Jean Godfrey-June has carved out a name for herself as not just a beauty expert, but someone readers turn to for a highly individual, irreverent approach to deciphering the ever-expanding maze of products available to color, highlight, firm, and enhance. The long-time Elle columnist turned Lucky Beauty Editor dishes about her unlikely path toward a desk full of products in her new memoir Free Gift with Purchase : My Improbable Career in Magazines and Makeup, taking readers behind the scenes at both magazines, as well as through celebrity encounters, a stint at Beautyscene.com, and into her present dual life as working woman and Westchester mom of two. Extolling her love of yoga and its beauty-enhancing properties, Godfrey-June also shares makeup tips and favorite products and shortcuts. She describes a perfume by Lev Glazman as being “like Le Cirque versus McDonald’s: The inside of one person’s mind versus something a stadium full of people can agree on.” During a busy day, she took the time to tell Gothamist about her love for the word "operative," the shampoo and mascara she swears by, sorting through hundreds of beauty products each week, dry nail polish, and her ideal perfume container.
When did you decide to write the book, and what were the most fun and most challenging parts?
The book is very much in the same voice as my column at Lucky for six years and at Elle for six years before that. Ever since I started doing the column people would say, you should write a book. That voice is easy to read. It just didn’t seem possible for whatever reason to me. About a year and a half ago, my friend Hilton Als, who’s written for The New Yorker, said “You should write a book.” He gave me a list of agents. Somebody giving me that extra push made me feel like it was a possible thing to do.
The most challenging part to write was about my very crunchy weird town. I live there and I didn’t want to offend anybody with my gentle ribbing. It was a little more challenging writing about the people I live with and trying to disguise them so I wouldn’t offend a specific person. I wish I knew who said this, but some author said in an interview I read, “I didn’t want anyone to cry when they read my book.” I tried to keep that in mind in writing about both the business and personal aspects of my life. I didn’t want anybody to be hurt.
I had a lot of fun, especially with the parts about my kids and how hilarious they are with my friend Adam the photographer just because they’re so silly. The other thing I really enjoyed was the tips that I have in the book. Those are the things that stick out in my mind. I have an evangelical side, I think everyone does—you have to use this thing—and I get to do that in my column every month. My book wasn’t about products so much, but it brings out that evangelical aspect.
What part of your history made this career choice the most “improbable?” Because it seems like you either adapted quite well or were made to be in this role.
I came from a family of biologists that spent all of their leisure time hiking or camping in the backwoods, not a glamorous camping experience. I just never imagined that I could have a life that was about magazines. When I started reading magazines, I would get Vogue and Mademoiselle, and I skipped the beauty parts because at the time, the writing was very formulaic: try this list of lipsticks, try this list of seven moisturizers. If someone had said, “What department would you be working for?” I definitely wouldn’t have picked beauty.
I always tell everyone that works for me that working for the features part of a magazine is an easier job in a way because they have stories—there’s scandal and interesting things going on. But with beauty, you have to be incredibly creative. It’s not even like fashion where now it’s about volume, okay, now it’s moisturizer. With beauty it’s “Let’s talk about this blotting lotion and trying to keep that interesting and real.” Certainly my focus, wherever I’ve written, is about trying to make it not sound like some real slick copy that you don’t believe but like a real person talking.
You use the word “operative," I noticed that in the book and it’s funny, you say Lucky operatives, like you’re spies or something. Where’d you pick that up?
“Operative” is definitely is a word I use a lot. I started using it talking about how you’d meet people and they’d all be from one hair care company or lipstick company, and there’s something about people who all work at the same place . . . then it got into my general speech. It’s kindof a tic.
You’ve been in the beauty business since 1993, when you started at Elle. What big discoveries have you made in terms of your beauty routine, and have they wavered over the years?
It varies. I have a shampoo that I have used since before I was a beauty editor, and I always keep hoping there’s something new.
What is it?
Phyto Jojoba. It’s for colored, dry, damaged hair and I don’t have colored, dry, damaged hair but it makes my hair look fantastic, I love it.
There was this Shu Uemura cleansing oil that they make, and since the beginning of my career people have been telling me, “You have to try that oil,” and I’d say, “I can’t try that, I have oily skin, I can’t put oil on my face.” They have this beautiful special edition packaging and I finally broke down and tried it and now I’m an evangelist. It’s the greatest product ever, it’s changed my skin.
Makeup things definitely change. I just got finished writing for Lucky about how in the office people are always asking, “What mascara is that?” We’re forever changing the mascara du jour. Right before I went on my book tour, everyone had long, long lashes and it was Covergirl Lash Exact and it is so good. I was so exhausted on the book tour, it would make me look awake.
There’s always something new to learn as far as the tips. I’ve definitely gotten better at concealer. Three years ago Laura Mercier taught me how to use a brush with concealer. There's a big thing in the book, the haircut that changed my life. Sally Hershberger was like, “You have Giselle hair.” I don’t have to put any product in my hair and I don’t have to blow-dry it, that changed my life, it saved me.
I’ve learned things along the way. This month Avon has this dry nail polish. It comes on a thing of Saran Wrap and you rub it on your nails but it doesn’t have to dry. It’s in the shape of your nail, it takes about two seconds, and your nails have polish on them. You take it off with regular nail polish remover and you can peel it off. That’s an invention I can’t believe they came up with finally. I am always constantly surprised and I do adjust my routine, but the shampoo always stays the same.
You talk at the end of the book about being a Lucky operative by day and a mom in a pretty crunchy Westchester town by night. Does it feel like you have a secret life that the other side doesn’t know about, or are those just two sides to the same coin?
A lot of people don’t know. A few more do now that I have the book. A lot of people don’t know what I do at home or they have some vague idea but it’s not their thing or they’re horrified and they don’t want to discuss it. At work, everyone is always like, “What do you think about the crunchy people?” I’ve managed to make them think my bohemian lifestyle is normal.
You wrote that you get between 50 and 200 products to consider a day—how long does it take you to sort through them all?
The basic system is that I have a big big table that’s attached to my desk and when the stuff comes in, it gets put on that table, with no press releases, nothing else around it except the actual product. As I’m sitting there going through my day and talking on the phone, like any person walking through a Target or Bath and Body Works or Saks, you’re automatically attracted to something, the color or the package or maybe it smells great. I discover a lot of things that way.
At least once a week, in an ideal world, twice a week, we go through everything and do a general edit. We talk about what each thing is supposed to do and if it fits in the magazine and things that get past that general edit go to a table in the beauty department and everyone in the department has a meeting based on their merits. It gets edited two to three times before it gets photographed.
When you’re choosing which products to feature, how much of your decision is based on what you personally like and what you think will appeal to the Lucky reader? Are you two one and the same?
I have oily skin, so I can’t personally try some dry skin product. There are people in the office and in my life that I try those things out on. I have a friend with the driest skin ever, so she’s the ultimate word on dry skin products.
The thing with Lucky particularly is that the whole magazine likes to have that word of mouth feel so we do want somebody at the magazine or that we know to definitely love the product that we write about it. In my column, those are things I’ve specifically fallen in love with and they’re personal—beauty is personal. Scent is incredibly personal. It doesn’t mean that one’s right and one’s wrong.
You tell the story of rushing into a party straight from yoga class with your face sweaty and being greeted with effusive compliments. When should you go all out with makeup and when should you just wing it?
You look great for an hour after you work out—after that you want to put a little more something on, I think. People are gonna buy beauty products that will make them look a little bit better. No matter what, it’s sortof a fun thing to do. It's not necessarily something you want to do 24/7, just like if you have a dress you look fantastic in, do you wear it every day? If I want to look really good, I go to yoga class and put on a little liner, mascara and a little lip gloss. If I took the time to do blush, I could probably look like that all the time.
I often wind up making impulse purchases, either because I’m in a hurry, or, more often, because I just want an item to work. What’s the best way to figure out your own beauty style without wasting money on products you’ll never use?
There's definitely that phenemonon—it's human nature. I went shopping for clothes on Friday, and now I have one thing I like and three things I hate. With beauty, if you’re at a store where someone is helping you and there’s a makeup artist or beauty advisor, if that person comments about what they like about what you, they’ll be a more helpful guide than someone who’s saying "We’ll use this to get rid of your awful eye circles" or "Do you feel like you need a pick me up cause you look kind of sallow." Or you may get a person insisting you buy “the look” like the waiter pushing that night’s specials.
The other thing is, it’s getting easier to try things in drugstores. Companies are making an effort so you can sample some of the products in ways that you couldn’t necessarily even a few years ago. If you love this lip gloss and have one by the same company, you can try ones that are a little twist from the things you normally buy rather than a total departure. And definitely read magazines and talk to your friends and see what looks good on them or what they really love, which to me always helps.
What effect has the internet had on beauty?
The internet has influenced the whole way wet set up the magazine. We wanted it to be as immediate feeling as the internet. There would always be a place you could go, whether a website or a phone number. We have tried to make it interactive, with the stickers, the way the internet is interactive.
As far as our online thing, the technology is better than when I was at Beautyscene. What we’ve done with Lucky is we try to put stuff on the website to make it really specific to every local market. If there’s a sale in Chicago, you can go to luckymag.com to find it. We use the website for the information we don’t have room for in the magazine but that our readers want to know.
As far as how it’s changed beauty, what I thought was possible when I went to Beautyscene and what excited me has really happened. You can go on Amazon, you can go on just about any big cosmetic company’s website, and buy all your favorite stuff. If I were not getting it at the office, I would probably do a lot of my shopping for beauty products on the internet—plus it’s a lot of fun to get packages.
Has the success of Lucky been a surprise to you?
I do remember the first year when we went down for the annual beauty magazine convention, and no one wanted to meet with us. "This is a catalog, we don’t need another magazine, please go away," they said. People were really negative. We, of course, thought we had a good idea. I realized it was different when the people in my crunchy town would find out I work for Lucky and would say, “I read that magazine” and I’d think, “Wow, they don’t look like a magazine buying person at all.” There was just something about it—it’s less about the model and more about the stuff. It’s more about you and less about some scene.
We have vision in how we edit. At the end of the day, you don’t see models in short-shorts going to work in our magazine. Every magazine, every couple of years, will have a short-shorts-at-the-office story. I think people respond to the fact that we don’t. Because it’s so relatable, people are always surprised to learn that the average age of our reader is 31. People think it’s much younger. But as far as what makes someone get into the magazine editorially, there’s not an age per se . . . we’re always looking for a cool girl.
What does your daughter think about your job?
She knows what I do, she’s come in the office before. She really likes it, but she’s not girlie in any way, she doesn’t have that urge to try on lipsticks, but she likes the idea of being in charge. She loves to categorize things, so she loves to come in the office and she must’ve overheard us talking one day. She’d been there for an hour and a half, and went, "We’re gonna shoot these Chanel blouses . . ."
I think every kid loves the officialness of work. She’ll read the magazine sometimes. She read the Lucky book and she knows Kim and Andrea, the Editor and Creative Director, so I thought she would like it. She looked through the entire thing and was like "Mom!”
“What’s wrong?” I asked her. “I don’t like it,” she said. “There’s no beauty products, where are the beauty products?” She’s now 9 and she’s not yet going for perfume, but her friends are starting to.
You have a lot of suggestions for various businesses in the book. Have you ever thought about starting your own company?
I’m not a wheeler dealer, it’s just not my thing. I like to write, my creativity is in that, it’s certainly not in thinking up ideas like somebody like Janine Lobell or Bobbi Brown or Lev Glazman—they’re much better at coming up with that stuff than I am. I have some friends who run a bath company called Brick House. My friends are always making up all these cool scents and textures, and I’m just like, "Wow, you go." I like to check out the finished product or at least the halfway finished product.
Are you skeptical or excited about the sheer number of products out there?
It depends on the thing. There are lots of “me too” products, where you get it and you’ve seen exactly the same packaging and products. Hope always springs eternal, though, that this one’s gonna change everything. That’s the nature of beauty products. I always feel like there is something new. And when there’s something like that crazy Avon nail stuff, the scientists have done it again. In general, I’m not jaded, it’s kindof amazing.
The thing that I learned from the Beautyscene experience is that I’m no good at a retailing; I can sell something if I write about it. At the end of the day, I’m delighted and surprised by what I just talked about, by what these companies come up with, but I don’t have that talent. I’ve never had an idea for a beauty product that I thought was better than what’s out there.
I do ask companies to make perfume that comes in a small, light bottle that actually fits in your purse. I always feel that the purse sprays are these heavy architectural things that are trying to make some statement about the company. If you like the smell, you just want to be able to smell like that—make it smaller, make it convenient. That’s my only idea that I’m forever spouting.
Photo by Adam Smith.
Free Gift with Purchase : My Improbable Career in Magazines and Makeup is available now.