Beauty Tips

It’s A Jungle In Here

Urban jungle background with a copy space

I have turned into Prince Charles, during lockdown. Well, not literally turned into the Prince of Wales – but I have adopted his oft-joked-about habit of speaking to my plants. This is obviously because, save for my husband (who I thank my lucky stars I was able to be locked down with), I have really only had my houseplants for company. And boy, have we been getting on well.

Now, I’m perfectly well aware that there is a houseplant frenzy gripping the nation. (Anyone who spends more than two seconds a day on Instagram realises that; it’s right up there with avocado toast in the hashtag popularity stakes.) And I was pretty late to this party, actually, despite being a keen (outdoor) gardener – scarred by the memory of murdering too many plants during my flat-sharing days. (Although I’ve never felt quite so guilty about killing plants since I learned that Vita Sackville-West – of the legendary Sissinghurst Castle garden, no less – once compared her own plants’ death rate to infant mortality in the Middle Ages.)

It was Craig (aforementioned spouse) who first brought a houseplant home with him, about a year ago. ‘The air in this house needs improving,’ he insisted. I countered by saying that the rattly windows and floorboard draughts in our old house ensured we got plenty of fresh air, but the plant stayed. And then came another. Soon after, not one but two beautiful local shops opened within walking distance of our house in Hastings (Reste and The Clockwork Crow, if you’re interested), and lo and behold, it began turning into a jungle in here.

And instead of sulking and turning brown, as I’d expected, almost everything grew new leaves and really brought our house to life. (I have stopped short of marking their advancing height on the walls with a pencil, as for a small child – but it’s tempting.) What’s more, they’ve been making us healthier, with it. Many studies exist about how plants counter indoor pollution, essentially air-scrubbing it to counteract toxins like formaldehyde, benzene, toluene and more; plants absorb these toxins, breaking them down into harmless compounds in the soil which then feed the plant later. They’re also good for humidity levels – which in turn is good for skin: one study found that a collection of spider plants – almost impossible to kill, BTW – raised the relative humidity in a bedroom from 20% to a more comfortable 30%.

But those aren’t the health benefits I’m so interested in. Because over the past few months, I’ve realised that caring for my plants has been a grounding, steadying activity that has enabled me to build a ritual in my life at a crazy time when most parts of my day-to-day routine have frankly gone out of that rattly window. Fact: plants are good for mental health. It has been found, for instance, that employees who work in offices with plants tend to feel better about their jobs, fret less and actually take fewer sick days off.

Students in classrooms with three or more potted plants performed better at spelling, reading, science tests and maths than children in classrooms without any greenery. Surgical patients recover faster when they have plants in their hospital rooms, with reported lower blood pressure, pain and fatigue levels. (Ironically, despite that research, most hospitals won’t even let patients have flowers on the bedside now, never mind plants on the ward.)

Now, I’ve long supported horticultural therapy charities like Thrive (and my local Friary Gardeners charity, which gives vital employment to disabled people). But – duh – I hadn’t really twigged how houseplants could do that for moi. Tending for plants is the most miraculous way, I’ve discovered first-hand, to take my mind off all the bad stuff (of which there has been way, way too much) and to lower my stress levels. And while I’m lucky enough to have an actual outdoor garden (something I will never, ever take for granted after the last few months), I have found just pottering with my houseplants incredibly therapeutic.

Fact: when you’re tending your Swiss cheese plant or your rubber plant or your begonia, you can’t really think about anything else. And I can’t tell you how much, over the past three months, I’ve wanted not to think about anything else at all.

According to the Royal Horticultural Society, who are very picky about the research they publish, the psychological benefits of indoor plants have been shown as: ‘Improved mood; reduced stress levels; increased worker productivity (adding plants to office environments in particular); increased speed of reaction in a computer task; increased attention span’ – ‘in some scientific studies, but not all’, they point out, in an RHS-y sort of way).

Meanwhile, one of the reasons my success rate with houseplants has been so much better this time around is, quite simply, Google. When I bring home a new plant, I quickly research online to make 100% sure that I’m giving it the right level of light and water, and feeding it (or not feeding it) enough. I really try NOT to venture too far down the rabbit hole by looking at videos of how to propagate it and make lots of gorgeous new baby plants to give away – but it has been known.

And just to confirm my nerd-dom, there’s even an excellent podcast about houseplants that I’ve become slightly addicted to, which glories in the name of On The Ledge (available on podcasts platforms like Apple podcasts, Spotify and Stitcher). Presenter Jane Perrone is UK-based – which means her advice is much more relevant than US houseplant podcasts, with our climate and light levels.  And if you don’t know your amaryllis from your elephant’s ear, it’s a great listen.

But what’s really helped my indoor jungle to thrive, I reckon, is that I’ve been talking to my plants. I dread being overheard doing this (although um, who by?) because it sounds embarrassingly like I’m cooing at a new baby. But the Prince of Wales has been doing it for years, of course – and if it’s good enough for Charles.  To cement his status as a visionary – the man who ‘wittered on’ for decades about climate change, organic farming, biodiversity, carbuncular architecture and so many other things that the world has slowly woken up to – it seems that HRH was spot-on about conversing with his flora, too.

Because none other than the aforementioned, august Royal Horticultural Society itself carried out a month-long study into ‘talking’ to plants. They made recordings of ten people, women and men, reading from literary or scientific works, then played them to tomato plants. Each plant got to listen to one person’s voice, via a set of headphones attached to each pot. (Two plants didn’t get read to, poor little darlings, as a control.) At the end of the month, the plants which had ‘listened’ to female voices grew an average of an inch or so taller than those which were spoken to by a male voice. So clearly, this is where I’m going right.

And if you still think our future King and I are bonkers, chatting to our plants? I’ve got a thriving begonia (or seventeen), who’ll beg to differ. And far from being a sign of madness, it’s keeping me sane.

It’s A 10

sparkle background with it's a 10 product display

I must have tried a gazillion hair masks in my day. You can virtually hear my bleached-to-high-heaven hair slurping them up from the next county. But just sometimes, I try a product that makes me do a double-take – and It’s A 10 Miracle Mask was one of them. From distressed to silk-tressed, in a few minutes: that’s the best way I can put it. Converted, delighted and surprised, I then figured I’d try something else in the range – the spritz-on conditioner that’s had the beauty world buzzing.

Now, no leave-in conditioner on the planet has ever managed to smooth and soften my monstrously hungry hair to my satisfaction – till It’s A 10 Leave-In Conditioner, which turned my feelings about leave-in conditioners upside-down. And I’m really not kidding here. (Which is of course, duh, why it’s America’s bestselling leave-in product, with 13 million sold every year.)

Who ARE these guys?, I started to ask. And then Gill – brand-sleuthing Indiana Jones of the beauty world that she is – told me It’s A 10 would be landing on Victoria Health, and would I like to interview the founder & CEO, Carolyn Aronson…? You betcha, I replied. So: one seriously fun Zoom call later (not something you can often say, actually), here’s the gen on this just-landed-at-VH haircare name and its dynamic founder.

What made you think the world needed ANOTHER haircare line?

My whole career was spent as a hairdresser, behind the chair for 20 years with my own salon. I started in beauty school at the age of 16, having been torn between being a nurse and a hairdresser; hairdressing won and I’ve lived and breathed hair for over 30 years. This isn’t my first venture – my first company completely failed and I lost everything, so I started It’s A 10 from nothing. It was born out of the fact that when I had my salon, I used to cherry-pick the best products from different lines; I could never understand why there wasn’t one range that did everything I needed it to. Well, now there is!

Why the name?

It comes from the idea that every single It’s A 10 product offers 10 different, easy-to-understand hair benefits. I wanted to create hair products that worked across many different hairtypes, rather than a complicated range with too many different collections that just bamboozled the customer. Working as a hairdresser with every type of hair on the planet from the finest baby blonde to black coils has given me an insight into how to create a hybrid hair product that would work across multiple hairtypes, something that was easy for the customer to grasp. Even hairdressers get confused by the ranges out there! I would layer products to get the results I wanted; my products do it all, in one. At the beginning, we had no budget for advertising or promotion, so we just got it into hairdressers’ hands – and it became a huge word-of-mouth hit, in salons and beyond.

What’s your fundamental philosophy for the range?

It all begins with healthy hair. We help you bring hair to its natural, healthy state, nourishing the scalp, protecting with antioxidants, protecting the hair shaft… When you do that, natural body is restored, hair will behave better – and I’ve had countless women tell me their hair grows better and faster, including many black customers who we’ve reunited with their roots because It’s A 10 has enabled them to return to their beautiful, natural hair state. Most haircare just delivers cosmetic benefits, but the idea behind It’s A 10 is that it really feeds the hair. So depending on the particular product, we pack it with ingredients like sunflower seeds, panthenol, silk amino acids, green tea leaf extract, sweet almond oil, linseed extract, marshmallow extract, oat kernel extract… It’s not an organic line but I am very particular about the ingredients within products, and we source these botanical wonder ingredients literally from all over the world.

How involved are you in the creation of the products?

I am very appreciative of the experts, I partake in their knowledge, but to me it’s like building a house: you want your dream house, and nobody understands what you want like you do. All my years behind the chair made It’s A 10 what it is. I am totally hands-on; I develop each and every product, pick every fragrance, every Pantone colour for the bottles – and incidentally, it’s no coincidence that the bottles are colour-coded, because I wanted to stand out from the other products out there.

You live in Florida now, but where did it all begin for Carolyn?

I grew up in Michigan, with lots of snow – and let me tell you, I prefer the Florida sunshine. But Michigan was a very diversified area, which meant I was working with many, many different types of hair. There are many, many different types of hair even within my own family, my own kids; I am Puerto Rican so I have brothers with Afros, and my blended family of kids have different hairtypes; my biological daughter is half-Nigerian and half-Puerto Rican, so they’re great for trialling products on a range of hairtypes, outside our own team.

Why IS our hair so bound up with our confidence?

It’s part of our identity. When we feel pulled-together and groomed, we just beam. It’s totally an expression of who we are. I got into hairdressing, to make people feel and look beautiful. And it just doesn’t matter who you are. I have several brothers, and during lockdown one of them drove across the border to Ohio, an hour south of Michigan, to get a haircut, because he didn’t want to have an Afro again. So this isn’t just something that impacts on women!

You’re a female founder and a mother of four, though. How do you keep healthy, so that you’re not running on empty while running your business?

It’s so crucial to stay at the top of your game when you have your own company, because so many people rely on you. Diet is very important to me. I’m not perfect, but I try to eat lots of protein and lots of veg, and stay away from sugar. If I drink, it’s limited amounts otherwise I really suffer the next day. I go through workout phases; sometimes I get busy and can’t work out but when I do, I like to build muscle. I watch my weight, but it’s more important to keep my body strong. My grooming routine is also a huge part of my mental wellbeing. So I get up every morning, wash my hair, do it properly, put oils on my skin, use body scrubs, style my hair and do my make-up. I am not very good at relaxing but I can relax in a bathtub in an oil bath, and breathe. I’m out of whack if I don’t do this stuff. My other solace is to float on the ocean in a boat. I love the outdoors, and I love the ocean.

What’s the best thing about your job?

I like to make people not only feel and look better, but feel empowered. Because it may be a cliché but when you have a Good Hair Day, it’s a good day, full-stop. And if it’s a Bad Hair Day, it puts a little cloud over you…

It’s A 10

Today Is The First Day Of The Rest Of Your Life

jo-fairley-today-is-th-efirst-day

I’ve heard the last few weeks described, quite lyrically, as ‘The Great Pause’. Now, like everyone else, I hope that this experience of lockdown is something we never have to go through again in our lifetimes. And it is certainly true that the world will never be the same. Our workplaces will be altered. (If they still exist – I mean, you know the world’s shifted on its axis when Twitter tells its entire workforce that they can ‘work from home, forever.’) Our wings will be clipped, at least for a while: very few people in my circle fancy getting on a plane with their former nonchalance. But perhaps even more momentously, with the very real fear of a deadly illness (literally) in the air, Covid-19 has, I think, brought into sharp focus thoughts of how we want to live the rest of our lives. Because that feeling of immortality and invincibility that many of us cloaked ourselves in has been taken from us. And you know what?

I think that’s a great thing. Read More…

Love Of Letters

Reg envelope open with white card, love heart fasteners and on red background

I’ve long championed the art of the letter. I have boxes of stationery and stacks of postcards, being incapable of exiting a museum via anything except the gift shop, picking up a few on the way. I actually order stamps from Royal Mail, because that’s the only way to get the non-boring type – most recently, a large consignment of James Bond commemorative stamps. (And let’s face it, this is alas the closest I’m ever going to get to Daniel Craig.)

But unquestionably the most important hour of my day right now is first thing in the morning – not reading newspapers, not listening to the news (about which I can do nothing), not even meditating, but sitting in bed writing cards and letters. Because they seem to make all the difference to people’s days – and anything that I can do to brighten the lives of people I love or even just like a lot right now is what I want to spend my time on, in lockdown.

It began with dropping a little handwritten card to a couple of neighbours who I thought might need comfort, in enforced isolation. And then a friend who’s had some health challenges and definitely seemed in need of cheering up, from her Facebook posts. And then the floodgates opened. What harm would it do, I wondered, to write to all my nearest and dearest and actually tell them – in a card or a letter – how special they are? Answer: no harm. On the contrary, its been amazing. And, like some kind of chain letter, many of them have used it as a trigger, taken up letter-writing and are using their time to jot a note to other people.

Because as I mentioned in my ‘Small Pleasures’ editorial for Gill recently, the appearance of a postman is really quite thrilling right now. We all feel cut off. Nobody loves not being able to reach out and hug people (well, nobody but an actual sociopath) – so I’ve basically decided to put those hugs in an envelope, stick a stamp on, seal it with a kiss, and pop it through the wonderful, battered old postbox on our street.

It all feels a bit melodramatic and highly unfamiliar, sometimes, telling people the things you think but don’t usually say: ‘I just wanted to let you know how I’ve always admired X, Y or Z about you.’ ‘I love having you as my friend because – dot, dot, dot.’ Americans are so much better at this than the Brits; these are the sort of things we only generally say to people in extremis – when someone’s very ill (us or them), and we somehow find a way to overcome our British stiff upper lip-ishness, and tell it like it is. Well, this is an altogether, global in extremis situation – and the gift it has given us (because there has to be a silver lining to this cloud SOMEWHERE) is that its put everything into sharp focus. Made us appreciate what we have, while we have it. In particular, people.

Zoom calls can be fun. (I’ve got a group of cousins I check in with each Sunday, and a couple of girlfriends who I have a virtual tea party with on Saturday afternoons.) E-mails from friends are OK, but actually still feel a bit too like work. Receiving silly videos on WhatsApp certainly makes me snort my tea out of my nose, at times. But is there anything lovelier than someone’s handwriting? I sometimes come across letters and postcards my late parents wrote to me, maybe four decades ago, slipped into a book or a box – and a glimpse of their handwriting is unbelievably moving. No typeface can do that.

So I am working my way through those stacks of museum postcards that I’ve accumulated, over the years – a handful at a time, each morning. Some of my cards go through neighbours’ doors, like the eighty-something widower poet who lives down the road, with a poorly cancer patient daughter just a few hundred yards away who he can’t visit. He gets a card from me every couple of days, and his e-mails back are wonderful and smile-making (and sometimes, in French, because he’s a linguist). And there’s the old lady I know, who would formerly be seen bustling around all day long, working off large amounts of what is clearly nervous energy, and who is presumably now pacing her hallway, waiting for her confinement to be over. (I do appreciate how lucky I am to live in a community where I know my neighbours, incidentally – but hopefully those bonds are being forged now even in large cities, as we realise how interconnected we really are.)

I certainly don’t do it because I want letters and cards back – though its been completely thrilling to get some ‘replies’, as well as some unsolicited snail mail. (I shan’t throw a single one away, but have tucked them inside recipe and gardening books, and in years to come I’ll come across them and remember the extraordinary time the world changed forever – for the better, one can only hope.) I do it because life is short, and precious, and most of us are only just waking up to how short and how precious – and that it’s definitely too short not to tell people we love them and are thinking of them.

So: I really can’t do anything about the current global corona-situation. (Other than look after my own health, stay home, socially distance when I’m going out for essential supplies or daily exercise, and wash my hands endlessly.)

But I can do something that might just make someone’s day, as they open an envelope or find a postcard of a Dante Gabriel Rosetti beauty or a Hockney sketch, sitting on the doormat.

And might I invite you to do the same…?

Small Pleasures

Small radiator with red wall

The world seems big and scary and out of control right now. I remember feeling just like this as a child, hiding behind the sofa and peering out occasionally at The Daleks, who seemed so utterly terrifying. (I met a real Dalek many years later backstage at the BBC and it was honestly like something I might have made as an art project – but that was alas too late to console a seven-year-old who regularly suffered Dr. Who-related Saturday nightmares.)

Fear and blind panic aren’t going to do anyone’s mental health any good, however. And they’re not going to solve or change anything at a time of global crisis. So I thought I’d share my coping strategy when the big picture seems overwhelming – which is to focus on the small stuff. In particular, small pleasures, which really can lift the spirits at dark times in a way that’s totally disproportionate to their size. I don’t think you have to be Pollyanna to get a boost from watching a bunch of daffs blossom on your kitchen table, or feeling happy at the unexpected sight of a rainbow. Read More…

An Apple (Or Rotten Tomato?) For The Teacher

A sliced and stacked red apple on white

There is a Japanese proverb that goes: ‘Better than a thousand days of diligent study is one day with a great teacher.’ I don’t think that I ever notched up 1,000 days of diligent study – but unfortunately, the greatest teachers in my life came long after the school bell had tolled its last; people like the spiritual guru Ram Dass (who taught me to meditate), Anita Roddick, my friend and mentor (who taught me about bringing your sense of humour to work, because you’re really going to need it) and even my husband, come to that, who taught me to keep the faith at all times. (Not religious faith. Just ‘the faith’, trusting to the universe.)

To be honest, I hadn’t given much thought to my teachers in years – before last summer, when I was asked to appear as Lauren Laverne’s guest on Desert Island Discs. (I know I’ve written about this before, but forgive me: I AM still pinching myself, and it’s 100% relevant to what I’m about to share.)

I share with Lauren (and, um, 3 million listeners) a particular, negative experience I’d had with my Scripture teacher. For some reason, the aforementioned teacher was also our Careers teacher, and one day a lesson turned from the Bible to discussions about what we were going to do when we left school. Well, Jackie Chapman was going to study Medicine at Oxford. My friend Stephanie Dodsworth was headed for teacher-training. The gloriously-named Dorcas Bird was, as I remember, thinking of Law. And yours truly announced that she wanted to be a secretary – an actual careers ambition, in those days.

My teacher narrowed her eyes and glared at me. ‘Jo Fairley, if you make so much as a Girl Friday, I’ll eat my hat,’ said Mrs. Wootton. (For readers at the lower age of the age spectrum, a Girl Friday was essentially a PA and several rungs lower on the career ladder than a secretary, probably only good for fetching coffee/dry cleaning/walking the boss’s Chihuahua.)

And my life could have gone in two very different directions, at that point. What actually happened was that I basically heard a Saturn Five rocket ignite under my chair, firing me up with the determination to prove her wrong. (Weirdly, it still drives me decades later – but I realise that if I’d been a different sort of girl, or even feeling less confident, on a different day, I might have bought into her predictions and set my sights perhaps no higher than running the Pick ‘n’ Mix in our local Woolworths.)

And an extraordinary thing happened after the Desert Island Discs was broadcast. No less than seven of that teacher’s other pupils managed to find a way to get in touch and wrote to me of similar experiences they’d had. In five of the seven cases, the impact was the same: it made them utterly determined to show her what they could achieve. But I literally cried at two of the communications, from women who years afterwards revealed to me that they’d bought into her put-downs and – as one told me – ‘my self-esteem has never recovered.’ (Another of the correspondents, meanwhile, hadn’t just been told she was going to amount to nothing, but that she’d ‘burn in hell’ – because a) her parents were divorced, and b) she’d been spotted dancing in the audience of Ready, Steady, Go!, then the must-watch music programme of the week.)

Reading their letters was an amazing and somewhat liberating experience for me, because of course I’d thought it was just ME. I didn’t realise that she had it in for all sorts of other pupils, in other classes and other years. Fired-up as I was at the time, I was also somewhat embarrassed at being singled out. But now I’m just hopping mad – because what an unforgivable thing to do to any young person who you’re supposed to be nurturing, teaching and encouraging.

And it really got me thinking about teaching, and the difference between good and bad teachers, and what huge responsibility teachers have for the kids in their care. Back in those days, there wasn’t the constant dialogue between parents and teachers that there is now (a once-a-year PTA meeting was about it, for my mum and dad), so my family didn’t have a clue about what had happened, and probably wouldn’t have dreamed of questioning the way that we were being taught and cared-for (or not). Parents today are much more ‘on it’, holding teachers to account. But even now, I hear stories from other women (often those who’ve not long left school), who’ve endured similar – and I don’t think it’s going too far to label it as a form of child abuse.

I did get out of school being able to read, write (and speak French), but the handful of teachers whose classes I did well in, looking back, were the ones who encouraged and engaged me – and when that happened, I bloomed like a little flower. I’m reminded of another great quote, from Benjamin Franklin: ‘Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.’

Through my weird and wonderful parallel life as a public speaker, I am now sometimes invited by schools to share my story – and sometimes, I get to see how teachers should be. There was the prize-giving at the school in Hampstead where the most coveted honour in each class was the Kindness Prize, and the huge affection between the girls and their teachers was palpable, in the room. A few weeks ago, I was at a school in Guildford which was clearly working so hard to engage, involve and inspire its pupils. An evening there totally restored my faith in teachers – and made me completely rethink a phrase that I’d often repeated myself, that ‘Those that can, do. Those that can’t, teach.’ May I be forgiven for having bought into that, after some of my own school experiences. But after that night in Guildford, I came away thinking: actually, teachers are really cool.

So I apologise for the fact that it’s taken me till this late in life to grasp fully how hugely important teachers are. Underpaid, mostly, and under-appreciated. But how we turn out isn’t just nature, nurture or our DNA; it’s in part down to how good or bad a job our teachers did. I was unfortunate (if you don’t count Mrs. Wootton kindling my ambition to prove her wrong). I hope you fared better.

But to all the good (or even great) teachers out there, let this be by way of a shiny, polished apple – as a very belated thank you.