In her debut novel, “The Rise, Fall, and Return of Sarah Mandelbaum,” former WWD beauty editor Cara Kagan draws from personal experience in the beauty and fashion publishing industries as inspiration for her protagonist, Sarah Mandelbaum.
WWD hired Kagan in 1992 to pioneer its coverage of mass-market beauty, where she built a Rolodex of industry leaders. She then expanded her reach to report on rising trends that spanned mass and prestige, such as the influence of makeup artists and their eponymous lines.
After WWD, she became the beauty and fitness director for YM and Mode magazines before creating Girl, the first multicultural and multisize fashion and beauty magazine for teens — years ahead of body positivity. Despite her self-described wild hair, sensible shoes and decidedly basic fashion sense, Kagan held the beauty and fitness director position at Elle for several years.
Here, Kagan reveals what it was like covering the beauty industry in the 1990s, how it differs today and if one or more of Sarah’s bosses in “The Rise, Fall, and Return of Sarah Mandelbaum” are based on legendary WWD editors.
“The Rise, Fall, and Return of Sarah Mandelbaum” takes place in the ’90s, weaving Sarah’s career in beauty and fashion with her rock star dreams. Why did you pick that era?
Cara Kagan: The 1990s was a fantastic decade for me. It was when my career started taking off, I met and married my husband and I started working at WWD, which was a thrilling place to be. There were so many exciting things happening in the beauty and fashion industries. New York City was a fabulous place to live.
What were some of the big stories you covered at that time?
C.K.: I don’t want to detract from what’s going on now because beauty is always a dynamic and fascinating industry. But amazing things were happening — things we take for granted today. For example, in 1990, Avon introduced Anew, the first skin care product to incorporate alpha hydroxy acid — now a mainstay of skin care regimens. That same year, Sephora launched its first U.S. store in SoHo. Meanwhile, department store beauty floors were exhilarating places to stroll. Ed Burstell did fabulous things at Henri Bendel, and Joyce Avalon at Barneys was always willing to take a chance on niche brands. Steve Bock at Saks Fifth Avenue was a genius at diversifying its offerings to include traditional and indie brands.
One of the most thrilling trends was the rise of makeup artists’ lines. Trish McEvoy was picking up steam. Bobbi [Brown] had just launched a short line of lipsticks at Bergdorf Goodman and was already expanding. MAC was up and coming, with Estée Lauder having the vision to acquire it. Meanwhile, on the mass end of things, Target launched its proprietary Sonia Kashuk range. Cosmetics companies were also finally meaningfully expanding their shade offerings to be more inclusive.
Sarah is thrown into the world of reporting on fashion and beauty, where she feels she doesn’t fit in with the “fashion flamingos,” who she describes as high-fashion magazine beauty girls who have to shift from one slim leg to the other because of their “ludicrously expensive torturous shoes.” How accurate is that experience?
C.K.: Well, this is fiction, even if it’s inspired by actual events. So, anything that may have been good becomes fabulous. And anything that was not so good becomes horrible. It just makes for a more exciting story. But I, personally, felt a lot of pressure from some people to look and dress a certain way when I left WWD and got into high-fashion publishing.
And some people are OK with that; they are fashionable, self-confident and handle it all gracefully and effortlessly. They even thrive on it. That’s just not how I’m made. I was picked last for gym class. I have frizzy hair and rotten feet, so I can’t wear the shoes, and I am only 4 feet 11 inches, so I am never a sample size. Plus, I take everything personally. And yes, there was quite a bit of cliquishness and cattiness, as the book describes, but that’s not to say there weren’t many brilliant, wonderful people.
Do you feel it is different today?
C.K.: Yes and no. There are so many more media outlets now that we have influencers and podcasters, so no person or small group of people is as influential as they used to be. And there’s much more emphasis on broader concepts of beauty. Plus, sneakers are now essentially couture, so there’s no need to be a “fashion flamingo” and shift from one foot to another because of tortuous shoes.
However, we’re all on camera all the time now, and everyone is constantly posting pictures of their best lives and selves on social media, which puts us all under scrutiny — especially our own. Sometimes, after a Zoom meeting, I think about all the plastic surgeries and cosmetics procedures I “need” because I’m horrified at the image I’ve been staring at for an hour. I don’t think I did that pre-Zoom. But then again, I’m a lot older now.
At the fictional Fashion Daily Gazette, Sarah’s editors share traits with WWD legends: Michael Gallagher, for one, and Nils Petersen, with his white bushy mustache, two-finger typing and a love of rock ‘n’ roll.
C.K.: I was fortunate to work with brilliant, talented and larger-than-life editors at WWD. With his charisma, talent, extraordinary taste and ability to always get the story, Patrick McCarthy was a fashion legend to me and, I’m sure, to many others. He inspired the character of Michael Gallagher, though Michael is also his own person.
As for the character of Nils, whom everyone in my creative writing workshops loved, there is so much of [WWD former executive editor of beauty] Pete Born in him, rounded out by fictional details. Pete was and is a very influential figure in my life and career. I have a great love for him. Like many people, he has his quirks and a big personality that make for excellent fiction. When I told Pete I wrote the book, and it has a character that everybody loves based on him, he immediately asked, “Does that mean I have to buy the book?” It was classic.
“The Rise, Fall, and Return of Sarah Mandelbaum” is available on barnesandnoble.com, amazon.com, walmart.com and bookshop.org.