It's Just Lipstick: A Tribute to Ann Lichter

Jun 3 / Karith Foster
Late last night I received a text from an old friend and former co-worker sharing that one of our colleagues was in her last days. While this news was heartbreaking because this woman had been like a mother figure to us, a smile crossed my face because I recalled her famous line that will forever have its place in my memory bank. It was her catchphrase that put everything in perspective then and now.

Let me set the stage. It was the early 2000's, Sex and the City was not just a hit show on HBO (back then, Netflix now) but a way of life for us NYC girls in our 20's and 30's. For many of us it was like watching your life unfold documentary-style every week in real time. Of course, much was exaggerated but so much wasn't. And if it wasn't going on in your life, you likely knew someone who it was happening to. Or at least that was the illusion we were cohesively and collectively part of.

It was a time of Kate Spade handbags, Manolo Blahniks, sushi for dinner, nothing for lunch, happy hours post workday, and liquid brunches with girlfriends and gay friends on the weekends.

And I worked in the epicenter of it all. Manhattan - the southeast corner of Central Park - E 59th Street and Fifth Avenue, to be exact. I worked at the mecca of beauty, the Estee Lauder Global Corporate Headquarters.

I, however, did not have the glamorous job of designing packaging, testing fragrances or naming nail polish colors. Nor did I travel to fashion shows or have any creative input about anything. I worked in HR. Yep, Human Resources, where we had the incredibly critical but non-glamorous roles of helping people with their benefits, tuition reimbursement, EEOC issues and any drama of personal and internal professional conflicts that arose. Which hardly ever occurred in a company composed of 95% women and gay men. (Please read that with all the sarcasm with which it was intended.)

This boss of mine, this older seasoned powerhouse of a woman, was someone all of us in HR looked up to. She was a source of comfort and a haven of really sound advice. And she would say at least 3 to 4 times a week: Girls, it's just lipstick.

To the hypersensitive, it may have come off as dismissive and uncaring. But Ann was a self-ascribed "tough broad.” She was always well-kept, but never let you mistake her classic appearance and thin frame for weakness. She was from the outer banks of Nova Scotia. I'm fairly certain she had told off a bear and scared off a moose or two in her youth. 😆

Ann didn't play and she wasn't about to be played. She was a realist. She cared and she was there to help, but she was also keen on bringing levity to any situation as the dogmatic pragmatic woman that she was.

To those who may have misinterpreted her "lipstick" comment for one of loftiness about her job, nothing could be further from the truth. She was always one of the first people in the office. She took care of business. She also left when it was time to go because she understood boundaries; and she understood that she wasn't her job, but rather her job was something she enjoyed and did well.

So, when Ann would say, “it's just lipstick,” to the distraught 20, 30 or even 40-something individual sitting in her office my interpretation was:

It’s not that complicated. The level of stress and anxiety being exuded is disproportionate to the issue at hand.

I also thought it was also her way of saying:

Don't get so caught up in the mire of what's happening right now because there is so much more good to come and so much more to life than this particular incident or situation. Try to open yourself up to other perspectives and possibilities. Think beyond. See beyond. Don't let a job, a situation or another person deplete or define you!

Some people immediately got what she meant, and with a stiff upper lip left her office feeling a renewed sense of self. There were others though, who left feeling worse, possibly even bullied- because in their minds she was being flippant and in their self-absorbed state she clearly didn't understand what they were going through. Those girls and guys didn't last long. C'mon this was New York f*cking City and a Fortune 100 Company at that- think The Devil Wears Prada meets Queen Elizabeth from Bridgeton - except there are multiple queens.

Just like New York City itself, the fashion and beauty industries are not cut out for everyone. And you have to decide if you're going to be tough enough to stick it out.

The same can be said for any industry really, because in every environment from entertainment to education to ministry even, you're going to come across personalities that may clash with yours. You will be faced with office politics. And, I hate to break it to you, but sometimes we will just have horrible, terrible, no good very bad days. That is life.

However, that part of life doesn’t get to break us if we don’t let it.

So, the ball is really in your court. (Secret: It always is.) Now, you must decide when things aren’t roses and sunshine- are you going to crumble or are you going to gather yourself, dig into your grit; say and believe just like Ann did that it's just lipstick!

This blog is dedicated to my dear friend, colleague and mentor Ann Lichter (March 30, 1942 - May 28, 2024)