Beauty, Grace and Guts
I just engaged in three of the most aggressive work weeks of my career. Inspiring? Yes. Exhilarating? Without a doubt. Overwhelming? Absolutely. Last week, I shot the fall and winter portions of my cookbook – 50 recipes developed, tested, cooked, styled, and photographed, plus fall and winter tablescapes, lifestyle moments to capture throughout the process, 4 to 5 cover tries, and all of the creative direction and production for the shoot. That meant even little things like catering and schedule and shot lists and locations and call sheets all fell on my shoulders. The week prior to that I had to turn in my manuscript, including the book introduction, seasonal chapter intro, 100 recipe intros, and much more.
It was a lot to manage, particularly since I have never done anything on this scale before – so much trial and error and trusting my gut, but also flailing about with uncertainty and asking for help and advice. It was absolute mayhem, and also very exciting. I tend to do my best work under pressure, but this level of extreme strain did have me in quite a fragile state, with an abundance of tears streaming on cue, along with moments of debilitating self-doubt. It was quite the roller coaster of a journey.
These polarizing feelings of such high-octane joy counterbalanced by the extreme self-sabotage did have me feeling quite lonely at times. Sometimes I isolate myself when I get overwhelmed. I short out, I become all-consumed. And when this happens, I need to remind myself of two things. One, there have been many women before me who have embarked on something they were ridiculously uncertain about, and succeeded. And two, I really do need my tribe of women surrounding me to help me see me when I cannot see myself, to talk me off a ledge, and to offer support, a net so to speak, when I feel like I am freefalling.
Well, three weeks ago, at the beginning of the madness, I had the opportunity to be inspired by one fearless woman who changed the face of beauty and luxury and helped redefine the role of women in business. That woman was none other than Estée Lauder. And in delving into the inspired story of the Estée Lauder brand, I was also able to sit and talk with one of my dear friends, a woman who simply astonishes me with her grace, wisdom, and kindness, a woman who is a trusted part of my tribe, Carolyn Murphy.
I was invited to spend the morning touring the Estée Lauder Archives to get an up-close-and-personal understanding of Estée’s early beginnings, particularly the launch of the Re-Nutriv line. As I walked into the archive, the first thing I saw was a quote by Estée. “If you push yourself beyond the furthest place you think you can go, you’ll be able to achieve your heart’s dream”. I cannot even begin to tell you how badly I needed to hear those words on that morning. The groundbreaking Re-Nutriv cream changed the face of luxury (pun intended!), and Ms. Lauder had quite a bit of gusto to develop a cream on the market in 1956 for $115. I am told that would now equate to more than $1000. This was a bold move for a woman in the ‘50s and, I am sure there must have been plenty of pushback coming at Estée, but she pressed on and here we are, 60 years later, celebrating her.
It was incredible to see Estée’s hand-scribbled notes as she was coming up with the name for her groundbreaking cream. Many names were exed out and I found it fascinating to dive into her psyche, creativity, and vision as she was about to release something unknown to anyone at the time. She clearly went over and over and over again about what it should be called — she wanted it to be perfect. I can certainly relate to that! I am sure she believed in herself but I can also imagine that, just as it is for myself and many of us out there, it was likely scary to take such a bold risk. This thought somehow connected me to Estée, humanizing this larger-than-life icon.
As we toured the archives, Aerin Lauder talked about watching her grandmother ceremoniously engaging in her beauty ritual at her vanity, mixing together her foundation with her Re-Nutriv. Aerin also shared that when people ask about the one thing she learned from her grandmother, she always speaks of Estée’s passion and dedication. Estée once said, “You only have one face – take care of it.” Well thank you, Estée, for showing us how!
Later in the afternoon, I was invited into Estée’s private office. It was kept intact and pristine from her glory days – you could feel her in this space! Here I had a beautifully open conversation with Carolyn, who was celebrating her 15th year as the face of the Estée Lauder brand. What a milestone personally for Carolyn and for this iconic and timeless beauty label. As I shared, Carolyn is one of my ladies – someone with whom I spend summers surfing in Montauk or vacationing in Costa Rica, together with our children. But more than that, Carolyn is someone I look up to and admire. She is a woman who exudes kindness in all she approaches, a deeply spiritual and connected soul, and more than anything, a mama who is oh-so-wise. I look to her for everything from parenting advice to how to remain grounded in this crazy urban existence we live in. Over the years, it has become clear Carolyn is a kindred spirit — someone I know I can turn to when I feel vulnerable, which I did the night before this past cookbook shoot.“ “If you push yourself beyond the furthest place you think you can go, you’ll be able to achieve your heart’s dream” Estée Lauder
And although our personal friendship is deeply rooted, this day I got to talk with Carolyn not only as my friend, but also as the supermodel and face of a global brand for the past 15 years. It is nearly unheard-of for a model to continue with a brand for this long. The familial bond speaks to both Estée Lauder as a company and to Carolyn as a person – her radiance extends far beyond external beauty. Read our candid conversation below. I was an amazing day, to say the least. The night concluded with a celebratory dinner where Aerin gave Carolyn one of Estée’s personal handbags and hanky. Carolyn was filled with gratitude and humility as she spoke about her own story growing up with a nana who used Estée Lauder on a daily basis, and how her own dream, as a little girl, came true.
We all push ourselves outside of our comfort zone. We need people to model ourselves after, and we need a support system. The day spent in Estée’s office with Carolyn represented both for me. While each of our creative journeys are our own, friendship and aspiration go a long way to fueling them and keeping us safe, sane, and striding on.
Up Close & Personal
Athena Calderone: I want to talk about you celebrating 15 years working with Estée Lauder, and what that means to you as the brand is celebrating their 60-year anniversary of Re-Nutriv. It is a beautiful accomplishment and special time both for you and the brand.
I also want to touch upon this turning point in your life, 15 years ago. As your friend, knowing Dylan, your daughter, is 15, that must have been a very interesting time in your career but also personally as you became a new mother. Was it a conscious choice to shift gears in your career and work for a global beauty brand of this stature?
Carolyn Murphy: I wouldn’t say that it was a conscious thought. I would say that it was more of a dream because it’s not like I would have the choice at that time to say, “Oh, I want to work with Estée Lauder.” It’s more or less if you get the phone call that a brand, you know especially cosmetic brand, wants to test you and try you that is usually the process, or was the process.
At that time, you were a fashion model or you were a beauty model and I was more known as a fashion model. So I did runway, I had very close relationships with a lot of the designers. I was a Vogue cover girl, not just American Vogue but worldwide. So I was more known as a fashion model, which was wonderful. And I didn’t date famous people, so I had this mystery and I had a really great life, which I’m super grateful for.
I had gotten married and I wanted actually to step out of the industry more. That’s what I was looking for. I was looking to be a wife, have a family, and live between my farm upstate and my home in Costa Rica. And not work as much, so I had acquired all of that, I had that setup, and then I became pregnant, which in our industry was seen as a negative. But, you know, would take off some time off your career and…
AC: Were you pregnant already when you signed the contract?
CM: So the interesting part was that when they called to test, I had just given birth. But apparently they were looking at me prior to that. I had met Aerin and the family at a few events. So yeah, it was really surprising, I think, when my agent said that, but I was so focused on my husband and being pregnant. It was wonderful that all of these incredible things were happening at the same time, and I do feel that in some regards Estée and even Aerin are kind of like my guardian angels. Just because, you know, there was a downside to what was going on in my life personally at that point as well. You know, portending a divorce. So it wasn’t all perfect and roses.
But to know that I was about to be a single mother, it was really a gift from the universe to know that I could potentially have this job as a spokesperson for a brand like Estée Lauder, but even more so because I grew up with the brand.
And for me, having a grandmother and a mother who — my grandmother in particular being very stylish and living in the DC area, and watching her as a socialite and taking care of her skin. And growing up with the brand even down to the little bottles on her vanity and her gold tube of lipstick in her powder room with her bobby pins…this was a big deal for me.
So I flew out and tested for the brand. I was still nursing and I had a good 20 or 30 pounds extra weight on me. The story that a lot of people don’t know is that I actually tested twice. And the fact that they believed in me, and that Aerin really believed in me, really established a sense of trust and just kind of a familial relationship. And that’s really what it has been.
AC: That’s very rare in this industry to have that.
CM: It is very rare because everything is so much more disposable and people’s attention spans, they always want to wander onto the next thing and that’s just part of human nature. But that’s the interesting part about the brand, if you look in relation to products. We’re not reinventing the wheel but we are staying true to ourselves as a heritage brand and staying true to ourselves in the makeup of our products.
One thing that has evolved is bringing on other spokesmodels, which was really interesting. Because after the first three years of representing every facet of the brand, which is what I did and which is what historically the brand would have one spokesmodel do, to see that evolution of a global market and the need to have different culture and diversity was really quite incredible to witness.
AC: Well, you’ve really experienced the Estée Lauder brand evolve and grow over 15 years and that’s very rare. It doesn’t happen in your industry often. I am curious if that familiar feeling you felt early on gave you any insight that you would continue with the brand for this long. Did you ever imagine it would be 15 years?
CM: No, no. And I think there were many moments, especially when I decided to step out of my career to be a mother, a single mother, that I always felt like I was taking a big risk because you have to stay relevant and any kind of industry that deals with entertainment people will forget about you quite easily.
The beautiful part about it in my relationship with the brand was they’ve always been such a supporter and a fan. So I knew when I needed to make myself a little more present, work a little harder. And I think finding the balance was a personal challenge but it was something that I know all mothers, and there are plenty of women in this company, that experience that.
AC: You were the face of Re-Nutriv for 10 years, right?
CM: I have done about 12 different versions of the Re-Nutriv product. I mean, I have done over 100 in all my years with regards to actual products, but 12 different versions of that. And it’s pretty remarkable because it’s an iconic product within the brand. I mean, we’re celebrating 60 years of the first time that Re-Nutriv launched, and it was so secretive and Estée was so ahead of the curve with that and to release this luxury cream at that time being over 100 dollars…
AC: We were talking about that this morning, that it would have equated to almost 1,000 dollars in today’s world. And that kind of took some guts.
CM: It did, it took a lot of gumption, but one thing that I think, that this brand, the embodiment of the products, is so much of Estée and her innovation. And I think there is inspiration within that. So to have a woman who believed in herself and believed in the product and said to women, “you’ve only got one face. Take care of it!” And she really was, and may I say is, because we’re sitting in her office and feeling her.
AC: It’s very crazy, very surreal.
CM: It is! The view alone, but just knowing. Think of all the conversations that took place in here but to think back when she was in her kitchen formulating this product with her husband. What prompted her to do that? And not giving up! And really believing in herself. There is this empowerment that comes from that. And with her ads, some of those original ads. It made you want to be that woman. That is what I thrive on to this day when I’m on set and I’m working.
I’m not just showing up for another job. I really wholeheartedly believe in it and I want women to aspire to that. That’s why I love doing press junkets and going out on the road it’s because I love talking to women about it. But it’s that same energy Estée had.
AC: Knowing that you and I are both homebodies who honor our alone time, and private space – here we are in Estée’s private space, her office. This is where she masterminded this brilliant, iconic brand. I wanted to speak to your private place, where you workshop ideas and get creative. I know home is so important to you.
CM: It’s so important. My home is my sanctuary and it takes a lot to get me out of it. While I do love homes, and I’ve had many, creatively I love decorating and it’s a wonderful outlet for me. I think it’s because I really revere my sanctuary so much. The ritual of cooking with my daughter, candles, incense, fireplace, having windows open. Everything that just kind of wafts through creates a nostalgia. The comforts of curling up in certain sheets and that luxury or a cashmere blanket. Or the luxury of being able to sleep in on a Sunday and read a great book in bed with my snoring dog.
The home is a big part and then the other one for me is nature. That’s the biggest. My family still has 2000-acre farm in Virginia. I grew up around food, nature, family being at the center. I don’t feel it as much these days, but that’s my own fault because I’ve gotten caught up in this sort of urban environment, which I need too, I need the sophistication. So we’re always trying to figure out what that balance is, and I know you identify with that. And we’re peculiar and it’s amazing.
AC: Something struck me this morning that Aerin shared when we toured the archives. She was talking about how the idea of luxury has shifted throughout the brand’s history and how the past spokesmodels were always dressed in very elegant gowns. And now, for the ads that you are in, you’re wearing silk pajamas. You have seen the brand expand and adapt over time to suit the consumers’ needs. What are your thoughts surrounding that, and what is your idea of luxury?
CM: Well, I would love to go back to gowns, trust me! When I see those ads of Karen Graham or even you think of the one she did where she is pretty much nude stepping into a tub…Estée was so ahead of the curve when it comes to advertising. They took some risks, but they were also so unafraid to portray this woman that was aspirational. That’s the whole great beauty of advertising and of creating a product and having a company is you always have to evolve and still make it attainable.
Fortunately, this brand is so vast now in its demographic and their customer. Sometimes we’ll do the same product and completely different look and outfit, because it will I guess have a message going towards a different market, whether it’s Asia or Europe. That to me is super interesting, the globalization of a product and brand.
With regards to luxury, I think it’s such a personal experience and it also depends on where you’re at in your life. For me right, now it’s spending time with people like you. My tribe has been so important to me as a woman in my 40s. Being that you’re home, cooking with you, having an afternoon with you and our children, trying shoes on! All of these fun things. Having my daughter really make the effort and bake a pie knowing that we were all going to be together.
Some of those things are quite old-fashioned and some of those things are quite new. When we’re going to Costa Rica to surf with our sons. And having Aerin and Will and Jivan. And so there’s the family element of what I consider a luxury and then there are all of the other little things. Sleeping, that is a luxury. Great food is a luxury. Travel is a luxury. Watching a Netflix series.
AC: So many good ones right now!
CM: Stranger Things, I’m addicted to. Now I’m done. Like, please hurry up and get the next one out! [Laughter.] I feel really fortunate to be sitting here with you right now in Estée’s office and I feel like she would be super proud of us.
AC: Well, as your friend I’m super proud of you.
CM: Well, ditto!
AC: It’s really true because this is a huge celebration for you and for the brand. And it extends so much further than external beauty. You carry yourself with such grace and elegance and warmth and kindness, and that doesn’t always exist. And you remain humble, and that’s what beauty is.
And the final question I wanted to ask is what beauty means to you. What does beauty mean publicly as compared to what makes you feel beautiful when you’re alone or when you’re with your daughter?
CM: Well, thank you for your kind words. That means a lot coming from you. The beauty for the public persona is much more glamorous than I really am. But that’s what is so much fun about the duality. And I celebrate my duality. I actually talk about it quite a bit when we’re doing these press releases, because I think every woman has that. Who do I want to be? Do I want to be the bohemian today or do I want to be the French minimalist? And that’s what makes my job so much fun. So the public me is much more glamorous and much more thought-out, much more put together.
At home, and I think you’ve seen this, it’s much more free and laissez faire. Don’t want to have to think about putting myself together and I don’t want to have to think about playing that role. I like to tune out and I think I choose my tribe in that way, too. Because we are all women that are working and we all have this.
I mean, you have this persona you know, with what you do career-wise. There is a part of it that feeds you and days that drain you and drive you mad. You’ve got your husband and you’ve got your son and we’re trying to balance all of these things, which is what also brings us together.
AC: To watch you in nature and surf, that’s beauty to me!
CM: Well, when you’re surfing too! But like my Nana always said, and I repeat this mantra over and over, “Beauty is as beauty does.” And for me, if I am not feeling good about myself – whatever, if I’ve eaten a box of chocolates – well, then I know that maybe I should go eat some salad the next day. That’s a very simple version of that. But to be kind and to always be aware, and just full of love and life and whatever that is! Follow the beat of your own drum.