First published in Renegade Collective magazine, September 2015
Eleanor Pendleton recently discovered that the universe reserves unlikely payoffs for those who dive headfirst into their dreams. When the beauty editor and founder of Gritty Pretty, a trailblazing online beauty publication that combines the possibilities of digital with the magic of flipping through your favourite glossy magazine, sent her second issue live in March this year, she found herself making the headlines she’d become accustomed to writing. She also made a case for grit in an industry better known for luxury spa retreats on far-flung islands or the art of identifying the perfect moisturiser than it is for hard work or steely resilience.
“We had Lara Bingle on the cover to coincide with the launch of her new cosmetics line The Base but we had also broken the news of her pregnancy globally so the site crashed in the first day,” laughs Eleanor, who’s wearing a black, funnel-neck sweater from Viktoria + Woods. “We worked until 430 am in the morning and went to sleep and then someone rang me at 7am to say that Gritty Pretty was on the news. It turned out she’d posted the cover the night before the magazine was due to go live at 9am but it wasn’t finished! I was still pumping out the editor’s letter. We got coverage everywhere from the Daily Mail to Channel Nine news. Whether people like her or dislike her, there’s something incredibly beautiful about Lara so it’s difficult to look away. We had 300,000 page views for that issue. I knew it would do well but I didn’t know it would happen like that.”
It’s only a few minutes into our conversation at La Porte Space, the sleek, monochrome studio that doubles as Gritty Pretty headquarters and plays host to the likes of fashion bloggers Margaret Zhang and Nadia Fairfax, when it occurs to me that Eleanor is perhaps the best advertisement for her own vision. She might have the kind of luminous complexion and pared-back style you’d expect from someone who was once Australia’s youngest beauty editor (for Famous, aged 20) but she’s also articulate and unguarded, prone to warm, infectious laughter. Like Gritty Pretty – where high-end spreads featuring animated Chanel eyeshadow palettes coexist with how-to stories showing readers how to achieve a casual topknot – she mixes glamour and accessibility in a way that seems effortless. The effect is magnetic.
Eleanor, who attended high school on the Central Coast, had her own early brush with the magnetic forces that can shape the course of your life. “My dad ran a newsagency, so I was allowed to take whatever magazine I wanted and I just fell in love with them,” she says, lighting up at the memory. “When I was 8 my sister and I used to play games where I was her editor and she would write things and I’d pretend I was editing her work. I always knew I was going to be a writer. When I was 17 I knew I had to do work experience. I had no connections at all but I was very tenacious.”
Thousands of teenage girls around the country fantasise about channeling Ann Hathaway in The Devil Wears Prada but few do whatever it takes to kick down the magazine industry’s famously fortress-like walls. Eleanor, who deferred university offers in favour of a two-year journalism course at Sydney’s Macleay College – a strategy that meant she’d enter the market faster – emailed her favourite publications obsessively until she landed an internship at Cosmopolitan, working under legendary beauty editor Zoe Foster. She was offered a job within a year.
“When I was assisting Zoe Foster, I fell in love with beauty journalism and the fact that it combines the trend element of fashion but you had to write to tight word limits,” explains Eleanor, who went on to become beauty editor at Famous and first launched Gritty Pretty as a blog in 2009 – a light years ago in the online world – inspired by then-fledgling Swedish style websites like Style by Kling. “ After I’d graduated my first year, I had every intention of finishing my studies. But the editor offered me a role as beauty writer and editorial co-ordinator. The salary was appalling but I didn’t care. It was a life-changing moment.”
It’s easy to bask in life-changing moments but it takes courage to respond to the voice that tells you that there’s something bigger out there, especially if it means giving up what you know. After a three-year stint as the beauty editor of InStyle, Eleanor quit her job to go freelance, a decision that allowed her to relaunch Gritty Pretty, which she’d shelved for three years.
“It was terrifying because I was leaving a full-time salary and a job that was perfect on paper but when it was the first thing I was thinking about when I was waking up in the morning and the last thing I was thinking about before I went to sleep I knew it was time,” says Eleanor, who launched the first issue – which featured a hypnotic cover shoot with model and musician Cheyenne Tozzi and a feature on must-have mascaras shot by leading stills photographer Edward Urrutia – in December 2014. “After six months of freelancing, I realised that no one in the country is doing an online magazine dedicated to beauty and that I could give Gritty Pretty readers what they deserved. I worked with my friend Morgan Tait, who’s an insanely talented art director, to build the first issue and we shot everything and created every single template from scratch. We worked evenings and every weekend and it was seriously challenging. But there’s nothing about Gritty Pretty that’s unoriginal. That’s its biggest point of difference.”
In a market ruled by Instagram copycats and beauty sites peddling identikit makeup tutorials, this commitment to originality has seen Gritty Pretty rewrite the old rules of beauty journalism and create a new blueprint for what the genre could be. Eleanor says that experimenting with digital innovation such as the cinemagraph, a technology that can transform a still image into an animation – executed to perfection in a shoot that shows Jessica Gomes’ hair blowing in the wind – has sparked fresh opportunities for engaging the reader. And whether this reader is a hip twentysomething or a mid-thirties career woman, Eleanor’s focus on empowering her audience rather than playing to their insecurities that makes Gritty Pretty compelling. It’s an allegiance that’s attracted advertisers such as Balmain, Clinique and Chanel.
“I’m really committed to elevating it every issue and about doing innovative things in digital to make a difference – there’s so much that excites me about it and I have no plans to go back into print anytime soon,” grins Eleanor, who says that her biggest markets are Australia and the US but she’d like to see women reading it all over the world. “I knew from the beginning that it was financially viable but I didn’t have investment so I backed myself and poured my life savings into it. There were moments when I was crying on the floor and asking myself “what am I doing?”, terrified about what I was spending. But my boyfriend told me that I needed to think of it in terms of investing. I’m commercially minded so we have our budget and what we need to make it turn a profit although I think it’s going to take a few years.”
Eleanor might be as pragmatic as she is ambitious but she can feel the magazine’s future in her bones. “I know that it’s different and that it connects with women and because of that brands would come on board,” she says, with a smile. “You only get one life and to spend it wondering sounds like a horrible existence to me.Quitting my job was a risk and launching it was a risk but I’m pouring so much love and passion into it. How could it not work?”