Sali Hughes, Pretty Iconic, Harper Collins, $34, 432 pp. October 2016
Sali Hughes’ newest book, Pretty Iconic, aims to create an aggregate of what she deems the most “iconic” beauty products of all time, as told from her own personal perspective. As a makeup artist and beauty journalist, Hughes has amassed an understandably wide repository of beauty products and tools to write about, resulting in a 400-plus page near-tome of surprising heft. It looks like and demands to be treated as an encyclopedia but isn’t. It is a coffee table book or novelty purchase at best. Read it like an encyclopedia though, as in don’t try to go cover to cover. It’s just as dull.
The entire text, save for the introduction and acknowledgments, consists of short never-over-a-page commendations of products, most with an accompanying photograph. The photographs are pleasing in a vacant way, their color blocked minimalism a slightly jauntier version of today’s post-Into the Gloss beauty product photography. Inexplicably, some products lack a photo, represented instead with an advertisement or line drawing, while others have no corresponding image at all. This is a minor annoyance, but the book would look a lot nicer if every product had one. Isn’t the kind of beauty under discussion all about appearance anyway?
Hughes organizes her book – and beauty products – into four categories; “The Icons,” “The Nostalgics,” “The Gamechangers,” “The Rites of Passage,” and “The Future Icons.” Why Hughes makes the introductory claim that all included products are iconic in some way while only denoting two sections for “icons,” I do not know; but it doesn’t matter because the only difference discernable between each section is the title. Indeed, I wish I could sense more of a categorical shift when it comes to the actual writing, but switch any review into a different section and it wouldn’t make a difference.
The reviews themselves range from setting a few facts or historical context to not saying much at all. I did glean a few facts from the book, for example, did you know Napoleon Bonaparte wore 4711 cologne, and that Jo Malone had dyslexia? The book actually has a good amount of similarly useless and interesting pieces of information scattered throughout, but it’s all intercut with personal insights too garrulous for the one-page, one-product format. By the time the last section comes around with Hughes detailing her own personal love and strangely credulous professional assessment of Urban Decay Naked Palettes and Charlotte Tilbury Eyeshadow Quads I, a seasoned makeup consumer, found it difficult to not conflate both products, or to care about anything Hughes said about either.
Admittedly, the book touts itself as “a personal look at the beauty products that changed the world” – it’s actually right on the cover. But for someone who makes their living as a beauty writer I’d expect Sali Hughes to write more compelling beauty anecdotes. Instead the book has write ups like the one on “bath cubes” where Hughes reveals more about her grandmother’s bathroom cabinet than what bath cubes actually are, which would be fine if the story was actually interesting. Beauty practices and the products involved are deeply individual, so I’m not claiming that Pretty Iconic fails because of Hughes’ decision to focus on her personal experiences. The book actually doesn’t fail at all, Hughes achieves exactly what she set out to do: The book presents a list of products Hughes claims are important in some way or other, and she explains why. That being said, the final product is just plain boring.
In the introduction, Hughes asks readers to send her stories about their own favorite beauty products, an easy request since Hughes includes her email, twitter, Instagram, and even a hashtag for discussion on the first page of the book. Hughes, as a columnist for The Guardian, used her influence to create an online community for makeup-loving women (and presumably, men as well?), and it appears the book is a continuation of that effort. Sadly, book feels less like a chat with a friend and more like a run-in with that one dreaded acquaintance who just won’t shut up.