Essence Gant was once like some of you. A little black girl living below the Mason-Dixon line with dreams of one day moving to the Big Apple and having a successful media career. But like most stories of success, her path to becoming one of the lead editors of BuzzFeed’s newest beauty vertical As/Is didn’t necessarily happen overnight. In fact, the Augusta, Georgia native initially went to grad school and pursued a Masters in Social Work from SUNY Albany before realizing that her true passion in life was beauty instead. So what should one do when they recognize that their calling in life is not aligned to the student loans that they’ve pledged their Sallie Mae allegiance too?
According to Essence, just say screw it and chase after your dreams. In this interview with BAUCE, Essence Gant shares how her relentlessness, talent, and grit took her from folding shirts in retail to becoming one of the top editorial minds behind one of the nation’s fastest-growing millennial-focused media outlets.
When did you first become obsessed with beauty? At what point in your life would you say caught “the beauty bug”?
Essence: I feel like I’ve kind of loved beauty forever. My grandmother was a hairstylist; in her house, she actually had a salon built on to it from when she was a hairstylist back in the day. She was really into beauty and style and that heavily influenced me. My oldest sister also eventually became a salon owner and I remember growing up she would always do my hair every Sunday for church. In the south going to church is always an event, so I remember I always had to look my best and make sure my hair was done. So I just always was surrounded by beauty and fell in love with it. My parents also always bought Essence and Ebony magazines, and so they were like I guess my first beauty icons.
So it’s clear that you grew up surrounded by “black beauty”. What made you decided to pursue an undergraduate and graduate degree in social work instead?
Essence: So, it’s actually pretty interesting. My father and my mom — they’re still in Augusta — but they are a pastor and first lady of a church. Growing up, they were really big on community outreach and service to others. Our church, like a lot of black churches, was in the center of a very urban community that was underserved and underprivileged. So giving back was always such a big part of who we were as a family. Every single summer my mom would make us volunteer at the soup kitchen. I remember there were so many times we would go to church and come back with an extra person in our car because they needed a place to stay or food to eat. My parents were always advocating for so many people. Advocating for people was just such a big part of my life and my experience and it was such a formal thing for me.
So in college, I was like social work just makes sense because this is literally like what we do as a family every day anyway. And I really like helping people. This is the thing I went to school for it but I feel like I knew in undergrad that I wasn’t actually going to end up doing [social work]. I just wasn’t emotionally equipped to pursue that as a fulltime career. It was so emotionally draining. My internship was at a child advocacy center which is like the worst place to intern if you are an emotionally unstable person like myself. I was crying every single day.
And so when I was going to grad school, I knew that I wanted to get into media and beauty because those were also big passions of mine. I didn’t really know how to do that because I didn’t have like the education and background or media connections. So I was like okay, I’m just going to get my Master’s in Social Work and that’ll give me an opportunity to go to grad school in New York where I can at least network with people in the industry that I want to be a part of. And so that’s kind of how that came about.
Wow. Now’s that’s a plan!
Essence: Yeah! But even with beauty now, I mean it’s definitely not full social work and I have the utmost respect for those professionals, but I do find myself trying to advocate a lot in my industry. So I guess that part of me never really went away. I just want to be able to hand black people the mic so that people listen. And BuzzFeed is such a huge place and they definitely have the attention of so many people, so there’s a privilege and advantage that comes along with my job where I can interview people of color and members of the LGBTQ community.
You said that “networking” was part of your plan to get your start in the media industry. If you could go back in time, would you still do the same thing that you did back then to get your first writing gig?
Essence: This is so funny because I talk to my friends about this all the time. They’re always like, “Oh, I have this mentor” and I know this person and I am like the most unplugged, disconnected person from every network that there is and didn’t have a mentor. I just didn’t really have a lot of luck especially at the beginning of my career when it really, really mattered and I was trying to break into the industry by making solid connections. I would say that I regret getting my Master’s because of the student loans and I’m not using that degree, but I don’t regret doing whatever I had to do to get up here. And at that time [going to grad school in New York] was like the only option because that’s the beauty and fashion hub. So I knew that I had to get up here. My original plan was that I was going to move to New York City and work at a five-star restaurant where celebrities go and I would network that way. [Laughs].
When I was in grad school — and I don’t advise that to the youth — I would skip class and go down to New York City and go to fashion and beauty events to try to rub elbows with the right people. For the most part, nothing really came of that. But fortunately, there was as one event that I went to where I ended up meeting this blogger who at the time was a freelance writer for a few outlets, including Hype Hair. A month before I was about to graduate from grad school — and I did not have a plan — she hit me up told me Hype Hair was looking for an editorial assistant. I ended up getting the job and after that, it was just like a bunch of hustle and bustle. I can’t really say that I moved to New York and just met so many people who opened doors or gave me opportunities. I just tried to take the opportunity that I did get and flip it into something more.
Did you ever consider freelancing at all to get your foot in the door?
Essence: Yes, there was a very brief period where I was freelancing, a.k.a living in poverty and working in retail, and it wasn’t always easy. Freelancing is very hard. People say it like it’s something you can easily go do but the thing about freelancing is unless you have “a name” in the industry, nobody is trying to get you to contribute. So it’s very hard to get solid steady money when you’re freelancing and you don’t have a name for yourself.
So, you went from working at Hype Hair, a small beauty publication that lacked a digital presence at the time, to become the face of BuzzFeed’s newest beauty vertical “As/Is”. Talk about growth! How does it feel to be in such an influential position in your career?
Essence: I feel like sometimes I have to pause and take it in because I think sometimes when you’re so used to being on the grind and hustling — because you don’t want to be broke again — you get so caught up in the routine and forget to take a moment to pause and appreciate and be grateful for all that you have accomplished. It does feel good because you know the beauty industry traditionally has been very one-dimensional. It’s been very narrow and growing up I didn’t see a whole lot of girls who looked like me in my profession. And so you know for me to not just be a woman of color, but to be a dark-skinned black woman who has tight coily natural hair, at a huge mainstream platform that has a reach means so much.
When we launched “As / Is”, there was a huge image of me on the home page of Buzzfeed. And it was like a photo of me and my afro puff and some big gold earrings. I was like this is black as hell and it’s on the front page of Buzzfeed! And I was just so happy in that image alone because it’s not like I’m diluting myself for the industry. I’m not trying to fit into how the mainstream media industry wants me to look as a person of color. I’m allowed to be me and speak in my southern dialect and my blackness is valued. For other girls to see that [on a media platform] is huge and that’s probably the thing that I’m the most excited about.
What would be your advice to that young girl who dreams of becoming a beauty editor like you? What would you say to “little Essence”?
Essence: I’ve learned a lot on my journey and the biggest advice I can give is to be strategic and don’t do anything just for the sake of doing it. Even when I was working in retail I told myself I would work at an expensive retail store so I could meet people with the right connections. I knew I couldn’t afford the $400 dresses, but I knew working there would give me access to a V.P. of a record label or the editor in chief of a top magazine. So just be strategic in everything that you do and also be authentic. People are so fickle and you should never try to live your life trying to be someone else because that’s what other people want from you. And at the end of the day, being a people pleaser doesn’t always work because people could still choose to not rock with you. There’s no point in changing who you are to be someone else. You just have to be patient, trust that things will work out, and be persistent.