““[Bill Gates] has been historically one of my best supporters…One of my favorite e-mails he ever sent me…I proposed this crazy project. And he sent back this two-line response: ‘This has got to be the craziest thing you’ve ever suggested. Please proceed.’” ”
Haven't heard of Bobbi Brown? It's a good bet you're a man. I had no idea who she was until a month or so before I met her, but when I mentioned her name to our editorial director, she called Brown a "life-changing" figure and immediately pronounced her cover-worthy. Then I talked to my 12-year-old daughter, who said, "You're meeting Bobbi Brown?! In person?!"
My subsequent non-scientific survey suggested that about 99 percent of women have good things to say about Brown, while an approximately equal percentage of men are in the never-heard-of-her category. That's probably just fine with Brown, for whom half the world's population has proven to be a more than sufficient market for her line of cosmetics.
She launched that line after becoming a freelance makeup artist and finding herself disappointed with the beauty products available to her. Working with a chemist she'd met at a magazine shoot, she developed 10 lipsticks and convinced Bergdorf Goodman to carry them in 1991. They proved popular, and Bobbi Brown Cosmetics took off. Less than five years later, in 1995, she sold the company to Estée Lauder, apparently for close to $75 million. (While the exact figure has not been disclosed, Lauder invested that amount in 1995 and has said it used the money principally to buy Brown's business.)
Today, Brown serves as chief creative officer of the firm that bears her name, which has mushroomed into a worldwide empire. Its cosmetics–which she still helps to create and name–are available in 56 countries on four continents. The company also has 18 freestanding retail outlets in eight countries, including an airy, artfully designed facility that opened in Brown's Montclair, N.J. hometown in 2007.
When I met her there, the first thing I noticed was that the company name still wasn't out front. "We'll get around to that at some point," Brown told me. I sensed that she didn't need the moniker on the building for the sake of her ego or, for that matter, to attract business. She's got more than enough of that to keep her busy–and to pay for two NetJets shares.
Were you thinking about a career in makeup when you were a kid?
I never thought about a career until my mother sat me down when I was 18 and said, "What do you want to do with your life?" I had no idea. She said, "OK, if you could do anything, what would you do?" I said, "I'd love to go play with makeup at Marshall Field." So she said, "Why don't you become a makeup artist?"
So it was your mom who got you into this.
Well, it was her idea for me to spend my college years and possibly my career doing something I love. I think she was way ahead of her time. Back then, [life for women] wasn't even about careers.
I heard that your mother suggested you get a nose job when you were 18 and you said, "No, I like myself the way I am." You sounded self-confident and she seemed to have a very different philosophy from you.
Well, often mothers want for their children things that they wanted for themselves, and my mother was always very much in love with glamour and beauty and her style was always very different than mine. She looked like she could walk a red carpet and I was never like that.
But you always liked makeup.
I always loved makeup but I liked makeup that didn't look like you were wearing any makeup.
When you started your cosmetics line, did you have the slightest idea what it would turn into?
I didn't, and if I had, I probably would have not done it because it would have been overwhelming for me. I feel very blessed that I've had the opportunity to do what I love and to make things that empower people to feel good about themselves. And I've somehow managed to maintain a personal life as well as my career, and that's what I'm most proud of.
Why did you sell the company to Estée Lauder after only five years?
Leonard Lauder was someone I believed when he said, "I will help you grow the business and you can do what's important to you, which is be a mom and have a family and do all the creative things you love."
Have there been any negatives to selling?
The negative for me is just being part of a corporation. There are a lot of layers and ways you're supposed to act and I'm not usually someone who likes to follow rules. I like to make the rules. But we have an understanding and we work very well together.
When did you first fly privately?
The first time was when I was asked to make up an actress for the Oscars. I was on holiday with my family in Telluride. I didn't want to give up my holiday and the only way [to avoid that] was to fly to Hollywood and back within a couple of hours. Someone lent me their airplane and it was the coolest thing in the world and totally time efficient. I flew to L.A. in the morning. The car was waiting for me as I landed. I drove to an actress' house, did her makeup, did another actress, did a third actress, touched up the first actress, drove back to the airport, got on the plane and watched the Oscars on the couch with my two little kids back in Telluride that night.
And then you started using charter?
Yes, for a combination of work and family vacations. Then eventually we bought a share in NetJets. And now we have two shares.
For the short trips we go for a Hawker 400, and for the longer trips we go for the Citation X, which is my favorite airplane. It's the fastest and very comfortable. Usually we have every seat filled–we bring dogs and bags of everything from food to sports equipment. It's just an extension of our lives. We've gone from having a big Suburban full of things to [the airborne equivalent of the] Suburban.
How often do you fly privately?
Quite a bit. Recently I shot one of the last 10 episodes of Oprah, her biggest-ever makeover show, and I flew down with my team and back. And I just had to fly overnight to Miami to do a personal appearance and again I brought my team.
It was a referral from a couple of friends and my comfort level with them was 100 percent from the first time I met them. For me, it's not the amenities. That's second. There's nothing more important than knowing the pilot's the best pilot and the equipment's the best equipment and you feel safe.
Getting back to the beauty industry, how has it changed since you've been in it?
I started the company because I was not happy with what was on the market when I was a makeup artist. I couldn't find a foundation that would match people's skin. And I couldn't find a makeup that would look great without mixing a couple of things together. I think now there are more options. There are a lot more entrepreneurial brands and there's a lot more makeup designed by makeup artists.
One of your goals is to help women look and feel like themselves, only prettier and more self-confident. But doesn't confidence have to come from within?
Confidence comes from many places. First, from your parents and, second, from knowing you're good at something. But women have more things to worry about than men because people do judge how you look and there are so many images of perfection that women look at. And it's very easy to not feel good about yourself. Makeup is a great way to help you [feel confident].
You've half answered my next question, which is why do you think women use makeup to feel prettier and more self confident but men don't have a need to use it to feel more handsome and self confident?
There are little things men can do that make a difference–I made a great gel bronzer for my father and he wears it every day and it gives him a healthy glow. And all my skin-care products are unisex. But men aren't going to put on blush or lipstick or mascara. It just looks weird–unless you're Keith Richards. I did make up Keith a couple of times for a Rolling Stones album cover.
I read that you updated one of your books partly because the Internet had changed things with regard to makeup. How so?
In the past, magazines have had to walk that fine line between advertising and editorial. If they hated something, they couldn't really say it. Now the bloggers are out there telling the truth. I think that's really a positive thing and has helped us.
At what age do you think a girl should start wearing makeup?
It depends on the girl and her mother. I see nothing wrong with a six-year-old girl going to a family party with a clear lip gloss. Girls like to do that. There's nothing wrong with that–or with a six-year-old boy who wants to put a tie on.
You've said beauty isn't about being perfect–it's about celebrating your individuality.
You know, when I was growing up, if you were not Cheryl Tiegs or Christie Brinkley you were not considered pretty. Now it's changed.
But many of the women on your Web site look like models.
All these women are ones I've found on the street or who work for me. And what I happen to be good at is spotting women who photograph really well. The truth is, the less beautiful a woman is, the better she looks in a makeover because you can see a big difference.
You know, the way companies used to operate is, a woman would come to the counter and they'd say, "Oh, no, no, your skin's too yellow–let me give you a foundation to counteract that." So all of a sudden you've got a pink foundation. "Your eyes are so small–let me show you how to paint in an eyelid. And your nose is too big–let me show you how to shade it. And your lips are too small…"
You'd walk out of there thinking you're the ugliest human being on Earth. And you'd look in the mirror and think, "I look like a clown."
I think if you have smaller lips you just don't wear a super-bright lipstick. If you have a strong nose, embrace it. And put blush on your cheeks and look good. It's about being who you are and being the best you can be without changing who you are.
But I see you've got products called "Corrector" and "Concealer."
Concealer gets rid of dark circles and makes you look less tired. I've never said a woman looks better with dark circles. Corrector, when Concealer isn't enough, will correct the dark purple under your eyes so you look like yourself but not tired.
What about older women? Of the 32 women featured on your Web site, nearly half are in their teens or 20s and all but six are in their 40s or younger.
Beauty is about looking healthy, not about looking younger. And I think a woman can be beautiful at any age. There's nothing wrong with lines on someone's face. But when you look tired, then it's not pretty. It's not about looking young. It's about looking healthy.
Musings: Bobbi Brown
Interview by Jennifer Leach English
- I put my family way ahead of everything so I never get upset when someone who works for me comes in late and says, "It was Olivia's first day of kindergarten."
- One of the best things that happened this year is that I was asked to speak to 800 women employees at Nike and I invited my 18-year-old son. And afterward he came up to me and said, "You know Mom, you really are funny."
- Fifth grade is usually when you see girls starting to wear makeup, maybe not at school yet but at fifth-grade graduation or bar mitzvahs and parties. As she gets older, you can tell a lot about how your daughter is doing by the makeup she chooses to wear. You can see if she has self-esteem issues.
- I go to the lab a couple of times a year and it's really fun. I just went with my aunt Alice to make some lipsticks because the one other time I brought her to the lab she came up with our number-two-selling lipstick. My 80-year-old aunt! She's amazing.
- I'm sort of self-diagnosed ADD and I read somewhere that when you are moving your mind opens up. I've written six books, most of them in the back seat of a car or on vacation and I do really well on airplanes.
- People don't realize that the right skincare will make you look better. It doesn't get rid of wrinkles, but it hydrates your skin, smooths out your skin. The only real wrinkle-prevention plan is to not smoke, not over-tan your skin and eat healthy.
- A lot of women will choose colors that are trendy just because they are in a magazine, without realizing how they will look on them personally. Anything Oprah ever says on TV people run out and buy. She once said, "Bobbi Brown's foundation is all I wear–#6, 7 and 8." We sold out in the entire country. Even women with light skin were buying them, and our artists on the phone were saying, "Maybe for your skin tone you want different colors?" But it was like, "Nope, we want 6, 7 and 8."
- As we get older, the most important thing is to be healthy. That makes you more beautiful. That comes from eating the right foods and from exercising. I opened a gym next door to my studio. I always base my work around my exercise routine. That makes me happy and gets my day started. I believe the fountain of youth is exercise. I can't sell that but I can certainly promote it.
- The majority of my diet is fruit and vegetables, and when I am really tired and sluggish at a shoot, I whisper in my PR person's ear, "Please go find me some green juices."
- When I'm traveling on long overnight flights overseas and into different time zones, I always put Bobbi Brown EXTRA face oil on top of my makeup to rejuvenate my look. Just a little bit of that and I look almost normal! I used to just take the olive oil from first class and use that. Bobbi Brown pot rouge is also great. It comes in a little pot and you can put it on your cheeks and lips. Even if you have no makeup on, it just wakes you up and you look better.
- In each country I travel to, I buy different things. In the UK they have amazing hardware–faucets and things like that. And I go to Boots [a UK pharmacy chain]. They have great baby supplies there, like baby bath and lotions.
- I'm hoping that the new generation who are entering their forties will do Botox less. There are probably plenty of women who get it who look good with it, but a lot of women don't. I think a lot of celebrities have ruined their faces with the different things they've done. If you do anything, it's got to be subtle, and don't do anything too permanent.
- Everything I've done in my company comes down to common sense: Be nice to people, give them a product that really works and tell them the truth. When people say, "God, you're amazing," I'm like, "Dude, I'm just doing what makes sense."
NAME: Bobbi Brown
BIRTHDATE: April 14, 1957
OCCUPATION: Founder and chief creative officer, Bobbi Brown Cosmetics. Also, beauty editor on NBC-TV's Today Show and author of six books, most recently Bobbi Brown Makeup Manual: For Everyone from Beginner to Pro (2008) and Beauty Rules (2010).
PREVIOUS OCCUPATION: Freelance makeup artist. Sold shoes at age 16.
EDUCATION: Degree in theatrical makeup, Emerson College, 1979.
PERSONAL: Married for 23 years. Lives in Montclair, N.J. Three sons, aged 12, 18 and 21.