…A daily one-hour shutdown of our devices: I’m talking mandatory blackout! We all know the physical and mental toll our phones and laptops take, yet we rarely walk away from them. Imagine the freedom of not having to answer a text, like a photo, reply to an email for one whole hour…and knowing everyone around you is free of that burden, too. What would you do? What brilliant idea would you think of? Who would you actively listen to?
I had the pleasure of interviewing Leah Wyar, Vice President and General Manager, Byrdie. Leah has nearly 20 years of experience in media and is a veteran beauty expert with numerous appearances on television shows such as Today and Good Morning America. She is a judge on season two of Lifetime’s American Beauty Star. Before joining Dotdash this year, she was the chief beauty director of Hearst, where she oversaw the content for 12 brands including Cosmopolitan, Elle, Harper’s Bazaar and Women’s Health, bringing trends, news, and solutions to more than 20 million women every month. She also covered the beauty and wellness circuit for Fitness, Self, and Health. Leah graduated with a BA in Psychology from Susquehanna University, and lives in New York City.
Thank you so much for doing this with us Leah! What is your “backstory”?
A healthy mix of serendipity sprinkled with a little strategy. Two months before I was about to go to graduate college (George Washington University for my masters in organizational psychology), I saw a job posting in my undergrad career center (at Susquehanna University). The position — the assistant beauty and fashion editor of Health magazine — had nothing to do with what I had just studied for the last four years (psychology and business), but my gut told me to throw my resume into the folder. A few weeks and several interviews later, I was offered the job by an SU alum. Connections and chemistry helped, but I’m a big believer in fate.
I spent the first 10 years of my career writing about beauty through a wellness lens (Health, SELF, and Fitness), then moved to Cosmopolitan, my first true beauty and fashion magazine. I was hired by the legendary Kate White, after sending her a cold email professing my love of her book Why Good Girls Don’t Get Ahead But Gutsy Girls Do. Three years later, I was lucky enough to be part of Cosmo’s next life under new editor-in-chief Joanna Coles — lucky because she kept only five of us from the old regime. Joanna altered the course of my career in many ways from a docu-series on E! to elevating me to a corporate role. As Hearst’s Chief Beauty Director, I was responsible for creating and leading the first beauty print vertical, which gave beauty editors the freedom (and skillset) to write for a variety of magazines, rather than just one.
After three years of extreme change in the print world, I knew it was time for a change. I fought digital media for a long time because, from a beauty perspective, it’s always been pretty clickbait-y and shallow. Then last November, Dotdash approached me to run their new beauty acquisition, Byrdie. I became obsessed with their user-first values that center around high-quality content. I now oversee the Beauty and Style group here, which also consists of MyDomaine and Brides — it was the best career move I ever made.
Can you share your top “lifestyle tweaks” that you believe will help support people’s journey towards better wellbeing?
Trust the power of a new mattress. I’ve had a bad lower back due to blown discs for more than a decade — borderline debilitating at times. I’ve done everything: chiropractor, acupuncture, soft tissue manipulation, even considered surgery. Spent tens of thousands of dollars, I’m sure. And what’s the one thing I never did? Change my mattress. My husband and I slept on a super cushy, high-priced mattress for about a decade and I never thought it was contributing to my issues. Then last summer we moved, and to make it as easy as possible, I ditched our decade-old mattress and had a Tulo (the firm option) sent to our new place. A year later, my back is stable: about a 2 or 3 on the pain scale compared to a constant 8 or 9.
Own the “oxygen mask theory.” Put yours on first, full stop. To me, that means making time for a massage three blocks up the street once a week after putting my son down (I carry my stress in my neck and shoulders and if I don’t stay on top of it, I’m a mess) and seeing my acupuncturist every Thursday. Combined, it’s a two-hour weekly investment that keeps me balanced and, in turn, makes me a better wife, mom, daughter, sister, employee, and friend.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
I’ve met and interviewed many interesting celebrities: from Sarah Ferguson to Sarah Jessica Parker. But my pinch-me moment was an August ’18 night, in an Atlanta Waffle House, with the iconic Christie Brinkley. Last summer I was lucky enough to film 13 episodes of American Beauty Star, hosted by Ashley Graham for Lifetime, with Christie. She and I were both judges and sat next to each other for about six hours a day for two weeks. We bonded really quickly over beauty treatments, toddler talk and her magnetic energy and creative spirit. One night after filming, we hit up the Jay Z and Beyonce On the Run II Tour, with her amazing assistant Kate, plus our third judge and friend, fashion photographer Yu Tsai. Starved post-concert, we went to a waffle house — where Christie ordered pecan pancakes (because…protein!) and told us stories until 1am about how she was discovered in Paris, her travels, and the loves of her lives (her children). If you can imagine it, she’s even more beautiful on the inside than the outside. I’ll never forget that night.
Can you share a story about the biggest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
One story that sticks in my mind and still makes me cringe: When I was at SELF, I was subbing for my boss, who was on maternity leave, at the most important beauty ad conference of the year. Think: back-to-back meetings on the half-hour for two days straight. I prepared to the point of exhaustion, cramming on the airplane and in my hotel room every night. At some point during a presentation on the second day, my wires got crossed and I began referencing a luxury beauty brand that I thought was sitting in front of me — except it was actually that brand’s competitor. I recognized the mix-up about 30 seconds into my pitch, quickly apologized and tried to redeem myself, but I was too flustered. My seasoned publisher had to step in and course correct. It was excruciating. I was slightly emotional after the meeting ended. My publisher told me to take a walk and do better on the next round — and I did — but the flub has stayed with me ever since (like I said, I still cringe thinking about it!). The lesson I learned was that mistakes are inevitable, even if you over prepare. All you can do is recover with grace…and if you can avoid tearing up, bonus!
When it comes to health and wellness, how is the work you are doing helping to make a bigger impact in the world?
Wellness has been a cornerstone of Byrdie long before the topic was a “thing.” A lot of beauty sites treat wellness in either its simplest form (e.g., get your beauty sleep) or through a trendy lens (e.g., these crystals will balance your stress). But for Byrdie, it’s very specific and deeper rooted: how do the things you face each day affect your mental health — and how can we help? I love the story, “Are social media ‘Memories’ messing with your mental health?” because, seriously, how many times have we seen a picture that’s triggered a series of negative emotions? Our team takes wellness very seriously and positions it in a way that feels so real and useable. And that’s why I believe it’s making an impact. Because it’s not checking a box: “we met our ‘wellness’ content goal today.” It’s truly personal: one of us experiences something authentic and visceral, we start talking about it in one of our many daily chats, then figure out a way to bring the topic to life, which helps readers feel less alone.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Joanna Coles, for sure. But I’d never be where I am today without Colleen Sullivan, who gave me my first break. She was the Susquehanna University alum who gave me my first job — and at the time, the beauty and fashion editor of Health magazine. She hired me as her assistant knowing that I didn’t “deserve” the job: I was up against girls who were full-time assistants already and I never even had a magazine internship! I remember interviewing in her office, which had a clear view of the Empire State Building, listening to her talk about a recent press trip to London via the Concorde — my father, sitting in a car around the block, waiting to make the five-hour drive back home — thinking, “now this would be something.” Not just because I wasn’t qualified, but because I come from a town in western Pennsylvania with one stoplight…a family of steel workers, miners and railroaders. I had no business getting into this business! But that grit was exactly what I needed to succeed — and what Colleen saw. Twenty years later, I never discount an underdog with work ethic. And it’s why my Instagram description is, “Blue collar girl in a bougie world.”
If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of wellness to the most amount of people, what would that be?
A daily one-hour shutdown of our devices: I’m talking mandatory blackout! We all know the physical and mental toll our phones and laptops take, yet we rarely walk away from them. Imagine the freedom of not having to answer a text, like a photo, reply to an email for one whole hour…and knowing everyone around you is free of that burden, too. What would you do? What brilliant idea would you think of? Who would you actively listen to?
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why?
- Not everyone is going to like you… That’s a tough pill to swallow when you’re young and/or a people pleaser (I am). In my 20s, the idea of someone discounting me made me sad. In my 30s, it made me angry. In my 40s, I still care, but do my best to introspect. If the root cause is on them, not me, I care a whole lot less because I know actions are often less about me, personally, than it is about the person doing the acting out.
- …But if you work hard while being kind, most people will. In my opinion, the most important thing you can do as a boss is set an example. And the best example that I have in my life is my dad. The man manages the entire eastern seaboard tech team of the American Red Cross and works harder than anyone I know. But the most admirable thing he’s taught me: kindness. If you can master both things — working as hard or harder than others around you while always demonstrating kindness and respect — you can usually convince people to follow your lead. I’ve always had to work harder in this business simply because I wasn’t “prepared” upon entry. And nice is just something that comes more naturally to me than the alternative. I once interviewed Simon Sinek, who explained the difference between leading and being a leader: the latter is simply holding the highest rank (you can get that based on a lot of things), but the former means that others willingly follow you — not because they have to, not because they are paid to, but because they want to. That’s what I try to do everyday.
- “Balance” is B.S. My generation was always told, “you can have it all.” Yes, you can…it’s just going to be messy 90-percent of the time. Embrace that reality — and the chaos that comes with it — and you’ll figure it out. Try to be perfect at home and at work and everywhere else in between and you’re just going to have a whole lot of heartbreak, guilt and resentment.
Do you have a “girl-crush” in this industry? If you could take one person to brunch, who would it be? (Let another “woman in wellness” know that you respect her as a teacher and guide! )
Amy Kellar. She was my first beauty editor friend and has always been such an inspiration to me personally and professionally. She’s the former editor-in-chief of Women’s Health and is currently an EVP at Remedy Health, but her side hustle and passion is her platform @Club_Mental. It takes on the world of mental health with first-class writing peppered with realness (“An open letter to my obsessive compulsive disorder”), a healthy dose of reality (a franchise called “how a mental health pro treats herself”) and, most recently, “digital covers” that profile people like Nate Win and Christina Grasso. I truly don’t know how she has the time to run this operation amidst her day job, raising two adorable boys and being a killer wife to her husband Grady, who runs a coffee empire. But she does it with so much grace, an intense dose of humor, and pure brilliance. I am so lucky to call her one of my oldest friends.
Sustainability, veganism, mental health and environmental changes are big topics at the moment. Which one of these causes is dearest to you, and why?
That’s tough, especially as the Amazon is burning and leaders of the free world are still denying science. But I’d have to say mental health. It’s why I feel so strongly about the way we cover wellness on Byrdie and why I appreciate Amy so much. The impact that things like anxiety and depression can have on those who struggle with it is profound. Yet we have a long way to go as a society: from flippantly using the word “mental” to judging those who go to therapy to stepping up and funding research and treatment so everyone — including the people who are secondarily affected by it — can benefit.
What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?
Instagram is my sweet spot: @leahwyar
Thank you for these fantastic insights!