Skip to Main Content

Color Stories

Behind the Scenes of America's Billion-Dollar Beauty Industry

About The Book

For everyone who's ever slicked on lipstick, flirted with eye shadow, or browsed the bewildering array in any store's beauty de-partment, Color Stories offers an insider's view of all the brainstorming, bickering, and bitchery that go into those little sticks of color and pans of powder.

Former beauty editor Mary Lisa Gavenas takes us behind the scenes during the nine months that culminate in the launch of a season's all-important "color stories." We discover how one shade becomes the "must have," why makeup artists never use the same products as the rest of us, and exactly how easy -- and impossible -- it is to start a million-dollar makeup line.

Backstage at the runway shows, we're swept into the catty, chaotic work world of makeup mogul Bobbi Brown and supermodel Gisele Bündchen. At Estée Lauder headquarters, we see the achingly chic Aerin Lauder Zinterhofer spin societal trends into a lipstick lineup. We watch magazines cheat to make makeup work for layouts, find out how Cindy Crawford got to be worth every penny of her $10 million contract, and make the pilgrimage to Dallas as 35,000 of the Mary Kay faithful assemble for the fabled annual Seminar. Along the way, we also learn about marketing, media, and the manipulation of aesthetics, about the codification of physical beauty, and how this industry revolutionized the role of women in business.

Through its often funny, sometimes poignant scenes of seduction, courtship, and consummation, Color Stories reveals why women become besotted by beauty products -- and why that love affair will never end.



What's in Store

Here in Bellevue, eight miles into Seattle's suburbs, the weather is chilly, drizzly, and gray. At the town's immense indoor mall, the big post-holiday clearances are over. Spring sales haven't started yet. Listless salespeople stand around, staring down almost empty aisles.

Except in beauty. Blue skies shine out of every picture in the cosmetics department. Hot, happy colors cover the counters. Every counter has a story and every story speaks of sunny days ahead. Customers are all over the place. And salespeople, "beauty advisors," are run off their feet: squirting perfume, doing makeovers, ringing up sale after sale.

Any destination, any route -- into the mall, out to the parking garage, up the escalator -- takes you right through cosmetics. Straight into a world where there's always something you can afford. Where one size fits all. Where nobody is stingy with samples and nobody nags if you hang around.

Here are thousands of things you can wear. Plus gimmicks like "Plastic Shine" to make your mouth glossy as a magazine cover. One counter's got compacts decorated with the angel of your birthday month -- who knew there was such a thing? Then there's all that other stuff they come up with, like chakra nail polish and bubble bath that smells like cinnamon buns. A woman would have to go almost every day to keep track.

Some do. "Anything new?" asks a woman who was here the day before yesterday. The beauty advisors greet her by name and tell her. "This is new!" a connoisseur announces approvingly as she twirls a sparkly wand that wasn't around last week. Others cruise the counters, on their way to somewhere else, wondering "What's new?," keeping tabs on gift-with-purchase deals, looking over the latest.

At Lancôme, three women watch the spring makeup video without understanding a word of its French. At Origins, a thirteen-year-old fidgets through her first makeover as a beauty advisor got up in a gardening apron plants Rhubarb on her lips, brushes Fringe Benefits on her lashes, and dusts Sunny Disposition across her cheeks. At Clinique, a beauty advisor with a Germanic accent, dressed in what looks like a lab coat, lectures on lipsticks with volatile silicones.

Later today, the store's having another one of its special events. A Bobbi Brown makeup artist, someone who works on big-name models on big-time runways, will be doing makeovers. For free. You don't have to buy a thing. And before that starts, a slew of video monitors will be showing Bobbi backstage at the shows.

Come to the beauty department. Hear what's new. Get out of the house for a while. Dab and sample and swipe the colors. Pour your heart out to someone who will pat soothing creams on your forehead and caress your cheek with pretty powders. Check out the videos. Find out why what's coming will be better than what's past. Change your life. Change your mood.

Even on the slowest day, there's something good going on in beauty.

They make it so easy. Beauty is at the entrance and exit of the store, where you find yourself all the time. They get you coming and going. No reservations needed. No appointment necessary. No obligation to buy.

Today, the store has only been open a few minutes when the first one comes to the counter.

"I need a new lipstick."

On her way to the mall this morning, she pulled her lipstick out of her purse and put it on in the rearview mirror, just like always. She swiped her same pink across the top half of her mouth, then the bottom. She rolled her lips together to get the color nice and even. Just like she does a half dozen times a day. Only this time, when she pushed the mirror back into place and backed out of the driveway, she suddenly felt blah, bored, tired of the same old routine.

So now, before she runs the rest of the day's errands, she finds herself standing at the Estée Lauder counter in Nordstrom. A nice woman is nodding sympathetically and saying, "I know exactly how you feel."

The nice woman leads her over to one of those seasonal collections that the beauty industry calls "color stories." The counter display has a catchy slogan, eye makeup and lipsticks with cute names, and a cardboard picture of the coming season that looks just about perfect. Beauty stories are always optimistic.

This one urges her to "Go Tropical." On the sign, a sultry spokesmodel smiles with the nonchalance of a woman who has never carpooled, shopped at a mall, or parked a minivan. Braless. Blithe. Bikini bottom showing her flat stomach and skinny thighs.

Below the picture of the model in her tropical paradise are about a half dozen pretty pink lipsticks, cute little pairs of eye shadows, two-ended pencils with a different color on each end, and a tube of -- my God, is that really turquoise? -- mascara. The woman picks up the mascara. She's never seen anything like it.

"I know," says the beauty advisor, flashing her conspiratorial, you-gotta-love-this-stuff grin. "Isn't it fun?"

While the beauty advisor runs through her spiel about "instant gratification" and "doing something for yourself," the woman slowly strokes a pencil across the back of her hand. She pokes at the eye shadows. She smudges and speculates. She picks up lipsticks and swipes them on her hand. She squints and stares at the swipes. Well, a new lipstick isn't going to break the bank.

She's buying it: the picture of the model in her bikini bottom, playtime at the counter, everything the beauty advisor is telling her about warm-weather trends. After contentedly covering her hand with pink and purple smears, she settles on Pareo, a pink lipstick that looks pretty much like the one she put on in the car this morning. It's not the same, though. It's what she didn't have before. It's what's in that picture of spring.

The beauty advisor rings up the sale and tosses in a sample of the latest skin lotion. The woman, now beaming, doesn't bother to put on her new Pareo. She's already running late. She grabs her little package and hurries into the main mall. She got what she came for.

Spring looks different. Warm and relaxed. Lush and a little luxurious.

She owns a piece of it already.

"This is a great story," declares Debbie Danekas, as she watches her first customer of the day hurry happily away.

Debbie loves a good color story. It gets women to her counter. When women wander up Debbie can start talking about the color story. "I try to ask as many questions as I can. What she wears, what is she looking for...if she has an idea, then we can help her achieve that."

Some women have very specific reasons for being in the beauty department, like getting ready for a new job or accessorizing an outfit or treating themselves. Some come for beauty therapy. "If I can make someone look good and they have problems," Debbie explains earnestly, "I can help take that away." If the transformation in her customers is sometimes more emotional than physical, that's okay too: "If you feel good, you feel good. And if you look good, you feel good."

Debbie, who's in her mid-forties, used to work in the resort industry, and her style of salesmanship falls somewhere between the compassion of a good priest and the competence of a good concierge. Her belief in her beloved beauty products is absolute. Thirteen Estée Lauder color cosmetics went on her own face this morning. A number, she is quick to remind you, that by no means reflects her entire routine since she also has to do body care and hair and fragrance. "And I do skin care before that."

Debbie doesn't have time to expound further, because another customer is steaming toward the counter. The last one was only wearing lipstick. This one is in full war paint. Purple lids. Fuchsia lips. Foundation. Mascara. Pencils. The works. This one doesn't have to be led to "Go Tropical." She makes a beeline for it.

"How are you today?" Debbie asks brightly.

Tapping the testers with an inch-long acrylic nail, this one gets straight to the point: "Pink. I'm in the mood for pink."

No matter what else is going on in the world, women head for the beauty department as if there's something there they can't find anywhere else. Whatever happens -- good or bad -- they keep coming. Celebrate or console, lipstick's always available. Lipstick always fits. It's always onward and upward in beauty.

By noon, they're overrunning the place. With the special event in full swing, the beauty department has become the epicenter of activity for the entire thirty-four-acre mall. Babies squall. Registers stutter out receipts. Sound ricochets off shiny-surfaced counters and floors while dozens of women try to make themselves heard.

"I can't lose ten pounds by tomorrow, so this will have to be it..."

"I wanna look like her..."

"I need a change..."

"I need eyes..."

"Transform me!"

Earlier this week, a newspaper ad invited customers to book a free makeover and get personal recommendations from a Bobbi Brown National Makeup Artist. During the next six hours, seventy-three of those respondents have to get their new faces. Wave after wave of walk-ins want new faces too.

Spillover stations are being improvised while names are taken. Just up the escalator from all this, Nordstrom's pianist scores the scene with one zingy show tune after another. Right now, he's up there in his tuxedo pounding out "My Funny Valentine."

Directly opposite the main makeover tables, a video monitor plays an endless loop of Bobbi Brown, the forty-something soccer mom from New Jersey whose own fascination with makeup made her a millionaire. Everyone here knows Bobbi's story.

As each customer arrives, she's checked in at a central counter and escorted to a station. Thus Sara, who's here because she's about to start a new job, is paired with the makeup artist who'll be working on her. Once the introduction is made, both switch to beauty-speak.

"I'm a true combination."

"Oily through the T-zone?"

"But because of my age, it needs hydrating..." and Sara makes a gesture of despair in the direction of her eyelids.

The two get down to work. As the makeup artist pats Eye Cream on Sara's lids, she says "Bobbi went to a woman dermatologist to develop this. Most are made by men and they just can't relate! They do not know!" Sad but true. Men just don't get it.

In view of about a hundred passersby, the makeup artist paints brown and yellow stripes down the side of Sara's face. While they wait to see which foundation will blend in best, Sara asks about makeup trends for next season.

"We're not really about that," the makeup artist says a little self-righteously. "Bobbi's philosophy is to make a woman look like herself -- only pretty."

Fifteen or twenty minutes go by like this. Finally -- after cleanser, eye makeup remover, moisturizer, eye cream, concealer, foundation, and a little powder -- Sara is ready for some real makeup. The visiting specialist is called over to inspect her.

Clipboard against one hip, legs planted against all the women jostling for a good view of makeovers or monitors, the makeup artist who's worked on runway models is about to work her magic on Sara here at the mall. In not much more than a minute, she's ticked off seventeen products on a take-home application chart, giving Sara stories slugged "daytime," "career," and "evening." Before sweeping on to the next customer, she leans in to confide: "If you're ever feeling low and you need a lift? Bronzer! It makes you feel alive."

The pianist, who couldn't have heard her, chooses this moment to play "The sun'll come out tomorrow" music from Annie.

Seven more products and twenty more minutes of ministrations later, Sara's quick-and-easy career story is complete. Now it's time to clinch the sale.

"Do you wanna get the eye cream we talked about?"

The answer is no.

No hard feelings, the makeup artist knows Sara will be back to buy eventually. She hands Sara a mirror, along with the best compliment she can think of: "Your skin is so pretty! It doesn't look like you're wearing any makeup at all!"

Sara beams, eager to try out her new face, her new story.

All around her, women sit at makeup stations with rabbity, unmadeup eyes and bare faces, eager to get their own.

Beauty aspires to be all things to all women and comes close to succeeding. By best estimates, beauty in America is a $29 billion business. Beauty departments are top earners for any store. Beauty licenses subsidize French couture and buoy the bottom lines of the American fashion houses lucky enough to land them. Beauty contracts carry the biggest paydays, offer the most publicity, and are therefore the most coveted prizes in the modeling industry. Beauty trends have replaced hemlines as the hot news from runways. Beauty advertising is a mainstay of women's magazines. Beauty editorial always rates among the most-read pages in those same magazines.

Beauty history abounds with role models. Madam C. J. Walker, Elizabeth Arden, Helena Rubinstein, Harriet Hubbard Ayer, Bobbi Brown. Immigrants, African American women, women who never finished high school, divorced single moms, happily married soccer moms. Long before most women went into business, the beauty industry was creating female millionaires. Long after women MBAs began butting their heads on glass ceilings, the beauty industry glorified female go-getters.

Beauty profits are steady. Perfumes and makeup alone -- categories that have no crossover with hygiene and no pretense of being necessities -- account for at least $12 billion annually. Just the kind of makeup being sold here in the mall, which the industry refers to as its "prestige" segment, runs at least $2 billion a year.

Best of all, it's a business that never sees a downturn or suffers a serious setback. Not during wars. Not during depressions. America's fascination with beauty seems never ending, its demand for beauty products insatiable. The beauty industry has mastered not only how to give its customers what but how to keep them happily clamoring for more. This year, beauty industry profits will go up. Next year, they'll go up again. They always do.

A story. That's what women get when they come to the beauty counter. A parable that takes strange, scary styles and explains them as something any woman can own and wear. A diversion, an amusement, a distraction from woes and worries. A fantasy, a fable, a romance with a role for them to play.

For all its billions in profits, for all the sophisticated distribution deals and international wheeling and dealing, beauty remains a business of storytelling, an industry where market forecasts and number crunching inevitably yield to adjectives and atmosphere. The most successful companies are the ones that spin the fantasies that the most women want to hear. At the highest corporate level, decisions are based on storyboards pasted together of old magazine pictures. And anyone with a good enough story can still make it big in the beauty business.

Each spring and each fall, in a time cycle loosely tied to fashion, the beauty industry invents fresh stories to keep women coming to its counters. Each season the same rituals are repeated: Products are dreamed up, sent to the factory, packaged, advertised, and then shown to the press.

Behind that seemingly straightforward progression are dozens more characters and subplots. Each aspect of the business comes with its own quirky history. And each begets still more subplots and suspense. Which launch will bomb? Which runway looks will wind up winning the most magazine pages? How will women want to see themselves? What will be the story of the season?

Toward dinnertime, two soccer moms rush in from the parking garage, hellbent on some errand or other. They're making for the mall entrance, until they spot "Go Tropical" on the beauty counter.

Whatever that errand was, it will have to wait. Sticking their fingers in the little pans of powders, smudging colors on the backs of their hands, swiping lipsticks and pencils, they say, "Do you believe this?" and "What will they think up next?" Noticing the tube of turquoise mascara, they wave its little wand and giggle. Maybe they're trying to imagine themselves ambling around a sunshine-soaked tropical paradise where houseboys run their errands. Maybe they're trying to imagine themselves ambling around Bellevue with turquoise lashes.

"Isn't it fun?" says Debbie, who saw them coming. The two of them listen to her talk about sexy looks and hot colors and the summer ahead. It's a good story. They want to hear more.

So Debbie elaborates. She talks about next season's fashion with as much certainty as if she'd strolled the catwalks of New York and Paris herself. She tells them everyone will be in capri pants come summer. The two women in anoraks and jeans smile.

Debbie interrupts herself every once in a while to demonstrate a different product. "It's instant gratification," Debbie tells them, sounding very down-to-earth, very just-between-us. "Buying this makes you feel good. You can't just always sit down and buy clothes..." To complete that thought she gestures toward the story on the counter, as the two soccer moms nod in vigorous agreement.

The way she tells it, spring sounds absolutely wonderful. The longer they listen, the happier the two women look. Better days ahead. They want to hear about the next season, the next story.

Back in New York, the beauty industry is busy getting it ready for them.

Copyright © 2002 by Mary Lisa Gavenas

About The Author

Photograph by Jas Gardner

Mary Lisa Gavenas, author of Color Stories: Behind the Scenes in America’s Billion-Dollar Beauty Industry, has worked as both a beauty editor and scholar of the beauty industry—especially as it relates to cultural history—and was recently named a Fellow at the Leon Levy Center for Biography. A former editor at Glamour, In Style, Mirabella, and a columnist at Elle, she was a member of the advisory board for The Dove Report: Challenging Beauty and has been cited as an expert source in media ranging from The New York Times to BBC-4. Visit her at the Gotham Center for New York City History:

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (September 14, 2007)
  • Length: 224 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781416577133

Browse Related Books

Resources and Downloads

High Resolution Images