Episode 108: Essence Gant, Beauty Director at BuzzFeed

Essence Grant, Beauty Director at BuzzFeed, didn’t have a specific dream job in mind back when she was in college. She just knew somewhere at the intersection of beauty, media and entertainment, she’d be okay. So when an opportunity to write about New York’s Fashion Week came her way, she went for it. (Though it did involve skipping class.) With pluck and grit, that first job led to another and to BuzzFeed, one the internet’s most highly trafficked sites.

If you want to break into media, then this episode is a must-listen.

Dan Hodgdon
AnnouncerWelcome to WHERE BRAINS MEET BEAUTY® hosted by Jodi Katz, Founder and Creative Director of Base Beauty Creative Agency.
Jodi KatzHi there, it's Jodi Katz, your host of WHERE BRAINS MEET BEAUTY® Podcast. I am so grateful that you tuned in. Today's episode features Essence Gant. She's the Beauty Director at BuzzFeed. I met Essence while we were working on a panel together at CosmoProf in Las Vegas and she's just so smart and savvy, and I'm completely obsessed with her personal style. I hope you enjoy her episode.

So it sounds like you're super ambitious from an early age, right? So you were driven to do this, right?
Essence GantYeah.
Jodi KatzSo you basically did whatever it would take to get you closer to this ideal career?
Essence GantFor sure.
Jodi KatzWhy Media & Beauty? What appealed to you about it?
Essence GantIt kind of happened pretty organically. The person that I met when I was skipping class, coming to the city, she was a writer. So, she was a writer, a blogger, she wrote for a few reality TV shows and so I met her at an event and I was like, "Hey, let me be your intern, I'll work for free," and she was like, "Girl, how?" And I was like, "I'll figure out a way," and she was like "Okay." She was like, "Your first assignment is Fashion Week because I don't want to go." And I was like "Okay, I will definitely go." It's funny because now I'm like, "Fashion Week? Ugh, I hate it."

But I was always kind of good at writing even when I was younger. My teachers would always say, "You have such a good writing voice, it's so compelling the way that you word things and the way you tell stories." So, that experience with her, it just kind of reignited all of that and it was writing for her blog and that let to my first job. I was just looking for any opportunity, whatever would open up, in this big space that has a lot of intersection overlap between entertainment, media, beauty, all of that. Whatever opens up is what I'm gonna go for and that's what opened up, it was writing. I just went for it.
Jodi KatzAnd at your first Fashion Week when you took the assignment for her, did she tell you what to look for or did you just walk into the room and figure it out?
Essence GantI just walked in and figured it out. She was like, "Go and write about it for my blog." And I was like, "Okay." I went and I just figured it out and it was great. I remember being very anxious because it's a lot and at this point, I just left Georgia like yesterday. I'm not even from Atlanta, I'm from Augusta so I'm like small town girl and then to come to New York City during Fashion Week by yourself and try to figure that out and I was just like, "Where am I? Why is everybody dressed in stuff that looks like it costs more than my rent?" And here I am. I remember I wore some Guess over the knee boots, these Guess snake print leggings, a black shirt, and this cobalt blue blazer and looking back it was a horrible outfit. I don't know why I wore that but I did.
Jodi KatzDid you feel confident in it?
Essence GantI did. And I think that's what showed. Because I made a lot of good conversation with people there and I got a lot of attention. I actually met June Ambrose there, who is like a stylist icon. She doesn't remember me but I obviously remember her because I knew who she was before that and I remember running into her in the lobby and I was like, "Oh my god, June Ambrose, can I get a picture with you?" And she was like, "Yes, sure, of course?" I still have the photo and I was like, "Here's my card, not that you would ever need it." Because I was just so scared and intimated by her.
Jodi KatzWait, you had a card?
Essence GantYeah, I had a card. I made business cards on this site. I was like, "I have a business card, not that you would ever need it." And she was like, "Why would you say that? You don't know who you're going to be one day. This is your opportunity to sell me on you. Don't say that I won't need your card." My jaw just dropped and I remember that. When I meet her again one day, because I know it's gonna happen, I'm gonna tell her that story and how it really stuck with me and I just appreciated that because she didn't have to do that.
Jodi KatzRight!
Essence GantWhat she did was she sowed a seed of confidence in me in that moment. I was thinking like, "I'm a nobody! I'm this small town girl! Here she is, this girl who's dressed Jay-Z and whatever, there's no reason she would ever need to even talk to me or need my card." And she was like, "No, you are somebody, I do need your card."
Jodi KatzThat is such an incredible story.
Essence GantYeah.
Jodi KatzHopefully it will inspire our listeners to pay it forward and be kind to the people they meet.
Essence GantMm-hmm (affirmative).
Jodi KatzNo matter where they are in their career. Because it's right, she should be meeting you. I was on the train with a woman who's so interesting and we just got to know each other talking on the train and she was saying, "Well, maybe I'll go to three days a week and I'll just ask for less pay." And I'm like, "No! You're worth it all! Do not sell yourself short."
Essence GantRight.
Jodi KatzWe need to encourage each other, right? And empower each other.
Essence GantFor sure.
Jodi KatzThis is how we all gain confidence. And she's like, "Oh yeah, you're right. I should just say I'm working three days a week."
Essence GantYeah, absolutely.
Jodi KatzThat's such a cool story, thank you for sharing that.
Essence GantSure.
Jodi KatzSo you haven't seen her again?
Essence GantI haven't seen her again. I feel it in my bones like I'm going to see her soon, yeah.
Jodi KatzYeah, I'm sure she would appreciate you reaching back out and seeing if if she remembers.
Essence GantMaybe I should just reach out for an interview or something, like I'm acting like I can't do that now.
Jodi KatzRight.
Essence GantI totally should, yeah.
Jodi KatzI'm sure she would actually be delighted to know that that advice was taken, you know?
Essence GantYeah.
Jodi KatzThat's a really meaningful thing to hear, thank you for sharing that.
Essence GantSure.
Jodi KatzWhen we were talking during our intake call, you described yourself as very "voicey".
Essence GantMm-hmm (affirmative).
Jodi KatzWhat does "voicey" mean?
Essence GantThe way that I can describe it is like having seasoning on your writing. Nobody wants season less chicken, nobody wants bland chicken.
Jodi KatzRight.
Essence Gant"Voicey-ness" is basically just the Lawry seasoning salt on the chicken. It just gives it an extra oomph, extra flair. So, a lot of times when you read women's lifestyle content it's like, "Enter so and so, wearing a tangerine frock and she sat by the window." It's like, okay, we get it. Instead of saying that, I may say something like, "Jodi slayed in an orange dress, sis gave me life, she was killing it from head to toe and I was left edgeless." I may say that instead, so that's like "voicey".
Jodi KatzAnd that's just in you?
Essence GantYeah, it is.
Jodi KatzThat's not something that you're like sitting down with a checklist of how to be "voicey".
Essence GantNo, it's just in me. I don't know, it could be my Southern upbringing because I feel like Southerners just are "voicey" naturally. We have all these sayings that mean absolutely nothing, like what? It's probably some of that, I think even just my cultural identity and background, I'm a Black Southern woman. I mean just watch any episode of Real Housewives of Atlanta and that is "voicey", to the max. I think it's just naturally in me but I didn't know it was a thing. I didn't know it was something valued in writing until teachers and professors would tell me. One of my teachers in high school, Ms. Hooven, my literature teacher, she would always write on my papers like, "You have such a good voice," so then it was something that I was conscious of and I was able to nurture it. I'm appreciative of her and all my teachers who recognized that.
Jodi KatzSo this idea of being "voicey" is so personal, so how do you help other writers who work for you cultivate their seasoning and their voice?
Essence GantI don't even wanna take credit for this because it was something that Buzzfeed told me when I got there but just write like you're talking to your best friend. If you're doing hard news, then don't. Obviously use discretion so if you're talking about what's going on in the White House, don't add seasoning, just give people the facts. But if it's lifestyle content or you're writing short stories, talk in the way that you normally talk to your friends, to your homegirls, but refine it obviously. Just keep it conversational and I think that's the best.

The woman who hired me, Julie Gerstein, who's no longer at Buzzfeed but she would always say, "Forget everything you ever learned about journalism." I remember she told me that and I was like, "Okay." Just forget all of the, not the grammar, you need that, but everything else that you learned about journalism just kinda forget it and just have a conversation and that's what makes for compelling content. In every day life, you don't want to be talked at.
Jodi KatzRight.
Essence GantYou just wanna have a conversation.
Jodi KatzRight, so this is really a product of the modern world that we're in. Maybe 15 years ago, no one would have encouraged you to do that.
Essence GantRight.
Jodi KatzIn fact, they might discourage you from doing it.
Essence GantExactly.
Jodi KatzThat sorta speaks to what happens in beauty now. Individuality, customization, things feeling more intimate, and less mass.
Essence GantMm-hmm (affirmative).
Jodi KatzThe content you're creating speaks to what the consumers actually looking for now, right?
Essence GantMm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah for sure.
Jodi KatzThat's so cool. So tell me what is your job at Buzzfeed?
Essence GantI feel like I do a thousand different things but I am the senior beauty editor so I obviously write a lot of content. I edit content. I also act as a face and representative of the brand of the beauty and woman's lifestyle content there. I do podcasts and panels and tell people all about all of the cool things at Buzzfeed and opportunities to collaborate and work together. What else do I do? I work with a lot of brands like beauty brands and helping to introduce their content and their work and their products to our audience and also introduce our audience to them. In a nutshell.
Jodi KatzIs it a very big team that works with you?
Essence GantNo, it's actually not. We are small but mighty. We're like a small team but we get a lot done so it feels like we're big but we're not.
Jodi KatzAnd I would imagine after hearing this interview, a lot of people would wanna reach out to you for their first starts in the business so what advice would you give somebody who wants to have your job someday?
Essence GantLike if they're reaching out to me or just in general? Like general advice?
Jodi KatzReaching out to you.
Essence GantSo if you're reaching out to me, don't send me a novel and this is gonna sound so insensitive but it's only because I have such limited time so I'm not gonna read a novel of an email about how you grew up obsessed with beauty reading whatever magazine you read, just because I don't have the time to read those kinds of emails. Just like a quick line hey, if you wanna say you love my work, that's great, "Hey, love your work. I'm an aspiring beauty writer. Can I talk to you for like 5 minutes on the phone?" And I will more than likely say yes. I take phone calls all the time.
Jodi KatzIs that your experience when you were growing up in the industry? Were people not receptive to you when you asked for help?
Essence GantNo, actually they weren't. In their defense, they probably thought that maybe it would've been a waste of their time because I don't have a beauty background, I didn't have a journalism background, I have 2 degrees in social work so they were probably like, "Talk to me for what? No." I don't necessarily think they were out here telling every girl no, but I think, for me, it was just weird, it was unknown, it was like, "What? What are you talking about? What do you mean you wanna work in media? You don't have any experience, you don't have any internships in this. You don't know anybody, who sent you? Who referred you?"

It wasn't really the same but as I got more established in my industry, there are a few women that I can think of who definitely helped me and given me great advice, who I know if I needed something I could call on but I think at this point I'm just so used to kinda hustling on my own that I don't really reach out that much for help. I should do it more but I'm just not used to having it as an option.
Jodi KatzYeah, or because you are so busy, doing things your way, maybe it's also just nice to reach back out to the people who were kind to you.
Essence GantYeah.
Jodi KatzSometimes just that little sprinkle of gratitude, it just lifts something up and reveals something new for you.
Essence GantFor sure.
Jodi KatzIn our office, we have a bell that we ring when good things or exciting things happen and we get to ring it a lot because it's all these small little gratitudes. Even just like being in a client meeting where the client was like "Ugh." And just like handling it better than we've ever handled it before is like a gratitude.
Essence GantYeah, for sure.
Jodi KatzSo trying to celebrate all these little ones.
Essence GantI love that.
Jodi KatzYeah, the bell's the best part. I think I saw it on a TV show like salespeople ring bells when they close deals.
Essence GantAh, okay.
Jodi KatzSo I was like, "I want a bell!"
Essence GantYeah.
Jodi KatzLet's go back in time to having trips into the city, trying to make connections, and you actually do get a job.
Essence GantYes.
Jodi KatzThis was at Hair Hype?
Essence GantHype Hair.
Jodi KatzSo tell me about that job.
Essence GantThat was my very first job out of grad school. I started 2 days after I graduated.
Jodi KatzAnd they paid you? This was a job job?
Essence GantYes, they paid me. Not much but I got paid. I was the editorial assistant. It was only 3 full time people on staff, including the editor in chief. So there was the editor in chief, myself, the editorial assistant, and then another girl who was a writer, editor, I can't remember her title. She was great though, her name was Karen. There was actually Hype Hair and it was in the same building as the publisher who also owned this magazine called Today's Black Woman's Style Report. The editor in chief was the editor in chief of both those magazines so I was the editorial assistant for both of those magazines, and so was Karen. She was like a writer on both magazines. Every issue basically was split into half for both Hype Hair and Today's Black Woman and I wrote half and Karen wrote half. It was a lot of work. Very little pay but I don't regret it because it gave me a thick skin. Once you do something like that, so young and you're already super vulnerable because you're out of place, like "This isn't my home, I just graduated grad school."

Jodi KatzWhen you started that first week or the first few weeks, were you scared?
Essence GantYes, I was scared. I was intimidated because I was like, "I'm not a real journalist. This opportunity kinda fell into my lap." And it didn't because I did the work to get it. I networked, I skipped class to get this. I even almost failed a class because I was skipping so much to get this opportunity so a lot of sacrifice and a lot of hustle and a lot of hard work went into me landing this opportunity and this moment but for whatever reason, when I first started, I just still felt insecure about it like I didn't belong and I wasn't worthy of it because I didn't get a Master's in Journalism or Communications or whatever. It took me a long time and I feel like even when I first got to Buzzfeed, I just kinda shed that feeling of feeling like I don't really belong here, I'm not worthy, these people went to NYU, and they have whatever in journalism or whatever and I was just like finally to the point where I'm like, "No, actually I'm pretty dope and I belong here and my resume speaks for itself so bam."
Jodi KatzIt's imposter syndrome, right?
Essence GantYeah, yeah.
Jodi KatzI've felt it up until really recently so I always would go to these events and all the Lauder people would be in a clique together, and all the L’Oreal people would be in a clique together,
Essence GantMm-hmm (affirmative)
Jodi KatzAnd I never worked at those companies.
Essence GantRight.
Jodi KatzI worked in beauty but not at those companies and I always felt like I'm less than.
Essence GantRight.
Jodi KatzBecause I didn't have that experience. Just like you didn't go to school for journalism,
Essence GantYeah.
Jodi KatzAnd it really wasn't until recently, I'm 43 years old, I've been in this business a long time that I've realized like, "Oh, the fact that I worked at entrepreneurial companies in my career is really good."
Essence GantRight, right.
Jodi KatzWay better than had I been in a hierarchical company.
Essence GantFor sure.
Jodi KatzAnd that made me create this, and my agency, and everything else that I do and started to really see it through a different lens.
Essence GantYeah.
Jodi KatzIt's taken a long time.
Essence GantYeah, for sure. It does take a long time. It's like self work. You have to slowly but surely get there and tell yourself that you're worthy and you belong and you eventually have to believe it.
Jodi KatzIt's probably the hardest thing to shake though because I think it goes back to any old baggage that we have which is “am I wearing the right outfit for this party?” Like all this adolescent stuff is basically like adolescence again.
Essence GantIt is. I've noticed that and the older I get, the more I realize I'm like adults never really grow up. We get older and we get more responsibility and we get some new perspective but those little things, those little insecurities or things that we worry about are still there. We manage them better but I don't think ever fully grow out of those things.
Jodi KatzWell, some people manage them better. Some people are just a mess.
Essence GantYeah, true.
Jodi KatzIt comes through like sideways, they act like prima donnas or jerks or they take other people down.
Essence GantYeah, absolutely. Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Jodi KatzSo tell me, with the last few minutes we have remaining, what are your goals for yourself at Buzzfeed? Because what you guys have as a platform is really unusual and you're the social worker of beauty like you get to advocate, and teach, and guide, and hold someone's hand through hard conversations that you lead very often on Buzzfeed, so what is your goal for your role there?
Essence GantI think my goal for my role there is to just continue to be a voice in this space and to be even more visible because I think that's a big part of it right? You can create amazing content and a byline is everything but also what helps to really shift perspective and narrative and people's perception of themselves is to see other people who look like them killing it in a certain space. There are women I can name who reminded me of myself when I was younger. I'm like, oh my god, I wanna be like, rest in peace to Kim Porter, P Diddy's ex who recently passed, but I was like "She's so beautiful, this Black girl, she's out here, she's unapologetic, she's killing it." People like Naomi Campbell who were just so certain in who they were in all parts of their identity and they were so visible.

I think that visibility is super important so if I had a goal at Buzzfeed, it would be to just increase my visibility, be even more visible, do more things like this, more podcasts, more panels, more things on social media when I work with brands, just anything that's more visible and just to really show other girls who look like me and even who don't look like me but who just are used to seeing one thing. Beauty can be very one dimensional, you see the same person over and over so for anybody who always sees the same person over and over and just feels like they don't fit, if you see something out of the norm, which I'm very out of the norm for this space, then it's like, "Oh, well maybe I can do it. That Black girl with the afro puff who's dark skinned and wears big hoops did it and I'm not used to seeing people like her in this space so maybe there is a chance." That's all I want.
Jodi KatzAnd she studies Social Work.
Essence GantAnd she studies Social Work! Got a Master's in it, still paying for it and she doesn't use it.
Jodi KatzSo for people who wanna reach out to you, do you answer DMs?
Essence GantI do answer DMs, yes. Actually answer DMs and you probably have a better chance at reaching me via DM than email because I get so many emails. But if you DM me, I will answer it. If you email me, I will answer it but you just have to make the subject line something like "Heard you on podcast" and then I'll open it.
Jodi KatzWould you reveal what your email address is on the show?
Essence GantYes, it's essence.gant@buzzfeed.com. And it's Gant, not Grant, no R. So if you put an R in it, it's gonna bounce back.
Jodi KatzThank you so much for sharing your experience and wisdom with us today.
Essence GantThank you!
Jodi KatzThis is so cool and for our listeners, I hope you enjoyed this interview with Essence. Please subscribe to our series on iTunes and for updates about the show, follow us on Instagram @WhereBrainsMeetsBeautypodcast and we answer our DMs too.
Essence GantAw yay!
Jodi KatzThank you Essence.
Essence GantThank you!
AnnouncerThanks for listening to WHERE BRAINS MEET BEAUTY® with Jodi Katz. Tune in again for more authentic conversations with beauty leaders.

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