If you have even the slightest affinity for beauty, you’ve probably heard the name Stephanie Darling. And if you haven’t, chances are you’ve read her work.
One of Australia’s greatest beauty journalists, Darling has written for the likes of Vogue Australia, Harper’s BAZAAR and Madison over the last few decades, and is currently the beauty director for Sunday Life and Daily Life. Having interviewed some of the world’s greatest industry experts and celebs in her years in beauty, and having had literally put her body on the line all in the name of letting her readers know what’s what, it’s safe to say she knows a thing or two.
And now she’s put her experience, stories, and wisdom down into words in her part-memoir, part-beauty bible, Secrets of a Beauty Queen.
Darling says of her labour of love, “The beauty of Secrets of A Beauty Queen is it is almost two books in one. There are anecdotes about my life as a Beauty Director that will engage all women (and men) – from interviews with amazing and engaging celebrities, incredible countries I have visited for skin care and cosmetics launches, stories about my two sons, my top 100 products of all time, beauty treatments I have tried and tested, a guide to lust-have fragrances... People will be able to dip in and out as a reference guide to all things beauty, or read it cover to cover, hopefully, and laugh and cry as my story unfolds.”
We asked Darling the very tough question of picking her favourite chapter, “I think the Thank God I Had the Nose Job is my most intense chapter. It is very open about my insecurities and touches on my childhood as well as my love of fragrances and what I love about working as a Beauty Director.”
Here’s a short extract of the chapter, which should not only give you a taste of Darling’s insane knowledge and expertise in the beauty industry, but will shed some light on her honest, funny, and sometimes self-deprecating character.
The first time I really thought about owning a fragrance was at the age of 11. My brother and I were visiting my father, who was going to Europe on business, and he asked me if I wanted him to bring me back something. The fact that he had even asked this question was pretty revolutionary, so I quickly asked if he could bring me some ‘channel perfume’. He laughed derisively and then corrected my pronunciation. I was mortified but it was worth the humiliation when he turned up with a bottle of Chanel No. 5. And so the addiction began.
Intricately related to my love of all things fragrant was my obsession with my nose. For as long as I can remember, I have had an issue with it. It reminded me of my father’s, and every time I thought I had come to terms with it, there would be a sneaky little reminder. When my children were small – let’s face it, that’s when they are the harshest and truest critics, before they develop filters (oh, who am I kidding, that never happens) – they would say, ‘Mummy, you have a big nose.’ So, even though more thoughtful souls would reassure me that that my nose was ‘fine’, I never really believed them.
I would go for months at a time without thinking of it, and then catch sight of myself at an unflattering angle, or caught like a rabbit in the headlights without my photograph face on. Remember the days before Instagram filters and angles and the delete button? Whole packets of photos opened and destroyed before anyone caught sight of them.
My son Harrison, up until recently, had the most appalling photo of me on his camera that he refused to delete, often taunting me from his towering height of six foot four, keeping the camera just out of my reach. I can’t begin to describe how bad this picture was; I didn’t even look human. He thought it was hilarious to have this documented evidence; me, not so much.
However, my nose, for all intents and purposes, always performed exceptionally well on the smelling front. I come from a long line of sniffers and I’ve become famous for my sense of smell. Our family are renowned for sniffing everything before we buy it, read it, taste it, go out with it . . . so you can imagine my horror when, at a fragrance showing during my time as beauty director at Madison, I discovered that by the end, I basically couldn’t smell a damn thing. The first paddle-shaped test strip, which had been dipped in Penhaligon’s Blue Bell eau de toilette (all bluebells, earth and moss with a hint of cinnamon, clove and galbanum, it launched in 1978 and was a favourite of Princess Diana’s), I just vaguely registered. I am always a bit of a show-off at these events as I have been to a number of fragrance workshops run by the maestro of fragrance himself, his royal highness Michael Edwards, so I am down with the way you have to bend the paddle-shaped strips to help get them closer to my nose. These blotter strips are pure and free of any contaminants, letting the fragrance speak for itself. I learnt so much from those workshops, where Michael showcased literally hundreds of both well-known and little-known scents and taught us to tease out the notes. Even with my nose functioning at full strength, after three or four fragrance dissections, nasal fatigue took over and my nose could be revived only by sniffing a bowl full of coffee beans.
After attending a couple of these workshops, Michael asked me to the inner sanctum to be part of a workshop at his home with the heavy hitters of the fragrance industry, including the head of fragrance company Givaudan, from whom I learnt that the way the brain layers meaning on to smells is called ‘configural processing, a way of mapping the odour to a meaning’. This explains a lot. We were sampling the newest fragrances about to be launched on the market. This was a laborious and at the same time fascinating process, watching Michael dissect the notes to categorise the newcomers for his perfume bible, Michael Edwards’ Fragrances of the World, which is now in its thirty second edition. This gem is a go-to for beauty editors, perfume houses, department stores, and basically anyone who loves fragrance. Fragrances are broken down into family categories, including: aromatic, dry woods, mossy woods, woods, woody oriental, oriental, soft oriental, floral oriental, soft floral, floral, fruity, green, water and citrus. I love Michael’s take on fragrance and his scent mantra: ‘A great perfume is a work of art. It can lift our days, haunt our nights and create the milestones of our memories. Perfume is liquid emotion.’
So, at the event, with my finely honed nose failing me, I was starting to panic. Initially, I blamed the deadening of my number one sense on a cold. I was with my colleague Sherine Youssef and together we sampled the wares laid out enticingly before us, her whispering the categories to me as we walked the room. I nervously oohed and aahed over each strip, dredging the superlatives from my olfactory memory. I seriously thought this was a one-off and all would return to normal once my cold had abated, but disturbingly, it was not to be the case.
At first I thought I was suffering fragrance fatigue, such as happens when you can’t smell the fragrance you are wearing. This happens when the senses tire after being constantly stimulated by the same scent and your nose becomes used to the smell, but that was not what was happening. I had gone from an Olympian sense of smell (a proud family tradition) to hyposmia (a reduced sense of smell), which was bad enough, to anosmia, a complete loss of smell. The decline was gradual, until I was reduced to a quivering wreck as my super-honed sense had almost completely abandoned me. Nothing could get through, noxious or pleasurable. As I gazed up at the vast array of favourite fragrances in my office
I picked up YSL’s Rive Gauche; I could almost retrieve the scent of this fragrance, which I had discovered at 21 at the duty-free counter while crossing the English Channel and promptly purchased, even though it meant forgoing a week’s worth of meals. Rive Gauche is a delightful soft floral underpinned with orris root and sandalwood. Fortunately, even though my sense of smell was compromised, my sense of taste was still intact. This would have been the beginning of the end.
I was still in denial, but started to consult Dr Google as to what might be the cause. Nasal polyps seemed to be a common theme. These are teardrop-shaped, form in the nose or sinuses, and look uncannily like a peeled seedless grape. These little suckers are often associated with allergies and asthma. Symptoms include runny nose, sneezing (tick), post-nasal drip (tick) and decreased sense of smell (double tick). Rather unfortunately, I have also developed adult-onset asthma. The shortness of breath, which I’d convinced myself was just that and nothing else, turned out to be asthma, which improved dramatically after I started taking prednisone tablets to reduce the size of the polyps in my nose to prepare them for surgery. After a barrage of allergy tests, it turned out that I am highly allergic to rye grass. The welt left on my arm by the test rivalled Uluru.
So I was finally catapulted from a state of denial to a begrudging acceptance. My first port of call was an ear, nose and throat specialist, who placed an endoscope up my nose and diagnosed a veritable forest of polyps, which had seriously compromised my sense of smell. Oh, and I also had a deviated septum. I was relieved in a way, because at least there was a reason. The solution: a sinuplasty. My nasal insecurity leapt to the forefront and I blurted out that perhaps I could combine this with a nose job. The specialist said he knew just the man, who could deal with the pesky polyps and give me a ‘pretty nose’ into the bargain. He referred me to plastic surgeon Dr George Marcells, who could do both procedures in the one sitting.
Extract from Secrets of a Beauty Queen by Stephanie Darling, published by Viking, RRP $34.99