Elaine Welteroth, Author And Project Runway Judge


“I was at Teen Vogue from 2012 to 2018. I was the youngest Editor-in-Chief at the time, and the second black Editor-in-Chief [at Condé Nast], ever. I wanted to be a magazine editor before I realized that being a magazine editor was actually a job. Growing up in a small town outside of San Francisco, all I knew was that I liked taking photos of my friends, and I would turn those photos into spreads, collage-style. My mom and dad, in addition to working at an aerospace company and as a carpenter, are musicians—my dad’s a hippie acoustic guitar guy, and my mother is a gospel singer. And my brother’s a punk rocker. I am the only person who was not born with a musical gift! But, growing up, I was all about Mariah Carey. I don’t know a biracial person growing up in the ‘90s who wasn’t obsessed with her.

Like most people, I had an existential crisis in college where I had to decide what I was going to do with my life. But then I read about Harriette Cole. She started out as an editor, then she started her own business, and then she became a best-selling author, a radio show host, and a presence on television. She was at this really interesting intersection of black culture, style, and spirituality. I was immediately drawn to her, so I Googled her name and read her bio online—I just knew I had to meet her.


Long story short, she hired me at Ebony. This was the beginning of the recession, and magazines were struggling. At the time, Ebony was a family-owned company with fewer resources, but I knew working with her was going to pay off big. My second week on the job, we shot Michelle Obama. It was a grind, it was a struggle. I pulled late nights every night, I ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches every day.

I started as an intern, and then I became Harriette’s assistant, and eventually I started the beauty and style department there. I was a one-woman show. Then I went to Glamour as a beauty writer and editor, and it was such a culture shock to see that there were whole departments for the work that I was expected to do by myself at Ebony. But that’s why it was such a great learning experience. Seven months later, I was promoted to Senior Beauty Editor, and three months later Eva Chen called because she was leaving her post as the Beauty and Health Director at Teen Vogue.


It was a big deal to get Eva Chen’s job. I was 25 and I felt like I had big shoes to fill. But when the news hit the headlines, I learned that I was the first black beauty director in Condé Nast’s 107 year history, and that completely framed the way I approached that role. Prior to that, I was just trying to fit in and play by the rules, so to speak. I started trying to bring stories to the table that no one else brought before. With the cover with Aya, Imaan and Lineisy, we put a stake in the ground. It became our highest-selling issue of the year, even over Kylie Jenner. It was Amy Astley’s idea, and even though I was the beauty director, she gave me the opportunity to be the cover editor for that story. After that hit, suddenly Teen Vogue was on the map for being at the forefront of diversity in fashion.

Through the beauty pages, I tried to push the envelope and do more culturally important work. At one point, I went to Rwanda to explore my cultural heritage, and when I was there, I got my hair braided. Coming back and hearing some stereotypical ignorant remarks made me want to shine a light on how sometimes beauty in itself is a form of activism, so I created a story around it. The girl who we cast for the story was also biracial, and I thought that was important, because it was speaking not only to my experience, but also to Zendaya’s experience on the red carpet. Everything about that story was intentional, but there were also blind spots. Once it hit, people thought the girl we cast was white. It made me realize that as a black editor, there is no margin for error. I engaged with the community online and addressed every person who wrote to me, and then I wrote an open letter to apologize for the parts that were misunderstood. We live in cancellation culture, where we are so quick to call people out when they make a mistake, rather than inviting them to learn and be better. I think it’s important to share, though, the parts where you get it wrong. It’s the only way that you learn.

Since leaving Teen Vogue, I’ve written a book and filmed a TV show. One requires you to be in your pajamas with no makeup on, and the other one is a circus of hair and makeup people. I got really lazy—it’s almost like I atrophied. I spent all these years in beauty, and then I couldn’t even comb out my hair. Vernon François has been transformative for me. He introduced me to my afro, and he’s taught me so much about how to take my curls to the next level. For me, my hair was an extension of what was happening inside of me. As I was growing into myself and my voice professionally, my hair was getting bigger and bigger and bigger. And Vernon was part of that. He told me that I needed to have iconic hair, that my hair is my calling card. He also taught me how to be tender with my curls. I used to get frustrated when I had to detangle my hair, and he taught me how to do it with no products, no tools, no nothing. You just do it with your fingers. It takes time and patience, but you don’t lose any hair. And not only does it detangle, it gives you amazing texture. It’s breaking up the curls so you get the 'fro. It’s the antithesis of everything you’ve been taught as a curly girl, which is to drench it in moisture, scrunch it, and then to not touch it.


I wash my hair once a week. If I have time, I detangle using the Vernon François method. If I don't, I use a wide-tooth comb, and I detangle from the ends, gently working my way up. It takes anywhere between 30 minutes to two hours. My hair is color treated and curly, so I need to be careful about which shampoo I use. Devacurl No Poo is my favorite because it doesn't have sulfates. It’s moisturizing, but it helps get rid of the residue. I don’t shampoo every time I wash my hair—a lot of times, I just use Oribe’s conditioner in the black bottle. It is everything—it is so decadent, so rich, so nourishing. I’ll just condition and comb that out, rinse it, add more conditioner, and then rinse a little bit, not all the way, and then get out. And to sleep, I put my hair in a pineapple on top of my head, and then I put a bonnet on.

For me, my hair was an extension of what was happening inside of me. As I was growing into myself and my voice professionally, my hair was getting bigger and bigger and bigger.

Devacurl has the best styling cream, hands down. It’s rich enough to help define the curl, and yet it’s light enough to where it dries really clean. And it gets reactivated by water. You just put a little bit of water on the pieces that have lost definition, and then it’s just like, ‘Boing!’ It springs right back to the first-day curl. My favorite thing to refresh my curls with is Vernon François’s Nourishing Water. It’s like magic water. And I use the Devacurl diffuser that’s shaped like a hand. It has a 360-degree airflow, so it basically operates as a third hand that’s scrunching while it’s blowing, to create volume. I flip upside down, and I do that. I really like my hair to be big and voluminous, so I sometimes use dry shampoo on my roots. I use the one from Devacurl [Ed. note: discontinued]. It’s funny, because I remember thinking, ‘Wait, dry shampoo is for curly girls too?’ It’s sold to you as something for people with fine hair to use between washes. For curly girls, it’s a great volumizer, but it’s never marketed that way!


Aura Friedman colors my hair—I’ve gone to her for years. We usually go a little bit brighter around the face with highlights when it’s summertime, and then she usually makes it a little richer in the winter. And I've learned that there is only one way to cut curly hair, and that’s when it is dry. My first curly hair cut was at Devachan in Soho, and it was transformative. Then I started cutting my own hair when I was a beauty editor, on set. You have to cut it dry in order to see what kind of shape you’re going to get, because each curl has its own personality, and the spring factor is very different for each one. If you cut it wet, once it dries, the curls are going to be more snatched.

I’m less religious about my skincare routine. But the one product that I think is game-changing is P50. You can see a difference almost overnight. It tightens your pores, and it gives you a glow that isn’t greasy. It burns a little, and depending on how sensitive your skin is, you can’t use it every day, but it’s magic. My favorite cleanser is Belif Creamy Cleansing Foam Moist. I got it in Korea years ago, and I have loved it ever since. It’s creamy, it’s not too foamy, it takes off my makeup, it never makes me feel too dry, and it never feels like it doesn’t do enough.


On a good day, I’ll tone with P50, or the Murad Vitamin C toner, and sometimes I’ll use the SK-II Facial Treatment Essence. Then I use a serum, Murad Revitalixir, which I’ve been using for a solid year and a half. I feel like it’s keeping my [skin] barrier solid, to keep out all of the bad things. It’s also a great primer for makeup. My favorite moisturizer is Sisley’s All Day All Year Moisturizer. It’s a great all-purpose, all-season moisturizer. It’s matte, but it’s a creamy matte. My skin is prone to getting oily, especially in the summertime, and it feels thick but it absorbs completely. When I ran out of that, I went to a Goop event and came across this Goop Revitalizing Moisturizer, which I think is damn good. I interchange them now.

Unseen Sunscreen is so underrated. For black girls, the biggest unsolved problem in beauty is not having sunscreen that works for all skintones. It’s revolutionary that Supergoop has an SPF 40, sweat resistant sunscreen that is completely clear. It feels like a serum when you’re putting it on your skin. But my favorite product in the world is the Supergoop Invisible Setting Powder. It’s 100-percent sweat resistant, SPF 45, completely mineral, and totally transparent. It’s like a filter for your skin.


In terms of masks, I really like the Tracie Martyn Enzyme Exfoliant, and I paint it on my face. I love a mask that’s a color, because it feels fun. That one’s green. Then I have Tata Harper’s Floral Hydrating Mask, and it’s a multi-hyaluronic acid treatment. It is completely clear, so I’ll do that one first, and then the other one.

I’m not the most vigilant about nighttime stuff, but I have gotten onto Retin-A. I love a treatment. I have an acupuncturist who does facials at the same time, and she recommended Environ Youth Assentia-A for me, which is the retinol I use at night when I do use retinol. And there are three moisturizers I really love. I talked about two of them, and the other one is Amy Weschler’s Solution 10. It’s simple, there are 10 ingredients, you know what’s in it, and it works.

I am the queen of the backseat beat—I can do winged eyeliner in the back of the bumpiest taxi. I use the same products all the time, so it’s simple. I use Burt’s Bees Chapstick. It has to be the original—it’s just the best. I use a concealer under my eyes—right now my favorite is RMS. But the shade range is limited, so I also have Nars Radiant Creamy Concealer, and Master Concealer from Maybelline FaceStudio in 50. So I use that for my eyes, and if I have a blemish I’ll quickly cover it with my finger. Then I’ll use Chanel Les Beiges to carve my cheeks, and I’ll use that same brush on my lids to bring out some definition and warmth. I also put it on my nose—carving the nose cannot be forgotten. It is a very intentional thing—I have my dad’s big German nose, so I think the carving is important to give my face a more chiseled look.


Glossier Play Glitter Gelée in Bijoux-Bijoux is my new favorite for on my lids. And there’s this Dior palette that has neutral colors—it goes from a light highlight to a dark brown. Peter Philips made it, and it’s the best basic palette—Dior Eye Reviver Backstage. They discontinued it, and then I saw him at a party and told him I was upset. He said that they had one more left, and that they would send it to me from Paris. So I savor it. I use the light shade on my lids, and to add a pop to the inner and outer corners. Then I take the darkest brown, and use that on my eyebrows. It’s great for diffusing the color, so it’s not a super sharp eyebrow shape. It just feels soft, and more natural. Then I use Glossier Boy Brow in Brown, and the more Boy Brow, the better.

I usually do liner before mascara, and I’m hella particular about the wing. I never go to the very end—I lift from just before the end, and I lift it at a very high angle. The goal with my eyes is to always lift and extend for a feline kind of shape. My favorite liner is a liquid, Kat Von D. It’s so good I could cry—it’s inky, like a calligraphy pen for your eyes.


I’m not loyal to any single mascara, but I know what I don’t like. I don’t like Great Lash. The one I’m using now is Smashbox Super Fan Mascara. For blush, I have this orange MAC powder blush in Loudspeaker, and I put it on the apples of my cheeks and my eyes, and it makes such a difference. It literally feels like summer on my face. To finish, I use RMS Living Luminizer. It’s coconut oil-based, and it just melts into your skin. I used to be a big lipstick person, but lately I have been converted back to lip gloss. The best lip gloss...well, there are two. Marc Jacobs lip gloss in Make Me!, and Chanel Rouje Coco Gloss in 748. If I’m going to do red or a rich color, I use Chanel’s Powder Lip in 152.

I keep my nails done—that’s my one gift to myself, and I like going to this salon in Bed-Stuy. CND Romantique always on my nails, and Essie Blanc always on my toes—gel, always.


Tom Ford Ombre Leather is me in a scent. Or, this one is also one of my favorites, The Nue Co Functional Fragrance. I love unisex fragrances. Either really fresh, or a little bit smoky. And for my body, I got so lazy that I don’t even use lotion anymore. But I will say that this is my favorite, Beautycounter Hydrating Body Lotion. I love the scent.

Over the past few years, I’ve gotten less precious about my hair and makeup. I see it more as a form of self-expression, and I’m more OK with not doing anything. If I decide to put on makeup, and I often do, it’s not because I need makeup to make me feel presentable, or good in my skin. I think 30 did that to me. And I probably need it more now, which is the ironic thing about it. [Laughs]”

—as told to ITG

Elaine Welteroth photographed by Tom Newton in Brooklyn on June 6, 2019.