“I acutely understand that beauty is so specific to different cultures and different backgrounds — that element of the storytelling is so exciting to me.”
In our long-running series “How I’m Making It,” we talk to people making a living in the fashion and beauty industries about how they broke in and found success.
Probably no one would tell you that leaping into a new job, with a new team, at a new company, amidst an unprecedented global pandemic is easy. And Julee Wilson, who did exactly that when she began her role as Beauty Director at Cosmopolitan in early April, doesn’t pretend her latest career move was a breeze. Known for her ability to keep things honest and real, both on her personal social channels and in her published work, Wilson calls the past several months a “wild ride,” crediting the supportive editorial team at Cosmo with easing her settling in process.
But for someone who hasn’t even had a chance to visit her desk at the office yet, Wilson definitely seems to have things figured out: She jumped from Essence to Cosmopolitan without missing a beat, maintaining her same uplifting presence on Instagram, where nearly 60,000 fans follow her for beauty reviews, makeup and hair inspiration and adorable family photos. She’s already published scores of engaging stories, including ones about Black-owned beauty brands, Beyoncé’s 40+ wigs for “Black is King” and a celebrity hairstylist who became a Covid-19 nurse; and she’s even made time to appear on and moderate panels, like SCAD’s recent “Black Beauty Matters” discussion.
Several months after starting at Cosmo, the industry veteran — whose experience spans fashion, lifestyle and beauty across print and digital publications such as Real Simple and The Huffington Post — took the time to discuss her career trajectory, being a champion of Black women in beauty, the advice she’d give her past self and how her career has been driven by “standing in her dopeness” with Fashionista. Read on for the highlights.
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Tell me a bit about your personal and professional background. Did you know that you wanted to work in the fashion/beauty space from a young age?
I always knew I wanted to be a writer and my first love was fashion. I was obsessed with magazines growing up like most little girls, but for me, it was like, ‘How do I get there?’ Being a teacher, a doctor or a lawyer all have specific paths and I didn’t know how to become a fashion or beauty editor someday. I was really trying to figure that out as soon as I could.
After my freshman year in college, I started interning. I knew I had to start interning right away because I knew if I wanted to be the best and great in this industry I had to get my foot in the door, which meant I had to start early. My first internship was at Bergdorf Goodman, which I did the summer after my freshman year. After my sophomore year, I interned at Vibe magazine. After my junior year, I interned at Condé Nast Traveler magazine.
After I graduated, I tried to find a full-time job, but it was hard. So I ended up getting another internship at Parenting magazine and moved to New York City. After two months of doing that, I got my first full-time job at Real Simple magazine as the assistant to the editor-in-chief. I spent six and a half years there, moving up the ranks; the last title I held there was Staff Fashion Editor. After a great run there I went to The Huffington Post, because I recognized it was really important to learn digital. I spent four and a half years at HuffPost, and left to head to Essence magazine to be the Fashion and Beauty Director. Fast forward four years and I’m proudly now the Beauty Director at Cosmo.
What interests you about fashion and beauty, and why did you ultimately choose to focus on beauty as your main area of focus?
I started off in fashion because I just love clothes and how they inform our personal storytelling. I used to watch runway shows on Fashion File TV and write my own reviews at home — I always knew this is what I wanted to do someday. Thankfully, I was able to start my career in fashion.
I feel that fashion and beauty really go hand in hand and are so complementary to each other. When I transitioned from Real Simple magazine to the Huffington Post, that is where I first took on beauty. At the time, they needed someone that could be both a fashion and beauty editor, and I was really excited to take on that challenge. I quickly fell in love with beauty.
I think that as a Black woman, I acutely understand that beauty is so specific to different cultures and different backgrounds — and that element of the storytelling is so exciting to me. I really latched onto beauty and became hooked. As I’ve gotten older in my career, it’s really nice to be able to focus on beauty and be an authority in that space.
Can you tell me a bit about your time at HuffPost and how it led to your role at Essence?
HuffPost was really interesting because I always say my transition from Real Simple to HuffPost was like going from a monthly to a minutely. At Real Simple, I was working on three to four stories a month with shoots and the whole process of pulling together a print publication. At HuffPost I was responsible for writing three to five stories a day. So that was a huge challenge for me to learn how to tell stories quickly, effectively, interestingly — and try not to burn out in the process.
I feel like HuffPost was the Harvard of digital media and is where I learned how online media truly works, which has been really beneficial to my career. The diversification of my storytelling there is something I am really proud of. HuffPost allowed me to really create a lane for myself in becoming a voice around the lack of diversity and inclusion in the fashion and beauty industries. I think with the work I did there, people really saw me as a thought leader in that world, which in turn opened the door for me to go to Essence, a.k.a. Black Girl Magic headquarters. So really delving into being a Black woman in this space has definitely made me more confident, as well as a strong voice within the industry.
Tell me about your time at Essence. What are you most proud of that you accomplished during your tenure with the brand, and what aspects of working there were most fulfilling to you?
Essence is a really interesting place because to work alongside fellow smart, talented, accomplished Black women is rare, especially in this industry, which is extremely homogeneous. Being able to wake up every day and celebrate the dopeness of Black women is something that I’ve strived to do.
What went into your decision to make the jump from Essence to Cosmo? What opportunity did you see at Cosmo, both for your own career trajectory, but also in terms of what you might be able to bring to the role and offer to Cosmo?
It’s about standing in my dopeness and knowing that the work I did at Essence could continue. Black women are magic and I want my legacy to be that I made sure that message is spread everywhere. I celebrate everyone, all races, all skin tones, all everything. But the fact that I can come into an iconic brand like Cosmo, and really sprinkle some Black girl magic, just makes my heart sing. And the fact that the brand is supportive of that is incredible. I am so excited to be part of this badass team.
You seem to be someone who really packs her schedule full and makes an effort to be present and engaged at so many industry events, oftentimes leading or participating in panels and discussions as well. How do you manage the pace of that along with your editorial responsibilities?
I’m glad it looks like I make it work because I feel like I’m going crazy. Part of me is like, ‘I didn’t work this hard to just sit back and not do anything.’ You work this hard and you create a career that you want… you have to celebrate, expand and share it with the world. Being asked to be on a panel or to do interviews like this — they’re the battery in my back that reminds me that what I’m doing means something and that people are appreciating the work that I’m putting out into the world. It’s more of a responsibility to myself and my family who have sacrificed a lot for me to get where I am.
Is there anything you wish you’d know when you were first starting out your career? Any advice you’d want to give your younger self?
Stop worrying. I’m a worry-wart. I worry so much about the future and what’s next. Worrying is the opposite of faith. I’m just trying to have more faith in the fact that life will work out the way it should whether I’m stressing myself out or not.
How would you describe your approach to beauty journalism? Do you have any guiding philosophies or principles you are mindful to bring to your work, no matter what the context or brand you’re working for?
For me, it’s all about being unapologetic. I try to pull back the curtain. I try to take away the smoke in mirrors of the subject matter. It’s about authenticity. I like to keep it real.
You’re a champion of Black women throughout your work, on social media and in interviews, and you do such a great job of celebrating Black women in the beauty industry and beyond. How do you make that a priority, and what do you hope to accomplish through doing so?
Well, spoiler alert: I am a Black woman. And eternally proud of it. It’s hard not to celebrate what you see and who you are. That’s what brings me so much joy and pride in making sure that women of color feel seen and celebrated in this industry.
How important has social media been to helping you shape your career? You’re so active on Instagram, in particular, and it seems like you really want to give your followers access to you via the platform.
Social media is so much fun. I’m obsessed with Instagram because it’s like my own mini magazine and I love the fact that I can totally be myself. Again, it’s about authenticity. It’s about showing people my real life, because I do think that there’s this perception that being in the beauty and fashion industry is just so glamorous.
There are times where I wear the same outfit two times in the same week. I live in a four-story walk-up in Harlem that I love, not in some Park Avenue apartment with a car waiting for me. And I don’t have a closet full of designer clothes. My career is truly about passion. That’s what sustains me beyond the fleeting moments of glitz and glamour. Because there definitely are a few here and there, like all the beauty products I get sent, which I love.
How has it been settling into your new role at Cosmo while also experiencing all of the major shifts that have happened in the world over the past few months with the pandemic?
It’s been quite a wild ride. I haven’t even seen my desk [at the office] yet. That blows my mind. I’m eternally grateful to the Cosmo team for truly embracing me after starting in a way that is so unorthodox. The fact that I’ve been welcomed with such open arms and that everyone’s been so collaborative has been really nice. It’s allowed me to really get to know folks and tap into another level of creativity on how to tell these stories and how to create content from afar.
I love this quote from your Instagram: “I want to make sure that while I’m working, and while I’m pouring into my career, that I’m actually leaving something that’s of significance. I want to make sure that my words and my work leave a lasting impression and actually make some change in an industry that I truly love. And so, I think that this is the thing that inspires me the most. Making sure that my time and my seat at the table is not in vain.” I’m wondering if you can delve into that a little more? What type of “lasting impression” do you hope to leave, what kind of change do you hope to bring to the industry you love? How do you hope to use your “seat at the table” to the fullest extent?
That quote truly says it all. I just hope that when anyone ever hears my name, Googles me, sees my byline, catches me on a video or whatever the case may be — that the work I do has been impactful enough that it leaves an impression and a legacy that shows how much I poured into my work. I hope it shows that I left something of substance. I just want to make sure that if I’m involved in this work that it’s touching people’s lives, it’s moving the needle and it’s changing things in a positive way. I hate to be morbid, but we’re all here on borrowed time, so I am going to use the time I have to create some dope stuff.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
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