Michelle Feeney: The pale queen of St Tropez

An evangelical Michelle Feeney tells Alison Shepherd how tanning boosts self-esteem, and how profits help the poor

One of the first things you notice about Michelle Feeney, the chief executive of St Tropez, the world's leading self-tan company, is her alabaster-like complexion.

But that doesn't mean she has fallen in with the popular papers' representation of her range as cheap and nasty, used only by orange WAGs and wannabes: "I do use it," she says. "It's a myth that you have to look overly tanned with self-tan; one of the myths that I've tried to bust in my three years in the job. It's about skin perfection and about enhancing your own skin. Giving it a glow."

And, keen to convince that these are not just the words of the consummate beauty PR, Feeney tells the story of how she decided – on second asking – to take over the running of the leading company in an industry worth £100m to the UK.

"I had never had a self-tan before, as I had been living in the States and missed the decade when St Tropez grew. But I came out of Debenhams having had a spray tan thinking, 'Oh my God this is phenomenal'. It makes you feel much better about yourself and people react differently to you. It was then I decided, 'I've got to take this message out there'."

And now, three years on, spurred on no doubt by Feeney's evangelical drive, and the largely successful buffing-up of its image, profits at St Tropez are believed to have risen from £2.6m to £4.7m in 2009, with like-for-like sales rising 24 per cent to £60m in the recession-ridden year to April.

Evangelism clearly runs deep in Feeney, now 47; her professional and personal lives seem rooted in the drive to share all the benefits of life. It's a drive that has taken her from the suburbs of Solihull, which can still be heard in her faint Brummie burr, to the very centre of the massive US beauty market as a senior manager with Estée Lauder, via Newcastle polytechnic and London's bedsit land.

But despite her glowing marketing credentials, she does not cite creating the cult branding around the £500-a-tub Crème de la Mer wrinkle cream in 1994 as her career high. Nor her time as head of marketing for the now discontinued Prescriptives brand. But she does mention the time she was able to hand over $75,000 from the MAC Aids Fund to the UN to help fight the disease in Africa.

"I was thinking of leaving Estée Lauder, when it bought [the make-up brand] MAC," she recalls. "It had something that was close to my heart – the Aids Fund, set up by the founders Frank and Frank [Toskan and Angelo], partners in business and life. They had very bravely started the fund, with a 6ft4in black transvestite, RuPaul, as their frontman.

"They had to be persuaded to go big on the fund, but I got stuck in. After discovering that Aids/HIV rates were increasing among young black American women, I signed up Mary J Blige and Lil' Kim and learnt how to use the power of commerce to do real, true good."

MAC had launched the Viva Glam Lipstick, with all proceeds to Aids charities. "That lipstick was literally saving lives, [and] businesses began to give in much bigger numbers than we could." Viva Glam, which has just signed up popstar Lady Gaga, has so far raised more than $100m for Aids causes across the world. "That is my professional high," says Feeney.

This need to become involved in her community is why she and her family have just returned from Kenya, where they are using their own money to help fund a village school, and why St Tropez is now involved with the Prince's Trust. "I was challenged by the board about giving money to a charity but the benefit is everyone feels inspired and part of something. The Trust link has really worked for us – as trust is all about self-esteem, for those people who society forgets."

Feeney is chair of the Trust's health and beauty leadership group, which is bringing out a charity lipstick called Trust, made by Karen Alder, singer Pixie Lott's make-up artist, who was given her first make-up set by the Trust.

While riding the crest of the MAC wave, launching in 40 countries and raising sales from $65m to $1bn in seven years, Feeney met her husband, Mark Neale, the managing director of Mountain Warehouse, which has 120 stores in the UK, and decided she wanted to move back to London. After the birth of her daughter in 2005, she stepped down from MAC and "took a back seat" doing consultancy work from home. "I wanted to take time to be with my children [she also has a teenage son]. But when St Tropez came calling, I was ready for the next challenge."

The St Tropez spray was invented in LA but the product made its name under the stewardship of entrepreneurs Judy Naake and Norman Oley, who distributed it in the UK to salons and spas, where it came to the attention of celebrities such as Victoria Beckham. In 2006, LDC, the private-equity arm of Lloyds Banking Group, paid £70m for the firm and gave Feeney the top job.

"I wanted to learn more about the business of business. Because a lot of women get to the point where they shy away from that and this thing called 'private equity'. It's talked about as if it's some mystical thing, but it's so not. It was the next phase for me. Time to layer on the hardcore stuff, the bottom line, the PNL [Profit aNd Loss]."

And learn she obviously has, as St Tropez now has 40 per cent of the self-tan market, which itself grew 10 per cent last year, and now there's the impending sale. Talks with suitors, whom Feeney would only narrow down to two, took place over the summer and a deal is expected soon. Analysts predict the sale price to be around £50m.

Feeney says a sale is necessary, as St Tropez needs capital to develop the technologies that will keep it ahead of its peers. "We need to invest in beauty technology if we're to go into skincare and other things. You always have to be moving on the technology. That's the life blood of any brand."

Feeney's plans for St Tropez's future are centred around growth in north America, where the brand has grown by 48 per cent in the past year, based on slots on the TV channel QVC, a website, and social media. "Self-tan is in its infancy in the States, so we have been able to lead the process there.

"What's brilliant about new social media [is] it spreads much more quickly. What would take me seven years to do with MAC would take seven months now. You have to be bloody good, or people will tell you so directly."

There are also markets to break in to in Europe, particularly in the east, and again new capital will help the brand expand in those countries where salons, with their staffing costs and overheads, are the way to consumers' hearts.

Whoever ends up owning the company, Feeney is convinced it will flourish. "St Tropez is strong and good and that's my legacy. But I've got lots of other ideas for other brands as well."

She certainly has no plans to sit back and take it easy. "The next few years should be the most exciting of my life. I love being back in London. I have a real affinity with the industry, small brands as well as retailers like Boots.

"And I love the mentoring aspect of this role and feel very strongly for the non-profit side. The confidence of having had success with St Tropez means that whatever I do in the future I think I'll succeed."

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Life and Style
A monstrous idea? Body transplants might no longer be science fiction
Science An Italian neurosurgeon believes so - and it's not quite as implausible as it sounds, says Steve Connor
Demba Ba (right) celebrates after Besiktas win on penalties
footballThere was no happy return to the Ataturk Stadium, where the Reds famously won Champions League
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
arts + ents
Mia Freedman, editorial director of the Mamamia website, reads out a tweet she was sent.
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
The write stuff: masters of story-telling James Joyce, left, and Thomas Hardy
arts + ents...begging to differ, John Walsh can't even begin to number the ways
Jose Mourinho on Sky Sports
footballEXCLUSIVE COLUMN Paul Scholes: It was not a leg-breaking tackle, as the Chelsea manager had claimed
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Recruitment Genius: Telesales / Marketing Executive - B2B - OTE £25,000

£17000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity to join this new...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £21000 per annum + OTE £45,000: SThree: SThree Group have been well e...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £45,000: SThree: SThree Group have been well e...

Recruitment Genius: Business Control Manager

£36000 - £44000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Encouraging more businesses to ...

Day In a Page

HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

Time to play God

Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

MacGyver returns, but with a difference

Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

Tunnel renaissance

Why cities are hiding roads underground
'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

Boys to men

The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

Crufts 2015

Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
10 best projectors

How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

Monaco: the making of Wenger

Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

Homage or plagiarism?

'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower