Sali Hughes is one busy woman. Thousands of us have a regular appointment with her long-running column in the Guardian. Then there’s her YouTube channel. And her blog. And her radio show with India Knight. And her features for other media outlets. And that’s before we even get to social media. Did we mention she’s also a single mum? So yes, Sali Hughes is an expert juggler, a consummate multi-tasker and a woman who seems to have it all. Not content with one bestseller in print (Pretty Honest, 2014), she’s now published Pretty Iconic: a second book which is sure to delight beauty fans of all ages.


Pretty Iconic is a fascinating insight into the ‘beauty products that changed the world’ – which may seem like a (ahem!) pretty bold claim. However, factor in Hughes’ customary wit, unquestionable expertise and genuine passion for beauty, and it’s perhaps not as far-fetched as one might think. As much as home on the coffee table as on the nightstand, Pretty Iconic is a nostalgic look at beauty products and the role they play in our lives – a book to dip in and out of, read from cover to cover, and come back to from time to time. We found out more about Pretty Iconic from Ms Sali Hughes herself…


How did you come up with the idea for Pretty Iconic – and how did you go about writing it?

I was in bed one morning and my partner was moaning about all the old makeup in the attic. I was explaining to him that I couldn’t bear to part with some products, because they were like a time capsule, a beauty mixtape of my life. I started typing up the names of products that mattered to me and within half an hour, I had over 300. My publishers were keen for another book and so I mentioned it to them, and luckily, they loved the idea.


I have no magic tips on writing a book. You either do it or you don’t, and there is no easy way. I know some authors who treat it like a normal job – they get up, go into an office and write from 9am, but that’s not an option for me. Writing books isn’t my day job and I’m a single mum, so I have to fit it around three regular columns in Guardian Weekend, The Pool and Empire, a radio show, magazine interviews and features, frequent event hosting bookings, catch-up appointments with beauty brands, as well as raising two kids. It’s tough and there are heaps of late nights, cancelled social engagements and a there’s great deal of stress, but it has to be done and I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to do it.

Are you concerned that the book will date?

Not really, because that is the point of any icon – it doesn’t date. The challenge with any beauty book is justifying why it’s not a magazine feature or a blog post. A book on the best products would need rewriting every year to keep up with advances in research and technology, but the point of Pretty Iconic is not to talk about the best, it’s to talk of the most important, resonant, nostalgic and game changing. Time can’t rob them of what they meant to me, the public, and the beauty world at large.


What’s the product that you have been using for longest?

I’ve been wearing Chanel No 5 since I was around 12 or 13 years old, so probably that. I don’t wear it every day – I love perfume too much to be monogamous and I never want No 5 to lose its specialness. But if it’s an important occasion, or one where I need something familiar, chic, serious, endlessly appropriate and refined – I’ll always reach for it. I call it my Backbone In a Bottle.


Who is an iconic beauty for you?

I have so many beauty icons – Kate Moss, Sherilyn Fenn, Barbra Streisand, Diana Ross, Zadie Smith, Liza Minnelli, Madonna, the original Supermodels. But I suppose my ultimate is Elizabeth Taylor. Apart from an absolutely exquisite face, she had such an earthiness about her, such sex appeal, passion, humour, mischief and overpowering femininity. I could – and do – gawp and gawp at her.


We’re total packaging junkies. Most iconic beauty packaging?

It’s interesting because when I was coming up with the concept for the book jacket, it occurred to me that Vaseline Petroleum Jelly, Clinique 3-step and Chanel No 5 must surely be the most iconic packaging designs in history, because they’re the only ones you can see in silhouette and instantly know what they are. I adore pretty packaging, but my taste in skincare packaging leans more towards the functional than the stylish. I loathe the beauty industry’s insistence on packing moisturiser in pretty jars, for example. I don’t want serums and oils in apothecary dropper bottles either. And I don’t want foundations in pots. I want airless pumps so the ingredients remain stable and the colours stay true.


The one item that you’d recommend to pretty much everyone – and why?

I don’t care who you are – unless you’re a newborn baby, you’re probably going to look better with a little dab of concealer. I test hundreds every year in search of the perfect one. My favourite in ages is Burberry Cashmere Cushion Concealer, which comes in the world’s easiest to use applicator – just dab on the thin layer and pat over blemishes and discolouration. For under the eyes, I apply the Burberry over the top of Bobbi Brown Corrector in Light Bisque or Becca Under Eye Brightening Corrector – you need something to cancel out the grey first.


What’s the question you’re asked most often?

“What’s your all time favourite product?” (I simply can’t choose), “Which one product would you want if stranded on a desert island?” (assuming I already have sunscreen as an essential health supply, I’d have a red lipstick like MAC Lady Danger, purely to cheer me up) and “Is Creme de la Mer worth the money?” (all is explained in Pretty Iconic!).


How do you feel about the portrayal of older women in the media?

It’s pretty appalling in all honesty, but I believe in giving credit where it’s due and there are some positive changes happening right now, albeit too slowly. The L’Oreal group is leading the way, in my view. Helen Mirren, Susan Sarandon, Julianne Moore and Diane Keaton for L’Oreal Paris, the return of the wonderful Isabella Rossellini to Lancôme, Cate Blanchett for Giorgio Armani Beauty – all these brands are owned by L’Oreal and doing great things for promoting beauty for women of all ages. Similarly, Clarins have been focusing hugely on mature and menopausal skin in the past couple of years, retailers like Selfridges have celebrated mature beauty with septuagenarian models.


The Guardian Weekend features at least one mature model in every issue and they never airbrush me (I’m 42 next birthday) to look younger. There’s a great deal more to be done. I’d like to see many more mature women of colour in mainstream media, for example. And I’d like Estée Lauder companies to focus not only on millennials, as they seem to be currently, but on their loyal, more mature customers too. I think they’ll swing back.


Contouring, strobing, OTT brows – young women are using more makeup than ever. Thoughts?

All that stuff may not be my cup of tea, but I will defend to the death any women’s right to look exactly as she chooses. It’s simply none of my business. What we should all be hoping for is more. More definitions and depictions of beauty. This cannot be all there is. We need to celebrate different looks, sub cultures, ethnicities, aesthetics, not unquestioningly conform to one narrow western physical archetype – young, white, thin of nose, high of cheekbone and brow.


We need to also identify beauty in old faces, dark skins, freckly skins, natural hair, crooked teeth, less-abled bodies and irregular features. Because it is definitely there, in abundance. Then young women might stop thinking they have to painstakingly facet their faces with contour cream, just to look like everyone else in a picture. It’s so old fashioned. We need to look forward.


Is there a next book?

Yes, I daresay I will write another book if there’s an appetite for one. But I don’t know what it’ll be yet, and I won’t dive in until I get a good idea. I’m not sure it’ll be a beauty book, but we’ll see. Writers need to live in order to have things to write about, views to take, thoughts to express. I’m a workaholic and it’s important that I remind myself to take time out so I remain inspired. I’ve been working too much this past year to write another book straight away. I need to get out and live a little first.

What does pretty mean to you?

Anything that gives me pleasure when I look at it – dogs, tattoos, flowers, my sons, a great roast dinner, my perfume collection, Brighton seafront, a cheeseboard, a favourite mug. It’s everywhere.

Sali Hughes’ Pretty Iconic is published by 4th Estate, and available to buy online here.