Monday, December 9, 2013

Kathleen Hou: Beauty Editor at NY Magazine's The Cut


The Cut is known on the web as the go-to site for fashion news with a side of snark. The witty, but endearing tone of the site might have a lot to do with it's inherited history from its parent site — New York Magazine. About two months ago, The Cut announced that it was bringing on Kathleen Hou as its new beauty editor. Since then, The Cut has been serving up some amazing content including new installments of its GIF beauty tutorials that will have your eyes glued for hours (seriously). Ever so interested in how one lands such a rad position at one of web's fastest growing fashion companies, I prodded Kathleen's brain and got the scoop on how she ended up at The Cut and what advice she has for beauty editor hopefuls.

Congrats on the new job! How excited are you to be embarking on this journey at The Cut?

I’m incredibly thrilled! I’ve read The Cut for years, going back to the Amy Odell days and before it became the multimedia site it is today. NYMag was, and still is, one of the few rare sites I read from page to page for news and for humor. I’m so excited to be joining the illustrious, creative, super-smart, kind, and talented Cut team.

You previously wrote for NY Mag before coming on full-time as the beauty editor. How did you transition freelancing into an editor position?

Although I was freelance for a period of time before I was at NYMag, I wrote very little for NYMag. I actually did their store listings for a period of time which is a small piece of writing for the site and was unpaid. But I did it for the clips and for the tiny, tiny, byline. Also, because I was so impressed by the level of editing that went into these store listing write-ups, which are literally a paragraph, but on which I would get edit notes. It just showed a level of detail and care that was indicative of NYMag’s editorial heritage and although maybe some people found them annoying, I thought it was great.

Freelancing is tough. It has its challenges. And some people are very happy to be always freelancing, rather than take an editor position. My advice to those who do want to transition is to build up good relationships with your editors and treat them like your mentors. If a full-time job is what you want, be vocal about it and mention that it’s something you’re interested in once you've built up a relationship of course (no one likes to be used for their connections.) Editors hear of jobs from other editors, usually long before they are posted on a job-hunting site, and they can pass these onto you if they know you are interested. And of course, good/hard work goes a long way. Even if you are freelancing for a place, it never hurts to treat it as if it is your full-time, in terms of the level of care, detail, and ownership that you put into your work. People remember that work ethic and it can only serve you well in the long run.

Most people can see a little glimmer of who they are today in their childhood self. What were you like as a kid? Were you beauty obsessed?

Not really. I think that beauty culture comes a lot from your matriarchial role models and in my case, those were my mom and my aunts. My mom was into beauty, but I wouldn’t call her obsessed, since she only cared about skincare and perms. I used to spend my summers in Asia and we spent a lot of time on the beauty floor of department stores, where 6-step skincare routines were and still are, the norm. The other half of my summers were spent in perm chairs. My mom made me get perms every year starting from when I was 6 till I was 10. I hated them and never understood why she made me get them. Years later, she admitted it was so she didn’t have to brush my hair. I also recall my aunts being into Christian Dior lipsticks.

Apart from that, I remember being in the first grade and having to choose an advertisement to copy for a drawing. We were doing it with the assistance of fifth graders, as a buddy project. I recall everyone else choosing ads for trucks, cookies, toys, or like Tampon commercials, because they look happy, I guess? Instead, I chose this ultra-glamorous ad for Revlon red lipstick. I was the only one who chose a makeup ad. I thought it looked beautiful. So I guess there was a little beauty-obsessor in me from the very beginning.

The Cut exists solely online, what benefits are there in keeping everything on the web?

There’s an immediacy to the web that is very exciting. You can break news, read things immediately, write something and have it post in seconds, and a wealth of information is at your fingertips. You can get images of a fashion show within seconds of it happening. You can get reactions and responses to a piece or picture immediately. You can connect directly to your readers—you have a much better sense of who your readers are, since there is a digital roadmap. You know what they’re clicking on, how long they’re clicking, where they’re from, and how they got to your site. Additionally, there’s the technology and innovation. Every day, there are new ways to tell stories that are being developed, from multimedia, to pictures, to animation, to video—and that’s exciting.

Any difficulties?

At the same time, the immediacy is certainly challenging. We work at a fast and furious pace at The Cut, so it can feel like it’s difficult to get a breath in. Also, people who are very visual, especially those in the fashion and beauty industry, tend to fetishize paper, sometimes. Readers have different reactions to images on paper than they do on the web, and the same thing goes with stories. But what drew me to The Cut was that I felt like it combined a print aesthetic, with its focus on beautiful imagery and curated products, with the immediacy and sharp news reporting and story telling, you can find on the web. I still feel like it’s the best of both worlds.

You started out working in finance and ended up in fashion/beauty--completely different arenas. How did you bridge the gap?

It was really hard. As you probably can guess, not many editors are looking to hire editorial assistants or editors with zero publishing experience. My attempts to apply to those jobs while in Finance went unanswered. When I decided writing was what I was interested in, I did a lot of informational interviews. I reached out to editors of magazines and sites I loved and asked to talk with them about their careers. I think the key is when you are trying to make a big decision or career change, and have no direct way to go about it, you need to take baby steps to reach your goal and not be completely frustrated by not accomplishing it immediately. So I started doing a little writing on the side, while I was still in Finance. I was inspired by people like Katie Baker, who did some freelance sports writing for Deadline while she was at Goldman Sachs and eventually transitioned to writing full-time.

A friend of mine introduced me to a friend of his (Carolyn Hsu), who had a beauty blog. We became friends and I started writing for them. We were lucky that the site took off with the zeitgeist of beauty/fashion blogging and that was my introduction into the world of beauty and fashion reporting. I got to go to Fashion Week for the first time, thanks to that blog and “practice” writing. After doing that for a while, while still working fulltime in Finance, I knew it was what I wanted to do full-time. So I did a crash course in magazine and book publishing at Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and that was really helpful, since it’s considered a “farm team” of sorts into the publishing industry. Lindy Hess and Susan Caplan were so kind and supportive of my career dreams. A professor of mine from the course was launching a business news start-up and after the program, I went to go work there. That was my first editorial job.

You posted a pic with Pam Anderson and joked that the turtleneck you were wearing was a faux pas. How do you go about choosing the right clothes for events/work?

Haha – that was a bit of a joke because I thought it was a bit ironic that I was taking a picture next to the sexiest woman in the world, wearing one of the most demure shirts EVER. Like, I might as well have been wearing corduroy high waisted pants, clogs, and a puffy shirt.

I wish I could say something very wise and smart here about how I choose the right clothes for events/work but I still don’t know if I do. I like to be comfortable, and that is a combination of actually being comfortable (not cold, not wearing things that cut off my circulation), things that fit well, and items I feel are appropriate to the occasion. I feel my best when I can hit all three. It took a while, but I’m a more thoughtful purchaser of clothing than I was when I was younger. I buy things less frequently. My goal with shopping is to increase my 20/80 rule (the Pareto principle that you wear 20% of the things you buy 80% of the time and vice versa.) I think I’m at 30/70 now.

What beauty look would you suggest for a super important interview?

A beauty look that you feel comfortable with. It also depends on the interview, whether it’s a corporate or creative situation. Beauty is meant to showcase you—what you are about, so you should pick something that you feel confident in. But don’t force a new look on your interview. I strongly feel that you fit in better with the culture of a particular company if you don't force it and that includes your beauty look and sense of self (to an extent, such as with tattoos-- your choice on whether to cover it up.) If you don’t normally do bedhead hair or a downtown look and you are interviewing at Alexander Wang, that will be tricky. Even, moisturized skin, untired eyes, a natural-looking blush, and clean-ish hair are always good things. And some people in the fashion and beauty industry especially, are crazy about manicures. I find all the fuss about a chipped nail to be kind of exhausting, but to be safe before a big interview, I’d also suggest a manicure or at least, even nails. If you’re interviewing somewhere conservative, use a neutral polish.

What plans do you have for The Cut in the next year or so?

We hope to continue to expand the beauty coverage. Christina Han, The Cut’s previous and first-ever beauty editor, did a wonderful job of establishing it as a beauty authority. What we hope to do next is to continue to grow that, by publishing more pieces of content, and delving deeper into the larger meaning of beauty. That can be anything from anthropology, to skincare, to makeup, to wellness, to science. Beauty has multiple meanings to different people, so we hope that The Cut explores some more of that. We hope to look at beauty with the same incisive eye as our fashion coverage while at the same time, keeping it fun and providing our readers with the service-y content they need. We’ll do stories about the best red lipsticks – but we’re going to do them with a different angle or in a different way. As you’ve probably read today, the magazine will become a biweekly rather than weekly magazine. For the first time ever, The Cut will have pages in the print magazine, so that’s very exciting.

Any advice for beauty editors in training?

Have fun with things and as Robin Givhan says, don’t take things personally. Find your personal voice in beauty and don’t be afraid to do things differently. Be kind to publicists and people.

**image credit**