Naked ambition: A rare audience with make-up maverick - and Obama adviser - Bobbi Brown
Brown brought the 'natural' look to a generation of women. Rebecca Gonsalves meets an entrepreneur and creative force.
As a make-up artist-turned cosmetics magnate, Bobbi Brown is not the sort of woman who can easily take her foot off the gas. I meet her on a rare, and brief, visit to London on a sunny day during London Fashion Week earlier this spring. In town for just a couple of days, Brown was the lead make-up artist for the London catwalk debut of her friend, the stylist-turned designer – and girlfriend of Mick Jagger – L'Wren Scott. After our meeting, Brown will pack her bags and return to America, but instead of heading to her New Jersey home, Brown was flying directly to a rather important meeting.
"Do you believe that I have to fly tonight to Washington DC, get in really late, go to bed, wake up, have a blow-out, then go to the White House for lunch, and be all dressed up?" she asks when the subject of her lunch with Barack Obama crops up, leaving me feeling exhausted just listening to her itinerary. "It had to be a very different outfit than going to a party with Mick Jagger, right? But in one weekend – those two guys, that's pretty exciting."
There are many who think that the beauty industry is filled with the professionally vapid, but Brown is delightful proof that this is simply not the case. Born in Chicago in 1957 to a stay-at-home mother and an attorney father, one of Brown's early memories of make-up was watching her mother "do her make-up to go out on a Saturday night with my father. She was wearing very high heels, her bra and underwear, a big blonde beehive, a cigarette at the counter – she used to smoke – and doing false eyelashes with a toothpick."
It sounds like a scene straight out of Mad Men, though happily without the emotional dysfunction that comes as standard in that show. "She always wore very glamorous make-up," says Brown of her mother. "She used to put a very white eyeshadow on. I have a very funny picture of her where she looks gorgeous but has this super-white eyeshadow. A lot of the make-up that I create, I think about those things; my mother used to wear a chubby stick of bronzing cream on her cheeks. I'm kind of known for my bronzer so that was a big inspiration.
"Then I remember my grandmother, who had a very lined face, taking her lipstick and putting it on her cheeks. That's when I created Pot Rouge [a multi-use lip and cheek colour], from that memory."
Brown's relatives didn't just impress on her a sense of glamour or beauty, however: "Family was always the most important thing for everyone in mine; there was no question. We would go to the car dealership [owned by Brown's grandfather] and wait for Papa to finish, and I would see him work. When you own a car dealership you are working around the clock. That work ethic is definitely inbred. I think a lot of people who remember their ancestors coming from other countries understand you have to work hard for things."
This work ethic was certainly ingrained in Brown from a young age: she got a job in a small cosmetics store as soon as she was old enough. Later, she earnt a degree in theatrical make-up from Emerson College in Boston, before moving to New York City in 1980 to work as a professional make-up artist, slowly building a portfolio of editorial work for American Vogue, working with photographers Bruce Weberf Arthur Elgort and Patrick Demarchelier. It was Demarchelier who shot one of Brown's breakthrough images – supermodel-in-waiting Naomi Campbell for the cover of American Vogue's September 1989 issue.
Ten years into her career as a freelance make-up artist, Brown met a chemist on-set and commissioned a lipstick that "looked like lips, only better". The first shade produced was a nude colour called 'Brown' and is still a bestseller today. In 1991, Brown's first line of lipsticks went on sale to unprecedented demand, and soon the range was expanded to include foundation and eyeshadows.
In 1995, Bobbi Brown Cosmetics was bought by Estée Lauder, the power of which has helped to make the brand truly global as the appeal of Brown's natural look withstands the fads and fashions of the beauty world. "Some women are very fashion-forward; other women just want to look good," she says of her customers. "I love the way women look without make-up. Even though I think they look better with the right make-up, I happen to find beauty in a more natural look. When editors want to know how to wear a coloured eye, I want to say, 'You don't!'."
Although hesitant to describe herself as driven, Brown has evidently inherited a great deal of ambition and enthusiasm: "If I had had a crystal ball and someone had said, 'Here is your life', I would have said, 'No thank you'. But I'm just open [to opportunities]. I've been very blessed by the universe to give me such incredible experiences. I take those all with joy and for what they are. I'm able to hold them up, put them in my heart or head and then go home and be a mum, or a friend. I think I can handle being outside my comfort zone well because I don't get sucked up in it. I'm pretty relaxed."
Brown's relaxed, inclusive attitude translates to her cosmetic aesthetic, too – her brand is known as one of the best at catering to a range of skin colours. "I find beauty in interesting ways," she explains. "Whether it's furniture that's distressed or a woman with a very strong nose – I find interesting what other people might think is not so attractive. I could honestly say that all women have something beautiful about them. I think [the beauty industry] can be empowering, or it can be difficult. I think that most beautiful women don't realise they're beautiful. It's crazy. Who really thinks they're beautiful? Nobody."
Brown says "it's just common sense" to cater to different skin tones. "Everything I do, by the way, that people think is brilliant, is just basic common sense. When I was a young make-up artist working with models, you never knew what the model looked like. So you needed colours for everyone's skin. When you're doing a personal experience in a store, you don't know who's coming in – I don't ever want to say to someone, 'I don't have your colour'."
As well as a successful make-up artist and head of a major cosmetics company, Brown recently signed a deal to design a line of eyewear and is a New York Times bestselling author. More recently she launched her Pretty Powerful campaign in support of Dress for Success in the UK, which promotes women's economic independence through career development. "It's the way I was raised," says Brown of her altruistic work. "We were brought up to give back. It's usually giving back to your community, which is what I do."
Brown's community is an impressive one – while she priorities family, she is a hugely respected figure in the fashion industry, which has opened some rather surprising doors. "I've been to the White House half a dozen or more times," she says, as if it's perfectly easy to lose count of such an event.
"Once with Bill Clinton, but mostly with the Obamas: we go to the Christmas party every year. I think [Obama's work] is fantastic. I am a humongous supporter and happen to be very liberal. I believe that our president is trying to do things that really matter, for the economy, with gun control. I certainly love the support of gay marriage.
"As I get more well-known and global, I realise that I have a responsibility and an amazing platform to be able to talk about the things that really matter. Don't ask me why, but I'm currently on the Advisory Committee for Trade Policy and Negotiations. When they first asked me to be on it, because it's a presidential appointment, the FBI came to the office. These guys with guns came in and went to all of my neighbours' doors. One of my staff asked if they were strippers. It was a pretty big deal; I had to write down what friends I had when I was in nursery school. I go there and I listen to all these people talk and think 'What do I know about this?'. But I listen and say something when I feel it's necessary. I'm amazed that people say, 'Bobbi said…' and I think 'There's Jimmy Hoffa Jr on the committee'."
While the ability of women to 'have it all' may be a subject of debate forever, Brown, it seems, is one of the lucky ones: "I don't feel any different than the day I started. I care deeply about what I make; integrity is the most important thing to me. I love helping people."
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