The best aren’t chosen because of the makeup tips, surprisingly. Or the skincare. Or anything else objectively beauty-related for that matter. No, in my experience, the best Top Shelves read like meeting your idols over lunch. The beauty talk is there so you have something to connect over—I imagine filling in the paragraph breaks with my own routine, comparing what I do to what they do, how my skin feels to how they describe theirs. Beauty feels very intimate, you know? And once that foundation of trust is laid, we can get into the really juicy stuff, like how they got to where they are. I didn’t know you could actually reach out to strangers you admired for informational interviews until after I graduated college—but I’d been reading ITG for much longer than that. Between the vitamin C recommendations and Weleda Skin Food mentions lies a handbook for aspiring professionals, and you needn’t send a cover letter to an info address to access it.
Here are the ones I’ve kept in my back pocket as I try to navigate my own career—some are helpfully specific for writers or aspiring editors, some include soothing reminders for my stress-addled 20-something brain, but my favorites are the ones that remind me no one really has any idea what they’re doing. Glowing skin notwithstanding.
Alessandra’s beauty recommendations are serious where they need to be (splurge on vitamin C!), thrifty where they don’t (a great cleanser can be pretty cheap!), and all of her nice-to-have extras come with an inexpensive option, too (swap Skinceuticals for Niod, Jurlique for Glossier, etc.). But what really stood out to me was her career path—the consummate beauty editor studied econ and math! I think coming at beauty from a different perspective left her advice with a cool logic that I found really appealing. Consider this hot take: “I’m a huge believer in skincare, obviously, but you need to understand what it can and can’t do. I think we sometimes expect miracles, and I think that’s something we need to work on.” So, I always loved Alessandra’s Top Shelf. It even inspired this story, my second ever published on the site. But admiration turned to pure respect when I actually met her and—I shit you not!—from the other side of a very long table, she correctly guessed the brand and shade of my brown eyeliner. I mean?? This is someone who loves her job.
The quote that really spoke to me: “My grandmother would have all these Italian and Paris Vogues, so I would spend summers sitting among all the seamstresses, looking at all these magazines. But I was never drawn to the clothes—I was always drawn to the faces, the makeup, the hair. I guess being a curvy girl, I couldn’t really identify with the outfits. Beauty was so much more accessible, it was so much more democratic… Everyone can wear a lipstick.”
The year was 2004, and Top Model hopeful Catie was crying on TV because someone named Simon Doonan said her fishnet tights and legwarmers made her look like a hooker. Who was this Simon Doonan? Of course, not just a reality show style consultant—and in his Top Shelf he recounts the story of his career with equal parts nihilism (“I’m a believer that nothing is important”) and a sense of humor. It feels like a weighted blanket draped over your shoulders when your own career path isn’t making a lot of sense. The thing to learn from Simon is that you never know where opportunities are going to come from, and when they do pop up, you should take them. There’s also enough dreamily recounted anecdotes of ‘70s fashion and clashing patterns to cheer you up on a meh kind of day—the fact that he calls makeup by its baroque synonym ‘maquillage’ says everything you need to know about this man’s aesthetic sensibilities.
The quote that really spoke to me: “My career has been about jumping on things and being thrown into them. It’s a millennial thing to have this sweeping vision of your future and your career. No wonder you all have anxiety disorders!”
The type of comedy I find funniest is when the comedian plucks some normal thing out of the everyday and shines just enough light on it to make it seem bizarre. It’s why I love John Mulaney, and Larry David—it’s also why I love Jia Tolentino, who is not a comedian, but whose work often reads like what would happen if you let a 15-year-old girl choose the subject of a Harvard course. Nothing is too small, or odd, or frivolous to be observed, and dissected, and intellectualized—and it happens to be a good way to approach beauty, too. Jia’s Top Shelf is how I found my favorite lash extension spot and finally reckoned with the fact that a bold lip does look a lot better on my face than a bold eye. lf, perchance, this story happens to cross the desk of Jia herself, I would like her (you?) to know that I formally place my bid to be her (your??) best friend.
The quote that really spoke to me: “I should go to therapy, but what I do is smoke a ton of weed. One of my favorite things to do to relax is to put my speaker in the shower, get high, and take a really stoned shower listening to an album that I really love.”
A true story: Jean is the beauty editor at Goop, and when I was still a student, I found out she would be doing free beauty consultations at their store in New York. Jean is a seasoned beauty editor—before Goop she helmed the beauty department at Lucky (as detailed in Cat Marnell’s How To Murder Your Life, required reading for any aspiring editor) and before that, she was at Elle. I booked a complimentary timeslot and used my 15 minutes to ambush her with my resume, and everything I needed to know to craft that pitch I found in her Top Shelf. Read it for yourself and you’ll find lush foliage, perfectly tousled natural waves, and probably some of the best career advice for writers this site has ever published—then, when you’re done, go back and read her The Professional interview for even more.
The quote that really spoke to me: “I still believe that you can write about a lipstick, you can write about an old tire, it doesn’t matter. Can you make it entertaining for a person to read? People will come to interview with me and say, ‘I love beauty products!’ and I’m like, ‘Wrong answer!’ If that’s your reason for doing this, you’re not going to write very interesting stories.”
Isabel Marant is the only designer I have a saved search for on The Real Real—I can never afford her clothes, but am always chasing that easy cool they always seem to manage. So it was surprising for me to read that the queen of cool wasn’t born fully-loaded with overwhelming self-confidence, saying in her Top Shelf, “I think it wasn’t until the age of 40 that I really felt comfortable with myself. It takes time!” Moral of the very chic 950-word story? Before you’re 40, or even 30-flirty-and-thriving, you’ve got to flop around a little. There really is no way around it.
The quote that really spoke to me: “I’ve been preparing to be old for a long time, so I think when I turned 45, I put in my head that I’m going to be 50. If you prepare yourself getting old, then you are much more easy with getting older.”
Photo via ITG