of publishing?

My college major was magazine journalism. I very much was a magazine person. The wonderful thing about editorial is its unbridled creativity. As editor in chief of Nylon and editor in chief of Allure, if you think about what that job is, you basically dream something up because you want to put something out into the world and then you do it. You can really take chances, put out a big message that reaches a huge number of people. Now, people are so distracted by the business side that we forget how awesome the creative side of it is.

When I started out more than 20 years ago, it was only print publishing. My first job in New York City, I was an intern at Glamour. Ruth Whitney was the editor in chief at the time, and the magazine was enormous. It was super powerful. It was like the old TV networks. You had a handful of TV networks, and they were super powerful. It has changed so much.

As an editor today, you’re not just a creative person, you truly do have to be a businessperson. When I was at Allure, right from the get-go, we were like, how do we diversify our revenue streams beyond just print? We need to not only just be digital, we need to be video, we need to be social media, but we also need to be licensing, events, etc.

I’ve been always pretty good at looking into the future. I always made sure that I planted seeds early on into things that I was interested in. There were two places I was interested in: one, the business side, then two, where’s the money coming from? If you look at that, it’s venture capital, private equity. On the business side, it’s more marketing, sales. At some point in my career, I was like, I think I could be a CEO, and I wanted to make sure I diversified my skills.

Within my companies, I put my hand up for certain projects and said, “Hey, I’d love to learn more about this.” I started to do things on the side. Probably 10 years ago I started advising a company called Silicon Foundry. Planting seeds in marketing, at Nylon, I was the editor in chief and chief marketing officer. Leaving the traditional publishing world, there are parts of it that I miss, but it was also very intentional for me to move on.

Michelle Lee, founder of Monologue and former editor in chief of Allure Gabriella Valencia

We hear all the time from brands that they believe media coverage is just pay for play. What’s your take on their perception?

For those of us who’ve been in publishing for a while, we always talk about separation of church and state. You have to be a smart businessperson as long as you are being transparent. We’re not trying to trick anybody. If you have a creative mind and you really care about your brand, you should care about where the money’s coming in, and you should care that ads and branded content are in line with your brand. I’ve always been a big proponent that editors should have a great understanding of both, and now I feel they do.

I definitely have heard the whole pay-for-play thing, and I do think that unfortunately there are some publishers who I think are operating that way. Look at how many publishers right now are launching shopping verticals, and there’s just so many e-commerce roundups. It’s impossible that there are that many best products. I don’t blame publishers for going that route because it’s another revenue stream. I think that some do it really well and some don’t.

There have been some publishing companies where their initial launch into e-commerce, they had teams that were completely separate working on e-commerce, and they were not attached to the editorial teams. That type of thing cannot happen because then you have the editors curating products that are best of the category, and you have e-commerce editors not talking to them also choosing these roundups. For the reader, it’s really confusing. They don’t see the difference in any of that. As I said, there has to be transparency, and there has to be things that feel completely separate that absolutely cannot be bought.

For example, Allure Best of Beauty Awards, it still kind of kills me sometimes that I’ll see comments where people are like, “Oh, I think that these are paid for.” I can tell you 100% you cannot buy the Best of Beauty Awards.

But you have to pay to be involved.

They have an entry fee, but truly the awards are completely editorially chosen. It’s not someone being like, “Hey, I’m going to pay you $10,000 so I can win this award.” It is definitely not that. I think there have to be things where editors put their foot down and say there can be no advertiser involvement.

What was the impetus for starting Monologue, and what distinguishes it from other firms?

I moved out to LA to work at Netflix. My title was VP of global editorial and publishing. I was overseeing social media, print, digital and podcasts there. I left at the end of this past year, took a bit of a break because I was burnt out and just needed to take a break for a while, started consulting, but then also started to map out what I wanted to do in terms of building this agency.

I love, love, love beauty. At the time I was at Nylon and Allure, it was this heyday of where there were a lot of founders coming up. I got super close to the Glow Recipe girls. I was watching Nancy [Twine] from Briogeo. I was always so inspired by founders. To see now where some of these companies are, it’s amazing.

I have had a very different viewpoint than other beauty marketers and PR folks. I’ve been pitched tens of thousands of times. When I was talking about the Ruth Whitney Glamour days, pitching and promoting a brand and product at that point was so different. You didn’t have influencers. You didn’t have all the social platforms. In this modern day of how to build a brand, it’s so much more difficult. You not only have to concentrate on traditional PR, but you need to also have an influencer strategy, a social strategy, etc.

Where I see that some of the model is broken is that it’s very siloed. You have PR firms, marketing teams where they don’t necessarily all align to the same goals. I just entered into a joint partnership with another agency called Lemon HQ. It’s female-led by two co-founders, Jennifer Powell and Sarah Reilly Engel. Their agency specializes in influencer marketing, events, licensing and paid media.

Together with Monologue, we represent this full 360-degree offering. We could help a brand who has not started up yet all the way to go-to-market. We could take a brand that’s $100 million-plus and help them grow. With some agencies, what happens is they sell you on this big thing initially and then you get passed off to junior folks later, and that’s when you get the spray-and-pray email blasts. We never want to be like that. It’s all about high-level strategy.

What KPIs are you particularly interested in seeing improve for brands?

I was chatting with someone at a brand, and I said, “I actually don’t think that traditional PR is right for you.” People have been told, you have to have traditional PR, but depending on the brand and what their goals are, I don’t know that every brand needs to be in every publication. For this particular brand, it did not make sense. I was asking the founder, what results have you had being in certain publications? And she was like, “We were really excited to get some of these big hits, but then nothing really came of it.”

I think that there are certain agencies, they want to have the monthly retainer, they say, “We got you a hit in Good Housekeeping, Vogue, Marie Claire this month.” What does it lead to? What is the actual goal? There are certain brands that they’re just looking for awareness at this point. There are other brands that don’t care about awareness and all they want are sales and acquisition. The KPIs have to be different at that point. I am honest and transparent sometimes to a fault. I will tell you if I don’t actually think that that’s the right road and direct you to something to suit the goals.

The KPIs are slightly different depending on what goals are. If a company were really looking for sales more than anything, I would have them focus on a big brand building piece that’s a feature to set the stage, then focus on those shopping stories and e-commerce things. That’s a different play than having narrative storytelling throughout the entire year where you see people spend a lot on events, influencers. It’s super complex these days, and I don’t think that you can follow what anyone else is doing because it’s really different for every brand.

Monologue worked with Ulta Beauty on a campaign timed with Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month that starred Asian Americans and used an Asian American crew.

Estée Laundry, the watchdog Instagram account, recently spotlighted mean-girl culture and lack of diversity in PR. What’s your impression of what’s going on?

When I first started, it was not diverse whatsoever across the board. It’s not just PR, it was editorial, it was photoshoot crews, it was executives at brands. Flash forward to now, it’s better. We’re still not there though. My fear was, at the point at which a lot of brands and companies were getting called out, people were were hiring more junior folks to hit their diversity quotas. There’s still unfortunately a lack of decision-making-level people at most companies, including PR. Obviously, it takes time.

It was across the board getting better, but slowly on the toxicity side. I did not necessarily experience it being on the other side. PR, they want something from you, obviously. When I was a more junior staffer, certainly I would hear it from publicists that they were pissed off about something, but typically it was related to the way something was written.

Do I believe that there’s toxicity in beauty PR? 100%. Beauty, fashion, I feel like those industries unfairly get a lot of flak of people thinking that it’s super toxic everywhere. It’s brand by brand. People have wondered at the Condé Nast publications what it’s like. It’s so dependent on the publication. Any company, any brand, shit flows down, but also the great stuff flows down, too. If you have great leadership and you are running a brand or a company that is not toxic, chances are you’re going to hire people who are not divas, who don’t cause drama.

The people on top have to be able to create an environment where people feel comfortable enough to speak up. Otherwise, I have been at companies where I’ve seen it that it festers, and it just gets worse and worse. Then, you have people leaving.

It reminds me a lot of celebrity publicists. There have been celebrity publicists who are great, but some of them who are quite toxic. I wonder if the celebrities knew how they’re being represented because it doesn’t reflect well on them. Similarly, I feel like if brands knew they had toxic PR, I’m sure they would be mortified.

You recently participated in the API Beauty Summit. What were takeaways from it?

How can we all band together as a community to make sure that we’re getting our stories told? The project that I did with Ulta Beauty was a great example. We partnered together for Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. In one of our conversations, they were like, “Do you have ideas for this?” I was like, “I’ve been wanting to do this concept for a while about, what does it mean to look Asian?”

My husband is Filipino, and people are always like, “You don’t look Asian, or you don’t look Filipino.” What does that mean? So, it’s been on my mind for a long time. We are composed of so many different ethnicities. I loved to be able to work on a campaign that, on the one level, you could just view it as a celebration of Asian beauty, but, on the other hand, you could also be challenged to think in a different way.

I worked with an Asian American crew, and we cast about 20 Asian Americans. We were so intentional. We had a native Hawaiian. We had a Bangladeshi grandmother. I wanted to make sure we had age diversity as well. We had Ariana Grande’s hairstylist [Josh Liu], who’s Mexican and Chinese, and we had an activist who is Afro-Latina and Japanese. We wanted to represent a whole spectrum of hair textures, skin colors, ages, body types, gender identities, sexual identities to make sure that we open people’s eyes to what Asian really looks like that.

For certain Asian Americans, we might not even recognize our own biases sometimes. At the Meta event, we talked about things like that. Unless you are part of a community, you don’t necessarily understand the nuance. My fear had always been in this push for diversity we’ve seen a lot of brands now still think of it as a little checklist of representation that is like, we’ve got our one Asian girl, we’ve got our one Latina, we’ve got our one Black girl in the campaign, we’re good. There’s such a spectrum. Taking the API community, to have one East Asian person is not enough.

Unless you have people who are in decision-making power, helping to push some of those things, that’s not going to happen. People just don’t know. They don’t understand. The reason why I’m always such a big proponent of people hiring diverse talent at top is that we do tend to pull others up as well. If you have felt like you’re part of a marginalized community, you’re more likely to say, OK, friends from other communities, I need to also help bring you into this, too.

When you talk to brands about how they should weigh in on current events or get political, what’s your advice to them?

It’s such a great question right now. I think a lot of brands are wondering that. We’ve moved into this weird phase in which silence is perceived as a negative thing. Actually, I don’t think that everyone needs to be a spokesperson for every single issue out there. It just doesn’t make sense. We as a society have to move away from that. If it’s not part of who you are, and it doesn’t make sense for you to speak out about something, I really don’t think that you should, and you shouldn’t need to feel like you have to.

That being said, there are certain brands built on social issues or values and 100% they should say things, but I’m not a big proponent of you have to speak out about every single thing. In fact, we as consumers and just as human beings, sometimes we want something that is going to be a distraction from other things. Makeup for me is a distraction. Skincare is a distraction. If suddenly a brand that is not involved in social issues starts speaking about every single social issue, it’s a little bit overwhelming, and it starts a slippery slope of where they then feel have to talk about every single thing.

Looking at a brand that’s not a beauty brand, Ben & Jerry’s, that has been so much a part of their values and who they are, it totally makes sense for them to then speak out about big issues. Huda [Kattan] spoke out recently about everything happening in the Middle East. That totally makes sense for her as a person, as a brand. She’s been so vocal.

It’s really hard because people sometimes feel very reactive to social media comments. Brands start to panic that we’re getting called out, that we’re not saying something about everything. Everyone just needs to take a little bit of a beat and really think about, does it make sense or does it actually end up doing more harm because whatever they’re going to put out feels really performative?

What’s happened is that, because of social media and brand voice, there’s a lot of brands now who talk a human being. When you’re a celebrity, people expect you to say something because you are a human being. Brand voice has had pros and cons. People expect, oh, you’ve got a big platform, you’re a person, you should be saying something. The biggest thing for me is don’t be tone-deaf. If there’s some horrible tragedy that has just happened, don’t send some flippant silly email. You have to read the room and make sure that you’re not being insensitive.

You famously stopped using the term “anti-aging” at Allure. Has the beauty industry gotten better when it comes to ageism and demonizing getting older?

It was 2017 that we banned the term. Phillip Picardi, our digital director at the time, and Jenny Bailly, our executive beauty director, both brought this up of, why are we still saying it? At the time, we had a vertical on our website called “Anti-Aging.” When we banned it, I wrote in my editor’s letter that we’re going to not use this going forward. It sparked a lot of questions. People were like, does this mean you’re not going to cover things like Botox or products called anti-aging?

It was not that. It was more that we wanted to spark the conversation of, how do we talk about aging? How do we feel about aging, especially as women because frankly we are treated differently when it comes to aging? It was not to shame anybody. If you want to use certain products, if you want to do Botox, if you want to do fillers, you do you, but don’t feel like society is pressuring you and saying you’re ugly and unwanted if you don’t do those things.

Out of everything that I did at Allure that truly has had the most staying power. It went global. There was a referendum introduced in the U.K. to ban the term “anti-aging.” I’m super proud that something like that could make people think differently. Now, I do think things have improved. When I look at campaigns, I do see more women with gray hair, more women over not only 40, but over 50, over 60.

The people who have more disposable income and who are using products more are typically people who are over 35 or 40, so even on a purely business perspective, it seems not wise to ignore that demographic. With some representation, it’s better, but I also think that beauty in general is so obsessed with gen Z and even now starting with alpha. Even though we are seeing more women who are over 50, over 60 in certain things, I don’t know that it has fully gone there to embracing and celebrating aging. It’s the filters, too. It’s so out of control that I feel like everyone’s perception of what they look like is so warped right now.

Michelle Lee and Sara Tan, beauty director of Refinery29, last month at the API Beauty Summit, which was put on by Meta, Good Light, House Of M Beauty and Foundation Nick Phan

You wrote on your Substack about paying $270 for a Clé de Peau foundation. Should people pay $270 for foundation?

I wrote about this because, when people ask me what foundation I love, I would almost be embarrassed to say it. I had a hard time recommending it because, as a beauty editor, you get everything for free. So, it’s hard for me to say to people, you should buy this $270 foundation.

Typically, when I recommend something, I recommend three price points. I’ll do something that’s drugstore, medium priced, and if somebody wants something luxury, absolutely, I’m going to recommend that. Even though that is a splurge for most people, we also have to recognize that there are some people who that’s actually not a splurge for them.

Should I ever recommend that someone get a Mercedes? No, but there’s a lot of people who want a Mercedes. If I were doing car reviews, I would give an honest opinion of the Mercedes. Similarly, does anyone need $270 foundation? Absolutely not, but I personally really love it. We don’t need any products, but I can give you my honest assessment of it that it’s lovely, and if you have an opportunity and it’s in your means, I am all for it.

What beauty product categories do you feel have a lot of growth potential?

There’s this fragrance resurgence. Gen Z and younger generations are looking at fragrance in different ways. A lot of retailers have pivoted away from nail, but that actually to me represents that there’s a big nail opportunity. People still have a really hard time doing their nails at home, and there are nail deserts where you’re not near a nail salon, and it’s also expensive to get your nails done all the time. We’ve also seen now with gel nails people calling into question, is it healthy with the UV?

I still think that there’s a big opportunity in hair because there are actually communities that are still very much being underserved. I still find the sustainability issue really interesting. Most of the big brands are working on sustainability, but I still feel there’s room for somebody to come in and be like, I’m completely rethinking how this is done.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. 

Feature photo credit: Paintbox