On a strangely warm morning in late winter, cosmetics tycoon Bobbi Brown is in her new headquarters in Montclair, New Jersey: a former auto body shop left with pipes exposed and concrete floor unfinished. On a bookshelf is a case that used to belong to Frank Sinatra’s make-up man; a sign reading, I’m Not Bossy, I’m the Boss; and a photo of Brown dancing onstage with rap star Flo Rida, “with my 14-year-old son watching in amazement or horror,” she says. “Please don’t find it on YouTube.”
Against one wall is an inspiration board with pictures of the many, many fashion models whose faces Brown has daubed. “I’m a crazy visual person; words are hard for me,” she says. “I can’t make a business plan, but I could visually explain what I want to do, which is good if you can read my brain and in order to work with me you kind of have to. Right?”
Titters from several staff members who are hanging around.
After more than two decades turning her famously simple make-up line, Bobbi Brown Essentials, into a billion-dollar global brand with Estée Lauder, Brown, 60, is back on her own and ready to roll out her next act. Like Oprah, Gwyneth and Martha before her, she is starting a lifestyle brand, Beauty Evolution, with an accompanying editorial website, justbobbi.com.
Tomorrow, she will start selling products on QVC, such as a 60-calorie vanilla collagen “cocktail” and a chocolate drink fortified with protein, fibre and coconut oil. “The idea is that when you’re in a slump, instead of grabbing a coffee you have this,” she says. “It fills you up, keeps your brain going, and you won’t eat the bread basket when you go to dinner.”
What does she have against bread?
“I love bread more than I love my children,” Brown says. She has three grown sons – Dylan, Dakota and Duke – with her husband, Steven Plofker, a real estate developer with many projects in the area. Like Oprah, she shares a bread fantasy: “I would have crusty bread with steak tartare. Pizza. I think I would rather have bread than pasta. I like crunch.” And on it she would put?
“Butterrrr!” she says lasciviously, to shrieks of laughter from her colleagues. “I mean, why mess around with cheese?”
The couple’s newest baby is the George Inn, a 32-room boutique hotel, with rooms starting at around $200 per night and a library and lobby filled with pictures of famous Georges and Georgias: O’Keeffe, Hamilton, Harrison, George Herman Ruth Jr (aka Babe Ruth), Washington, Jefferson from the TV programme, Costanza (the two presidents Bush have not yet found their spots). It is the latest addition to a portfolio that has included retail, office and sports complexes, along with her namesake glasses line and nine books.
Back at headquarters, Brown’s phone beeps the opening bars of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” She takes the call, looking like a teenager in a white Brandy Melville T-shirt and black jumper, legs curled up under her in jeans with prefabricated holes.
On another board nearby are some of Brown’s favourite mantras, which she has had put on pencils, such as Be Who You Are – “Everyone else is taken, you know,” she says, once off the phone – and Focus On What You Do Like and Simple Is The New Black and Be Nice.
“Duh. Hello?” Brown says. “Like, you don’t like something? Be nice.”
If this all seems terribly basic, consider how she amassed her fortune.
Brown first moved to New York in 1980, the child of an amicable divorce in suburban Chicago (down the block, at one point, from Hugh Hefner and his ex-wife) who got a degree in theatrical make-up from Emerson College after years of struggling with schoolwork. She lived with her boyfriend from high school, a photographer, in a one-bedroom apartment on West Fourth Street that cost $500 a month, maxing out credit cards and making cold calls to agencies and bookers.
Brown got a break when an agent called to ask if she was available the next day to work with photographer Bruce Weber. “I was a wreck,” she says. “I must have tried on 15 outfits because I wanted to just have the perfect cool when I walked in.”
She and Weber were a good match. “He didn’t want any make-up!” she says. “He wanted not to see anything.” Asked if she witnessed any bad behaviour from Weber, who has been accused of sexual misconduct, Brown says, “Honestly, I grew up in the fashion industry, with photographers and assistants and male models and you know, the ‘80s, everything just seemed like a big party. Which I really wasn’t a participant in because I either had a boyfriend or a husband.”
She was introduced to Plofker in 1988 by a friend over dinner at Raoul’s, a restaurant in SoHo. “All I can say is, ‘Boom,’” Brown says. They talked nonstop, she remembers, then put the friend in a cab, then “talked for an hour outside my building.”
The next day, Brown was happy to find out that her new swain had a master’s degree from Harvard and was, like her, Jewish. “Then I realised his last name was Plofker,” she says. “But I married him anyway.”
After the newlyweds moved to Montclair and began raising a family, Brown started to tire of the fashion industry’s constant travel. She had fantasised about creating her own line. “My philosophy was women don’t need a lot of make-up, they just need a few things,” she says. “Clearly that’s not what happened to the billion-dollar brand.”
Its origin story is now part of corporate lore: the chemist she met during a Mademoiselle shoot at Kiehl’s, the 10 subtly coloured lipsticks (including one named, conveniently enough, Brown) that sold 100 units their first day at Bergdorf Goodman in 1991.
Four years later, Leonard Lauder courted Brown and her business partner, Rosalind Landis, over grilled chicken, steamed vegetables, brown rice and wine on the terrace of his Fifth Avenue penthouse. “It was an out-of-body experience, to see Picassos and Dubuffets and everything there,” Brown says. As the sounds of the New York Philharmonic playing in Central Park wafted toward the sky, Lauder told her she reminded him of his mother, Estée.
“‘You’re beating us in all the stores, and I want to buy you,’” she recalls him saying. “‘What if I told you could do exactly what you love to do and want, and I would give you complete autonomy?’
“I didn’t even know what autonomy was,” Brown says.
She adds that her company’s reported selling price of around $75 million was inaccurate, but she doesn’t remember the precise amount. “Oh, it was a lot,” she says. “Yeah, I never had to work again.”
By 2010, Bobbi Brown Cosmetics was available in more than 980 stores and 56 countries. By 2012, there were over 60 free-standing Bobbi Brown Cosmetics stores worldwide. But in her last five years at the brand, Brown says she experienced more “aggravation,” like when she started a “JustBobbi” Instagram account. “I would always get in trouble,” she says. “Someone from corporate would always call down, you know, ‘What did Bobbi post?’ and I was like, ‘Guys, I’m a person.’”
Eventually such strictures began to chafe. “Look, anyone that leaves any kind of company will tell you how tough it was – that’s why you’re not there anymore,” Brown says. “I’m a good girl. I don’t live my life trying to p*** people off, but honestly sometimes I can’t help it.”
After leaving her namesake company behind in 2016, Brown cycled through relief, anger and sadness. “I thought I was going to spend weeks and days in bed,” she says. “I didn’t. I moped around for a couple days and drank tequila with my best friends.”
In the Bahamas with Plofker for his 60th birthday, she met a chef who said, “I can’t wait to see what you do next.” “I don’t know,” Brown said.
“Dude, you got this!” the chef said admiringly.
“And that’s why I’ve got posters and pencils and hats that say, ‘I got this,’” Brown says. “It just kind of clicked.”
At the Obamas’ last state dinner, she and Plofker were in line when former President Barack Obama got her attention. “And I run over and I say, ‘Hey!’ And I say, ‘Oh my God, your skin looks so good! Can I touch it?’” He said yes. “He had quit smoking, I think, at the time. And he’s like, ‘Michelle! B. Brown just told me my skin look good!’ And Michelle goes, ‘Steven!’ So we had a moment.”
She hesitates to call Obama her friend. “But when I would walk into the White House, the president of the United States would say, ‘Hey B squared, how you doing? Nice kicks,’” Brown says. Obama eventually appointed her to serve on the US Trade Commission.
“Even when that happens in my life, my husband says, ‘That’s really dumb, you hate going to meetings,’” she says. “And I said, ‘I know but it’s so cool.’
“I mean, look, I haven’t met the queen,” Brown says. “But I did get a private tour of Buckingham Palace because I had breakfast with her granddaughter Eugenie. I started asking her questions: ‘Eugenie, so your grandma’s the queen?’ Because Eugenie’s this nice sweet girl, Fergie and Andy’s daughter. I’ve had breakfast with Kate Middleton – not Kate, Pippa! Wrong Middleton. But Kate wore Bobbi make-up on her wedding. So all those moments are close though I haven’t met the queen. Yet.”
© NYT 2018