Linda Wells was unceremoniously canned from Allure, the magazine she created, after 25 years at the helm. Read our conversation below to find out how she got through that life-changing day and moved onward and upward…
Katie Couric: You created Allure magazine… Where did you get the idea for it and why did you think it would find an audience?
Linda Wells: In 1990, Si Newhouse, who owned Condé Nast, and Alexander Liberman, the editorial director of the company, asked me to start a beauty magazine. And that was pretty much all they said. I’d been writing about beauty for The New York Times and the Times Magazine, and before that for Vogue, so I decided to mash up the best of those two principles and apply them to beauty. The aim was to marry the visual richness of really all Condé Nast magazines with newspaper journalism. There wasn’t another beauty magazine on the newsstands—what a quaint word that is now—and there was a clear hunger for the subject when it appeared in fashion magazines. And it didn’t hurt that the beauty industry was robust and highly supportive of print media.
I thought if we could demystify the subject of beauty, investigate products and procedures, and probe into the emotional aspects of appearance, then we’d have something provocative and relevant. And it was most definitely provocative. We got in trouble from advertisers right away, with one of the biggest beauty companies cancelling its schedule. And Si Newhouse cheered us on the whole way, championing our fidelity to journalism.
The timing of the magazine was really fortunate. Beauty blew up over those years. Botox and Retin A were approved by the FDA. Legitimate scientists focused on skincare ingredients, dermatological treatments, and biomedical devices. The Beauty Myth was published, bringing discussion and debate to the role beauty plays in women’s lives. More and more companies started lines by makeup artists, designers, dermatologists and hair stylists—and, in the process, these unknown people became celebrities. Beauty went from being something hidden and private to something public, controversial, energetic, creative, and emotional. It was an excellent time for Allure.
After 25 years, you were let go. Tell us what happened that day?
I had celebrated my 25th year with Allure and won a big performance award from the company the previous year. So I didn’t exactly expect to be fired. But who does, really? I’d been to a funeral that morning in November 2015 for the father of a colleague. I felt so sad for her, I wasn’t focusing on myself. I went to a meeting with an executive at the company who started by saying, “This is a difficult conversation…”. And as soon as I heard that, I knew exactly what was coming next.
I immediately asked my assistant to gather everyone in the conference room. I wanted to tell my team before they learned from someone else. I really wanted them to know how much they meant to me, how talented they were and how grateful I was for everything they did for Allure and for me.
What was your immediate reaction?
I was in shock. I know that’s not very original, but I don’t know how else to describe it than that. I felt like my head was floating above my body. And I hated the dress I was wearing, which is ridiculous, but I remember looking forward to getting rid of it.
You were incredibly gracious about your firing…telling your crying staff that you were “stoic” and wouldn’t be crying along with them. You’ve publicly said you were expensive, that the magazine needed a change and you understood. It’s me, Linda…was that hard?\
Yes, all that is true. And yes, of course it was hard. But I was determined not to let the firing sour my feelings about the previous 25 years. I loved my job, I loved what my team and I created, I loved working at Condé Nast, especially under Si Newhouse. The fact that print media was heading south was not my doing. So I decided that I was not going to let this incident define me. I was going to face it and not pretend that I left for quote-unquote personal reasons or to spend more time with my family or to pursue other interests, blah blah blah. I was going to tell the truth about it. And then I was going to move on.
The company said I could stay until the end of the year. But I didn’t want to do that for myself and for the people who remained; I didn’t want to make anyone else feel awkward. So I walked out of the office that day in November and never returned. My team packed up my things and sent them to storage. And that was that. I decided—and it was an act of will—to look ahead.
The day after I was fired, I had to go to my sons’ school in New Hampshire for a speaking engagement I’d committed to well beforehand. And of course I wanted to cancel, but I couldn’t. When I told the students what I did, I had to change “I am the editor of Allure” to “I was…”. And I choked up for a second. But I knew I had to recover or else mortify my kids even more than I usually do on a daily basis. Somehow, saying that out loud helped me face the fact and put it behind me. It was really effective.
How did it affect you personally? How did you pick yourself up from that experience?
I went to a spa and spent a week hiking outdoors, which felt really good. I exercised like crazy, meditated, got massages, met some incredibly kind and fascinating people, and just disconnected. And then I came back to New York and got to work. Stella Bugbee—the editor of New York Magazine’s The Cut and a national treasure—asked me to write for her. Michael Clinton asked me to write for Hearst. And it was really a joy to get back to the work I loved so much. I got my bearings back. And it felt so good, traversing the city, interviewing creative, energetic people like Pat McGrath, Jamie Kern Lima of It Cosmetics, Bobbi Brown, Isabella Rossellini. I did shoots with Paul Cavaco, the former creative director of Allure and my former work husband, and with the brilliant and dear photographer Carter Smith. I consulted with some beauty companies, including P&G. I went to Japan twice, once with Shiseido and once with my exceptional friend, Jane Buffett. I did the things I really wanted to do and nothing that didn’t interest me.
What advice would you give to someone who is unexpectedly fired from their job?
Everyone reacts so differently that it’s hard for me to advise other people. I think it’s important to let yourself mourn a bit. But the operative words are “a bit”; it’s crucial to move on. I don’t believe in being angry or bitter because that requires too much negative energy. For me, I needed to understand for myself why I was fired, to understand that the company was going through a difficult time. And then I needed to get to work again.
And you certainly did! You founded a new beauty brand with Revlon. Tell us about it…
I had the incredible opportunity to create a new beauty brand, Flesh, with a really exceptional, smart, energetic, passionate (I could go on and on) small team. I’d been thinking about creating a beauty brand for years, and Flesh is the culmination of all that thought and experience. With Flesh, I wasn’t aiming for makeup that covered up the skin or altered the face, because that would suggest that it needed covering and altering. I wanted Flesh to reveal and enhance a person’s natural beauty with products that feel as good and luscious as they look. The brand is focused on skin, with 40 foundations and varied undertones to match every complexion. We worked obsessively with one of the best makeup artists on the planet and with labs in Italy and the US, formulating and reformulating again and again to create colors that don’t look chalky or ashy or in any way unnatural. We also designed an extensive range of highlighters and blushes for every skin tone, and our nude lipsticks are for every shade of nude. We added vivid, pigment-rich lipsticks and eye shadows designed to be tools of style and self-expression. It’s important to me that Flesh isn’t a sexy line for someone else’s approval; it’s sensuous, for your own pleasure.
Flesh is carried in Ulta stores and on ulta.com. The best-selling products are Fleshpot, a glimmery gloss for eyelids, cheeks and lips; Fresh Flesh Illuminating Primer, which makes your skin look like it got eight hours of sleep on a tropical island; and Firm Flesh Thickstick Foundations, our stick foundations that also work brilliantly as concealer and contour. Ta da! That’s my product pitch!