Berry Liberman on Sali Hughes
Sali Hughes is one of the most powerful women in the beauty business. Her famous column in the Guardian has become a grooming bible for millions of women around the world. From Chanel to Boots, Sali has the vast universe of beauty products landing on her doorstep to be trialled and tested in her modest Brighton bathroom.
If she recommends a product it can sell out in days. You would expect then that Sali is a coiffed, plucked and plumed exemplar of beauty perfection. On the contrary. When we meet at Melbourne’s centre for secular philosophy The School of Life, she arrives looking like the pretty, smart, normal working mother that she is. That’s why we love her. She’s one of us, only with an insider’s knowledge of the minefield that is make-up.
It wasn’t until a colleague handed me Sali’s book Pretty Honest and I read the deeply moving chapter about make-up and illness that I understood something about my own prejudices. “Anyone who dismisses beauty and make-up as an irrelevant pursuit by the vain not only knows nothing about women but has zero understanding of the complex effects of illness.” She writes openly about the role beauty can play in lifting the spirit when our minds or bodies are doing it tough. Beauty, she reminds us, has an important place in life and does not preclude a capacity for thoughtfulness, compassion or empathy.
Despite her daily deep dive into glamorous tubs of body creams, Sali’s journey has been one of resilience and hard work. Leaving home at 15, she found herself in London, pretending to be older, working as a make-up assistant in the heady world of fashion. Hungry to learn and needing to support herself, she gradually worked her way through the ranks as both journalist and make-up artist in the days when gumption and a solid work ethic were all you needed to do well. It was a random tweet that would change everything. In it, Sali admonished the poor state of the Guardian’s beauty column (a paper she already worked for) and promptly received a call from the editor asking her if she thought she could do better. It turned out she could.
Some argue you’re not a feminist if you wear make-up. For Sali, make-up is a woman’s rightful playground. It helps us return to ourselves in times of loss, grief and fear. Yes it can be perverted by the greed of commercial interests, but at its core, make-up has always spoken of female power and pride—a way to claim personal identity, to be and express our innermost fantasies in a safe and fun outward display. Importantly and most movingly for me, Sali points out that there is a great injustice in women being judged for caring about what shade of lipstick they wear—as if that would exclude them from having a compassionate engagement with the world. She talks to real women with real, messy lives, navigating the joys and pitfalls of motherhood, singledom, work, love, sex and ageing. In the days before bra burning, a woman was expected to look a certain way. Today it’s a choose-your-own adventure and thank goodness for that.