Stacy London Wants To Help Women Embrace Aging. When TV Said No, She Became A CEO
The former "What Not To Wear" host is now CEO of State of Menopause. The transition wasn't easy.
Stacy London wanted to talk about aging. But nobody else in her world seemed to.
London has had a long and successful career in television, including a fame-making run as cohost of the show What Not to Wear. But especially after experiencing many intense symptoms of menopause, London, 51, wanted to use her platform to open a conversation about the experience of reaching middle age. So she pitched a new show. “Everybody told me that it was unsexy and that nobody would watch,” she says. “Not only did I leave feeling like, ‘Wow, they think I'm past my prime,’ but I really went down this road of an insane and really crazy sense of worthlessness.”
Then, to her surprise, she discovered that she could make the impact she wanted to — but it would have to happen outside her comfort zone, in business. She’s become the owner and CEO of a company called State of Menopause, which creates products aimed at, in its words, “alleviating external symptoms [of menopause], and removing the shame that surrounds them.”
It wasn’t a role she originally sought. She began as what she calls “a super noisy” beta tester for State of Menopause. When the brand’s parent company decided to shift away from consumer products, it approached her about taking ownership. She was hesitant at first; this was a new world to her. But beyond learning the basics of business, she says, she also had to go through a difficult personal transformation.
“There was really, truly this moment where I thought, ‘I don't want to be that person who is holding onto an old version of themselves,’” she says. “Because I have told countless people in their lifetimes, ‘Let go of who you were to become who you are.’ If I don't follow my own advice, then what the hell was I giving it to other people for?”
In this conversation, London discusses what she’s learned by going through multiple transformations — entering a new career, embracing a new phase of life, and now encouraging others to do the same.
You went from a product beta tester to the company’s owner and CEO. Were you thinking about getting into business?
I wasn't in the mindset at all! But my mindset had become so compromised by perimenopausal symptoms. I started to feel uncomfortable in my skin, everything was dry and itchy, and I was grumpy and couldn't remember anything. All of those things, plus looking in the mirror and not really recognizing myself anymore, caused me a great deal of existential angst. So when State of Menopause came to me and said, “Hey, we want to talk to you about menopause,” I was like, sign me up. Because I had not heard of a company or anybody who was doing anything around this.
When [the brand’s parent company] Arfa decided to pivot in a different direction and become Chord, they didn't want to see their brands become homeless. So they said to me, ‘You are so passionate about this and you care so much about this. We think you should take it on.’ And immediately I said, ‘Well, I don't know how to be a CEO.’ But the minute that I realized that I believe so much in what these products are doing, and the conversation that was started, I really felt like I didn't have a choice other than to take it on. First, as a 51-year-old woman, I am pivoting and I want to be representative of what women this age can be doing in their own lives. But also, I just knew how alienated and isolated and lost I was feeling, and that the barrier to entry to talking about this was such an incredible sense of shame.
I have always been a truth talker. I've always been one to be like, “Nope, that doesn't look any good on you.” So why not take this on and speak truth about what menopause feels like and what it means, not just to middle-aged women, but to any person experiencing menopausal symptoms?
I have this theory about change, which I call “the bridge of familiarity.” Whether you’re making a change for yourself, or introducing a change to other people, you have to identify something familiar and use that as the bridge to cross. For you, I wonder if that familiarity was the idea of being a truth talker. You may have once thought you could only do that on TV, but now you’re realizing there are so many other ways.
You hit the nail right on the head. I kept asking myself, “What is my kernel of truth?” I felt roundly rejected by television. And then I really had to think, “Well, what do I want my life to look like?”
I realized that my kernel of truth is my existential crisis. This is my inflection point. When I think about menopause historically, we thought of women as being put out to pasture when they’re no longer able to biologically conceive. And yet we've moved so far past that in society. Not only can women have babies well into their fifties, eventually trans women are going to be able to as well. And I think that once we take biology out of it, then we really need to look at what we are associating with menopause and reframe the idea of menopause.
We feel at this stage of life that we are being pushed out of whatever we consider to be our own spotlight. But then I think about people like Beverly Cleary, who just died at 104, and our lifespans are getting longer and longer. We can't give up at 50. That's a lot of time.
Fifty is halfway there for Beverly Cleary.
And more and more, I think that's going to be the halfway point for a lot of people. The idea that you are going to give up on yourself or your life or the possibilities of your life halfway through seems like a big waste of 50 years. So for me, it really is about reframing menopause as another phase of hormonal health. The longer that we live, we have to stop looking at it as this endpoint or mini death that we are experiencing, and understand that, yes, there is secondary loss and grief, and we can talk about and that.
Everybody thinks it's really cute to be old, but nobody wants to age. Well, we’ve got to get over that shit.
You’re doing something that, in a broader way, many entrepreneurs are doing — which is identifying some kind of underserved space and trying to be the center of a conversation and community. What strategies are you developing to do that?
This idea that you want to be the center of the conversation — that doesn't resonate with me. There are a few companies out there that are specifically for menopause, and I think all ships rise together. For me, it is about being part of this conversation, not necessarily at the center of it. There is so much need that to think that one company is enough would be ridiculous.
I also believe in collaborations. This idea of, “You have to stay in your lane and anybody who's competition is competition”? There are companies that have done great campaigns that I've reposted because I believe in what they're doing! If there's a company that makes a great menopausal product that we don't make yet, I want to be able to recommend it — not necessarily for a rev share, although in some cases we are planning collaborations and partnerships like that, but because it's the right thing to do for this community.
It's a different mentality for women in my generation. We were taught to be competitive with each other. We were taught to fight — that there was only one person to date, only one job to get. You had to claw your way to the top.
That’s so interesting, especially in light of the conversation that’s happening around Gen Z right now. The conventional wisdom there is that they’re motivated by community — but instead of building a community for them to join, brands need to join communities that young consumers built. And you’re saying the same is true for the generation you’re reaching.
I think that partly comes from understanding that there needs to be multi-generational mentorship, whether it be in business or in friendship or in the way we live our lives. You know, there are things that Gen Z is has been able to accomplish that my generation never could.
It's a very different mindset, to be open and honest and transparent and vulnerable as a 51-year-old woman, than it is to be a 22-year-old doing the same thing — and yet part of my courage comes from watching 22-year-olds do that. I really believe that a lot of the ways that companies think about Gen Z really apply to all of us. It is about this idea of growth, in terms of our own psychology and being vulnerable.
You’re known for your transparency — sharing the ups and downs of your life. Did that come naturally, or did you go through a journey to get there?
It was an incredible evolution, and it took place over the years that I was at What Not To Wear. In the beginning, I was so nervous because I had no television experience. I really felt like I was supposed to act like I knew everything — that I was the authority, and I wasn't allowed to make a mistake and I couldn't make fun of myself because the audience expected me to be an expert. And halfway through, I started to realize: Nobody gives a shit. What they want to know is, will this help them or not? Nobody cares whether I'm an expert in this field or not.
I was so on my high horse about my styling capabilities, when that's not what makes people relatable. What makes people relatable is really being good and bad at things. Having flaws and having incredible traits about yourself.
In transitioning into entrepreneurship, it seems like you’ve gone through another version of this — finding the power of vulnerability, and leading important conversations.
You know, I have been a spokesperson for lots of brands in my career. But it's a very different thing to be a CEO. I think there's still some misunderstanding about the fact that I am actually pivoting into business rather than just being a talking head. And that is going to mean a lot of different things. I'm not the star of this show. We want user-generated content because that's what this is about — it’s a movement, and if my status or previous career helps move that agenda along, then great. If not, then I’ve got a company to run, and we're going to have to hire other people to be spokespeople.
This began with me really fundamentally saying, “I don't know how to do this, and I am afraid, but I'm going to do it anyway.” There are so many women before me — Tina Fey comes to mind — who say, “Say yes, and figure it out later.”
For me, I couldn't say yes right away. I really had to look at my own prejudice, which is that I thought “I'm not good enough. I'm not smart enough. I'm not this. I'm not that.” But also, was I ready to let go of this idea of being a personality or a public figure? That’s the vanity that I came up against.
How’d you get over that?
I realized that, again, that would be to say that my life is over. It's like saying that menopause is the end of your life. Right? I mean, it's nonsensical. Maybe my lifetime is meant to have lots of different aspects to it.
Also, my entire life in magazines, in television, in any brand that I've ever represented—the whole idea was “aspirational, but attainable.” Fuck that! Sorry, but I believe that it should be attainable and maintainable. I am not making products for you to feel better about your wrinkles. I don't give a shit about your wrinkles. I applaud you for having wrinkles, but if you feel uncomfortable, if you have discomfort in your skin because it's dry or itchy or loss of collagen, that discomfort is what I want to address. And you know, the fact that your wrinkles may look a little bit better — well, that's just a happy byproduct. But the real benefit here is to create a sense of ease in where you are, and to make this transition a little bit easier.
Jason Feifer is the editor in chief of Entrepreneur magazine, and author of the forthcoming book Build For Tomorrow about how people can become more adaptable in their careers and life. He is also the host of two podcasts: Build For Tomorrow (yes, same name as the book), which is a show that debunks people's fears of change; and Problem Solvers, about entrepreneurs solving unexpected problems in their business. He writes a newsletter about how to find opportunity in change.