Saturday, June 23, 2007

Saturday's Best of Blogs

Ron Rosenbaum of Slate wrote a very funny and spot-on piece about celebrity profiles in magazine, including the worst celebrity profile ever, Esquire's July piece on Angelina Jolie.

Fashionista has a fantastically useful guide on pronouncing the names of designers (Olivier Theyskens is Olivi-ay Tay-skins and Proenza Schouler is Pro-en-za Skoo-ler).

New York Times fashion critic Cathy Horyn interviews Sarah Jessica Parker in her On the Runway blog and then investigates the claims that SJP's Bitten line was produced unethically.

Galadarling has great advice for hand and nail care.

The Beauty Brains debunks the rumor going around that the average woman absorbs nearly 5 lbs of chemicals from her beauty products each year.

Have a great weekend, everyone!

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Bad Beauty Industry?

A while ago I wrote a post called "Beauty Industry: Who Owns What" where I broke down the major corporations running the industry and who owns which brands. My goal was to make people think about beauty products and brands from the perspective of these corporations, which have been extremely successful in marketing each brand and product as unique and effective, when in reality, many products across different brands owned by the same company have the same ingredients or colors, but in a wide range of price points. In the post I never stated whether I thought this was a positive or negative thing, though I think most of the people who commented and e-mailed me about the post tended to lean toward the negative end.

Personally, I have no problems with how the beauty industry is currently organized. A lot of people look at the fact that only a handful of corporations control most of the market and think this is hurting the consumer. But I consider the fact that these corporations have 3 things that small, independent companies don't, which makes me generally trust them more than their indie counterparts:

1. Tons of money for research and development

These corporations may make billions of dollars a year in revenue, but to stay ahead of the game they invest a fair amount of that into research and development. L'Oreal for instance invests 3% of sales in R & D, and I'm sure you'd find similar numbers for Proctor & Gamble, Johnson & Johnson, etc.

The success these companies have experienced is directly derived from the popularity and high quality of their brands and products. In such a competitive industry, each corporation is racing to create "the next big thing," whether it's a more effective product, more cosmetically elegant, better packaging, better color selection, etc. Do these companies sometimes repeat products, essentially repackaging and renaming the same ingredients and changing the prices? Sure. But they can only get away with so much of that, and they have to be innovative to retain their edge over the competition.

There's no doubt that a Mom and Pop cosmetics startup can't make great products (this is how Bobbi Brown started before she was bought out by Estee Lauder) but they definitely don't have the resources to create anything revolutionary.

2. A long tradition of quality and reliability

Brand loyalty is extremely important to every company, but within the cosmetics industry, where the consumer is presented with so many options (one could spend hours in a drugstore just trying to decide between moisturizers), having a brand name that people trust is paramount. These companies work very hard to build up that trust and loyalty, creating lines that people consistently rely on and return to when they're shopping.

It takes a lot of time to build that relationship between a brand and a consumer, and companies know that one bad move can kill that trust. Because they're so huge, I think that these large corporations have far more to lose if their customer base shifts its loyalty to another brand.

Which brings me to my final point...

3. They have far, far more to lose if they seriously screw up

One complaint I often hear is that you can't trust the major cosmetics companies because they use ingredients that are supposedly cancer causing or generally harmful to the body. Again, these are multi-billion dollar companies that (as I just discussed) are based on customer trust and loyalty. They have thousands of employees worldwide and most of them (L'Oreal, P&G, J&J, Unilever, Avon, Elizabeth Arden, Revlon, basically all the big guys except Estee Lauder) are publicly traded. If it came out that something in their products caused cancer, or a similarly horrific health scare, thousands, possibly millions, of people would lose money, and their brand name would likely be tarnished.

For a small company, there's far less at stake and there's less incentive to ensure that their products are perfectly safe.

That doesn't mean I only buy beauty products from these corporations, or that I don't trust independent companies. A number of my HG products come from indie companies, and I definitely think they have their place. I just disagree with the people who jump to the conclusion that products from a mega-corporation are bad simply because it's a mega-corporation and they only care about the bottom line.

Now, don't think for a second that I'm letting these companies off easy. I've expressed my disapproval of many common marketing tactics, particularly the bogus scientific claims that promise miracle-like results, and the fact that higher-priced products are rarely more effective than drugstore brands. I think that the marketers are far too comfortable exaggerating claims, but ultimately the responsibility lies with the consumer to determine where and how she'll spend her money.

Particularly in the internet age, there are tons of resources for consumers to research brands, products and ingredients before they buy. A healthy level of skepticism is especially useful when buying cosmetics, and if you spend the time educating yourself to separate the truthful claims from the marketing B.S., you're in a good position to not waste your money on poor purchases. So don't go blaming Estee Lauder when you realize you spent $195 on a jar of Cream de La Mer that works no better than your $8 tube of Olay moisturizer.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Review: Band-Aid Blister Block Stick

I have the most pleasant commute to work in the world. I leave my dorm near Union Square at 8:30 and meander Southwest, strolling through Washington Square park, passing the florists, fetish shops and puppy stores of the Village and playing a game with myself where I pretend I'm looking to buy a townhouse on a $10 million budget and I have to decide which one I like best. By 9 I'm at the office, feeling refreshed and ready to start the day. Then I do the same thing (but backward) at 5, a fantastic way to be alone and process the events of the day while planning my evening.

But even the most lovely commute can go bad when your feet hurt. It's always a few blocks from home (far enough that you'd be late if you turned around) that you start to notice your shoes are pinching in a few spots. It's a slight discomfort now, but after an hour of walking and 8 hours on your feet, it's going to be blister city down there. I like to always stock my purse and desk with band aids (Band-Aid Tough Strips are by far the most adherent and last the longest) but sometimes you need a little prevention. If I know in advance that my shoes will be problematic, I put heel cushions (like these), except I get the cheap kind from the shoe repair store) in to reduce friction, but sometimes these things sneak up on you when you're not prepared.

There are a number of products aimed at athletes who are prone to blisters (BodyGlide) is a favorite that many women have adopted for non-athletic shoe problems), but Band-Aid recently came out with the Blister Block stick which decreases shoe friction to prevent blisters from developing and is the perfect size and shape for carrying in a purse. It's like a mini stick of deodorant that you rub on areas of your feet that are prone to blisters, allowing the shoe to glide over the area instead of rubbing and irritating the skin. It's also totally invisible and doesn't rub off on shoes.

I've been using it everyday for two weeks now and I have to say that it's not perfect. I've gotten a couple of blisters, but they were smaller, fewer and took longer to emerge than usual (halfway through the day as opposed to the first 30 minutes of wear, usually). These were in shoes where blisters were essentially inevitable, but I found that the Blister Block worked perfectly in almost all my other pairs (including a few that usually give me blisters).

If your feet are hot or you're walking a lot, you'll need to reapply the stick every couple of hours (I've been able to get away with doing it before my long walk in the morning, once at lunch, and then before my long walk home). The stick, while small, has enough product to last about a month, and for $6.99, I think it's a bargain for a month of essentially blister-free walking.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Dangerous Curves Ahead

Jessica Alba, Jessica Biel and Cameron Diaz want my body.

You might be a bit skeptical, since you probably haven't seen me on the cover of Vogue or in the pages of People's 50 Most Beautiful issue, but I assure you that this is the case. All three of these starlets have spoken out about admiring women with curves, and wishing they had more of them, and with my average chest, small waist and round hips, I definitely fit the bill. Yet despite all the talk, I don't see Cameron devouring burritos in an effort to add some padding to her thighs.

In recent years, a craze for curves has hit Hollywood, and no one can stop talking about the beauty of a voluptuous woman, and longing for the days when actresses and models were prized for their shapeliness. Read any recent magazine article about Kate Winslet, Eva Mendes, Jessica Alba, Scarlett Johannsson or Jennifer Hudson and you're sure to find a number of adoring references to their curvaceous forms. Although these five women have very different bodies (no one is confusing Jessica Alba for Jennifer Hudson), they're often grouped together with just about any actress who weighs more than an Olsen twin. So what does curvy mean anyway?

If the dictionary defines a curve as "a line that deviates from straightness in a smooth, continuous fashion," I think it's safe to eliminate body types that are straight up and down, with no bending outline at the bust, waist or hips, as well as women whose bones jut out (too angular). So technically, as long as you're not super skinny and your weight is distributed in a way that allows certain parts to be thicker or wider than others, you have a curvy body.

But when used in reference to celebrities, curvy usually (with Jennifer Hudson being a major exception, I'll admit) seems to symbolize the acceptance of bodies that slightly resemble those seen on normal, healthy women, but fit Hollywood's definition of beauty (evenly proportioned, hourglass figures). On top of that, you have to have the features of your average Hollywood starlet- gorgeous face and hair, no wrinkles, no sagging, no cellulite. Women who are overweight or obese are not referred to as curvy, despite the fact that a round belly would most definitely be a curve.

When I read that a major magazine had to photoshop out Jessica Alba's protruding ribcage, (likely accompanied by an article praising her curvaceous body), I decided I'd had enough with the mixed messages. Like most women, I'm delighted that a greater variety of body types are being lauded in Hollywood, but I feel like I'm being manipulated to admire and identify with certain celebrities more for their refusal to be as nauseatingly skinny as Nicole Richie. While they might not be conforming to the most extreme and unhealthy standards of beauty, our ideal "curvy" woman is still basically a size 2 model with big, perfect breasts and a round butt tacked on.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Everything I Know About Photo Shoots I Learned From "America's Next Top Model"... Until Now

"The model looks like a wreck," my boss warned as I passed her in the hall on my way to my very first photo shoot, a perk that came with my job as a summer intern at an advertising agency here in New York. I was invited along so I could observe what happens at a photo shoot and what the agency's role is in making sure the ad meets the client's (a major U.S. skincare brand) objectives.

I should add that, as a devoted viewer of a number of cheesy reality TV shows, I went into the shoot believing that I had a pretty good idea of how this day would go down. I would find my own Jay Manuel, who would introduce me to the glamorous world of commercial shoots and serve as a firm but loving guide to teach me how to be FIERCE. Okay, so I wouldn't be the one modeling, but I was there to represent the agency, and I wanted to do my job well.

Amy Winehouse was playing as assistants of all kind (production, photography, makeup, hair, wardrobe) scurried around when I walked into the huge studio. The background was brightly lit, and I noticed a large table of beautifully prepared breakfast foods. Against one wall was the makeup/hair/wardrobe area, which is where I spotted the model.

It wasn't hard to tell that she was a model. Her tall, lean physique (she was quite muscular as well, which is what the client wanted for this ad) and amazing skin and bone structure (I'm talking KILLER cheekbones) basically gave it away, but my boss was right, she looked like crap. First, her hair was awful. It was basically damage to the point of looking fried, short and frizzy and broken off at weird lengths. And while her skin was essentially flawless (there was not one freckle, mole or scar on her entire body), she looked tired and a little hung over.

I dug into the breakfast buffet and situated myself on a couch with a good view of the styling area, anxiously awaiting the action (and inevitable drama) to begin. My boss had returned with her cup of coffee.

"You'd better relax, nothing's going to happen for a while. Most of the day we just wait around."

Waiting? Isn't there a J. Alexander hiding in the wings, hoping to talk trash about everyone else in between takes? I was here to learn, so I walked over and began watching the makeup artist work. In about a half hour, the model's skin was literally glowing, it was all I could do to not touch it. After makeup, the model tried on about 8 different outfits, posing as she would in the ad, as the art director took Polaroids and the tailer tucked and pinned the dresses and skirts to the right length.

Then the hairstylist tackled the issue of her dead hair. In the course of an hour and a half, he straightened what little hair the model had and added 8 sets of extensions. Then he pulled it back into a ponytail and sewed in another massive extension to cover the rest. Her hair was thick, full and gorgeous now, running halfway down her back. By this point, it was about 11:30 and no photos had been taken. Once the photographer proclaimed the lighting to be sufficient, the agency approved the outfit and the makeup artist slathered foundation and highlighter all over the model's legs and arms, we were ready to begin.

But then lunch arrived, so we took a break. Shooting finally commenced at 1:30, but after a half hour of initial shots, the model's hair was deemed to be too heavy and distracting. It took the hairstylist an hour to trim the extensions and take the sewn one out, and then style her hair into a new look. At 2:30 we began again, and shot until 5.

One interesting thing is that the model was everything TV tells me a model isn't- quiet, unassuming, gracious, eager to please. She was about as far from a diva as you can get, asking what the photographer/art director wanted for each shot and patiently keeping the pose until asked to change. She never made a suggestion or initiated anything on her own. And the crew seemed to love that. My boss told me that this brand never uses top girls or celebrities, and have fired models in the past for being too dramatic or demanding. The ANTM judges were right that unless you're Kate Moss, you actually won't get jobs if you're a drama queen.

The shots came out beautifully, and I ended up learning a lot about what roles each person performs to make an advertisement both beautiful and compelling, and I have a lot m0re respect for everyone involved and the whole process. I didn't really believe that America's Next Top Model was a truly representative show, but it's interesting to know how much more boring the real thing is. Sad, but that always seems to be the case with TV.