Bee Shapiro knows a thing or two about beauty. A former lawyer, Bee is now a beauty writer for the New York Times, and she founded the beauty line Ellis Brooklyn — named after her two-year-old daughter and the borough where they live. Here, she talks about her career change, a haircut mistake and her $6 must-have…
How did you make such a huge career change — from being a lawyer to being a writer?
I went straight from undergrad to law school, without taking time to figure out what I truly wanted to do. I enjoyed studying law — you’re challenging your beliefs and learning about the philosophies of law. But being an attorney felt quite different. At my first law job, my days were about making minor tweaks to existing legal templates. While important to the client, it wasn’t creative. I had worked a little less than a year at a corporate law firm in New York when I thought to myself, “I’m still young; I don’t have a family or large commitments. Why not try something new?” It was a drastic change to go into writing, and, honestly, it was rough. I had to do a bunch of odd jobs on the side (I was even an extra in an Eddie Murphy movie), while I built my writing clips with poorly paying jobs — like $25 per story!
How did you become a beauty writer, specifically?
I started as a freelance fashion and art writer. When I got hired for the Style section of the New York Times about eight years ago, the beauty columnist had just left, so they said, “Do you want to write about beauty?” I was the youngest writer there and knew I needed to carve out my own niche, so I said sure. I ended up falling in love with it.
What made you want to start a beauty line?
I’d always wanted to run my own business, and when I was pregnant with Ellis, I decided to go for it. I’m a big fragrance lover, but when I was pregnant I became way more aware of what I was putting on my body. I wanted to create a product that stood up to fine fragrance lines like Chanel, Tom Ford or Diptyque, but was more safe. Ellis Brooklyn products are paraben-free and phthalate-free. Now we have four fragrances, body milk and candles.
Has it been challenging?
Now I’ve developed mad respect for business owners. Everything is just hard. The moments of creativity are amazing, and you have complete control. But on the other hand, you have to do all this homework-type stuff — the logistics and shipping and finance stuff.
Do you talk to your daughter Ellis about beauty at all?
Not yet, but at two and a half, she’s just beginning to comprehend the compliments she gets, which freaks me out a bit. Having daughters, I’ve noticed how compliments differ between the sexes. Compliments for girls from strangers are often, “Oh, you’re so pretty!” Meanwhile, compliments for boys are more about things they do: “Oh, you run so fast!” My husband and I try to compliment her on the smart things she does rather than just the passive things she is.
What’s your daily skincare routine?
Since our second daughter Sky was born, I’ve been all up close and personal with her, so I’ve been trying to keep my face clean and natural. I’ve been using Josie Maran’s Argan Oil Milk at night. It’s hypoallergenic and paraben-free. I also try to do a mask at least once a week. The SK-II sheet masks really are terrific and worth the money (well, they’re cheaper than a facial anyway!).
What products do you use on your body?
I’m big into body scrubbing. I have a body towel that I use in the shower. It’s better than any body scrub. I was born in Taiwan and moved to the U.S. when I was three, but every time I go back to visit family, almost everyone there uses rough towels to exfoliate. They sell them in Chinatown for like $1, but those are really, really rough. I found one at Muji that is gentler. (There are two consistencies, one is super abrasive and one is medium. Don’t be a hero, buy the medium.) When I was pregnant, I got really gross bacne and at first was trying all these fancy scrubs, then I broke out my Muji towel again. It was the only thing that worked, and I thought, “Why did I ever leave this?!”
How has your Taiwanese background influenced you?
I think coming from an immigrant family gives you hunger. My parents worked really, really hard, and I probably will always feel a constant drive to achieve. It can be a wonderful thing but I’ve realized as I’ve gotten older that it can also hinder you. If you’re constantly striving, you’re likely not enjoying the successes of now. That’s the balancing act: how do you continue to strive for more but be content and happy with the present.
What did the women in your family teach you about beauty?
Beauty, and skin in particular, has always been an Asian obsession. My mom makes DIY masks out of berries she picks from her garden! She taught me how to do an egg white mask when I was 12. It was literally just separating the yolk and putting the whites on your face. I don’t actually know if it’s a good mask, but that’s what we did. My mom is crunchy to the core.
How cool! What was that like as a kid?
Growing up, we were not allowed to eat chocolate, we had to eat carob. All these green powder drinks are popular now, but they were not popular when I was nine. My mom would make us Barleygreen. Now that I am older, I’m grateful, but when I was young it was horrifying. I would have a friend over from school and my mom would serve us ice cream with Barleygreen on it.
What makeup do you wear nowadays?
I used to go for that “no-makeup” look — but since having a baby and chasing a toddler, I can’t pull it off! Now I have one chance in the morning to get my makeup on, so I go for things that stay put. I now use makeup primers — I like the YSL Touche Éclat Blur Primer. Then I put on Dior Forever foundation, mixed with a bit of moisturizer. Often foundation doesn’t look natural because it cakes around the nose area. The nose area gives people away! You want your foundation to look like a second skin, so sheering it out with a dab of moisturizer helps. Then I’ll do some bronzer/blush. MAC Skinfinish in Faintly Fabulous is nice and subtle.
Do primers really work?
I never used primers before. I thought, Why do people use them? It’s just another product. But now, I don’t have time to touch anything up. If I go to a meeting, I need my makeup to stay on all day and primer really does make it last.
How do you change it up for special occasions or if you’re just feeling dramatic?
I grew up in Seattle, so, of course, I was obsessed with grunge beauty in junior high and still am! In the winter, I’ll do a dark lipstick — like a dark berry or brownish color that reminds me of my youth. The new MAC Lipintensity formulas are pretty spectacular. They have mega color payoff without making lips dry and flaky. And L’Oreal makes nice, thick mascara formulas that are great for my wimpy lashes. Their Voluminous mascara is as good as any of the designer options.
What other drastic things have you done with your look?
At one point in high school, I had that Gwyneth Paltrow Sliding Doors haircut. It was not a good hair moment for me.
Do you have any non-beauty rituals that make you feel good?
I played tennis and basketball in high school, but as an adult, running is my thing. I love that it’s so mind-clearing. The funny part is that I am actually not a “good” runner at all. I am so slow and have zero ambition to improve my speed. I’m just out there to enjoy myself — no one’s breaking records here.
What is your overall beauty philosophy?
I would like to say less is more, but when it comes to beauty, that’s not always true. We’re supposed to pretend that we aren’t high maintenance, because that’s looked down upon or somehow thought of as anti-intellectual. But it’s all the behind-the-scenes legwork that really works, like the masks at home and regular visits to the dermatologist. Beauty, in many ways, is about a kind of seduction, and the best kind always lends a bit of mystery. People may want to look effortless, but it does take effort!
Thank you, Bee!