Written By : Harper Spero
In high school, when I babysat, I saved all of my money to buy the newest MAC Cosmetics eye shadow. On Saturday afternoons, my friends and I’d take the Third Avenue bus up to Bloomingdales on 59th Street and scope out the latest colors – Sketch, Swish, Tilt and Silver Ring. In my senior year, I even matched my eye shadows to my shirts – pink, blue, purple and green.
After my sophomore year of college, a family friend offered me a PR internship at an internationally recognized beauty brand. I practically collapsed on the floor when I received this offer – dream come true.
My first few weeks at the brand consisted of organizing the product closet, putting together gift bags for editors and sending out international mailings. I spent one full day pouring a wannabe Coppertone fragrance into tiny individual bottles with a miniature funnel to send to national press. It didn’t matter how precise my pouring skills were, I still managed to reek of the beach for days.
After a few months getting acclimated as the intern, one of my managers left the company and my other manager, Nancy, empowered me to take on much of the work while they sought out a new hire. I was excited to be responsible for the workload that a public relations manager typically handled (yes, I was excited for more work, go figure). There I was, still in college taking a PR101 class, learning what a press release was, all while experiencing it first-hand, in real-time, at one of the top beauty brands in the world.
It was a rush. Until it all came crashing down.
There were a lot of nail-biting, cringe-inducing, gag-worthy moments of ego and arrogance, but, in retrospect, there were three occasions in particular that stood out. Three situations where I saw, very clearly, why public relations and the land of attempted perfectionism was not for me.
MOMENT OF TRUTH #1: LIAR, LIAR
For two months, the team consisted of me and Nancy. While we worked hard under intense pressure, we also played well in the sandbox together. We spent a lot of time together out of work and became close friends. Shortly thereafter, our boss, Amy, hired a new girl, Emily. Nancy and I immediately thought we would all click.
“I’ve always wanted to work for this brand – this is a dream job,” Emily said.
A few weeks in, Emily squealed with excitement about the weekend she had ahead of her.
“I can’t tell you what it is but if all goes well, I’ll tell you next week,” she swooned.
We didn’t know what to make of this so we just went forward with business as usual.
Emily came back to the office the following Monday and informed us that she was trying out for The Bachelor and had made it to the second round. The show’s producers were flying her to L.A. and she would have to take off a few days of work. She hadn’t accrued any vacation days yet and asked for my and Nancy’s support when she put in her request for time off with Amy. Emily acknowledged that she wasn’t going to tell Amy the whole truth but hadn’t made a decision on how to break the news. Nancy and I looked at each other and shrugged.
The next day Amy informed us that Emily was going to be out of the office for a few days because her suicidal brother was dealing with a drug problem and she had to take him to rehab. Wait, what? You’re going to audition for The Bachelor and your lie is something that horrific? Amy, the most stone-faced, unsympathetic person I had ever met in my life, felt awful for Emily and her family. She sent her flowers and told her to take as much time off as she needed.
Throughout the week that Emily was in L.A., she sent email updates to Amy about all the traumatic things that she was “going through with her brother.” When Amy brought it up to me and Nancy we were very nonchalant. We didn’t want to defend this awful situation and didn’t want to ruffle any feathers knowing the truth about the new girl.
Emily returned the following week and kept the lie going. She went through another round of interviews the following weekend in L.A. with management, still, none the wiser. While in the office, she attempted to print her itinerary but the printer got jammed. Her papers got stuck in the printer and the director of operations found it. It was then presented to Amy and new girl, Emily, was immediately fired. I went back to playing the managerial role.
This was one of the many times I was reminded that if you have to lie about something, it’s clearly something you shouldn’t be doing. She went on to be a successful beauty blogger and even managed to gain backstage access to fashion shows where the brand we used to work for would be doing makeup. In one instance, she spelled the owner of the company’s name incorrectly on her blog. To this day, I can’t believe she had the audacity to lie, especially at her “dream job.”
MOMENT OF TRUTH #2: ORIGAMI SKILLS REQUIRED
Every time a magazine or blog editor requested a product, I was responsible for finding it in the product closet, putting it in a black shopping bag with white tissue paper and filling out a label to put on the bag. One day, as I headed out to grab a sandwich and lemonade from Balthazar, Amy pulled me into her office and slammed the door behind us.
She had one of the black shopping bags in her hand and screamed at me saying, “Do you really think this is acceptable to send to Vogue or any of the other magazines?”
I stared back at her, stunned.
“If they receive something that is anything less than perfect they’ll immediately throw it out. Go to the mailroom, get all the bags and redo them so they look perfect!”
The label on the bag she was holding was slightly crooked and the tissue paper wasn’t folded with the precision of Martha Stewart.
This seemed over the top and unnecessary for me to be screamed at for. I genuinely feared losing my job over misfolded tissue paper and a label being a centimeter off center. Um, what?
MOMENT OF TRUTH #3: FLAWS AND ALL
The beauty brand I worked for handled the makeup backstage at an up-and-coming designer’s fashion week show (now a huge name in the industry) at a studio in Midtown Manhattan. It was a humid and rainy September day and I was responsible for running errands before heading to the studio. I walked into the venue, handed the bags of new purchases to Nancy and attempted to pull my sweaty self together. The owner of the brand stared at me. I was surrounded by models—stick thin models—who were handed tequila shots as they walked down the runway with the stage manager screaming “liven up!” at them to every step of the way. The owner continued staring.
The next thing I knew, the owner was talking to Amy and Nancy and all three of them were staring at me. I didn’t know what was going on or what they were saying. Minutes later the head of artistry came over and said, “I would absolutely love to do your makeup. Have a seat.”
Here we are backstage at a fashion week show and you want to do my makeup? I knew after schlepping around the city in the extreme heat my makeup was visibly worn and I didn’t look so polished. I wasn’t a pretty girl in the room – and they wanted to disguise me. Instead of being excited that the head of artistry wanted to do my makeup I felt completely ashamed and embarrassed by my appearance. I had disgusting skin and no matter how much makeup she was about to put on my face I wasn’t going to go away. She wasn’t going to be able to hide my imperfections. This was my face, this was my skin, this was me. As she applied layers and layers of makeup to my face, all I could think about was hiding in a dark hole by myself and never coming out.
When I was offered the internship I was convinced it was exactly where I was meant to be. These three situations, along with many others over my 18 months working at this beauty brand, opened my eyes. I made phenomenal friends and mentors while there. I learned a ton, received a bunch of free product and at the time I thought I was on the right track. After taking two other jobs in the beauty business I realized that my dream job was not all that glamorous, it was more like a middle school lunchroom. It was pretentious, petty and the gossip that I heard (and engaged in) had me feeling as though I was 13 again.
Working in the business of beauty was a different form of self-destruction for me. I was the ugly girl in the beauty world. I was obsessed with products because they helped me hide. I thought (hoped?) that by working in that industry and having access to endless products, I could hide. Instead, I stood out.
**Some names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.
About Harper Spero
Harper Spero is a New York City-based business and career transition coach who found a way to integrate passion with purpose. From music and beauty to social good and well-being, she uses her own journey through health scares, career transitions and self-discovery to inspire, motivate and drive people in the direction of their dreams. Harper loves helping aspiring or current entrepreneurs break free from toxic environments, create tactical plans for growth, and navigate their careers to bring balance, fulfillment and structure to their lives. Using a mix of customized tools and hands-on techniques, Harper coaches clients to get out of their comfort zones and cushy jobs to do things that totally light them up, creating freedom and flexibility. Her clients become risk takers unafraid to make a mark in entrepreneurship. Prior to coaching, Harper spent ten years leveraging brands through marketing, public relations, event production and digital media. Her previous clients include corporate heavyweights such as Johnson & Johnson, Disney, Ann Taylor as well as leading nonprofits such as the David Lynch Foundation, Lower Eastside Girls Club, Team Rubicon, Headstrong Project and Bent on Learning among others. Harper received her coaching certification from the Institute from Professional Excellence in Coaching (iPEC).
[image via shutterstock]