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Style + Design

Seduced by Beauty: Vanity Fair’s SunHee Grinnell on the Allure of Travel

From photo shoots in Morocco to parties in Cannes, Vanity Fair’s SunHee Grinell makes it her job to find beauty around the world. Colleen Clark comes along for the journey.

See recent posts by Chelsea Stuart | Photo by Ira Lippke

If anyone can claim an expertise in beauty, it’s SunHee Grinnell. After more than 25 years first as photo editor and now beauty director at Vanity Fair, she’s been a devoted student of the subject.

After traveling the world producing cover shoots with iconic photographers from Mario Testino to Herb Ritts, walking the red carpets at the Oscars and Cannes and finding the stories behind legendary brands, she’s distilled her aesthetic theories down to one major quality. Confidence.

That philosophy gelled on her first trip to Paris at the age of 27. She walked out of Charles de Gaulle and was overcome by a sense of familiarity and ease. “I felt like I was coming home.” She thinks it has something to do with the attitudes of French women.

“They smoke, they drink, they embrace age, they don’t give a damn,” she says. “Any beauty routine is done in private, in the name of mystery, of romance.”

At the time, Grinnell was feeling particularly empowered, having just posed for idol Helmut Newton’s Big Nudes book at his studio in Monte Carlo. “The whole idea of posing nude was so new to me, so I had to be in a foreign environment to be comfortable. But the beauty of Helmut was that you could be fully naked but feel fully dressed,” Grinnell says.

When Grinnell writes about beauty, she approaches it in a similar way, framing products not as a means of fixing flaws but as one tool in a palette of self-presentation. She also paints evocative pictures of the stories behind the brands. She’s traveled to the saffron fields of Morocco to discover the inspiration behind Yves Saint Laurent’s L’Or Rouge face cream and to the Oscars to understand the personal beauty that informs the red carpet looks.

“Traveling has been the most important education.” So important, in fact, that she refused to accept her now husband’s proposal until they went on a trip together. “I often feel like I’m in fantasy land. You’re in Cannes and you’re surrounded by the people that you were just watching at home on TV. And then you go home and you wonder, "Was I just there,” Grinnell says.

“It’s a true privilege to have this kind of exposure to the world. That global experience gives you confidence and that confidence is beauty.”

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Why do you travel?

If I hadn't been able to go to college, I would have traveled. It's the most unbelievable education one could have, learning about different cultures and different environments, learning about other people and what their needs are.

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Favorite souvenir

My Goyard luggage. On my first trip to Paris with my now-husband, we stumbled upon this charming shop on Saint-Honoré and were completely enamored—this was before they spread worldwide. We thought—it’s like Louis Vuitton but not commercialized. This labor of love, this handcrafting, this history. It was beautiful. So every time we went back to Paris, we saved up to buy a new piece of luggage.

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Earliest travel memory

I left Seoul when I was 10 and we stopped off in California before moving to New York. All I remember was the weather: brilliant and perfect and dry and sunny. I was in LA recently and had that sensation all over again. It was like coming full circle.

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Place you keep going back to

Paris. My now-husband proposed to me after three months of dating and I said "Hold on, cowboy." After another three months, he said "I was dead serious." And I said, "I know but we have to travel together before we get married." So we went to Paris. You get so much information from traveling with a person: how they handle problems, whether they're nervous or paranoid, planners or not. But we had an amazing time and he proposed on the Pont Neuf. We've been married for 18 years, and we keep returning to take a picture in the same spot each time.

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What makes a good hotel?

There are two types of good hotels: one is about sheer luxury and service, the other is a hangout joint, all about the restaurant, the lighting, the atmosphere. I’m kind of a loner, so for me it’s about privacy, service and perfect, perfect sheets.

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Favorite hotel

La Mamounia in Marrakech, Le Sereno in St. Barts, Le Royal Monceau in Paris and definitely Le Sirenuse (pictured) in Positano, Italy. There's this ornate, intricate handcrafting there, from the bathrooms down to these beautiful little books that contain a story John Steinbeck wrote about this very spot for Harper's Bazaar back in the day. It's beautifully printed with an Italian tassel.

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Dream spa trip

Amangani in the Rockies. In the US, we're so busy running around. So unless you put someone in a total environment and force them to relax, they won't do it. We need to set time aside to take care of ourselves mentally, physically, emotionally. And staying at a destination spa like Amangani allows you to do that.

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Next trip

Seoul. They’re beauty obsessed—it’s to a point where lots of straight men are wearing makeup. I’ll be fascinated to delve into that culture.

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Bucket list trip

There are so many places—Maldives to Turkey to Japan to Fiji—but at the top of my list is an African safari.

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Beauty products in your carry-on

I hate having baggage—physically and metaphorically speaking—so I’m ruthless about packing. I pack a toner, serum, day cream and night cream. Then of course my makeup, a dry shampoo and a texturizing spray. That’s it.

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