Nora McInerny is one of the funniest people in radio today — despite the fact that her podcast, Terrible, Thanks For Asking, features stories about some of the hardest things in life: tragedy, illness, loss. She’s been tackling these topics as a writer and speaker since losing her own husband to brain cancer in 2014. (She also founded a support group called the Hot Young Widows Club.) Here, she shares her favorite drugstore face mask, her secret to surviving Minnesota winters, and how makeup helped her grieve…
Tell us a little bit about your beauty ethos, if you have one.
I appreciate a Real Housewives of Public Radio aesthetic, even if I can’t always live to that standard. So, I wear a lot of second-hand, thrift stuff and a don’t shop a lot — but I also have expensive hair extensions.
Those are extensions?!
Oh, yeah. This is a luxury for me, to have long hair. After my second baby, my hair just was like, okay, we’re done growing. You have shoulder-length hair and that’s the best it’ll ever be. So, I have hair extensions, and usually I’ll sort of loosely curl them — you know, an undone curl. I also love eyelash extensions. I just want as much of it to be automated as possible.
Totally. Do you have a morning routine?
Yes. As someone who mostly works at home, I have to have routines. Without them, I’m completely ineffective all day. I wake up at 5 a.m., and I sit in front of a Seasonal Affective Disorder lamp (which I start using in mid-August, because Minnesota gets so dark and so cold). I do that for 10 minutes and write in my journal. Then I go to the gym from 6 a.m. to 7 a.m. I work out every morning, because otherwise I would die of anxiety. Then I get home, and once the kids are out the door, I wash my face. And I always do my hair, for some reason. I also put on sunscreen every day, even if I don’t leave the house. Who knows where the day might take me?! I always put on real clothes, too. I have to. It sounds like a weird thing to say: Here’s a trick, get dressed!
Yes! There’s something about putting on a bra, too.
Right! That is another key to feeling like I am a part of the world, for sure. When I do leave my house — which is a few times a week — then I do a full-on face of makeup, with everything. I start with the Clinique Foundation + Concealer in one, which is amazing. And I’ll do a light contour (which I learned from YouTube, via my 12-year-old, ’cause kids know everything now). Then a blush and a lipstick. Always a lipstick.
I noticed that on your Instagram. You always seem to have a bright lip. Would you say that’s your signature thing?
Yeah. All my features are big — big nose, a big mouth, etc. — and I used to hate it. You know, when you’re young you just hate everything about yourself for literally no reason. I didn’t want to call attention to my mouth. And the minute I realized, ‘Oh, no, I like this,’ I started wearing bright lipstick. I was probably about 28, honestly, which is so sad. I could have been doing this forever! I’m a big fan of NYX’s Suede Matte lipsticks. They’re super bright and like six dollars (and they’re always at CVS or Target). I love the Maybelline Matte Ink Liquid Lipsticks, too. They stay forever but aren’t not too drying. They’re matte but not the kind of matte where you feel like your lips are about to fall off.
People always seem so scared to try it. Other women often ask, ‘How do I wear a bright red lipstick?’ Like, you literally put it on your face. You are the only person who is worried that you look different. I was always afraid it would be too much, but truly, you are the only person who’s thinking about your appearance that deeply. No one is thinking, ‘How dare she?’ Nobody cares.
So true. Just feel the fear and do it anyway, right?
Right! And also, if you wind up feeling uncomfortable, you can just wipe it off. You’re not signing a lifetime contract to always wear red lipstick.
You seem to have a real love of makeup. How did you learn about it, growing up?
I had to learn everything from Seventeen magazine — or those little instructions on the back of the eyeshadow palettes, that were printed in like point 4 font. Kids do not understand how good they have it now, with YouTube.
I know you travel for work sometimes, too. Do you have any airplane skincare tricks?
I pack a giant water bottle that I fill at the airport. I drink a liter before I get on the plane, and then I drink another liter, at least, during the flight. I pee constantly — which I’m fine with. When I get on the plane, I put on the Pacifica Wake Up Beautiful mask. It’s an overnight mask, so it doesn’t sit on top of your skin. It soaks in and just looks like you’re wearing a moisturizer. It’s truly my favorite product, and it’s like five bucks.
You’ve obviously been through some incredibly difficult periods in your life — specifically, dealing with the terminal illness and death of your first husband, Aaron, four years ago. Did that change your relationship to your appearance? To physical beauty in general?
Aaron always looked good. Even when he could not use his arm and his right leg, he wore pants, he wore button-downs with a cardigan. He was always so cool — like, he would never fly in sweatpants, for example. He liked my red lipstick, so I put on lipstick and dressed cute in the hospital when he had his first brain surgery. We always tried to put in an effort. I remember he got a little certificate from the radiation department, for being ‘Best Dressed.’
Why was making that effort important to you?
It helped me feel like I was in control, and like my life wasn’t falling apart. As long as people could see me looking like how I wanted to feel — or just looking like a person, rather than a sad story — that was a huge part of how I got through it. A HUGE part.
Do you think that routine helped you get through that first stage of grief?
Yeah. After Aaron died, I put on mascara and lipstick every single day. That way, I could look in the mirror and see, ‘Oh, okay. There she is.’ If I could recognize myself, then my life felt recognizable. Part of it also made me feel very close to him, to maintain that routine.
You wrote your first memoir, It’s Okay to Laugh: Crying Is Cool Too, right after Aaron died, and your next one, No Happy Endings, is coming out in just a few months. But a lot has changed for you in the interim. You’ve remarried, had another baby, and you’re a stepmom to two adolescents, too. Oh, and the host of a hit podcast! Where does this new book pick up?
The new book, No Happy Endings, starts around the first anniversary of Aaron’s death. That’s also the time that I met Matthew, my husband. When that happened, I got the sense that everyone around me was so relieved. It wasn’t malicious or anything; they thought I’d found a happy ending and didn’t have to grieve any more. But of course, it’s so much more complicated than that. Our family only exists because two other families blew up. Before this happened to me, I’d always assumed you could either be happy or unhappy, and never both at once. That’s what the memoir is really about: the blending of these two broken families.
So, you’re writing this really intense book. You also host the podcast Terrible, Thanks For Asking, which isn’t exactly ‘light’ either. I imagine you must sometimes feel pretty drained by the end of the day. Do you have any rituals to help you recalibrate and unwind?
I do spend a lot of time on my skincare at night. I always take off my makeup using micellar water — the Pacifica one — and I love it. Why did that not exist when I was a teenager? I feel like that would have really helped.
It did, it was just in France.
Goddamn it! Like all things!
And then I like Cetaphil cleanser, or — I don’t know how to say the word — CeraVe? CeraVe? One of their gentle cleansers. And then I use the Pixi Glow Tonic, and I love the mega moisturizer Egyptian Magic. It feels like it would be too greasy, but it’s not. I put that on, and by the time I’ve read my book and written in my journal, it’s gone. I also use Carmex every night before bed. It’s the only lip balm I use. Carmex or nothing, for me.
Any products you’re still on the hunt for?
The reason that I love having eyelash extensions is that, because of my job, I cry a lot. It’s a job hazard. But with extensions, you never end up with that grey silt underneath your eyes the way that every mascara I have does. So if you have any recommendations for a mascara that doesn’t do that, let me know.
You’ve done a lot, in your work, to open up the conversation around things like death, trauma and grief — and yet most of us still struggle with actually having those conversations, and being there for loved ones during hard times. Any suggestions on where to start?
Honestly, I think the first thing is just humble yourself. Maybe the person didn’t thank you for the bouquet you’ve sent, or they haven’t returned any of your text messages. Everything that feels like it’s about you, is truly not.
But the most important thing is to have a long game. Four months after your friend’s husband dies, then you should be doing something. Six months, eight months, two years. Whenever people say, ‘I don’t know what to do,’ I say pick the thing that you can do, reliably. Is it that every third Thursday the two of you go out? And it’s on the calendar and it’s always a thing? Or is it that every time you go to Costco you get extra milk, eggs or butter? Whatever it is, you can pick something, offer it up, and then do it, reliably.
And what if you are the grief-stricken?
If you’re the one grieving, the worst thing is that it is your job to lead everybody. It’s so unfair. You don’t need another job. But the tone of your grief is set by you, and everybody is looking to you to tell them how to do a good job. It’s also fair to say, ‘I don’t know what I need, and I don’t know how I feel.’
One of the things that I love about your writing and your work is that, though it never seems preachy, it does feel mission-driven. It was like you got lit on fire after losing your husband. What do you see as your driving force right now?
For the past four years, my mission has been just to do my best to be alive. I could have (and probably should have) gone back to my old day job. But I just couldn’t. I was lit on fire. With the podcast and books, I want to make things that somebody can point to and say, ‘It felt like that.’ It’s not just about death, either. Any time something truly transformative happens in your life, it tends to set you apart from the rest of your world. So, I want to make it easier for people to have those conversations that seem so hard.
Honestly, I’m 35, which is how old Aaron was when he died. In two months, I’ll be older than him, for the first time. I know on a daily basis that I am so lucky to be alive, and to have what I have. And a part of me will always feel guilty for it, honestly. This is me just trying to earn it.
Thank you so much, Nora!
(Photo of Nora speaking by Chelsie Lopez. Photo of Nora with baby Q crying on her shoulders by Rebecca Slater. Family photo and photo of Nora in sunglasses courtesy of Nora McInerny. All other photos by BLK WLF.)