With Michelle Lee at the Helm, Allure Is Blowing Up How Our Culture Defines Beauty

Meet Adweek’s Editor of the Year

Michelle Lee recently made a groundbreaking proclamation that Allure would no longer use the term 'anti-aging.'
Photo: Hannah Choi

For generations, products promising to “turn back the clock” have been the bread and butter of the beauty industry. According to a study from Orbis Research, the global anti-aging market was worth $250 billion in 2016, while searching for the term “anti-aging” on Sephora’s website turns up 1,700 results, from the usual serums and creams to anti-aging shampoos, herbal supplements and silk pillowcases.

The fight against age is also a persistent topic in women’s media—especially glossy magazines like Condé Nast beauty bible Allure. Until now, that is.

Two months ago, the magazine’s editor Michelle Lee made a proclamation that, for a brand like Allure, was positively groundbreaking: the magazine would no longer use the term “anti-aging.” That message was trumpeted across that title’s September cover, which featured 72-year-old actress Helen Mirren, and in Lee’s editor’s letter, where she called on the industry to stop “reinforcing the message that aging is something we need to battle.”

That decision is emblematic of the refreshingly modern point of view that Lee brought to Allure when she joined the magazine in 2015.

Allure’s subscription beauty box has seen 40 percent growth in the past four months thanks to a revamped product strategy and new website.

“It’s really become a higher mission for us to truly redefine beauty,” she says. “I want us to look at the things that we’re doing and think about how they have larger consequences for society and for women, and for us to really challenge the antiquated way that women’s publishing used to do things.”

One of the many ways that Lee is helping Allure meet that goal is by bringing more diversity to the magazine’s pages—which, she makes sure to point out, isn’t just a talking point. “In media and elsewhere, I know ‘diversity’ is definitely a buzzword right now, but the thing that makes me the most proud of our diversity is that I truly do believe that it’s coming from a totally real and raw and authentic place,” she says, pointing to content like the magazine’s April cover feature, which featured 41 women of color sharing their candid thoughts on race, inclusion, politics and more.

And it’s not just ethnic diversity that Allure is spotlighting. “If we really do want to be inclusive and diverse with what we cover, it’s important that we don’t look at diversity in such a narrow way,” notes Lee. To that effect, she championed a new video series, Dispelling Beauty Myths, which features women talking about everything from body hair and weight to albinism and mastectomies, brought transgender activist Janet Mock onboard as a contributing editor, and put Muslim model Halima Aden on the cover of the July “American Beauty” issue, marking the first time that a woman in a hijab had ever been featured on the cover of a major American publication.

In July, Halima Aden became the first hijab-wearing model on a mainstream u.s. magazine cover.

While Lee admits that she wasn’t sure early on how Allure’s longtime fans would react to the brand’s shifting point of view—“People can be very allergic to change,” she says—the transformation has been a massive success with readers both old and new. As of August, Allure’s average monthly cross-platform audience had grown 30 percent year over year to 5.9 million, per MPA – The Association of Magazine Media. Its drastically redesigned website, led by digital editorial director Phillip Picardi (who also holds the same title at Teen Vogue), saw traffic increase 24 percent YOY in the third quarter, while video views are up more than 400 percent to 10 million from 1.6 million.

Lee is already setting the stage for more innovation in 2018, noting that she wants to bring the Allure brand to readers with more consumer-facing events, ecommerce integrations (in fact, she recently hired two new staffers to focus on ecommerce specifically) and personalized digital products (like the new Best of Beauty chatbot that lets readers get beauty recommendations from Allure editors).

As for that anti-anti-aging initiative, Lee is hopeful that Allure’s message will continue to reverberate throughout the beauty industry. “As with any massive change, it takes time, but we had an overwhelming number of brands telling us that in 2018, they want to hop onboard,” she says. “I think there’s going to be a tipping point.”

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This story first appeared in the Oct. 30, 2017, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.