Bobbi Brown Talks Doing Keith Richard’s Makeup, and 20 Years in the Business

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Photo courtesy of Bobbi Brown

Every-woman's makeup guru Bobbi Brown is celebrating the 20th anniversary of her brand.

When you think of high-drama makeup, there are plenty of brands that come to mind—MAC, Nars, Make Up For Ever—but when it comes to the natural look, one woman has really spearheaded the industry.

Bobbi Brown celebrates the 20th anniversary of her business this year, a company that started with just a few tubes of lipstick.

Now, as a brand under the venerable umbrella of Estée Lauder, Bobbi Brown sells 20 million products a year in 56 countries around the world. (One Long-Wear Gel Eyeliner is sold every minute!) Brown is also the number-one selling beauty author with six books under her belt, and this month, the beauty guru’s getting even more up-close and personal with her fans by kicking off a brand-new blog, Everything Bobbi.

Looking back on her two decades in the industry, Brown talked to FashionEtc about her early days (think lavender and sky blue eye shadow!), her favorite clients (Keith Richards, we're looking at you), and the women that inspire her.

What are some of your earliest memories about using makeup?

When I was a little girl, like most girls I would watch my mother put makeup on. She’d have on her glamorous high heels, she’d apply her false lashes, and I’d just be sitting there with my mouth open. When I was in school, I remember playing with lavender and sky blue eye shadows, and probably a little powder-blue mascara. Then when I got to high school, I was into just using makeup to look tan. After spring break, it was all about who got the best tan—it was very competitive!

Do you have any major makeup regrets from your early days?

The only regret I ever had was that I had absolutely beautiful, strong, Ali McGraw eyebrows—and I had them tweezed into the lovely shape of an amoeba!

At what point did you realize that beauty was something you could (and wanted) do as a career?

A year after I started college, I had no clue what I wanted to do. My mother said, forget everything else—if it were your birthday today, what would you do? I thought, I would play with makeup at the department store. So she said, do that!

I found Emerson College, where you could create your own program, and I studied theatrical makeup—although that’s not really what I wanted to eventually do. I always wanted to be pretty, but I thought athletic and outdoorsy women were the most beautiful. I remember seeing a magazine, and instead of the blonde Cheryl Tiegs or Christie Brinkley type that was always in Self, they had dark, athletic women. I thought, wow, this is a new way of thinking what beautiful is.

Before you started your own line, what was in your makeup bag?

Always a cream bronzer, always a dark brown eye shadow, always a nude lipstick, always blush. Even now, my makeup bag holds basically those original things!

What sparked you to start your own line?

I started really with lipstick. In the ‘80s, all the colors were so bright. I could never find natural colors that people could use, so I would mix and blend my own on shoots. I had the opportunity to design my own lipstick—to create what I wanted for myself, models, my friends. I really love the color of a woman’s lips, and there was nothing natural in the market that made makeup easy and made them look like themselves.

Estée Lauder acquired your company in 1995. How did that effect your business?

I had all these resources—the sky was the limit. Leonard Lauder’s an amazing supporter. He always said, you could be bigger than Estée Lauder! [Laughs] Far from! When I was first acquired, I had two very young children, so it was a personal goal to be a great mom and have a life—not just sit in an office. And one reason I sold the company was because it enabled me to have people do things I don’t enjoy—like finance.

Who have been some of your favorite people to work with? Celebrities, designers, photographers, etc?

Bruce Weber has always been a dream to work with. To celebrate my 20 years, he made a film that he calls a valentine to me. Working with the Rolling Stones was really cool, Michelle Obama was amazing, I loved working with Stella McCartney on her fashion show.

What did you do with the Rolling Stones?

I did an album cover with them and Annie Leibovitz. It was really cool. I was young and eager and excited, and I had to really make Keith’s eyes look black and smushy. I really honed my messy, smushy skills on Keith! I recently read an article on Mick in the Times, and the writer said that he was sitting with a bottle of Bobbi Brown toner!

A fan for life! Who do you think are some of the faces of today that will become iconic?

Emma Stone is really beautiful. I happen to think Jennifer Aniston is such a modern beauty. Not necessarily a classic beauty, but there’s really something about her. And Meryl Streep is amazing.

What’s the most rewarding part about your job?

So many things! I love everything creative, so there’s that, but for me it’s mostly about helping women feel good about themselves. The Bobbi Brown look—there’s definitely a look—is so much about being who you are. It’s different from other brands in that I don’t like to dictate what the trends are. Everything is just fresh and beautiful.

Does avoiding trends make it hard from a business perspective? Fashion and beauty is always pushing something new.

I’m not saying there’s nothing new, but the trends—whatever they are—must be fresh and beautiful for me.

Now, at your 20-year anniversary, are you where you thought you would be when you started your line? What's next?

I honestly never thought where I would be in 20 years. It’s an interesting time for me! I have two kids in college and a wonderfully growing business. I still feel like I have a new, young, entrepreneurial company that I own! Of course, none of that is true anymore, but that’s what I feel!

Tell me a little bit about your new blog.

It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. I’m a frustrated magazine editor-slash-art director. I’m into telling stories, sharing. I’m visual. And it’s a great way to put information out there—the truth! I’ve been an early digital media fanatic because I have teenagers. I was personally on Facebook when it was just the high school kids—my kids were appalled. And I wake up in the morning and check Twitter before I read the newspaper!

What was the initial idea behind the Pretty Powerful ad campaign?

It came to me one day in my studio when we were shooting Beauty Rules, our teenage book. We had girls ages 15 to 25, and I saw how beautiful they were without makeup—and when you put just a little something on their faces how incredible they look. I thought, we should do that with other women.

You’ve said that the fashion and beauty industries have created an “unrealistic and unachievable ideal of beauty.” How is what you’re doing different?

Especially now, I know, in Europe a lot of cosmetic ads are turned away for not being truthful, like when ads for mascara have false eyelashes. I think women are not stupid. The women in our ads are real women, first of all, and they’re so minimally—I don’t like the word retouched, but they’re just cleaned up a bit if there’s a giant blemish or a weird hair. I don’t like to change the picture. I think that, hopefully, women are going to realize that real things are important, and will stop shooting things in their faces to make them look like not real people!

What kind of woman inspires you the most?

Michelle Obama is so inspiring. She always has done what she thinks is right, whether it’s what she wears—J.Crew or Balenciaga!—her organic garden, the Let’s Move campaign. She does it because she believes it—and I believe it also!

I'm inspired by women who are strong, open, and powerful. I just saw the movie The Help, and it’s incredible. Those women are inspiring. You’re so uplifted and realize how powerful we all are as human beings, being able to change things. It’s not about the bag of the moment or how skinny you are; it’s about the things you do that make a difference.