In one room, a scrum of black-clad, stiletto-wearing make-up artists is furiously dusting bronzer on a handful of models; in another, women are learning about wellness at a seminar; and up front in the shop is where people try on make-up. This is Bobbi Brown HQ in Montclair, New Jersey, and at the heart of it, in a glassenclosed offi ce, the diminutive Brown surveys the scene while being touched up for a photo shoot. No wonder reality-TV producers court her.
But despite being one of the biggest names in beauty, with her namesake make-up line sold on four continents, a series of New York Times best-selling books, and friends such as Susan Sarandon and Yogi Berra, Brown is surprisingly real. When she launched her company in the early ’90s, she hedged a bet that ‘women want to look and feel like themselves, only prettier and more confident.’ Brown, 51, famously wears minimal make-up (but admits, ‘it takes a lot to look natural’) and eschews the Manhattan fashion scene, having moved her headquarters to her Montclair hometown in 2007. ‘I’m really happy living a normal life, not always worrying about how fabulous you have to be. Wearing a ponytail, clogs and a puffy jacket – I could not be happier.’
Still, Brown can’t seem to avoid being fabulous. She landed her first make-up artist credit for a Vogue cover by age 30, debuted a lipstick line in 1991 and sold a majority stake of Bobbi Brown Essentials to Estée Lauder a mere four years later, authored five books (her newest was published this past December) and makes time to raise three boys with her husband, developer Steven Plofker. Oh, and she’s zealously healthy and even helped her favourite spinning instructor open a gym a stone’s throw from her studio.
What makes Brown’s career so compelling is that it’s hinged not on kismet or connections, but on what she claims is common sense. ‘You make a product that’s easy and pretty and smells good, and that will still be available when they run out. And they’ll buy it,’ she says from her office surrounded by inspiration boards plastered with torn-out pages from magazines. ‘To me it’s really simple.’
It started in 1980 when Brown was freelancing for catalogues and magazine editorials, armed with a degree in theatrical make-up. Unhappy with the artificial-feeling make-up available then, she would mix foundations or lip colours to create natural shades. She dreamed of lipsticks that ‘looked like lips – only better,’ and with a chemist from Kiehl’s, she developed 10 such shades. They flew off the counter at Bergdorf Goodman.
But things weren’t always pink-powderpuff perfect. ‘In the very beginning I had a new baby, a husband in law school, and I was still doing catalogue work to pay our mortgage,’ Brown recalls. ‘When I received the first shipment, the lipstick tops didn’t fit. There were some tough times.’ She relies on her husband to help her stay calm and also heeds the more frank counsel of baseball legend and malapropist – and fellow Montclair resident – Yogi Berra to consume one vodka a day ‘with extra ice, so it seems like you’re getting more vodka’.
Her customers advise her, as well. ‘I read the Amazon reviews for my books and a few said, “there’s no instruction”,’ she says. So her latest tome, Bobbi Brown Make-up Manual: For Everyone From Beginner To Pro, is tutorial-heavy and includes a 14-step plan for creating the elusive ‘smoky eye’. The book will also serve as the curriculum for Bobbi Brown University, a new programme that will encompass the in-house training for the company’s artists plus college-level classes she developed for Montclair State and her alma mater, Emerson College. In the end, the one voice she prizes over all others is her own. ‘I’m honest with what kind of make-up artist I am,’ she says. ‘My style is clean and fresh and pretty. Other people are better painters than I am – they could paint a drag queen in five minutes – but that’s not me.’
Brown offers her tips for being successful – and happy:
1 ‘My husband told me: “Do what you’re good at and what you love, and let other people do the things you’re not good at and don’t love.” I pinch our CFO when I see him, because he’s doing the numbers and I’m not.’
2 ‘The secret of work and life is simple – fi nd something you like to do fi rst and you’ll fi nd out how to make money with it later.’
3 ‘Have long-term goals and minigoals. Always have a plan and re-evaluate it regularly.’
4 ‘When you feel good, you look good. Make smart food choices, exercise and drink water.’
5 Brown’s offi ces used to be in a typical midtown building with low ceilings and fl uorescent lights. ‘You can’t be creative in that atmosphere,’ she says. ‘I’d be more creative sitting on the fl oor of Grand Central Station with my legs crossed.’
Brown’s career timeline
1957 Born in Chicago, US
1976 Enrols in Emerson College in Boston. ‘When I found Emerson, I found myself,’ she says.
1980 Moves to New York City and, soon after, lands her fi rst editorial shoot at Glamour magazine.
1984 Vogue books her to create looks for a six-page beauty feature.
1990 Creates 10 lipstick colours, including her still-best-selling shade, Brown.
1995 Sells her beauty empire to Estée Lauder; retains control of her company.
1996 Her fi rst book Bobbi Brown Beauty: The Ultimate Resource lands on best-seller lists.
2000 Debuts her second title, Bobbi Brown Teenage Beauty: Everything You Need To Look Pretty, Natural, Sexy & Awesome, which is still her best-selling book.
2007 Brown sets a record for the most successful one-hour beauty launch in QVC’s history. Opens the Montclair studio.