Creatives in Conversation: How Essence Gant carved her own lane in media as an advocate for representation and inclusion in beauty.
Press play on Essence's personally curated playlist to listen to while reading the article (hopefully wearing your own pair of DropLabs EP 01 sneakers!).
The beauty industry, as it directly impacts conversations both in the mainstream media and in Hollywood alike, has come a long way in the past decade, especially when it comes to representation and diversity. Thanks to the impassioned dedication of trailblazers like Essence Gant, inclusion is not only being pushed to the forefront but becoming the normalized standard. As the Beauty Director of BuzzFeed, Essence has had a direct hand in ensuring that the content the company produces features diverse voices from a wide range of cultural backgrounds and experiences, doing so in a way that cultivates a genuine, real connection with the audience at large.
When Essence was growing up in her beloved hometown in Georgia, the prospect of her landing a job in beauty, no less one in media, didn't feel like a tangible option despite her love for the subject running so deeply in her. While pursuing both her Bachelor's and Master's degrees, she focused on social work, simultaneously keeping a silent but strategic eye on figuring out ways she could, as she recalls it, finesse her way into the industry. Through hard work and a leap of faith, Essence was able to do exactly that, taking a risk on herself and doing everything she could to network in New York City, all while completing her Master's degree three hours north in Albany. From landing her first job as an editorial assistant at a women's hair magazine to cutting her teeth as a fashion and beauty blogger, Essence has put the work in to prove media is a viable and rewarding career path for her.
As her vibrant career has unfolded in the years since, Essence has been an integral asset to BuzzFeed in a variety of capacities, ranging from helping launch As/Is, the company's beauty vertical, to encouraging the industry to reevaluate how it presents beauty from a multicultural standpoint. In addition to ideating and executing content for some of BuzzFeed’s major clients and overseeing in-house content creation, Essence also can be found sharing her passion for all things beauty and lifestyle across her personal social media platforms. With telling stories that speak to many different perspectives at the heart of all that she does, Essence is inspiring others in a multitude of ways, encouraging others not to dim their light due to outdated societal standards and explore their own passions fearlessly.
During a recent conversation with DropLabs, Essence shared more about her path to media, what her day-to-day entails at BuzzFeed and how sunlight is an integral ingredient for her creative process.
What do you do for a living and what helped you get started?
I'm the beauty director at BuzzFeed. I started there as the beauty editor and worked my way up, but I've been in media altogether about 10 years now. My focus has always been lifestyle media. Primarily what I've done throughout my career, and especially at BuzzFeed, is try to diversify the conversation around beauty to be more inclusive. As you know, beauty standards are very one dimensional as far as body size, race, ethnicity, body ability, gender identity. I wanted to make it more inclusive and also normalize that inclusivity, instead of it always being this big thing where it's like whenever you see beauty that's diverse, that's part of the headline. You'll see pieces outlining 20 plus-size models or 15 Black models, whereas if you don't do that and you don't single it out in a headline, it becomes part of the standard and it becomes normalized. That's what I've been able to do at BuzzFeed.
Do you have an early memory that stands out when you first decided you wanted to explore media as a career path?
It's funny because I didn't actually even think about media that much until I was a little bit older. When I was younger, I always loved writing, but I never really thought about it as a possible career choice. It was just something that I liked doing. You know how when you get a bit older and you say these things that sound good when people ask 'What do you want to do?' I remember saying I want to be a physical therapist; I remember thinking that at one time. Internally, I was like, what?! I have no interest in that whatsoever, but it sounded good [Laughs]. So, it was 'I want to be a physical therapist,' and then that turned into 'I want to be a social worker.' I ended up getting my Bachelor's and my Master's in social work. I knew probably around my second year of undergrad that I didn't really want to pursue that as my career, and I started organically gravitating towards media.
I don't know what particular thing or moment sparked my interest in media, but I was always interested in it and the entertainment industry in general. I never liked how exclusive it was and how it didn't really give everyone a seat at the table. I love this industry so much, I love pop culture, I love love love beauty, and all of those things were of interest to me, even when I was younger. My grandmother owned a salon and my sister later became a salon owner. We always had magazines around the house, and they were always Black lifestyle magazines, such as Essence Magazine. I've always seen those images, and it was very normal to me growing up. It was around my second year of college when I started thinking about how I could kind of finesse my way into media, even though I haven't gone to school for it. My last year of undergrad, I decided to go to SUNY Albany in New York for grad school. I was thinking, how could I get to New York and rub elbows with who I need to rub elbows with to break my way into this industry, but without having to go to NYU because it's so expensive. I went to grad school and got my Master's in social work, basically as a way to buy time for another year until I was able to get into the industry. My whole time at grad school, I was skipping class, coming into the city and trying to network. I did end up meeting a girl who worked in the industry and she put in a good word for me and helped me get my very first job at a hair magazine.
I think these were always interests of mine, but it wasn't until I got older that I thought about it as like, oh you can actually have a career in this. I'm from a very small town in Georgia and being a beauty editor or something of that nature just wasn't a thing.
Can you tell me a bit more about what your current role entails?
It is kind of like wearing ten hats at once. When I started, I was overseeing our beauty team. But since we had a restructuring, I want to say about a year ago, I became a part of our talent program. You could say I am signed to BuzzFeed because we have what we call the creator's program and it's similar to an agency model. With doing that, I didn't have the time or the bandwidth to really manage anyone else. When I'm not doing my day-to-day, I'm working with brands on Instagram or on videos for campaigns on social media or TV. That takes up so much of my time. When I'm in the office, I work a lot with big brands. So, let's say, a brand like DropLabs, approaches us to get their product out to our audience. I'll then come up with what makes the most sense to get that goal realized, whether that's in the form of a certain social asset or a post or a story about it or a video. I'll outline all the different possibilities that we can offer and work to execute those visions. Right now, I work a lot with big brands to create paid content to help fulfill whatever their goals are as far as getting a new product or a campaign out in front of our audience.
Do you have a project or an accomplishment that you're really proud of?
I would say the launch of As/Is, which is our lifestyle channel on BuzzFeed and on YouTube. I'm really proud of that because it gives a really gratifying feeling of being able to be such an integral part of something from the ground up and watch it grow and take off. Of everything that I've done, I feel like that's what I'm probably the proudest of. Just being such a huge part of that, such as helping the launch and establishing not only just the brand itself but also the tone of voice, outlining how we cover content to be sensitive and just normalizing representation.
What surprised you the most about first trying out DropLabs Technology?
I feel like as soon as they started vibrating, as soon as the beat dropped, I was like, ‘Oh this is crazy!’ I'm so not a big tech person. I know in 2020 everyone is a tech person, whether they want to be or not; it's such a part of our lives, you can't escape it. But as far as geeking out on technology, I'm just not that person. I don't really care. The most that I care about is like, does my phone take good selfies [Laughs] and record good videos? My job is very much centered on beauty and style, so that's about as far as I go technology-wise. I feel like trying out DropLabs was the first thing that I actually was like, 'Whoa, this is actually super, super cool' that didn't have anything to do with my profession directly. It was super crazy to feel it through your feet and through your body. The reason I loved trying them out so much is because I genuinely love music. I've always said that if I didn't work in beauty, I would probably be an A&R or work my way in the music industry in some capacity. So that was really, really cool for me. It just made the music that much more alive. That's the only way that I can really explain it. Even if I have on headphones, I know I'm that annoying person on the train and everyone can hear my music through my headphones. I've never asked anybody but I'm pretty sure because I like to get a maximized experience from whatever it is that I'm listening to. The second it started vibrating through my body, I like lost my s**t [Laughs].
How would you explain the experience to someone who hadn't heard of the shoes before?
I would say it's like if you go to a concert or a party. Actually, I would say it's more like when you go to a party, because even at concerts it depends on the vibes or the setting. Sometimes you have to be more reserved just depending on the venue, but at a house party, you're expected to dance and just have a good time and let loose. House parties are always the most lit, like with the DJ having the music on full blast and the walls are shaking and the floor is shaking and you feel it all. You feel everything that's happening. That's how I would describe it.
What do you do to tap into your creative zone?
This sounds so weird, but I like working from more sunny environments, which is crazy because I work in New York. Even like right now, it's still cold but it's a bit sunny outside. Anytime there's light, I work so much better. I remember, I noticed that during my very first two jobs in media; they were in cubicles and it was just so grey. I remember I would always call my mom and say it's so grey here, I can't. She would be like, 'What are you talking about? You sound crazy.' I'd be like, I can't explain it; it's just grey! There's no yellow anywhere! She'd be like, 'You sound like a child, grow up.' [Laughs] When I started working at BuzzFeed, the environment is just so much brighter. That helps stimulate me creatively and my imagination. It also just motivates me. I'm actually supposed to be moving to LA in a couple of months so I'm excited about that.
Would you say the weather played a role in your upcoming relocation, especially factoring in the type of environment you like to work in?
I go to LA often, like every few months or so for work, and I love it so much. I think what also happens in brighter or sunnier environments, it doesn't feel as uptight. I definitely appreciate New York for the grittiness of it. I feel like it was a good way to start my career because it forces you to hustle. I always say in New York, everybody has a hustle. You will get on the train and some kid is going to ask you to donate $1 to their basketball group or their dance organization. To be in New York, you have to hustle. I appreciate getting my professional roots planted here. I feel like I've gotten that and nothing can take it away. It's just such a part of me now. And now that I've been here ten years, I have that in me and I can take that and I can go anywhere and I'll be okay. I'm looking to LA because those are the kinds of environments that really help motivate me, but not overwhelm me. I feel like sometimes New York can overwhelm a bit.
What are some of your goals for this year, or some things you are working on?
Honestly, my number one goal is to move to LA. I also want to start maximizing my personal brand as well. I feel like now to work in media, it's not really good enough anymore to just be a beauty editor or a beauty director or a style editor at this place or that place. You also have to have a personal brand that goes along with it, because media is so fickle and is changing so much. We're in the age of influencing, and so people aren't just relying on beauty editors anymore for expertise; that's not their sole go-to. Now, it's like well, 'What does my favorite YouTuber think about it?' You have to keep up with the competition in that regard. That's definitely a big goal of mine, to keep growing my personal brand. I feel like at this point, it's foolish not to, especially if you work in lifestyle, beauty or style.
Essence Gant can be found on Instagram at @theessenceof_ and on the web at https://www.buzzfeed.com/essencegant.
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