She’s the straight-talking mum of four whose super-honest advice has earned her millions of fans and turned her into the beauty guru we can all trust and relate to. Julia Llewellyn Smith meets mega-blogger Caroline Hirons.
Back in 2014, Caroline Hirons, mum of four and former Saturday girl at Harvey Nichols, was in her bedroom trying to film one of her very first home videos to upload to YouTube about her specialist subject: skincare. As she tried to talk into the microphone, two of her three sons started fighting with each other in the garden. ‘I turned and shouted out of the window, “Can you shut up?” like any mother would, and it all got recorded,’ she recalls. Later Caroline asked Jim, her musician husband of 26 years, if she should leave that clip in. ‘He said, “I’m not sure, love.” I thought my blog readers might relate to me screaming at my kids, because every mother does it.’ So the clip stayed in and, sure enough, her viewers loved it. ‘The comments were all along the lines of, “Oh my God, finally someone who’s normal on YouTube!”’
Thanks to her ultra-honest stance, Caroline, 51 – mother of Ben, 28, Daniel, 25, Ava, 18, and Max, 14 – is one of the most powerful people in the beauty world. With 370,000 Instagram followers and more than 120 million views of her blog to date, her no-nonsense and often hilarious critiques of skincare brands (they sometimes pay her, but she never hides the fact and won’t give ‘fake’ good reviews) are gospel to many, especially the 34- to 65-year-old age group with cash to splash. Just as an outfit worn by the Duchess of Cambridge instantly sells out, when Caroline gives a cosmetic or skincare product the thumbs-up it flies off the shelves, spawning the industry term ‘the Caroline effect’.
For example, Clinique’s Take The Day Off Cleansing Balm (a make-up remover) which in 2013 was about to be discontinued after poor sales. Then Caroline listed it in her blog’s Hall of Fame section and overnight demand rocketed, with a whopping 1,432 per cent increase in sales. Today, it’s one of Clinique’s bestsellers.
So why do women trust Caroline’s every word implicitly? After all, with her trademark slightly messy blonde bun and usually make-up-free face, she couldn’t be more different from the fake-tanned, fake-lipped millennials who dominate Instagram and YouTube. ‘Most of these [influencers] are half my age and definitely have half my experience and body weight,’ she says. ‘And that’s absolutely fine because once I was like those people. But I’ve always just sensed my blog readers would relate to me the way I am now.
‘Take things like my bun,’ she continues, pointing at her hair from her home in West London during coronavirus lockdown (‘Thank God I have tweezers, otherwise my chin hairs would be out of control!’ she laughs). It’s here she lives with Jim, 56, and their two teenage children. ‘That hairstyle’s very much an after-effect from the days when I was doing the school run with four kids and getting out of the house very quickly. Why would you bother blow-drying your hair every day? I don’t see the point.’
With such an adoring fanbase (they queue around the block to meet her at public appearances), when it was announced last June that Caroline was publishing her first book, Skincare, customer preorders crashed both the Amazon and Waterstones websites. ‘I was a little bit dumbfounded when that happened, but then everything about writing the book has been – er – different,’ Caroline says. Different in a good way? ‘No! A bad way,’ she laughs. ‘It was the first time in ten years that anyone except me had edited anything I’d written.’
Sassiness runs deep through Caroline’s veins. Born in Liverpool, she was brought up to speak her mind by her American mother Cathy. ‘I was raised by the generation that was told they should be seen and not heard, but thankfully I had a good mother who didn’t instil that in me. She always said, “You were such a confident child” rather than using the word “bossy”. But though my friends and family would say I’m outspoken, I think I hold back. You should see what I’m actually thinking!’
Also instilled in Caroline from childhood was a passion for beauty products, since both her grandmother and mother worked as counter assistants for brands such as Coty and Helena Rubinstein. ‘Some of my earliest memories are of my grandmother religiously removing her make-up before bed,’ she says. ‘The message was always the same: take care of your skin. It was non-negotiable.’
Though teenage Caroline loved experimenting with make-up (‘I tried everything from white lipstick to blue eyeshadow’), she never thought beauty was a world she’d work in. ‘I actually wanted to be a midwife. But then I had a kid and I thought, “Nah, I’m good!”’
Her teenage years were challenging – her parents divorced when she was 13 and her mother was diagnosed with skin cancer on her leg (she’s since recovered). Caroline doesn’t like to discuss those times, only saying she was keen to leave home as soon as possible. Aged 17, she moved to London, working in the HMV record shop – ‘the dream!’ – and spending every evening at gigs.
Having married Jim, and strapped for cash after Daniel was born, Caroline started working Saturdays at the Aveda counter in Harvey Nichols, then – as endorsed by Absolutely Fabulous – the coolest department store in London. ‘It was an astounding time. You’d be serving someone and Goldie Hawn would be in the queue behind them. All the stars were there.’
So brilliant was Caroline at charming the customers that one Saturday, alone on the counter, she took more money than the whole team usually did. Having qualified as a beauty therapist around giving birth to two more children, she worked for companies such as Liz Earle before she became a freelance consultant working with beauty brands wanting to enter the market.
By 2010, Caroline had launched her blog ‘for a bit of fun’, but within just a few months it became clear that she had tapped into a huge market of women longing to hear the unfiltered truth about beauty products, something which Caroline had the experience to deliver. ‘Being a little bit older and qualified definitely helped me because I wasn’t intimidated by saying something about a brand that wasn’t 100 per cent positive,’ says Caroline.
As readership grew, Caroline – whose most recent company profits were in the region of £180,000, and who now has sons Ben and Daniel working for her – began being recognised more and more in public. Once, her GP started asking for skincare tips while giving Caroline a cervical smear.
‘I was lying there, literally with the speculum still inside me, and she said, “While I have you there, can I ask your advice on this?”’ Caroline recalls. ‘I had no idea she even read my blog, but I said, “Well, you literally do have me captive, doc, so ask away.”’
What do old friends and family make of her new fame? ‘They think it’s funny. No one close to me reads the blog, which is perfect, but if anyone ever has the chance of getting big-headed it wouldn’t be me. I came back from doing this massive event with Clinique where people had turned up from all over; we were meant to finish at 8pm and ended up finishing at 10pm. I got home and my husband said, “I’ll put the kettle on and can you go and clean the toilet? Max has peed everywhere.” I just laughed. It was, like, “Absolutely, back to being Mum.”’
As her fanbase has grown, Caroline’s posts have become less opinionated in tone – though certain topics are guaranteed to wind her up. She hates skincare brands that claim to be ‘natural’ – ‘they can stay in California where they belong. And I can’t stand any product with glitter in it, anything with a unicorn on it, anything that infantilises women and treats them as if they were ten!’
Caroline is also the first to defend any woman who decides good moisturiser can only help her skin so much. ‘After a certain age, if you want to change the structure of your skin, you need an intervention by a professional with a needle or laser. The thing to realise is: have a face full of Botox but if the surface of the skin is no good, it won’t make any difference. And if you want to change that, then you can absolutely do that with products bought over the counter.’
Though she once swore she’d never have ‘work’, four years ago Caroline – who couldn’t lie, given one of her pet hates is Hollywood stars claiming their perfect skin is the result of nothing but drinking water and juicing celeriac – had surgery for her droopy eyelids.
‘It’s a genetic thing – my grandfather had his done because his eyelids were getting so bad he couldn’t drive, and I was getting the same way. I had migraines and my eyelids were so heavy I could see a layer of skin in front of me all the time.’
Then, last year, she had fillers injected. ‘It was just a little tweak and I think I’d have that once a year. I don’t want a face like a surprised tambourine.’
It’s going to be quite a year for Caroline, who by the end of it will not only be a published author but a grandmother, with Ben’s girlfriend having a baby in September. ‘It’s very weird in a wonderful way. Jim and I keep looking at each other and going, “How did that happen?” Only hours ago it feels like we were picking him up from school.’
But don’t expect the formidable Caroline to transform into a cosy gran. ‘I’ve said, “Don’t think I’m going to be a childminder. I’m going to work until I drop.”’