In our long-running series “How I’m Making It,” we talk to people making a living in the fashion and beauty industries about how they broke in and found success.
While the exact role of the editor-in-chief may be constantly evolving, it remains a title of reverence and influence, particularly when it describes someone helming a glossy title at a major publishing company like Condé Nast. As one of the newest to join those respected ranks, Jessica Cruel — who became became the third-ever editor-in-chief of Allure in August after Michelle Lee departed from the brand — is well aware of the mystique and importance of her new job.
Allure is a legacy publication that in many ways created and shaped the concept of beauty reporting as it exists today. A significant percentage of those currently working in beauty media (myself included, though I never overlapped with Cruel) spent some portion of their career working there, in some capacity. The brand’s iconic red “Best of Beauty” seal is a recognizable emblem of the so-called “Beauty Bible”‘s influence on the industry and of selling product. Cruel feels the weight of that responsibility.
“Right now, we’re spending a lot of time thinking about [how various] communities align with Allure, and how we can better be a platform for them, represent them to their fullest and tell their stories in the best, most authentic way,” says Cruel. “It’s something that I’ve always wanted to do when it came to the Black community in my personal experience, but I recognize that we have to open that up and cast a wider net because our country is so diverse in experience and interests. I want to start showing those in Allure as well.”
But as an editor who has climbed the ranks from post-grad intern to leader of an established magazine (where she previously served in other roles for two years), Cruel is less focused on the outward trappings of her new title.
“The title is one thing, but the work is what I really want people to know me for. I want to do great work,” she tells Fashionista. And she’s not wasting any time getting started on said work: The February 2022 issue, featuring Janet Jackson as cover star with a feature penned by Robin Givhan, marked the first Allure issue under Cruel’s direction. And it’s just the start of her big plans for the title.
Ahead, Cruel discusses her career trajectory, the brand’s legacies she hopes to preserve, how she wants to see things change at Allure (and in the beauty industry at large), what she looks for in a new hire and many other insights.
Tell me about your background and how you first got drawn to the media world.
I grew up in several different small towns in the South, but mostly a town called Albany, Georgia. I didn’t really know what I wanted to be growing up, but I was good at school. I think one day I just decided out of all the subjects, writing is my favorite. In ninth grade, we had to take this career quiz and all these careers came up; journalist was one of them. From there I was like, ‘Okay, what can journalists do?’ And I landed on magazines.
I was attracted to the glamour. The thought that I could move to New York City and lead this fabulous life in the fashion magazine industry was alluring, but it was very contrary to what everyone else in my family had done. I’m very fortunate that both my parents and grandparents are college graduates — all from Historically Black Colleges and Universities — and my grandfather and both my parents are doctors. So when I came in and was like, ‘I want to be a journalist,’ my dad at first was like, ‘Okay, you’re going to write for The New York Times.’ And I was like, ‘Actually, I think I want to write for fashion magazines.’ He was like, ‘What? People pay people to do that?’
But ever since I’d taken that quiz and kind of really thought about what that could mean for me, I was on a one-track train to get there. I got my degree in journalism and sociology, and I did several internships before landing my first job.
What made you get into beauty, specifically?
I never felt really like a fit in fashion in particular, but when I started doing internships, I was able to come to Self magazine, which is also a Condé Nast brand. I did an internship there and spent a good amount of time in the beauty closet, and it just felt so accessible to me.
As someone who comes from a small town, I didn’t have a Sephora at my town. I didn’t have an Ulta in my town. We had Sally Beauty, the drugstore and beauty supply stores. So I thought, ‘If I’m going to move to New York and work at a magazine, this beauty stuff is [a subject] that the local people in Albany, Georgia can still participate in. It’s reporting that will still be accessible to people in my family, people who are my friends still in Georgia, or middle America, or wherever they are.’ It wasn’t as elitist as I felt fashion was at the time.
I also realized when I started to get internships that there was no one like me around. I rarely saw Black women like myself in magazines or on the floors that I was working on — definitely not in the beauty closet. So I really thought this is a space where I can make a difference and I can tell a story that isn’t being heard. That’s what I was determined to do.
Tell me about your early internships and how you went about forging your career in the beginning.
I’m a very type A — I make goal lists and I check everything off. I did a journalism camp at the University of Florida when I was a junior in high school. My first internship was actually at Skirt magazine in Atlanta, Georgia. I stayed with my uncle and I drove to their offices all summer. The editor there had been an editor at Self, so when it came time for my next internship, she recommended me for one at Self. I believe that was the summer after my sophomore year in college. Then I proceeded to do more internships until after I graduated. Eventually, on my second or third post-grad internship, that led to my first job at Popsugar.
Why have you been drawn to the digital space, specifically?
I was mostly drawn to the digital space because at that Self internship, I was asking everyone that I met in informational interviews, ‘What are some tips that you would give someone like me?’ Everyone was like, ‘Go learn how the internet works.’ That was around 2008; everyone was just launching websites. I think print was starting to not be as glamorous, budgets were lessening. I went back to school, and I changed my major from reporting to multimedia journalism.
My first job was at Popsugar, and from there I just kind of stayed on the digital path. I did a lot of amazing work at Popsugar — it was a very small startup when I joined the team. I got some great experience being on camera and of course reporting and writing. Then I moved on to Self, where I got some great experience editing and also doing my first beauty awards. Then I went to Refinery29; I was there for about a year and a half working in the beauty department.
I came to Allure as the features director and got to work with [former Editor-in-Chief] Michelle Lee and [Executive Beauty Director] Jenny Bailly, who were great mentors to me. I became content director, which means I had a little bit more focus into the digital aspect of things. Working as features director, I was working on both print and digital; as content director, I was leading the digital team.
What has it been like stepping into the role as editor-in-chief?
I give it up to my staff, because it’s been a very smooth transition. I feel very fortunate that I’m now leading this team that I’ve spent essentially two years working side by side with. Everybody knows me, they know my style, they know my heart.
I think when you have a transition like this, when one editor-in-chief leaves and another one comes in, it can be very scary for staff, to feel like their whole life is going to be upended, like, ‘What’s going to happen to my job?’ But I think with it being me, someone internal, it felt like, ‘Okay, we’re going to be doing some changing, but we’ll be doing it together.’
I think I’ve benefited greatly from that, too, because the more senior people on my staff are really behind me. They’ve really supported me. I think it helps that I’ve worked on so many aspects of what Allure does, and I’m able to understand it at a little bit more of a granular level. Now I’m kind of helping direct more from a higher perspective.
Has there been anything that you’ve had to shift your own thinking about, or maybe learn to delegate a bit more? And has that been a challenge for you?
Oh, it’s a challenge. I’m definitely a person who likes to be in the weeds. A couple of times my senior team is like, ‘You don’t have time to go to that meeting anymore.’ I really don’t. So it’s hard for me to let go, but we’ve done a good amount of internal promoting and we’ve opened up some heads on the external side to really get those people in place to run those areas that I might have been more involved in, and people that I trust to handle those things that I can no longer be in every meeting for. But it has been hard because I’m a writer and an editor, and I think when you’re elevated to editor-in-chief, you spend a lot of time in meetings making a lot of decisions, but that means you kind of step away from the minutia of it all.
With all your time spent moving up the ranks in media, what have you learned from past editors-in-chief that you’ve worked with about leadership styles, and what do you hope to bring to your role as a leader?
Often in the past at brands I worked with, the editor-in-chief felt very like: You don’t talk to her. If you see her walking, turn your head the other way.
I definitely don’t think that’s the vibe at Allure because I’ve worked so closely with this team before. Even before I was elevated to this position, it’s always been so important to me that my staff feels that Allure‘s a place they can grow. I’ve been very fortunate to be able to grow rather quickly in my career, and I realized that’s been because of all those mentors and editors who saw something in me and gave me opportunities to kind of try new things, gain new skills and grow.
One of the first things I did when I became editor-in-chief was sit down with every person on our team, from the commerce writer to the social media manager to the executive editor; I asked them, ‘What do you want for your life? Do you want to be editor-in-chief one day? What are your pain points? What are the things that you love about your job? What do you wish you could do more of?’ I was really just trying to gauge the mood of the staff, but also figure out where we’re going. For a lot of people on my team, I see where they want to go and I see how that’s going to open up for them at Allure. That’s, to me, the most important thing.
What are some of your overall goals for Allure? Obviously it’s such a legacy brand — what do you hope to preserve, and where do you hope to expand, evolve and change things as you look toward the future?
The thing about Allure is that we have such great brand recognition via our seal and Best of Beauty. And I think people call us the ‘Beauty Bible,’ and that’s never going to change. That’s a legacy that I’m so proud to be a part of. Being able to give that type of service to shoppers and consumers, giving that type of information to industry insiders even, is something that I definitely want to maintain and continue.
Things that I’m looking to change: I just want to cover more communities. I always say that we have to be the mainstream platform for micro communities. That means that when people who love cosplay open up Allure — there’s a lot of beauty when it comes to cosplay — they should feel like they’re seen in our pages.
We’ve done such a great job of covering diversity in the past, and we’ll continue to do that in the future, but I also think there’s something to be said about diversity of experience. We got to do a story a while back about teeth, which falls under our purview as a beauty magazine, and we shot these amazing models who had different smiles — not your typical bright, white, super-straight smiles — and so in that story we talked about the lack of access to dental care for the poorest people in our country. That’s what I mean by diversity of experience.
What does beauty mean to someone who doesn’t have access to the fanciest products? What does it mean for someone who’s in the drag community, who sees and views and presents beauty in a certain way?
Do you think that the concept of what falls into the ‘beauty’ category and what beauty journalists are ‘able’ to cover is evolving and expanding?
It’s changed tremendously since when I started. When I started, it was very much celebrity-based. If you go back to when I first started, it was still all white women of a certain size. Through the years, it’s slowly been like ‘Okay, we need more people of color, we need more people of different sizes. We shouldn’t be just covering ‘flawless’ 16-year-olds.’
If someone can open up our magazine and see someone with acne scars, see someone with crooked teeth, see someone who’s 50 or older, to me that means we’re doing a good job of democratizing this ‘beauty’ that used to be very one-note. And that’s what we strive to do every issue: We want to show a very good mix of people.
What’s the role of editor-in-chief in 2022? How is it perhaps different than what people might think?
It’s like being a business person. Just as much as I think about the words that we create, I think about the business of our brand, the many touch points that we have for an Allure reader. A lot of my day is spent in meetings, so it’s not as glamorous, but there are glamorous parts of it — I get to dress up occasionally, but it’s just far less often than I think everyone believes. Most of the time, I’m sitting in front of my computer reading, writing or in meetings ideating.
I also think that moving forward, being editor-in-chief means being head mentor. We have to do better about helping people rise in this industry and bringing new voices and new stories to this industry. So I really see that as one of my most important responsibilities.
What has been the most rewarding moment in your career so far?
The most rewarding I think has been when we were able to do The Melanin Edit last year. That was an idea that we had that we were able to bring to fruition. We had Iza be the cover star for our Diaspora flight of content. I’ll be honest, that’s something I had pitched maybe three years before, and it didn’t get any legs to it. So when I was able to do it at Allure, it felt like, ‘This is what I’ve been working toward, this space that’s safe for Black and brown people, for those with melanated skin.’ It was a really proud moment for me, to have content that spoke to a culture, that spoke to my experience and allowed so many writers to have a platform.
What about the most challenging moment in your career so far?
One challenge that I still struggle with is this balance. I’m very driven and I think anyone who’s in this industry at this time can [fall into a routine of] working 90% of the time, playing 10% of the time. For me and for my staff, trying to find ways to bring joy and fun back into this craft of magazine making and content creation is something that I really have been thinking a lot about and have been challenged by as of late. I’m thinking about how we can make it easier for people to not feel so beholden to performance and also have opportunities to be creative.
What do you look for in a new hire?
I’m always looking for passion. I think everyone I’ve interviewed lately has been so surprised when I ask them, ‘What are you passionate about?’ It doesn’t have to be beauty related — it could be something else completely. I ask that because people’s passions turn into great stories. I’m always looking for someone who has a side passion, something that really moves them and makes them feel excited. The Melanin Edit was my passion, and I would love if every writer at Allure one day can say that they got to do something like that, that made them feel fulfilled.
So I’m looking for people with passions and people with curiosity. Every journalist has to be curious. Curious and willing to learn, because I tell people all the time, there’s no end to learning in this industry. As soon as you learn one thing, something else is going to come out. As soon as you get your handle on Instagram, there’s TikTok. So you have to learn something new.
What excites you about beauty right now?
I’m excited about how the boundaries have really been broken. It’s like there are no rules. When I first started it was like, ‘The rule is you put on mascara like this,’ and that’s what everybody does because that’s the rule.’ There are no rules, and I feel like even more so it’s the people on TikTok telling people like Allure what’s cool. That’s what I love, because that means everyone can find their place somewhere. And that’s a beautiful thing, when it’s not the top people in the nation telling you, ‘This is cool, this is what you should do, this is what you should put on your lips, this is how you do it.’ No, it’s more the young people out there in high school telling me like, ‘Don’t you know everyone loves this?’ That’s what I’m most excited about. There’s such a great energy right now around beauty, it’s such great creativity with so many amazing artists that are able to have a platform via social media. I think that’s what makes our industry really cool right now.
What do you hope to see change in beauty in the near future?
I want to see more transparency. Last year we launched a sustainability pledge about the way we’re going to cover the subject, not using words like ‘recyclable’ and ‘biodegradable’ because I think there’s still a lot of marketing BS out there — it’s our job to cut through that stuff. That’s what I hope our industry can start to capture: transparency about how products are made, transparency about where ingredients are sourced, transparency about how ‘recyclable’ things are. I think this next generation are truth-seekers, and when they don’t find it or when they feel like it’s a smoke screen, they’re turned off immediately. So I think that transparency and devotion to causes bigger than just selling product is what I hope to see more of.
The beauty and personal care industry is a powerful industry. We’ve been talking at Allure about what we can we do in partnership with these big companies to make significant changes. Whether that’s changing the way you shop in store by getting rid of an ‘ethnic aisle’ or changing dermatology, getting more skin of color in textbooks and on exams so that most doctors learn how to treat that type of skin. Or around sustainability, how can we help people get rid of bubble wrap? That’s an ambitions goal, but pushing this industry to be beyond just the capitalism of it all and really start to care in concrete and measurable ways is something I’ve been thinking a lot about.
You mentioned your family wasn’t super excited about you going into this career path in the beginning, but how do they feel about it now that you’ve become the editor-in-chief of Allure?
I think my dad is still kind of in shock. But I think they’re all very proud. They’re very excited for me and they’ve been so supportive. Once I got to New York and got my first job, I think my dad and my mom finally were like, ‘Okay, this is going to work out you.’
But as far as being editor-in-chief… I want to do great work, and then people will acknowledge that, more so than just the title that they’ve given me.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.