How Michelle Lee Created A New—And Inclusive—Definition of Beauty
As part of the reporting for Tatler’s August cover story, we speak to Michelle Lee, the former editor-in-chief of Allure magazine, who tells us how she shook up the beauty industry by putting models of colour on the cover
In July 2017, when former US President Donald Trump issued a travel ban that disproportionately affected Muslims wanting to enter the country, Michelle Lee, Allure magazine’s then editor-in-chief, decided to put hijab-wearing model Halima Aden on the front with the coverline, “This Is American Beauty Now”. “We were making a larger cultural statement,” Lee says.
Lee and her team are part of the ongoing movement this decade to promote racial and gender diversity in the entertainment, advertising and media industries where, pre-2015, as Lee puts it, the definition of beauty was “tall, white, thin—rinse and repeat”. “Occasionally, you’d see a non-white—but light-skinned—celebrity or model on a magazine cover, but maybe once or twice a year. Editors were always looking at numbers and thinking about ‘who would sell’ on the cover and they’d land on the same handful of white A-list stars,” she says.
But she didn’t subscribe to that belief. Growing up in Connecticut, Lee faced her share of prejudice: her white schoolmates fired racist slurs at her, and convinced other kids not to let her sit down on a school bus. “I don’t think people realise how traumatic this bullying can be, especially when you’re a sensitive young person,” she says. “I withdrew and became so quiet for many years; I had an immense amount of anxiety for a very long time.”
Even after she became an editor, Lee says she still experience microaggressions in the workplace and harassment on the street. She says Asian women are “often not elevated to the highest levels because of stereotypes that we’re not strong leaders. We have to battle the old stereotypes about Asian women: that we’re either dragon ladies or we’re meek and submissive.”
When she took on the role to lead the major American beauty magazine Allure, she decided to shift the narrative by putting people on her covers who weren’t household names at the time. She was eager, too, to celebrate all minorities, not just her own. “People may assume that every Asian beauty editor is only into K-beauty,” she says. “In my mind, beauty is all about appearance and that has everything to do with race, skin color, gender, body, ability and age.”
Over the years she put a wide variety of faces on Allure’s covers: Indian actress Priyanka Chopra Jonas, South Korean singer Jay B, Japanese tennis player Naomi Osaka, Somali model Aden, Asian American actress Awkwafina, British Chinese actress Gemma Chan and many more. “As someone who’s worked in women’s publishing for years, I’ve often heard about the dangers of women’s media: that women’s media had pushed this narrative for many decades that women needed to starve themselves and fear ageing and consume many products, and that we had essentially made millions of women feel terrible about themselves for not fitting a certain standard of beauty," she says. And she didn’t just strive to promote racial diversity: last year, the magazine included a Black male hand model in a nail art story, and featured Ellie Goldstein, a model with Down’s Syndrome, on its digital cover to introduce a series called The Beauty of Accessibility.
Lee’s bold vision has occasionally been met with trolling, but she refuses to back down, even after her July departure from the magazine to move to Netflix. “There are so many rich conversations to be had about how so many people have been left out of the traditional beauty industry,” she says. “We’ve made it our mission to demolish that.”