Through our Speaking to Media series, we’re passing the mic to those in the trenches: the ones putting our brands on a pedestal and telling stories from one-of-a-kind perspectives. They’re also the ones losing their jobs and platforms as our media landscape shrinks smaller and smaller.
We’re talking to Lesa Hannah, former beauty director at ELLE Canada and FASHION, six months after being let go in 2020. Now, she’s navigating the freelance world and sharing her highs and lows along the way.
Here’s what she has to say.
Before landing your first “grown up” job, what role did beauty play in your upbringing? What is it about beauty that makes you tick now?
As a kid, it brought me joy through using sponge curlers in my hair before bed and wearing Maybelline Kissing Potion, which was flavoured roll-on lip gloss for those too young to remember. Then like any teen, I used it to help identify with my tribe and express myself. I had a goth phase and wore red lipstick and liquid eyeliner and also painted on lower lashes like the 60s model Twiggy.
Now, I am super interested in how beauty is related to pop culture and storytelling (when I got furloughed last year I started an Instagram account called The Makeup Trailer which focuses on hair and makeup in film and TV), how it reflects where we are as a society (star shaped zit stickers, why the mullet is trending, dental care turns cool) and anything to do with innovation. Beauty history is also endlessly fascinating to me.
What is your personal mandate you’re aiming to accomplish through storytelling? At what point in your career did you develop your own voice?
To put the spotlight on something the reader may not have been aware of, as well as teach them something in a compelling, engaging way. This can often be amplified with great quotes, but that is often down to luck with what you get out of your sources.
It took awhile, but I would say I really developed my own voice around the age of 34. When I started my career—and this is something I think most of us do when we are starting out—I sort of mimicked what I saw in other fashion magazines because I thought that’s what was expected. But then two things happened: when I would read stories I really liked, I would analyse what it was that I liked about them and try to learn from them and I ditched the idea of sounding like everything else because a lot of it was terribly cliche. Jean Godrey-June’s writing for Lucky Magazine also really inspired me because it was so evocative and distinct. Same with Liz Armstrong, who used to be the beauty editor for a site called Hint Magazine. I remember writing down words and turns of phrases that she would use in the back of a notebook. It was the start of me really wanting to elevate my voice around a topic that most people see as superficial.
What types of story ideas motivate you most? Any words of wisdom to my fellow PR peeps trying to get your attention?
I love interviewing founders and beauty creatives who have interesting stories, are a bit rebellious and have strong opinions (the French are great for that I’ve found. Just really unfiltered, it’s the best). I like writing pieces that explore a shift in the industry or the way things have been done and how and why they’re changing. I also love deep dives into something iconic. If you’re offered amazing access, that makes it even more exciting because you can write a better story if you can include an experience in it. If you want my attention, pitch me anything that relates to the above.
Have any gifted products become a holy grail? Are there any brands or products you have your eyes on?
Say what you will about Goop but the GoopGlow Exfoliating Instant Facial really is amazing as is their 20% Vitamin C + Hyaluronic Acid Glow Serum. I love Omorovicza’s cleansing balm, essence and mist. Biologique Recherche P50 and Masque VIP 02 continue to be unparalleled. I can’t exist without a good berry lip colour; right now it’s either Hermes lipstick in Violet Insensé or Bite Beauty Power Move Creamy Matte Lip Crayon in Acai Smash. When I make an effort with my skin coverage, I am loving Ilia Super Serum Skin Tint SPF 40 and Kosas Revealer Concealer. Weleda Skin Food is a must for hands, Jao Brand Goe Oil is just divine and Sangre de Fruta Botanical Body Cream is still the most insane texture in a body cream I’ve ever tried.
I’ve been eyeing this new makeup brand Saie and I’d love to try the Dr. Gross Spectralite FaceWare Pro Mask.
What’s your hot take on the state of the Canadian media landscape right now?
Pre-pandemic, it felt like it was barely hanging on but now its demise has been accelerated, with closures and layoffs continuing. Things feel shaky but like anyone else in the industry, I hope what still remains can survive.
You made an unexpected shift into freelancing in 2020. What are some of the new challenges and rewards you’re facing?
Something that no one tells you is that even if you’ve spent the last 20 years on staff at national magazines, when you are spit out into the freelance world, in some ways you are starting over. Just recently, I was asked for writing samples. It also doesn’t take long for you to fall off media lists. Pitching is really hard too because in the past if I had a story idea, I already had a platform for it. Now I have to find a place for it and convince the editor of the value of it and that can be frustrating and demoralizing. Also the rates have really dropped; I used to assign stories at $1/word but now the going rate is 50-75 cents a word and includes photo research, which I never had my freelancers do. Not discovered any rewards yet, sorry!
What are your favourite Canadian publications to consume? Name a few journalists you’re rooting for!
I really like what The Kit does and I am excited to read anything by my talented friends who include Sarah Daniel, Nathalie Atkinson, Rani Sheen, Olivia Stren and Leah Rumack.
Last but not least, how are you staying sane during lockdown?
Daily bike rides, socially distant meetups outside with friends, discovering new music on Spotify and tuning in to hear my friends Alex and Brian host their community radio show broadcast from Stonehaven, Scotland on Mondays and Fridays. They play my requests and give me shout-outs on air.
If you’re reading this, go support and subscribe to your favourite publications. We will never stop shouting from the mountaintops to support Canadian media.
If you’re a Canadian journalist interested in sharing your story with our community, give us a shout at firstname.lastname@example.org!
Feature photo credit: Justin Aranha