A super-cool mama, we were very excited to talk all things motherhood and beauty with the lovely Joanna Ellner, who is an award-winning journalist, consultant and freelance beauty director (formerly at Stylist magazine).
Inspired by a trip to a spa off the coast of China she made over a decade ago, she is currently studying for degree in Chinese Medicine at Westminster University, alongside working as a brand consultant and writing a monthly column for Baby Magazine.
She lives in London with her husband, and the couple welcomed their first baby, a daughter named Noah Leonor in the spring of this year. Read our interview with her below to find out more about how she’s finding being a new mum and also what she keeps inside her Jem + Bea Odille Bag…
Hi Joanna, firstly, congratulations on the arrival of Noah! She’s just beautiful. How have the first few months of motherhood been?
Birth was toughest part for me. I had hoped for a hypno-birthing led experience without intervention and it couldn’t have been further from that. I was diagnosed with sepsis during labour and was taken for an emergency C section. That made the first few weeks a physical and mental slog. I felt slightly traumatised by the events surrounding Noah’s birth but with no time to process that or recover from the surgery, I was thrust into breastfeeding and taking care of this precious little bundle. But then, sometime around week seven or eight, something lifted and ever since I’ve loved discovering more about Noah – and myself as a mother – each day. During my pregnancy, I felt anxious that I didn’t have enough Mum Knowledge; about how to bathe babies, when to feed them and change them and so on… But the biggest realisation for me has been that I didn’t need to read twenty books, nature did it all for me. That mothering instinct is phenomenal. And really, it’s all you need to get through.
And how was your pregnancy?
Some people get the sickness, others get the crazy fatigue. I had the latter. I’d come home from a day at uni and just collapse onto the sofa. I hated not being able to cook and relying on takeaways or my husband for dinner (sorry Ed). Despite my expectations, it wasn’t a hugely spiritual experience for me – I struggled with my changing body – it made me realise just how deeply ingrained societal pressures are heaped upon women. Even though my conscious brain recognised that I was carrying a child and that was a beautiful thing, there was another part of me that just felt a bit ‘fat'. I think it’s important to air that, as we are so great at wearing the mask that ‘everything is wonderful’, but even during pregnancy, body hang-ups don’t go away.
Though I had longed to be pregnant, I found it all quite gruelling. That might have had something to do with the fact that I was doubling up on coursework and exams to finish the academic year early in time for Noah’s arrival. I don’t know how I managed it, looking back. I took the final exam a week before her due date.
As a beauty journalist, what was your approach to self-care when you were expecting?
Beauty is a form of self-care for me. My morning and evening skincare ritual has always been a mindful practice and I soaked it up during pregnancy, knowing that I wouldn’t be able to do so once Noah had arrived. My skin became really sensitised during pregnancy, I developed a bumpy red patch on each cheekbone and my ordinarily-mild rosacea flared up, thanks in part to the insane sugar cravings I battled from around month five onwards. So, I shelved my regular serums – those with active ingredients such as Vitamin C and retinol – and switched in a surfeit of organic, super-natural blends from brands such as De Mamiel, Weleda and Orveda which helped soothe it.
Were there any treatments you discovered that really helped you through the nine months?
Touch becomes quite complex during pregnancy. I became fiercely protective of my bump and bristled every time anyone brushed past me on the tube. But I also yearned for touch through the context of gentle, almost parental, care. I made a beeline for pregnancy massages, but like Goldilocks, I had to try a few to get to the good stuff. The therapists at Espa, I’ve found, are always a reliable pair of hands and I adored the pregnancy treatment I had at the Corinthia in London. Whatever your preference for massage, once you’re pregnant, a light, repetitive touch is all that you’ll want and this one really delivered.
My feet took a bashing throughout those final months, thanks to the extra weight and stomping around in winter boots. My heels became dry and cracked and though I craved weekly pedicures, I was chained to the desk writing coursework, so I reinstated a quick daily foot bath. Warm water, a capful of Susanne Kaufmann Warming Foot Bath and a ten minute soak. Works miracles.
And what has your beauty routine been like since Noah’s arrival?
Virtually non-existent. My daily skincare ritual has been thinned out to just one product, one! I alternate hyaluronic acid serums between De Dennis Gross and Skinceuticals. And I’ve just begun using Nip and Fab Vitamin C Peel Pads each evening after a quick cleanse, to accelerate my skin’s renewal. My skin, I’ve found, is ten times smoother and clearer when I’m not pregnant, so I’ve enjoyed eschewing make-up altogether and just popping on a pair of spectacles. A hopeless blonde, I’ve always detested having my roots show, and this has oddly intensified since having Noah. I may feel like the rest of my body is falling apart, but if my hair is freshly coloured, everything is right with the world. For that, I make the pilgrimage to Nicola Clarke’s new John Frieda salon on Margaret Street. She is the undisputed queen of blondes and I barely need to say three words to her and she knows what I’m after. Which helps when you’ve had three hours of sleep.
You’ve had such an exciting career, which includes working as the Beauty Director at Stylist magazine. What do you love most about your job?
I’ve always been a writer first, a beauty journalist second so for me, the aspect of storytelling in my weekly features has been the most precious creative outlet, for which I’m incredibly grateful. Then you add to that the unending cavalcade of beauty wizardry that landed on my desk each day and well, it was just my eleven-year-old self’s dream come true.
The thing that I’m particularly proud of though, and this is in total debt to its editor, Lisa Smosarski, is that the beauty features I wrote met the reader at an intellectual level and unpicked the psycho-social backbone of each vestige of beauty, rather than just the surface razmattaz. That’s commonplace now in women’s publishing, but it’s easy to forget that at the time that Stylist launched, in 2007, most women’s magazines were still talking about how we should dress to get a man to want us. It’s been a privilege to be part of the wave against all that.
What are your all-time favourite beauty products that you couldn’t live without?
Oh, where do I start!? OK, let’s begin with the utterly joyous, indulgent, slightly superfluous stuff: Frederic Malle fragrances. Portrait of a Lady makes me feel like a Parisienne in a tight Dior pencil skirt, tottering through the fifth arrondissement. Byredo candles, the absolute epitome of modern style in my book. I would marry Safran if I could.
Then, the essentials that do what they do the best. MAC Brow Set in Beguile. Eyebrow pencils for fair brows are total pants, with no exceptions. This gel definer looks believable and the wand helps shape my fawny sparse hairs into something approaching a brow arch. Charlotte Tilbury’s Rock’N’Kohl Liquid Eye Pencil in Eye Cheat drawn across the waterline makes tired eyes look more wide awake than any eye cream ever will. And red lipstick, because red lipstick was my gateway drug into make-up at aged seventeen and will remain my ride or die until I well, die… It has to be Nars Audacious Lipstick (the perfect go-between of matte and gloss) in Sandra – a deep earthy red. I’ll stop there, or we’d be here all night.
You’re studying for a degree in Chinese medicine and acupuncture. How did you become interested in alternative medicine?
I’ve been having acupuncture since I was about twelve. That’s when I began to suffer from chronic hayfever every spring, which would make me extremely asthmatic. Acupuncture really helped. Then, around a decade ago, I visited a spa off the coast of China and was treated by a doctor of Traditional Chinese Medicine. Just by taking my pulse and looking at my tongue, he knew every weakness in my body, even down to previous operations and exactly where on my head I get headaches. It blew my mind and I began to devour all the books I could find on the subject. I thought, ‘one day, I’d love to go back to school and study Chinese Medicine and be able to do that for other people'. That ‘one day’ struck me like a dart in the head two years ago whilst I was sat at my work desk. It was a punt, as degrees are expensive and I was at the peak of a career I’d worked tooth and nail for, but I felt in my gut that it was the right thing to do. I have one more year of my degree left and I’ll be board-certified and ready to establish my practice.
Do you think Eastern medicine is something that can help new mums, mums-to-be and couples who are trying to conceive?
In a word, yes. There’s far too much to go into regarding the inner workings of acupuncture but put simply, it promotes a healthy flow of movement within the body. Fertility issues are often seen through the lens of Chinese Medicine as a form of stagnation – or stuck-ness – and acupuncture helps to get things moving.
And this is an area that’s been studied at length and proven to glean results. It’s not something I plan to specialise in, but I’ve seen it do amazing things for women trying to conceive, particularly via the work of Emma Cannon, a leading London acupuncturist an author who is a fountain of fertility and Chinese Medicine knowledge.
How do you find time for yourself now you’re mum and what’s your favourite way to relax?
I am an unshamed Bravo-nut. I devour all of the Real Housewife franchises and tell myself that it’s not just reality trash, it’s a fascinating interplay of human social interaction, and therefore is brain food. I do, however, go slightly higher brow with my podcast selection. Currently, I have Russell Brand’s Under The Skin and LSE: Public Lectures and Events and The Tip Off on rotation. With that stuff, I can consume it whilst I’m either home with Noah (I have Bluetooth headphones that connect to the TV as I’d rather she didn’t hear all the catfights) or on our daily walks to the park.
I made a deal with my husband that I’d take a couple of hours to myself each friday evening, to either see friends or book in for a pedicure in spitting distance of the house, in case Noah had a colicky meltdown. I cannot recommend that enough. Having just two hours to myself in one whole week enables me to be a better, more collected, mother.
Best bits / worst bits about motherhood, and any really funny moments so far?
It’s crass, but the toilet habits of your newborn will never not be amusing. It’s almost the law to inspect her dirty nappies, clocking any changes in colour or texture (sorry), but I’ve found the sheer audio impact of it all to be almost theatrical in its delivery. And you really need those moments, at least I did, when my post-epidural bones struggled to even walk to the toilet, in those early days.