By Danielle Cantor
In the late 1960s, petite, dark-eyed Bobbi Brown was struggling to reconcile her Semitic beauty with that of the leggy blonde-and-blue cover girls of her youth. Then came the movie Love Story
, and in Ali MacGraw's shiny chestnut mane, Brown found her aesthetic truth: A woman need not be fair to be lovely.
Working in the fashion industry after college, Brown found that flattering makeup had dwindled to short supply in the garish 1980s. So she made some of her own and debuted Brown Lip Color's first 10 neutral shades at New York's Bergdorf Goodman department store in 1991. The lipsticks were not perfumed, they were neither dry nor greasy, they looked like lips—only better—and by the end of the first day they were sold out.
Fourteen years later, Brown has built a thriving career on the belief that beauty is unique, and unique is beautiful. Bobbi Brown Cosmetics now features dozens of makeup and skin-care products (including the original 10 lip shades) and is a top-selling brand in department stores nationwide. Brown appears frequently on "Oprah" and as the resident beauty expert on NBC's "Today" show. She has written three New York Times
best-sellers, including one for teenage girls and another with beauty tips for women of every age.Were you born with a head for business, or have your negotiation and marketing skills evolved with your success?
I think I have business savvy, but not in the traditional sense of the word. For me, it's not about what market research shows. I make most of my decisions by feeling. You need an idea, tons of passion, and you have to be willing to put in enormous amounts of hard work. I was lucky because I was first in my niche. I wasn't the first cosmetics company, but I was definitely the first with natural colors designed by a makeup artist.Were your parents supportive or skeptical-or both-when you decided to design your own major in theatrical makeup during college?
My mother actually inspired me to pursue a career in makeup. One day I told my mother that I didn't know what I wanted to do with my life. She told me to forget about my "life" and asked me to focus just on what I wanted to do that day. My answer was that I wanted to go to the makeup counter to play with makeup. So my mom said, "What don't you be a makeup artist?"Which women have influenced you?
My mother was a huge role model. She was the most beautiful woman I knew. She was glamorous, but always fresh-looking. My beauty role model as a teenager was Ali MacGraw. With her dark hair, thick brows and natural makeup, I finally saw the possibility of my own beauty. When I was in college, I looked up to a great New York freelance makeup artist named Bonnie Maller. She was in demand because of her clean, natural style. Her work helped me figure out what I wanted to do as a makeup artist.What inspired your "make the most of what you've got" philosophy, and how has it evolved throughout your career?
I realized at a young age when I was standing next to all these supermodels that I couldn't compete with them. I decided that I can't be what I'm not-I have to make the most of what I have.Jewish culture tends to focus a lot on appearance and personal presentation. Was that an influence for you?
The Jewish culture focuses on being a good person, working hard, and helping others. These ideals are what influenced me.You've been actively involved with a number of charities over the years. Have your Jewish values influenced your drive to help others?
Yes. My grandparents and parents have instilled in me the importance of helping others.What are the greatest challenges you've faced in running your own company?
Separating work from home, and keeping the integrity of my company while making my employees happy.Has your ambition been fueled at all by a desire for financial independence?
For me, it's not about making money. It's simply about doing what I can to help women feel better about themselves. There's nothing more gratifying than that.Did becoming a busy mother influence the way you create and market your products to women?
All of my ideas are based on real-life experiences and what women really need. Juggling home, family and work leaves little time for me, so it's important that my beauty routine is simple, real and approachable-and I know that's something all women want.What messages do you try to convey to girls to help them develop a positive view of their appearance that they can carry into their relationships and their careers?
Learn to love yourself and those qualities that make you who you are. Working with models of all ages, I've seen so many girls who have self-esteem issues early in their careers, and continue to have those same issues as adults. Find a role model that you can relate to. If you're five feet tall with brown hair, it makes no sense to aspire to be a tall, leggy blonde.An objective reader of a fashion magazine might observe that some beauty companies sell "solutions" by subtly (or not so subtly) encouraging women to see problems when they look in the mirror. Was your founding philosophy—embracing one's uniqueness and natural beauty—a conscious choice to buck that trend?
I grew up in a time when beauty was epitomized by tall, blond models who then would have been considered "all-American." Women like Cheryl Tiegs, Christie Brinkley and Kelly Emberg defined beauty. Since I am five feet tall, with deep-set brown eyes, dark eyebrows and brown hair, I didn't feel pretty. As I came into my own, I realized the importance of being satisfied with the person I am and the looks I was given. I find that women around the world have different ideas of what beauty is. What we all have in common is the desire to look and feel pretty. So when I look at a woman, I don't see what's wrong with her-I see what's right with her."The Swan" and "Extreme Makeover" notwithstanding, do you think American culture has embraced a more inclusive definition of beauty in the last few decades?
We've definitely moved away from the idea that there's only one definition of beauty; it's not about looking like a Barbie doll anymore. Young girls and women have more role models today, and we're starting to realize that we should all strive for a personal definition of our own beauty.Do you see any industry progress toward changing the fix-your-flaws trend?
As an industry, we're taking baby steps in the right direction, but we have a long way to go.How do you feel about shows like "The Swan" and their homogenous makeover results?
I am not against plastic surgery; I've seen it do amazing things for women. What I am against is the rampant abuse of plastic surgery. There is a fine line between making a subtle improvement and completely overdoing it. The right makeup can address many of the "flaws" that women think can only be fixed with plastic surgery.Is there any story of a woman turning her life around with the help of a new look that stands out in your memory?
There are many. I have done a lot of work for Dress for Success. I have worked with women who have been through divorce, illness and having a baby. All these women stand out in my mind.Is there a glass ceiling in the cosmetics industry?
Regardless of the industry, there will always be people who say no to you. I've learned that you should never take no for an answer. If one door closes, look for a back door or a side door.Have you encountered resistance as you've worked to make the definition of American beauty more inclusive over the years?
No-I find women very receptive to my message, no matter where I go in the world.Who holds the power with regard to a cosmetic company's success: models, designers or everyday consumers?
I think the power is in the hands of the consumer, though she might not always know that.Many beauty consumers are drawn in by the promise of "secrets"-just-uncovered techniques and products that could improve a woman's looks and change her life. Is there really something profound that the insiders know?
I'd love to be able to say that there's a cream that will take away wrinkles, but there's no such thing. If I ever find it, I won't keep it a secret-I'll tell everybody!What are women today doing with makeup and skin care that they shouldn't do?
Some women still use makeup to try to change or distort their features. Instead, they should use makeup to enhance the features they love.Do different age groups or professional/geographical demographics tend toward certain preferences?
I've found that the world over, regardless of skin color, culture or any other factor, all women want to look like themselves, only prettier.Which trends do you look back on and wonder "what were women thinking"?
The entire decade of the '70s!Is there a beauty ritual that you, personally, won't do without?
Concealer is the secret to the universe. It instantly lifts and brightens your eyes. With the right concealer, you can't go wrong.