“I grew up in DC right after 9/11, and when I went to college, I really wanted to study the Middle East. It felt like I had so much to learn, and so much context to gain. I really thought I was going to work for the Foreign Service, or go to law school, which is what both of my parents did. At a certain point I asked myself, ‘Who gets to think about these really interesting, broad problems, but doesn’t actually work in politics?’ One of those categories was journalism. I didn’t have any journalistic experience, so I decided that the value I could contribute was on the business side. I started at Vox doing development—I was thinking about new projects including podcasts, parts of the site, and shows. After I had been doing that for a year, I realized I wanted to learn how to make that content myself. The School of Visual Arts offers night classes, and that’s how I learned how to edit and animate videos.
The powers that be at Vox made a series of decisions they totally didn’t have to make, and that’s why I have this career as a producer. The first major thing that happened was that they allowed me to make videos on the side of my development work—I made a series about political issues within fashion for Racked, and that went well, so I started making things on nights and weekends. Because of that, I ended up on a listserv of people making videos for Vox. My first job as a paid producer was on our Netflix show Explained, which was a huge deal because I’m not totally sure that it was supposed to happen. The head of Vox Video and the executive producer of the Netflix show sent an email to that listserv asking for pitches for Explained’s second season, and said that if Netflix greenlit your pitch, you could produce it. I pitched a bunch of episodes, but one of them was “Diamonds Explained,” which Netflix ended up greenlighting. At that point, I think the people at Vox kind of looked back and were like, ‘Oh! Cleo’s not actually a producer.’ But to their credit, they let me produce it. Netflix really liked what we put out, and I got the next job as a producer, and the next. So really, that single decision made the rest of my career.
The reason why I love video production, as opposed to being a text journalist, is that it’s like doing a Rubik’s Cube. What you’re hearing and what you’re seeing should be different, and each gives a viewer additional pieces of information. The best advice for anyone who wants to do a creative job is to try to do it on your own for a while. Instead of watching a bunch of videos about editing in Premiere, make a little video for your sister, interview your family, cut it together in Premiere, and add a soundtrack. Recently, I’ve been messing around on Tiktok. I notice that on Tiktok, there’s a lot of content about how the world is getting worse. I don’t think that’s irrational, but I do think it can be harmful—I would like to make things about the very real opportunities for things to go right. I’m always thinking, ‘What good can I do with my work?’ It’s corny, but if you play the ‘drop in the bucket’ analogy out, a drop of green dye can turn a whole bucket of clear water green. It’s not as though being a drop in the bucket is a bad thing.
[Video production] is like doing a Rubik’s Cube. What you’re hearing and what you’re seeing should be different, and each gives a viewer additional pieces of information.
I can show you all of my products, and they do make a difference, but personally, the thing that made the biggest difference in how my skin looked and felt was not drinking alcohol. For me it was a lifestyle thing—I just naturally stopped drinking when I grew out of my early 20s, and realized I felt great. It also had the side effect of being great for my skin. [Laughs] I stopped getting as much acne, which might be related to the alcohol directly or it could just be that I wasn’t doing my nightly routine as well when I had been out drinking. The other thing that I think has made a huge difference for me is taking a prenatal vitamin. I did a story exploring whether or not I wanted to have kids—I still feel really mixed about it and haven’t made a decision yet, but it turns out that taking a prenatal vitamin is great for you no matter what decision you make. Mine is from Modern Fertility.
There are a lot of wonderful over the counter products, but I spent way too much money trying to get my skin to clear up before I thought that maybe I should ask a doctor. I don’t know why that took me so long, especially because my partner runs a telehealth company. I wanted tretinoin, because to my understanding, there’s a lot of really good evidence that retinoids work and I wanted a high enough percentage of it to make a difference on my skin. I also wanted to have something that was reliable. I didn’t like feeling like the latest thing in skincare always needed my attention. I feel a lot of comfort in the simplicity of following a doctor’s instructions, and now all I really use is this personalized prescription concoction with tretinoin and niacinamide in it. It’s called Rory Nightly Defense. It just cut down the amount of time that I thought about what I should put on my face.
In the morning, I wash my face thoroughly with Rory’s Antioxidant Face Cleanser and put on some Cerave cream. I do the same thing at night, plus my prescription. I also have this Mizon All In One Snail Repair Cream, which I tend to travel with because it’s so much smaller than the Cerave. It’s a little bit thicker. In the morning I also use the Biore Aqua Rich Smooth Watery Gel UV 50+ sunscreen. A friend who I trust was like, ‘This is the right sunscreen to use,’ so I do. A common theme with my routine is that I’m really good at following instructions. [Laughs] When my lips are chapped, I either use Aesop Cedar and Citrus Lip Salve or Burt’s Bees, which, in my experience, works equally well and is a tenth of the price. Or I’ll just use Aquaphor.
I don’t have a hair and makeup team, or anybody else who tells me how to look on camera. My job isn’t to look like an expert, or to convince a 50 year old that I’m a professional. My job is to look like a proxy for a 25 or 30-year-old audience member. So I do my makeup exactly the same way when I’m on camera and when I’m off, with one big difference: when I’m on camera, I’m trying not to look like a glazed donut.
I can show you all of my products, and they do make a difference, but personally, the thing that made the biggest difference in how my skin looked and felt was not drinking alcohol.
I feel like I’ve learned more about doing my makeup just being on Tiktok for a few months than I did in the 20 years before. I use Glossier’s Stretch Concealer in G9 under my eyes, but only on the corners because I don’t like to look like I’ve completely erased my eye bags. I also put it around and under my nose. When I’m going out, and sometimes when I’m making videos, I use all of this Elf x Jen Atkin stuff. It was limited edition so I don’t know what I’ll do when I run out. If I wear anything on my lips, it’s the Xxtra Lip Duo in the shade Bring It On Brown—oh God, the names of these things! Then I also use the palette, which has eyeshadow, bronzer, and blush. When I started using a very thin brush to define my eyes with eyeshadow instead of eyeliner, I looked a lot more awake. That was a big difference for me. Then I use a big brush with bronzer and blush, and go right up at the corners above my cheekbones. All of this so that I look like myself, just better. And then if I’m on camera, I use the Fenty Blotting Powder on my t-zone. It takes all the shine out of my face.
BODY, FRAGRANCE + NAILS
I could get massages all the time and buy all the products in the world, but if I didn’t have my sleep and exercise preferences figured out, I wouldn’t feel good. I had always done cardio workouts, and when I was in college I started working out with my friend who is a former ballerina. She really understood how to work her muscles out in a different way. That helped me figure out that cardio is fine, but resistance workouts and weight lifting are way more interesting and fulfilling for me. It’s not a beauty moment—it seriously makes me feel better in my body. That, and going to bed before midnight.
I really like the feeling of exfoliation. I have a Frank Body coffee scrub that I love, which has some scrubbiness but still leaves me feeling very moisturized. The oil in that is usually enough so that when I get out of the shower, I don’t need to put on anything else. I have some Jo Malone Velvet Rose and Oud body lotion that I wear when I want to feel fancy. I feel like it makes me smell like my mom. I have the men’s Bleu de Chanel and the women’s Coco Mademoiselle, and I almost always wear the men’s. It’s odd to me that women are expected to wear women’s fragrances, because I like how the men’s smell better. I guess that’s kind of the point. But I’m not trying to attract new men with my fragrances, I’m trying to smell good to myself!
Cardio is fine, but resistance workouts and weight lifting are way more interesting and fulfilling for me.
I used to never get my nails done because if I got a specific color, it would completely change my mood. If I had red nails, I’d feel like I had red nails. If I had black nails, I’d feel like I have black nails. Now I do get manicures, but I either do a buff or a French. A French manicure makes me feel like a more polished version of myself. There’s this place called Hortus Nailworks on the Lower East Side that makes me feel like I’m getting my nails done in someone else’s living room. I found it right before my wedding. I got married in my backyard with 25 people. I went to Hortus for my nails, got my hair done at my usual place, did my own makeup, and actually wore the suit I’m wearing now, but the pants version. I’ve worn it six or seven times since. It’s from a brand called Scout that uses all deadstock material.
I’ve gotten my hair done at Fox and Jane forever. All of their stylists are amazing, which is great because it makes getting an appointment slightly easier—I don’t see anyone in particular, and I’ll happily go to any of their locations. For my wedding I saw Elizabeth Lazo, who did a great job. I didn’t cut my hair for a year and a half, and then when I finally went back to Fox and Jane, I got a lot of layers and highlights to make my pandemic look feel less straggly. My hair is naturally wavy, so I can either lean into a straighter look or emphasize the curl. I’ve learned a lot on TikTok about how to do that. Now I use the Garnier Fructis Sleek & Shine Leave-In Conditioning Cream right when I get out of the shower, no matter what. I also have Shea Moisture’s Manuka Honey & Mafura Oil Leave-In Milk and Miss Jessie’s Multicultural Curls—I’ll use one of them or both, and it just has the effect of waking up my curls. I’m by no means an expert, but I think a lot of caring for the waviness in my hair involves making sure that it’s not too dry. Then I’ll plop it for 15 or 20 minutes, and let the rest air dry. I also use a Conair 1.25 inch curling iron, which is the magic size, to do the front.
I really enjoy taking a long shower and then doing my hair. It feels much more like a thing I do for myself than it ever has. One other thing I try to do is keep my phone out of the bathroom as much as possible. I have a bunch of books in there for exactly this reason. Instead of looking at my phone, I can read while I’m in the bathtub and read while I’m on the toilet. And I do have an Alexa in there so I can listen to music, or a podcast, or an audiobook when I’m in the shower. Having that space in my bathroom is important to me, and all of that has helped turn getting ready into a phone-free process.”
—as told to ITG
Cleo Abram photographed by Alexandra Genova in New York on September 18, 2021.