The New Old Stacy London
Long before internet vernacular had us begging celebrities to step on our necks and ruin our lives, we longed for Stacy London to insult our clothes. The erstwhile TLC co-host is something of a fashion-world shape-shifter, having been a magazine editor and stylist before landing in our living rooms in 2003 to teach us how to dress, which she did for 10 years through backhanded compliments, outfit formulas and shopping rules. She spent the next several years dabbling in creative pursuits, spending her TV money, and awaiting her next media moment, ultimately realizing it wouldn't come. Not the way she thought anyway.
After What Not to Wear came to an end in 2013 and a brief stint on another TLC styling show, London found TV to be unwelcoming to her, as a woman in her late 40s. Like many ambitious women who've been told no, this only made London lean in more. She was and remains convinced women in middle age are an untapped market in entertainment, that the challenges of career pivots, changing bodies, elder care and children were too much to ignore. London saw two-thirds of the spending power in the U.S. being left on the table by the networks who rejected her ideas, slicing away at her self-image as someone each time they did.
"The fashion and beauty industries have always run on insecurity," she tells me on Zoom, wearing a T-shirt that says HAPPINESS in rainbow font, awash in the Brooklyn sun. "And looking back, the one thing that I kept waiting for was for something to change, for something to be what felt like external validation or success. I was looking for somebody to say, 'Here's a TV show to do,' or, 'Here's an article to write.' And while I wanted to write a book, I felt completely paralyzed and not really able to do it." (By that point, she had already written two.) Just past her 52nd birthday, it's clear she has put a lot of thought into her place on and off of our screens. "The more that I started to think about this - and by the way, every channel was like, 'No, thank you. We're not interested in middle age, it's not sexy.' - it also felt like a real personal attack on me."
In 2017, London was recovering from a spine surgery after dealing with chronic pain. She spent her time alone, at home, shopping online and dreaming about leaving her whole life behind, like some kind of taste of pandemic's future. The next year she lost her father, a force of love and inspiration in her life, and then she started feeling all kinds of bad. "My self-esteem was certainly battered by the experience, and I started to feel this sort of spiral out of control," she says. The spiral included heart palpitations, sweatiness, nausea, joint pain, dry skin, and hair brittleness - she thought it was grief. She now knows it was perimenopause.
VIDEO: InStyle On With Stacy London
Sometime around when she started experiencing the change (that's a euphemism for menopause) she decided to change, well, everything. "I realized very much that my entire career, no matter what show I've been on or what book I've written, has been about self, has been about a sense of self, a sense of self-esteem, self-awareness. And so here I had experienced perimenopausal symptoms in a way that made me feel an incredible loss of identity, an incredible loss of agency, and the losses of my sense of self. I thought, 'Well, it can't just be happening for me.'"
Instead of selling a show about women going through a change of life, she decided to live it. London says she had gone to Vassar to learn philosophy and writing (at her dad's encouragement), went to Vogue to learn to style and Mademoiselle to learn to edit (and get fired, which she recommends). Next, she had to go somewhere new, using an acumen she didn't even know she had. "I was really struggling with not wanting to be just the woman from What Not to Wear, and sort of trying to figure out what my truth was," she says. And by happenstance, she was invited to beta test a new beauty brand called State Of made for people in menopause. Once she got those products in her hands, she found she had a lot to say.
'What Fresh Hell Is This?'
London says it took her four years to realize her symptoms had anything to do with her hormones. "I had all of the external reasons to explain that I was starting to feel a little bit crazy," she says, rattling off symptoms like insomnia, anxiety, and brain fog, the kind of mental health experiences that are too often dismissed in women to begin with. ("I mean, look at the billion dollar industry that is Viagra and hair loss, and once it's men's vanity, then it's a different story," she says.) So State Of happened by at just the right moment, with products London recalls as "revolutionary" for what she was going through. When the parent company owning State Of was going through changes of its own, they asked if their boldest-named beta tester wanted in, and she did. London stepped in as CEO, purchasing a majority stake.
She started making changes right away. She wanted the word "women" off the website instead to focus on a gender-inclusive "people," barely pausing to breathe as she lists different reasons that a person might experience hormonal symptoms ("a radical hysterectomy, or endometriosis, or premature ovarian insufficiency, or gender transition, these are things that are going to make you feel just the same amount of discomfort as if you reach them by chronological age."). State Of changed its marketing from that of a "luxury beauty brand for menopausal women" to a "personal care brand" focused on "the symptoms of menopause." I get a glimpse of stylist Stacy when I get this wrong in our chat - she wrinkles her nose and is ready with the fix. Changes, like using inclusive pronouns in conversation, or stepping into a wide-legged jean when you're used to skinny ones, seem equivalent in their simplicity to her now. These are things we should all be able to do.
"I think about how my mom used to tell me that she burned her bra in the second wave of feminism but never mentioned menopause, you know? I'm like, you kind of can't have one without the other." State Of's website declares, "This is not your mother's menopause brand, because she didn't have one."
It's true the moment is ripe right for a new kind of personal wellness brand. In 2019, CNBC's money blog "Make It" predicted the skincare industry would "reinvent itself" to win over millennials who were entering their prime spending years and had some $30 trillion in inheritance coming to them. The massive generation tops out at age 40 right now, and it's safe to say we are seeing the results of that spending in a boom time for self-care and aesthetics. Of course, first comes London's cohort, Gen X, which she calls a "glass-ceiling-breaking generation." They're solidly in midlife, with the irreverent writings to prove it. Twitter gynecologist extraordinaire Dr. Jen Gunter released The Menopause Manifesto Own Your Health With Facts and Feminism in May, and Scarleteen founder and sex writer Heather Corinna's menopause how-to guide titled What Fresh Hell Is This? Perimenopause, Menopause, Other Indignities, and You was released on June 1. The market - TV show or not - is rising to meet the demands of an aging female audience who knows they are not alone, that they will live longer and spend more years aging than humans before, and that some weird shit is going on in their bodies that they have been ill-prepared for until now.
"To feel like you're going batshit crazy and not have real answers is unacceptable to me," London says. "I'm a little tired of sad, saccharine, like, 'It's okay that you're aging. We get you, we see you.' I'm a little tired of that shit, if I'm really being honest. I find it really condescending," she says, adding that aging is nothing if not an opportunity to reassess your diet and self-care. "Not for vanity. I don't care about your wrinkles. I am not judgmental. You want Botox? Get it. You want a facelift? Have it. But that doesn't stop menopause from being uncomfortable and embarrassing," she says, explaining that the company isn't just about normalizing, but optimizing our way through this change. "It's hard, but it isn't hopeless, and you're not helpless. And that is truly the message that State of Menopause wants to impart."
The brand aims to bring users to more comfortable states of being. The State of Cool, in the form of a $12 Cooling Spray; or the State of Relief via a Hand & Joint Cream using arnica. The Rejuvenating Face Oil (State of Moist) was the first product London tried that let her really know she had something unique on her hands. Other moisturizers made her break out, and having dealt with extreme psoriasis since she was three (it's what gave her that signature gray hair streak), she's a bit of a beauty obsessive. Each of the products comes packaged in something you'd want on your nightstand - they look nothing like the wrinkled up white tube of arnica you may have grabbed at a health food store - but London swears they operate more like a health item than beauty. "We are your first line of defense," she says, recommending the Cooling Gel for rosacea, and promising the moisturizer cures "sandpaper skin" but won't add stickiness to night sweats.
More developments are coming, like supplements to address irritability, insomnia, and restlessness to join the hair and nail capsules already on offer. And while many of those things already exist in the supplement aisle, the thought she puts to the void this brand is filling seems like it will continue to set State Of apart. It's about valuing people who want to be treated with dignity and given solutions that work. In the case of hormones that fluctuate, and why women are meant to feel shame about that, she says: "I don't know why a straight line is somehow of more value than a wavy line. And I don't know why we look at the straight line and think, 'Well, that's the lens through which we should be looking at people,' right?"
Many onetime fans of Stacy London re-discovered her in late-2019 when a viral tweet shared that she 'has a hot butch girlfriend now.' London posted the meme itself on her Instagram, coming out just without a specific label. "It's not that I don't believe in labels. I love labels," she says, adding in hindsight, "I think of myself very much as part of the LGBT community." Still, she hedges a little on the topic of her identity. "At the time, it was the easiest way for me to explain what I wanted to explain, which was: I used to date men and now I date her."
The 'her' is Cat Yezbak, a musician, and London lights up when she says they've spent two-and-a-half years together. Both creative and into antiques, the pair had planned to launch a staging company to fill people's homes with gorgeous ephemera, but the pandemic put the kibosh on that so they pivoted to a resale Instagram, Small Beautiful Things. "I love finding these precious little gems and then being able to let other people have them," London says, promising they will keep the account going.
What to Wear, Now?
Looking back on What Not to Wear shows how far we've come. London and Co-Host Clinton Kelly would ambush an unsuspecting fashion victim who'd been nominated by friends or family, tell them they'd been secretly recorded for two weeks, subject them to viewing that footage of themselves looking a mess, donate all their clothes, and then coach them through shopping trips to get a whole new wardrobe. Not only had most guests on the show never seen themselves on video before, for many, the dreaded 360-degree mirror was like finding out their body had a backside for the first time.
Instagram was years away when the show debuted. But so was body-positivity and a general sensitivity about other people's looks and financial means. WNTW was makeover-by-psychological-abuse and almost no one got through an episode without crying. When it went off the air in 2013, it had been deemed somewhat mean. We now understand it to be problematic. The fashion consultant co-hosts talked about body parts people might want to hide. "Skinny" was used as a compliment (this was the era of Skinny Girl margaritas, remember), and often someone's look was "good" when her shape let her "get away with" wearing something others were told they shouldn't.
It certainly wouldn't fly in 2021, though there's a lot about the show that prepared us for our modern, constantly-on-camera life. I was just starting my career at that time, and not only did I deeply want Stacy to pop out from behind a filing cabinet at the temp job to which I once wore my boyfriend's corduroy pants, but I expected her to. I took in her rules like a pupil, ready to hit the Manhattan Magazine Industry with a studied application of Color, Pattern, Texture, Shine - never doing too many at once. And though I did come up in the era lampooned by Mean Girls, I didn't love What Not to Wear because the hosts made fun of people's clothes. I loved it because Stacy understood what made women feel uncomfortable in any given garment and she always had a solution. (London later referred to her own outfits on that show as "figure-flattering, easy to wear, generic, put-together style that didn't offend anybody.")
Where Clinton Kelly, a man, commenting on why a woman's breasts wouldn't work for a certain kind of top never felt right to me for reasons I couldn't articulate, Stacy said she understood, that it would be okay, and in the grand scheme of everything you have going on, clothing is not that hard of a problem to solve.
It's reassuring how quickly London snaps to attention when I bring up the rules. She still believes in them, even if the way she applies them has changed. "There are certain things about geometry and the way that you dress that aren't necessarily about being taller or thinner, but using your body to the best of its advantage in terms of proportion," she tells me. "A pointy-toe shoe is going to make your legs look longer. I don't know what to tell you. That is a fact," she says, hackles up to full TV Stacy by this point. "I didn't make the game. I just want you to win."
For the fans, I did ask, specifically, what we should wear these days, and London emphasized the importance of choosing for yourself. "I think that we are going to have to find joy through self-expression again. And that, to me, is really what's so exciting. It's not to pawn it off and say, 'I don't care what you wear' - I do care. I care deeply what you wear."
She's more relaxed in her own clothing now, thanks in part to the pandemic. "I, too, wore sweatpants," she says, joking that she's been invited to her first real dinner party and is in a full-on panic about its cocktail attire. In general, she has moved away from the stilettos and pencil skirts of her TV heyday, and wears less black - case in point the Kule T-shirt and cardigan she wears in our video above. The brand's founder, Nikki Kule, is a grade school friend of London's who tells me over email she was "super smart and a bit nerdy" back then. "The Stacy I see now is a much different Stacy from growing up. Her level of confidence is beyond."
Back on Camera, After All
In the midst of her physical and mental (and romantic) reinvention, another surprise: the swimwear brand Summersalt tapped Stacy London to appear in their summer 2021 campaign, appearing alongside influential women like Ashlyn Harris and Ali Krieger, Jessamyn Stanley, and others. This, after a childhood of hiding her psoriasis under turtlenecks.
"I tried so hard to not have my skin be seen," London says. "I went through an eating disorder. I have autoimmune diseases. I've had mental health issues, all of which comes to bear on how I see myself now." Which is to say, it's not always great: "There are times where I have a rough go with body dysmorphia. My weight goes up and down and things like that. But as I've aged, I've also been able to learn how to manage all of those things. Manage those insecurities, understand them for what they are, stop internalizing things that were taught to me and learn to love myself in a new way," she says.
So, she tried bikini modeling at age 52, before which she says she hated swimwear and never felt beautiful in it. "I was terrified to do it, but I really felt like, here is a way to be visible as a middle-aged menopausal woman that is being celebrated because of what I am now." (Here's a fun behind-the-scenes tidbit: "We were slathered in coconut oil. That's why our skin is so shiny, and all our hair looked wet. I mean, it took me five days to get the coconut oil out of my hair, but it also made me feel sexy."
It's moments like this in the conversation that it's clear Stacy London always was who Stacy London is. She knows that making people feel good is central to making them look good, and that looking good feels good - it's just that now she's approaching that result from the opposite direction.
"I think I spent four years constructing a tunnel, trying to find the light at the end of it," she tells me toward the end of our call. "This very quiet moment of stillness - of pause, no pun intended - has brought real magic back into my life. It's brought meaning and purpose back to my life in a way that I felt was truly lost." She stumbles over her tunnel metaphor a little bit, saying it's not that there's a light at the end but maybe the tunnel doesn't even exist. It's clear she's feeling a brightness now that she doesn't want contained.