Create & Cultivate 100: Beauty: Michelle Lee

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Michelle Lee didn't have an "in." 

There was no relative ushering her into the ranks at Condé Nast. Nepotism wasn't going to land her a job at a glossy. At yet, the future was always on her mind. 

Michelle went to college at University of Florida choosing Journalism as her major her sophomore year. She liked writing. She liked the journalism building. It made sense. She ended up graduating with a very specific degree in Magazine Journalism, but as a result of her eagerness, she scheduled all of her classes at night and worked during the day. By the time Michelle was in the midst of her junior year she had a full time job as a Staff Writer at a Florida paper called the Weekly Planet. By the end of her time there she was penning features and cover stories. Then she skipped walking at graduation and moved to NYC. She was ready. Eager. And didn't know a soul. 

Now, she's the EIC at Allure, the "Beauty Expert" beat of the magazine world. But she's flipping the script on what "beauty" means. "We did that in big ways in 2017 with our Helen Mirren The End of Anti-Aging cover, as well as putting Alicia Keys on with no makeup, and Halima Aden in her hijab for our American Beauty issue," she says. That inclusive messaging has really resonated across digital and social  media.

Oh hey, Michelle Lee. We see you EIC. Boss. Babe. Badass. Game-changer. Forever learner. 

Name: Michelle Lee

Instagram Handle: @heymichellelee

Adweek named you 2017 Editor of the Year. What does an honor like that mean to you?

It was such a wonderful surprise and honor. I burst out crying when I found out…like, full-on ugly cry. We’re all so busy every day that it’s easy to put your head down and forget that people are actually seeing—and enjoying—your work. So it’s wonderful to be recognized in such a visible way. When I took the job at Allure, I very consciously didn’t change everything overnight since I understood that the audience needed to be eased into some things. So, two years in, it’s wonderful to see where we are now and to see how much we’ve truly moved the brand forward in an exciting way.

In part, it's because you announced Allure would no longer use the phrase "anti-aging." Was it scary to make that kind of proclamation, knowing how many advertisers use the phrase?

It was a little scary but we really believed it was the right thing to do. Growing up, I never considered myself to be a thrillseeker or risktaker, but in business, I can be pretty fearless. I won’t jump blindly into situations but I do find that calculated, educated risks often have the biggest payoff.

"In business, I can be pretty fearless." 

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How do you take that honor as fuel to push boundaries in 2018?

When I started at Allure, the brand was already extremely trusted as The Beauty Expert. Today, I think we’ve brought an extra layer to our mission, which is to challenge antiquated standards of beauty and to redefine what’s considered beautiful in our culture. We did that in big ways in 2017 with our Helen Mirren The End of Anti-Aging cover, as well as putting Alicia Keys on with no makeup, and Halima Aden in her hijab for our American Beauty issue. And that message has really taken flight on digital, social media and video, as well. All of the risks we took this year also made me (and I hope others, too) readjust how we measure success. In the traditional magazine world, people would typically measure success by newsstand sales. But to brands (especially ones who are going through big change) I think it’s important to give them enough time to grow and to look at success as a combination of many things, such as social buzz. To me, I wanted us to create cultural moments, and I think we accomplished that. Because we’ve exceeded my expectations for 2017, plus we’ve been so nicely recognized this year, it definitely plays into my plans for 2018!

What is the biggest challenge you're currently facing as an editor?

It’s always a challenge to figure out where time and resources are best spent. When I started out in media, an editor in chief had one job: the magazine. Today, an EIC has about 10 jobs, between print, digital, video, social, ancillary businesses, events, licensing, etc. It’s my responsibility to myself and my staff to make sure I’m spending my time on the biggest needle movers.

Where do your drive and passion come from?

I didn’t go to a fancy college or have a lot of contacts in the industry when I was starting out, so I always thought of myself as a bit of an underdog when I was younger. This turned out to be a great strength though since it taught me to have an incredible work ethic. I believed early on that I’d need to work twice as hard as everyone else. I also have a great love of learning. It really bugs me when I don’t know how to do something or if I don’t understand something. So I’ll take it upon myself to learn. I’ve taught myself photography, CSS, how to design responsive websites, video editing, and more. That love of learning has made me a better, more curious editor.

Love of learning has made me a better, more curious editor.

How else is Allure helping re-draw the lines of what "beauty" means?

One of my favorite Allure video series is also one of our most popular: Dispelling Beauty Myths. The concept is really simple. It’s just one person telling their story, standing against a white backdrop. The person tells their raw, personal story about having a feature—that’s not traditionally considered beautiful by society—but why they’ve embraced it. We’ve covered everything from albinism to acne to weight to a burn victim to grey hair to mom bod. It’s always the video series that makes me cry.

"I believed early on that I’d need to work twice as hard as everyone else."

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What kind of responsibility do you feel to put powerful and positive messaging into the glossy world?

Well, I’d rephrase that a bit. I don’t feel like it’s my responsibility to put out a positive message. I think it’s more effective for us to have the difficult conversations. One thing that’s bothered me through the years about the stereotypical women’s media voice is that it was too earnest, almost corny, like, that somehow women couldn’t handle the hard truth. Don’t get me wrong: we’re not a brand that is negative or attacks people. BUT I also think it’s important to not shy away from a bit of ugliness. For example, we devoted April to a celebration of skin color and diversity. For our magazine cover story that month, we featured 41 women of color talking about diversity, inclusion, and colorism and the stories WENT THERE. We didn’t hide from the hurt and pain and some pretty strong language.

I don’t feel like it’s my responsibility to put out a positive message. I think it’s more effective for us to have the difficult conversations.

Do you remember the moment (or a moment) when you first felt "beautiful?"

Oof, that's a tricky question. I don't think I felt beautiful until college. I was an extremely late bloomer. I remember going to my cousin's wedding when I was around 18 or 19, feeling like I had been the ugly duckling who had blossomed into the swan. My entire personality had changed because I felt more comfortable in my own skin. I'll never forget one of my aunts commenting, "Who is this girl? I don't even know her!"

What is your biggest pet peeve?

People chewing loudly. Or taking up the whole sidewalk...slowly.

What's something you'd like people to know about your job that they probably don’t?

How being an editor in chief involves understanding business and finance. A lot of people think it's purely creative...and for a good part of my career, it was. The track when I was starting was: be a writer than an editor, then a senior editor where you're managing a few people. But the further up the ladder you go, you start interacting with marketing and advertising and finance. Suddenly, people are talking more about P&Ls and ROI. If you want to ascend to the top of any field, learn business!

IYO-- How can we stay original when we are so saturated with other people's work?

Hire people who think outside the box and who will challenge your ideas from time to time. I think I'm pretty good at going with gut reactions and knowing when a concept feels "meh" or magical. I'm not a critical manager. I prefer positive reinforcement. But I do often challenge editors to push an idea further if it doesn't feel right yet. We've taken great pains to mold Allure into a culture of innovation. Once you do a few innovative things, it becomes addictive. And the whole staff catches on and wants to one-up what you've already done.

I prefer positive reinforcement. But I do often challenge editors to push an idea further if it doesn't feel right yet.

What about your career makes you feel the most complete?

I'm really proud of how innovative we've been at Allure this year with everything that I already mentioned but we also launched an augmented reality issue in Dec 2016, a beauty assistant chatbot on, and a really cool Try It program that lets visitors request product samples right from our site. Years ago, I knew that I needed to learn digital but I also started to learn tech and product (which a lot of editors don't do). Now, I'm fascinated by those things so I work really well with our product team...and that leads to more innovative projects.

If you had to trade jobs with anyone else in the world, who would it be and why?

I'm obsessed with food, so probably Anthony Bourdain or anyone else who gets to eat and travel!

At what point in your career did you find the confidence to really take charge and become the woman you are today?

I don't think there was one moment. I've been in a state of constant growth. And there have been many peaks and valleys. In the past decade, I've gone through moments feeling like I could literally do anything I put my mind to. And then I've gone through totally irrational moments when I thought I would be homeless.

What's the best advice you've ever been given? Or your favorite piece of #realtalk?

I always use the same anecdote when I'm asked this question so I'll give another one. I think I have an entrepreneurial spirit and I've been a business owner before. At this point, though, I'm just not into dropping everything to start a business. So how do you satisfy that part of yourself? I remember hearing about the concept of being an intrapreneur years ago on a podcast and it really stuck with me. The idea is that you start a project at your own company. It's a great way to learn new skills. For example, if you want to know more about marketing, first, be great at your main role, but then go ahead and let your boss or others at your company know that you have an interest in something else and that you'd love to help.

When you hit a big bump in the road, how do you find a new road or a detour?

I am not one to freeze and wallow. I just won't do it. Like anyone, I've had failures in my career, but I know that there's another opportunity IF I work really hard. My solution is always to spring into action immediately. Don't wait. Just move.

What song do you sing in the shower when you’ve had a bad day?

I make up silly songs about my kids, which stick in my head all day. So I'll find myself humming them or singing them in the shower sometimes. You can't have a bad day when you're singing a totally silly song!