Alessandra Steinherr and the contradictions in beauty

Although I’m ten minutes late calling due to my failure of a Nokia brick, Alessandra is as charming as her original e-mails suggest when she picks up the phone.

“To be totally honest I don’t care what people think — I really couldn’t care less. If people want to be judgemental about me and the beauty industry that’s their problem. I love what I do and I’m proud of what I do.” Steinherr certainly has a lot to be proud about. An award winning journalist and stylist, Steinherr is one of the heavyweights in the world of beauty. Having been Beauty Director at Cosmopolitan, she is now the Beauty Director of Glamour. All this from a woman who has a degree in Economics and speaks six languages.

“Of course I’ve been in situations where people are judgemental but when it happens, I just let it slide because I have nothing to prove. Funnily enough, it’s usually women rather than men. Mainly because I think men don’t understand what it is to work in beauty so they’re normally more intrigued.” Certainly, the beauty industry is one which has always commanded a degree of both fascination and disparagement. Like the fashion industry, there are many who see it as ‘trivial’ and ‘superficial’. However, it is also a $160 billion-a-year global industry on which Americans spend more than they do on education.

Steinherr argues that there are other benefits to her field of work, “I clearly don’t see what I do as a life-saving exercise but we need to be entertained. I don’t take myself seriously. If I tell you abouteyeliner this season, I obviously don’t think it’s important news. But if after a long day’s work, you just want to put your feet up and find read- ing about beauty to be enjoyable and relaxing then that gives what I do purpose.”

What initially drew you into the beauty industry? “I can tell you exactly what it was. I always gravitated towards beauty and makeup in general because I was not skinny. I wasn’t grossly overweight, but I wasn’t able to wear all the clothes you see in magazines. But beauty I felt anyone could do. It’s no matter that I don’t fit into the tiny hot pants my friends wear, but I can smell nice, I can have nice hair — that’s what it truly came from.”

Steinherr firmly feels that beauty is a far more democratic and forgiving world than the fashion industry. “A lot of people attack the beauty industry for being very superficial and portraying an image of women that is unrealistic, but actually beauty is open to everyone. Fashion is far more targeted toward a certain type of person; beauty is not. I also think that fashion is much more trend-set than beauty.”

In an age of female empowerment and the ongoing battle of gender equality in the workplace, there’s a lot of focus on women breaking through glass ceilings in male-dominated environments; what’s it like being a woman working in a female-dominated environment?

“I want to give you a true answer because I don’t want to give you bullshit. Yes, of course there are challenges working in a female-dominated environment. To be fair, I can’t compare because I’ve never worked in a male-dominated environment. I’ve sometimes got into trouble with my bluntness when working solely with women — maybe it’s more of a male attribute. But at the same time, Glamour is not Devil Wears Prada — there’s not that kind of attitude here. But I love working with the women in my team. I love spending time with them everyday and the nurturing aspect is really important for me.”

In an industry which focuses on women’s appearances and comes under fire from some quarters for being anti-feminist, I was interested to hear Steinherr’s thoughts on whether glossy magazines and beauty can ever equate with modern feminism. Steinherr’s take was certainly refreshing. “I would never label myself a feminist or not a feminist. I have an issue with labels. For someone to say ‘I’m not a feminist’ or say ‘I am a feminist’ is redundant.”

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Surely, however, that is still arguing for gender equality? “Yes, I mean, I’m never going to say ‘a man isn’t allowed do this’ or ‘a woman shouldn’t do this’. But I think it’s about being a good human being and standing up for yourself. It’s about having an inbuilt censor for what’s right and wrong, related to labels.”

We then moved on to chatting about Steinherr’s battle with her weight, something about which she is extremely forthcoming. “I always knew I was overweight and I wasn’t happy about that but then, as part of a Glamour feature, we had a nutritionist in and the results came back saying I was borderline obese. I just went ‘this is it. That’s not healthy.’”

Steinherr then began a journey on which she managed to lose over three stone and also began to conquer her food demons — all in the public eye as part of an extended Glamour feature. It was this, she says, that kept her going, “When the first issue came out, the number of letters we got was the most letters we’ve ever received — I literally burst into tears. The kind of thing that people wrote to me, it was that which gave me the strength. I never left any- thing out, I really wrote what I felt and what a failure I felt in that area of my life because I couldn’t control my eating. When you have a weight issue it’s not necessarily a food issue, but an emotional one. Your problem is not a piece of cake, it’s why you want the entire cake. Having just a green juice is not going to solve your problems.”

Steinherr is a woman who defies assumptions, is passionate about what she does and forthright in what she thinks. She leaves me with one notably poignant comment. She says, “It’s amazing if you can be both smart and in- telligent and interested in beauty and makeup at the same time. It’s not a contradiction, it just makes you a more interesting person. You’re like a superwoman.”

 

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