Writer Kate Betts’ Memoir of Her 20s: “You have to get lost to find yourself”

Sara Bliss
Senior Writer

Writer Kate Betts talks Paris, her career at Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, and French beauty. (Photo: Noa Griffel)

When it comes to discussing writer Kate Betts, it would be easy to list off a list of accomplishments. She’s an Ivy League graduate. She was a top editor at Vogue, before becoming the youngest-ever editor at Harper’s Bazaar in 1999 (she was 35). In her 40s, she launched a freelance career that included writing for The New York Times and her book Everyday Icon: Michelle Obama and the Power of Style. However, her newest book My Paris Dream, pulls the curtain back on a time when she was just figuring it all out. The memoir focuses on the five years she spent in Paris in her early 20, a time when she was slightly insecure, preppy rather than chic, enduring some rather tough bosses, and trying to find her way in an entirely new culture. It’s a fascinating glimpse into her life, when she wasn’t the wildly-accomplished woman that she is at 51. Betts leaves the city transformed, both inside and out with a new style, French beauty products she still uses today, and a laser-sharp focus on what she wanted from her life.  

Sara Bliss: In 1982 you graduated Princeton and went to live in Paris. What inspired you to write about that time in your life?

Kate Betts: Over the years people would often ask me about how I got into the business, how I learned to speak French, and why I went to Paris. I also had saved an enormous amount of keepsakes from that time, including journals, menu cards, and letters and photos from designers. When I was going through it, I kept thinking about this idea that the formative years in your early 20s are so important. People always say ‘Oh it was great you went from Princeton to Paris to Women’s Wear Daily to Vogue to Harpers Bazaar.’ One of the things I felt strongly about was capturing the real story, not just the sound byte about how my career trajectory ended up. I wanted to show people that it’s not that easy, that there are a lot of tricky decisions, and missteps, and blood sweat and tears basically — and that is the more interesting story, the struggles, disappointments, and the cluelessness of that time of life.

The cover of Kate Betts’ new book, My Paris Dream. (Photo: Spiegel & Grau)

You arrived in Paris at 22, when you look back, what were you like? Were you confident about this bold decision?

I was not confident at all. I went to Paris with no clue. I thought I spoke French and the minute I got there, I realized I didn’t speak French at all. I also didn’t have a job. The job I thought I had, fell through. I was living with a French family and I was very unsure about that, and it was actually the best decision that I made. I wasn’t confident at all. I didn’t know what I was doing. I just had this instinct that it was the right thing for me to do, and I had confidence in that instinct, even though I leveled a lot on that. It was hard to stay there. The French are hard to work with. There was a lot of disappointment and moments when I thought, “OK, I’ve had enough. It’s time to go home.” But I did stick it out because I was determined to make it work there.

How did your style evolve during your time there? You wrote that you had a preppier style when you first arrived.

I learned how to dress in a way that is very French. They don’t buy a lot of new clothing every season, maybe one or two things. They use accessories to change their look, more than changing their silhouette from every season. That was something I definitely learned there. I also learned how to wear color. I bought an orange Chanel jacket at a sample sale even though it wasn’t very flattering on me. I was so desperate to buy something by Chanel that I bought that this color that didn’t suit me, which is something that the French would never do. But I learned about my own style that way.

The French of course, are renowned for their take on beauty. What did you learn about beauty from your time in Paris? 

There are so many unspoken rules in France. One of the first ones that I learned was about washing your hair. The French see it as a very American thing. Americans wash their hair everyday and and they think that’s so crazy. French people only wash their hair once a week. Not only because they don’t want to waste all of their energy, but it’s also because they have a different conception of cleanliness that Americans do. French women go to the hair salon to wash their hair. That’s kind of a French ritual. You go to the hair salon once a week and you get your hair done.

What about products? Did you discover any? 

The French have these fantastic pharmacies with every different kind of possible of daily products. I will head into my bathroom right now to tell you about everything. Embryolisse is a great makeup remover, which is a pretty heavy cream. There’s also Bioderma and that’s also a popular makeup remover. There is a fantastic cream that’s used if you have sensitive skin, if you have a cut or scar. It’s called Biafine. It’s creamy and very good if you have a burn, an infection or a cut. There is another one that’s a Vitamin A-based cream, it’s called Avibon. I could go on and on!

Are you still using the products you discovered in Paris all those years ago?

Yes! I can’t live without them.

What did you learn about makeup?  

The thing about the French is because they are so about skincare and they all have amazing skin, they don’t wear a lot of foundation. A lot of my friends would laugh at me when I wore foundation. They considered it something for older women. But the French love lipsticks, so that was another thing I learned to apply and wear there. There is this great anecdote in the book about Mr. Saint Laurent himself who would only see models if they had red lipstick on. It had to be made up a certain way before they could go into a fitting with him. They also had to have their hair pulled back in a chignon.

When you interviewed Yves Saint Laurent did you wear the same red lip?

Yes, you had to have this certain kind of presentation. It’s kind of an unspoken rule that if you are a woman of a certain age, or even a young woman, you wear lipstick in formal settings. There is another scene in the book where I was going to a wedding in the French countryside and I didn’t wear a hat or lipstick, and those are two essential things to wear at a French wedding if you want to respect the formality and dress code.

You left Paris after five years, how did you grow and change during that time?

When I left I had mastered the French language. I learned all the codes and manners. I fell in love and lived with a Frenchman for years. I had figured out that I wanted to be a fashion writer and editor, and I really learned from the best. I learned from all these couturiers, Karl Lagerfeld, Christian Lacroix, and Yves Saint Laurent. I had a very firm idea of where I was going and who I wanted to be.

You had an incredibly successful career at a very young age. You went on to Vogue and became the youngest-ever editor of Harper’s Bazaar. Do you think your experience in Paris gave you the confidence to pursue those goals?

I think one of the biggest messages in the book is that I think particularly at that time of your life, you have to sort of get lost to find yourself. You have to put yourself in a foreign context that is so incredibly different from everything you know, and that’s when you discover your true self. You discover your determination, your path, what your passion is about, what you can tolerate, what you can’t tolerate. And I think that gives you enormous confidence.

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