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All the beauty products he could ever want

A glossy magazine beauty editor spills about the daily routine, the stories he loves, and Oprah.

By Alix Strauss

Brian Underwood is the beauty director of Oprah Magazine, a position he’s held for the past two years.

Glossy magazines are endangered. Why do you still work at one?
I gravitate towards print because at the end of this process you can pick it up, hold it, and live with this thing you’ve been working on. It’s an intimate tactile experience that feels like a prize.  

What is a typical day like for you?  
It really varies. I can be at the office most of the day, editing or writing copy, or I could be on set at a shoot or on a sales call with our advertising team. I attend a lot of press events where they unveil forthcoming products for us to consider highlighting in the magazine. We have product meetings to make sure we’ve selected the right items, pitch meetings where we share ideas for potential stories with top editors, and meetings with the art team to talk through what will be most impactful for a story.

Is it fun getting all those products? Yes.

What do you think you bring to this job, as a man who doesn’t use some of these products daily? 
My ignorance works in my favor because if specialists can explain things in a way that I can understand, then I know our reader, who may not be as intimately acquainted with beauty, can do the same. Sometimes it’s just about asking good questions and always challenging what’s been told to you.

What makes a beauty product worth writing about?
The innovation and science involved in creating a product is fascinating to me, and often overlooked. I also love uncovering an angle that hasn’t been explored before.

What are some of your favorite stories?  
We did a piece on skin cancer outreach in communities of color, which won the Skin Cancer Foundation’s Media Award. It was an extremely proud moment. We did a story about fragrance and skin chemistry, which was told in a unique and interesting way. And we just did an eco story, which felt topical. It wasn’t just gloom and doom; it was actionable and service oriented. 

Beauty standards change over time. What are some important trends today? 
I think the natural texture movement in hair has been an amazing thing to witness. I love that women of color no longer feel they need to adhere to traditionally Caucasian standards of beauty by straightening their hair. It’s about embracing and loving who you are — and that’s powerful. As the father of a multi-race little girl, I’m so heartened by that. 

You must have a beauty regimen of your own.  
I follow the same general skincare routine, just swapping out similar products to test new ones out. I’m a firm believer in using a retinoid at night — it’s one of the few topical cosmetic ingredients with reams of research behind its efficacy, and the only ingredient approved by the FDA to stimulate collagen and soften the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.

When people find out what you do for a living, what are the first things they ask?  
What’s Oprah like? (Confident, no-nonsense, and warm. And yet when I see her, I feel dumbfounded and in awe, like I’m a high school student who’s tongue-tied.) Is it fun getting all those products? (Yes. That sense of fun never ends.)  

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Illustration by Verónica Grech


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