Me behind the beauty counter!

Confessions of a Retail Beauty Advisor

“In the factory, we make lipstick. In the store, we sell hope” – Charles Revson, Founder of Revlon Cosmetics

1983 was a very big year for me. It’s the year I entered high school (9th grade) and I wanted something monumental to mark the occasion. My mother took me to the local department store, Burdines, and together we shopped for the trendiest clothes I had the budget to afford. After several hours, we left, our arms filled with bags of goodies. We left the store via the cosmetic department.
Maybe it was the heady combination of the makeup lights, the shiny travertine tile, or perhaps it was the beautiful painted ladies behind the counter that seemed to ooze a kind of glamour that I never knew.
After circling the various counters for what seemed like an eternity, I got up the nerve to approach the Estee Lauder counter, and meekly asked the Beauty Advisor to show me a lipstick. After an endless display of colors on the back of her hand, I settled on All Day Cinema Pink.
“That will be $9.01 please”. My mind went numb. “NINE DOLLARS FOR A LIPSTICK?!” I thought to myself. I handed over the ten dollars, a whole weeks’ allowance, and she wrapped the beautiful gold box in tissue paper and placed it in a thick embossed bag with the Estee Lauder logo clearly emblazoned across it.
I took the bag home. The weight of the metal tube in my hand, the distinct scent of the wax, and the way it made me feel, so… well…accepted! I fully expected my life would change for the absolute better, and coveted that lipstick for almost an entire year, only wearing it for special occasions.
In that moment, my life changed forever.
You never know why something will make an indelible impression on you, but that trip to the Estee Lauder counter gave me a purpose, a vision, a goal. At fourteen, I wanted to be an Estee Lauder girl! For three years, I practiced makeup on anyone who would be willing to have a makeover. While I was supposed to be practicing my saxophone, I was practicing applying eyeliner, and while I never won any awards for music, I did master the art of applying the Aziza blue eye color trio to just about every girl in the 10th grade.
In 1985, will all my courage, hopes and dreams on the line, I applied for a part time position for Estee Lauder at the very same Burdines where I purchased my first “prestige-brand” lipstick. At seventeen years old, I became the youngest Beauty Advisor ever hired on the floor.
After my required week long training from Estee Lauder, I was given the uniform; a long teal lab coat and a copy of the Estee Lauder autobiography to read. I reported for duty on the first day of a gift-with-purchase promotion. At that time, a gift-with-purchase meant huge crowds and huge sales. Many of the cosmetic lines earn the majority of their profits during this time.
I was terrified! Would I remember each script for each product? Would I remember how to up-sell and cross-sell? I must have looked like a deer in the headlights, because the counter manager said “Don’t worry honey, they will believe anything you say in that lab coat!”
And she was right! With youth on my side, I was able to effortlessly sell dozens of bottles of Night Repair and Skin Perfecting Cream. In the beginning, I was amazed that women would pay $40 for a night cream, but I soon became numb to prices. The underlying sentiment was “If you want to look young, you will pay the price”.
The first ten years of my career, I was what you would call “a believer”. I truly believed in every single product, every single claim. I also believed that I was helping people. Not in a Mother Theresa kind of way, but in a self-esteem boosting kind of way. In other words, I was drinking the Kool-Aid. I made great friends, and amassed an arsenal of prestige beauty products that would make Sephora jealous! I also learned makeup artistry tricks that helped my rosacea condition, something that I was very self conscious about.
In exchange for my loyalty, and commitment to sell, ahem, I mean serve, I was gifted thousands of dollars of gratis (FREE PRODUCTS), and attended the best parties. I managed to win every spiff contest that I entered. A “spiff” is when the company introduces a new product and they run a contest to see which Beauty Advisor sells the most. Life was good.
In ten years, I had worked for Estee Lauder, Lancome, Trish McEvoy, Makeup Forever and a handful of indy brands as a resident makeup artist. In 1997, I got my “big break”. I was invited to throw my hat in the ring for a new position that Nordstrom was testing; Beauty Director. The Beauty Director included training by every single cosmetic line at Nordstrom, and it was considered the most glamorous position in the department. More fancy parties, more exposure, more gratis.
Up until that point in my career, I believed everything I was told. Perhaps it was because I was indoctrinated by powerful marketing messages at such a young age that I didn’t have experience on my side to be discernable. Training as a Beauty Director however, began to open my eyes a bit. When you work for one company, say Lauder, you are all about Lauder, nothing else can compare, and you have nothing to compare it to. It becomes like a sorority of sorts.
As a Beauty Director, within a week, I was trained by forty different lines, all of whom are owned by about three conglomerates; Estee Lauder Corp, LVMH, and L’Oreal. Each training provided basic knowledge of the most impressive ingredients, and we were taught to repeat everything, usually by a very beautiful woman dressed in a chic suit.
Looking back, it was all very “Stepford wives-esque”. The most powerful training came from Clinique. Each sentence had to begin with “Our dermatologists recommend”, probably to reinforce their marketing message. The white lab coats are a subliminal marketing message that says “we are the experts”. What the consumer doesn’t know, is that very beautiful woman in the white lab coat worked in the junior department last week!
When you are exposed to everything in the cosmetic department, it all starts to look, smell and feel the same. The best advice I got during that time came from a seasoned Account Executive from Estee Lauder. She said “make sure to buy plenty of stock , because it’s their goal to own a lot of cosmetic real estate!” I should have listened because to date, the Estee Lauder portfolio consists of Clinique, Origins, MAC, Bobbi Brown, STILA, Aveda, La Mer, Bumble and Bumble, Darphin and Smashbox just to name a few.
Following the Beauty Director position, I took positions in the education departments of several well known brands, and even did a stint as an online beauty advisor for the very first online beauty website back in the dot com heyday called eve.com.
I witnessed first-hand a nationally hired Beauty Expert for eve.com go on The Today Show and talk up her “must-haves” for the season. The only problem was, the products she was recommending were some of the worse performing products we sold. On that day, we sold hundreds of units – but just as I predicted, a few weeks later, we also had tons of returns.
Call me idealistic, but at that time, I still believed that only the BEST products were featured on TV, in celebrity swag bags, and mentioned in Allure magazine. I hadn’t yet connected the dots that companies PAY for that exposure.
About that time, I met a holistic esthetician and again, my life completely changed. Despite using the most expensive products on my skin for over ten years, my rosacea condition just worsened as I got older. She invited me in for an organic facial and told me to bring in all the products I was using on my skin.
I thought she would be impressed with my expensive arsenal of products, but instead, she just turned them around and read the ingredients like a chef who reads a recipe. She shook her head back and forth, and then gave me her conclusions. “These ingredients are toxic, and are not only contributing to your condition, but making you age faster” she said. “WHAT? How could that be? Some of these creams and serums COST OVER $150!” I replied.
She isolated the most toxic offenders and then told me what they actually were. Take the word “methyl-paraben” for example. It means nothing to somebody who doesn’t know. In other words, like the saying goes “you don’t know what you don’t know”. And if you don’t know, how can you know what questions to ask?
At first, my loyalty instinct kicked in, and I began reciting all the scripts from each product like a good little robot. Her replies to my objections were not “scripted” – she knew from experience why these ingredients were toxic. I took a deep breath and then looked at her, really LOOKED at her. She was a woman who was in her early 50’s, who clearly had the skin of someone in their late 30’s . Her skin was vibrant, healthy – GLOWING! Maybe she DID know a thing or two about what she was talking about after all.
I took her advice and went on a cosmetic and skin care “diet” and only used the plant-based organic products she recommended. Within two months, my skin looked better than it had my entire life! No more MAC Studio Fix for me!
In ten years, I never felt beautiful without my makeup, and now I wanted to show off my skin to the world! I decided to retire from my career and returned to school to become an esthetician and teach others the way I had been taught.
Today,  I am still an educator, but this time around I am teaching women how to truly care for their skin, rather than repeating a marketing mantra.