It was her husband, Caroline Hirons likes to say, who marvelled at her stardom: “Who would have thought that being gobby and opinionated would become a career?” Perhaps he hadn’t banked on how big social media would become – party central for the gobby and opinionated – or how many people, mostly women, would welcome Hirons’ brisk advice.
In the world of skincare, Hirons is a big deal, with a devoted following, the power (reportedly) to make or break a product – and a low tolerance for marketing hype. Last month, her book Skincare – a practical guide to looking after your face – won the lifestyle category at the British Book awards. She was, she says, “a bit gobsmacked”. Her family had tried to manage her expectations. “My mum said: ‘That Nadiya from Bake Off [who was also nominated] – she’s very popular, love,’ with that concerned face of: ‘Don’t get your hopes up.’”
Hirons, 51, is probably used to confounding expectations. In a sea of extremely young social media beauty influencers, she is the middle-aged matriarch who made it. Her book came out last year and she was warned that launching it amid a pandemic wasn’t ideal. “I sensed the publishers were trying to let me down gently,” she says. But it was, it turns out, perfectly timed: it became a bestseller.
While sales of makeup went down, for obvious reasons, people started to embrace skincare. “People had more time in the mirror, instead of putting on their face and rushing out the door,” says Hirons. Has endless time in video calls made some of us more conscious of our faces? “I think most people were already aware,” she says. “I would like to think it gave people more time to think: ‘What can I do to help myself?’ I hope it doesn’t make people aware of an insecurity that they didn’t have before.”
I catch sight of myself on my laptop screen – we are speaking on a video call – and wish I had taken her advice to wear sunscreen every day, year round, more seriously. Hirons is sitting in her PR company’s office, skin glowing. She seems less confrontational than her online persona sometimes suggests, but get her on to the subject of “clean” beauty (“probably my No 1 target”) or the government’s treatment of the beauty industry in the pandemic and her frustration shows – simmering anger, but delivered with humour.
In August, Hirons co-founded the Beauty Backed Trust, to support those in the industry she felt had been forgotten (it raised £600,000 between then and December). She was driven, she says, by rage – “and the absolute audacity of the government in completely disregarding an industry that’s worth £28bn to the economy. We were hearing rumblings that they weren’t going to open beauty salons when they opened everything else. These people have had no income; a lot of them are self-employed.”
She adds that the workforce is predominantly young and female – a demographic that includes an above-average proportion of women who have taken maternity leave since 2016 and thus were affected negatively when they sought financial support through the UK government’s Covid self-employment income support scheme. She knew beauty therapists who were using food banks to survive. “I’ve been spoken of, in some circles, as having a big mouth, but if you put it to good use I don’t mind that.”
Beauty is so often dismissed as “frivolous”, she says, because it is largely for, and staffed by, women. “It counts for something if you realise that betting shops and barbers opened before beauty,” she says. “I was angrier than I think I’ve ever been. It just took a really angry menopausal woman who is over your shit, Boris,” to get something done, she says, with a withering laugh. “They were making jokes in parliament about getting haircuts and I was like: this is a laughing matter to you, but we’ve got people crying on Instagram because they can’t feed their kids. It’s unacceptable.”
Hirons has worked in skincare for almost 25 years. She grew up in Liverpool (with a brief spell in the US), where her mother and grandmother worked on department store beauty counters. As a child, she remembers going to visit her grandmother, who worked on the Guerlain fragrance counter, “so she always smelled incredible. We’re talking early 70s, 80s, so they always looked immaculate, all had full uniforms.”
Her mother supplemented her job on the Helena Rubinstein counter by doing wedding makeup at the weekend. Her father was a mechanic who worked his way up to warehouse manager. “What I really remember is the work ethic,” she says. “That’s passed down to my brother and me. We joke that we have an unhealthy work ethic, but I enjoy it.” When she was writing her book, Hirons was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder: “I’m not so much hyperactive.” She was told she was “a classic example of someone who’s made new habits and made it work for them. I spin a lot of plates.”
When she was 17, Hirons moved to London and got a job in a record shop. Ten years later, in 1997, after having her first two children (she and her husband, Jim, now have four, as well as a granddaughter), she started working part-time on the Aveda counter in Harvey Nichols. Engaging and able to get straight to customers’ concerns, she was a natural. She then worked for the beauty company Space NK and, between having more children, trained as a beauty therapist.
By 2009, she had set up her own consultancy business, advising beauty brands. Social media was taking off and Hirons would give people the same advice she dispensed on the beauty counters – instead of selling them an expensive foundation, she would steer them towards products that could help their skin. “Then someone said: ‘Just blog it,’ and I did.”
She launched her blog in 2010, when she was just in her 40s, and it took off. “I think it was just the perfect storm of me being older, qualified, being connected in the industry and trying to balance making sure readers get something that’s of value and truthful, but not being unnecessarily aggressive towards the industry,” she says. She was also not easily intimidated. “I think a lot of people, when they first get online, if someone challenges them, they back away. Whereas I was just like: ‘I don’t care – fine, if that’s your opinion.’”
I find her style – jocular, yet quite bolshie – entertaining, but I can see how it could also come across as aggressive, particularly when backed up by her legion of devoted fans. There are numerous threads on internet forums claiming her Facebook group (it has more than 93,000 members) is heavily moderated and won’t tolerate criticism. But Hirons has probably had to develop a tough – if beautifully moisturised – skin. Any woman, particularly any woman who dares to be older than 35 while in possession of an opinion, will get online abuse.
Hirons recently referred someone who had been sending abusive messages to her to the Metropolitan police. “I wasn’t going to, but a family friend works for the Met and was like: ‘You need to give this to us, because that’s actually a threat,’” she says. “I was like: ‘Oh, OK. I get these all the time.’” She smiles. “I’m not so fragile that I care what you think about me – I mean that in the healthiest way and I wish the same for everyone. I don’t think I would have lasted as long online if I was concerned every time someone called me old. They always go for old, as if I give a shit. Or fat. Actually, I’m 5ft 11in – I’m not that fat. Calm down.” She laughs.
Another criticism is that she is part of a system that fuels endless consumption. But she is hardly the worst offender; of her last nine Instagram posts at the time of writing, two are adverts and one promotes her “kit” – a selection of products – which she sells at a discount. Individual influencers – although she would balk at being described as one – are easy targets, but the beauty industry has always been about profit, with glossy magazines often too close to big advertisers.
Skincare has become huge in recent years. What happened? “Awareness, social media, Instagram,” suggests Hirons. “More pictures of people online, so they’re thinking they’re going to take care of their skin. If you think about the generation now compared with when I was in my 20s, they don’t drink as much, they eat better; my daughter’s group of friends are all gym addicts. When you take better care of yourself, it includes your face.”
A multistep skincare routine has become part of many women’s self-care – and the only time they get to themselves, which seems a little sad. “I get that,” says Hirons. “I’ve got four kids; I know what they mean. If you’re at work all day and you’ve got children, you pick the kids up, get home, do dinner … by the time the kids are in bed, you do think: ‘I need 10 minutes to myself’ – to lock yourself in the bathroom, brush your teeth and do your skincare routine.”
But do people need so many products? “No, not at all. I always say: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. But if it’s something you like to do, and it makes you feel good and you can afford it, there’s no harm in it,” she says. “I’ve always said: ‘Don’t credit-card your skincare.’” But she offers customers the option to pay in instalments, I point out. People wanted it, she says. “I’m not here to make people go into debt – that’s not what I’m interested in. When someone asks [in her comments]: ‘Do I need this?’ I’m more likely to say: ‘No,’ or: ‘If you get this kit, you’re going to want to give this cream to your mum, because it’s not suitable for you.’ That’s how you get loyalty and become trustworthy.”
She has been open about her use of fillers and botulinum toxin (marketed under brand names including Botox). “I had one person say: ‘I’m so disappointed that you’re using filler,’ and I was like: ‘Why? Would you rather I lied? Would you rather I said it’s just a cream?”
Such procedures have become normalised – does that bother her? “No, why would it?” she says. “I’m not interested in putting shame on people, especially women. I think we could do with a bit more regulation – legally, there’s nothing to stop me giving you Botox or fillers.”
Does she not think it puts pressure on women who don’t want to have it done? She takes a rare pause. “That’s down to someone’s self-esteem. I don’t want to have a facelift; seeing Jane Fonda doesn’t make me feel bad. Jane Fonda looks fantastic with her facelift, but I don’t feel bad because I don’t want one. No one’s trying to make you feel bad, certainly not coming from my camp. Obviously, there is a side of the industry that’s … I can’t understand why anyone would have liposuction, for example, but if someone wants to, it’s none of my business.”
She wishes celebrities were more open about the work they have had done. “When Hollywood stars say they don’t wash their face, I’m like: ‘Yes, they do. And they also have Botox and filler.’ Why would you try to make people feel bad about themselves?”
One of the reasons she became popular, she thinks, is because “I don’t mind calling out things. I don’t like confrontation and yet people assume that I do – it highlights how little other [people in the industry] call things out, almost like it’s my job.”
Hirons has challenged the beauty industry over issues such as a lack of diversity – and she can’t bear labels such as “clean” and “non-toxic”. “I just don’t understand why the industry all jumped on this bandwagon,” she says. “I thought: ‘Get a grip: just push back on it and say, actually, cosmetics are safe. It’s not toxic. Relax.” She says the idea of “clean” beauty is “disingenuous, started by white, wealthy women in California”. Last week, she took the actor Kate Hudson to task for posting a list of “toxic” ingredients commonly found in products on social media. “I just thought: ‘Here we go again!’”
When, in April, she accused Gwyneth Paltrow – the queen of “clean” beauty – of putting lives at risk by using an “imperceptible” amount of sunscreen in a video for Vogue about her skincare regime, Hirons says she received messages of support from others in the industry, but not publicly. “I was like: ‘If you call it out, too, then maybe we can push back against this tide of utter bullshit.’” Why don’t people speak out? “Because it was Gwyneth Paltrow, because it’s Vogue. It is like sticking your head above the parapet. You get abuse, you get shouted at.”
But if it is not brands claiming to be “non-toxic” (as if others are positively radioactive), it is companies implying products can work miracles. The beauty industry makes wild, anti-scientific claims – how does it get away with it? “People are afraid to call things out, so people let things slide,” says Hirons. “And then, once it’s been said two or three times, and it’s reprinted in a magazine beauty section, it becomes ‘fact’ without any semblance of truth … Sometimes I feel like the lone voice going: ‘That’s not true.’”
She is scathing about the term “anti-ageing”. “I prefer to use terms like ‘ageing skin’ – that is scientifically correct. Anti-ageing is more like a stance, like it’s a shameful thing to get older.” She was recently talking to a brand, which she says has been trying to work with her for years, about including one of its products in a menopause skincare kit she is putting together. “They came back and said: ‘No, we don’t want to reach that demographic – we’re shooting for a younger audience.’ And I was like: ‘And you’re happy to say that to me? A menopausal woman? You’re happy for me to sell your product, but not to people my age?’” She smiles brightly. “And then I did basically tell them to fuck off.”
Skincare: The Ultimate No-Nonsense Guide by Caroline Hirons is out now (HQ, £20). To support the Guardian, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.