The poetic justice of Amanda Gorman’s Estée Lauder contract

The inside story of how it happened and why it matters.

(Ruth Fremson | The New York Times) Amanda Gorman recites her poem “The Hill We Climb” during President Joe Biden’s inauguration in Washington, Jan. 20, 2021. Gorman signed a contract with Estée Lauder to become the company’s first “Global Changemaker” in campaigns that aim to advance literacy, equity and access.

There was a moment, starting on Jan. 20, as 23-year-old poet Amanda Gorman stood on the steps of the Capitol in her sunny yellow coat, reading her work “The Hill We Climb” at President Joe Biden’s inauguration, when the viewing country seemed to go into a collective swoon.

The wooing and offers rained down soon after: Would she be the face of this product? The spokesperson for that one? Would she marry her image and fame to a big brand?

A mere month or so later, she told Vogue for a May cover story, she had turned down about $17 million in promotional opportunities.

This week, however, she pledged her troth. And the winner is … Estée Lauder.

Although to be fair, the winner is also Gorman, who signed what may be one of the most multidimensional representation agreements in beauty history, as well as a swath of unexpected beneficiaries.

Here’s what it involves: Gorman will become the first Estée Lauder “Global Changemaker” — as opposed to, say, spokesperson or ambassador or “face,” although she will also be all of the above.

That’s not just a semantic shift but one that reflects a different balance of power in the current consumer reality, in which the influence of real people can carry more weight than the purely transactional nature of the celebrity model relationship, and where substance is particularly prized, as for-profit companies feel an imperative to prove they stand for something more than simply — well, profit.

For at least the next three years, she will represent Estée Lauder’s flagship brand in ad campaigns and speaking events, just like, say, Liz Hurley (global ambassador of The Estée Lauder Cos.’ Breast Cancer Campaign) and Carolyn Murphy (an Estée Lauder brand global brand ambassador).

She will also work with the company on the corporate level to create Writing Change, a set of grants worth $3 million to promote literacy among girls and women — and with it access to equity and social change. The first recipients will be announced later this year. If all goes well, the relationship could be renewed again and again. (Estée Lauder declined to say how much it is paying Gorman, although her salary is on top of the philanthropic investment.)

Even in the spectrum of current brand/celebrity relationships, even after Jay-Z and Beyoncé's joint Tiffany partnership was announced, with its $2 million to historically Black colleges and universities, that’s a big deal. In all senses of the word.

Along with Gorman’s decision to be a co-host of the Met Gala Sept. 13 (she will not reveal what she is wearing — “Even my mother doesn’t know,” she said) and her books “Call Us What We Carry,” a poetry collection, and “Change Sings,” for children, both to be released later this month, the Estée Lauder deal is a new stage in her public profile. It is a stage in which she will use the levers of power she has gained, “the space I now occupy,” she said, to advance an agenda she has been designing for the long term.

“From the moment I stepped down from the podium and looked at my phone, I could feel it,” said Gorman. (Although she wasn’t exactly anonymous before — she had been the first National Youth Poet Laureate — her public profile was relatively niche). “At the time, it was like a tsunami. It was a lot to take in: to realize what I had done had changed my life. I’m still processing it.”

The question was: How would she use the spotlight that had been thrust upon her? Because she knew she was going to use it — although she didn’t put it that way, exactly. What she said was, “All forms of light come with some form of shadows, and that doesn’t mean you don’t want to walk into the sun.”

Still, a product endorsement, historic as it is, is not without risk. For a poet who sees her art as the sharp end of the spear of social change and who has publicly declared her desire to be president, taking on what to many will seem a brand ambassadorship is to potentially taint the purity of her own brand with the whiff of commercialism. As Gorman was aware.

“I’m never just lending my body or my face,” Gorman said. “They are getting my spirit, my breath, my brain.” But, she said, “rather than letting the world tell me what I should be doing” — or not doing — “I realized this is my moment to tell the world what it needs to get done.” And weaponizing a big brand with a big platform to her own ends was an effective way to do that.

She (and her tightly knit team of agents and managers: literary, speaking and modeling) approached each offer with the same standard: Could it be used to achieve Gorman’s stated goal of advancing literacy, equity and access? According to Steven Malk, a senior literary agent at Writer’s House who has worked with Gorman for the past three years, she was “determined to show this on a major scale.”

Enter Estée Lauder. According to Jane Hertzmark Hudis, executive group president of Estée Lauder Cos., she called Gorman’s agent as soon as the poet walked offstage, and they first spoke within an hour of her appearance.

“I felt as committed and passionate about creating a partnership as I’ve been about anything,” Hudis said — and she has been with the group for 35 years. “We essentially came to them with a blank page, because we knew we could do something that hadn’t been done before.”

Gorman said she like the idea of working with a brand founded by a woman. (The company is celebrating its 75th birthday this year.) Not to mention with a group in which 84% of the employees are women, according to the company, and which has a long history of female-focused philanthropy in both health and education and sales in 150 countries.

(Although Lauder has made important strides in gender equity in its workforce, like many companies in the beauty and fashion worlds, it has further to go when it comes to racial equity. Of the 16 people on the board of directors, only one is Black; of the 15-person executive leadership team, two are Black.)

Besides, Gorman said, “It’s no secret that one of the ways I communicate with the world is through fashion and through beauty. When you grow up with a speech impediment, one of the things you learn early on is that people will also relate to you through how you look.” And although that is often framed as a negative, in fact, Gorman said, she sees it as a powerful tool.

Indeed, Gorman has always been aware of the power of fashion, and its use as a route to influence. In 2019, during her junior year abroad in Italy, she attended a Prada show and wrote an ode to the experience titled “A Poet’s Prada”; the year before she had been part of a Helmut Lang campaign titled “Smart People Wear Helmut Lang.”

The relationships continued, with her speaking at a Prada conference on sustainability and wearing that Prada coat to recite her inaugural poem. On her Instagram, which has 3.7 million followers, she intersperses her photo shoots with pictures of her work and her causes.

Still, the Lauder deal took a while to hammer out. “It was kind of like two people dating,” Hudis said.

Now Gorman joins a relatively shortlist of official Lauder global brand ambassadors: only 32 in the almost 60 years since Phyllis Connors debuted in the role, of which only five have been Black. Fronting a brand as a way to publicize literacy is a way to change “how we conceptualize beauty and conceptualize power,” Gorman said (also, perhaps, the cliché of the starving poet). “Not just in terms of what is expected, but in terms of what is possible.”

After all, she said, “I think about what it would mean to me at 5 years old to see a dark skinned woman with a speech impediment as a spokesperson for a beauty brand.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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