'If women feel great without make-up... that's fine'
Her modern, natural-looking make-up revolutionised the industry. Twenty-five years on, Bobbi Brown tells Anne McElvoy about putting Donald Trump in his place - and what she thinks of Theresa May
Bobbi Brown bounces into the lift of Mayfair's Connaught hotel, her 'second home' in London. She loves it, she confides, "because I have a butler on call. At home, it's the other way round: I am the butler". A moment later, she's remembered that she hasn't done her required number of fitness steps, so leaps out and bounds, two at a time, up two flights of stairs, beating me to her suite.
Time with the first lady of transatlantic beauty is a bit like living in a sped-up film. She talks fast, and moves even faster - a dynamic, 5ft-nothing figure in Valentino sneakers with funky silver straps. Most things about Brown are a bit larger than life - as if charged by a super-efficient battery.
She's turned a brand she set up a quarter of a century ago at her New York kitchen table into one valued at an estimated £800m, with fans from the Middleton sisters (Kate and Pippa used her make-up on the royal wedding day and the Duchess still relies on her gel-pot eyeliner as her staple), to former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, and the latest Bobbi Brown 'face', model Bhumika Arora.
Twenty-five years on, she is flitting through London for a whirl of events celebrating her sought-after range of foundations and understated colours. She started the company, she recalls, "from my house with two investors, selling lipsticks stuck in envelopes and my husband running out to get them to the mail".
Did she foresee creating a brand that is said to account for 10% of Estée Lauder's sales - her parent company - since the mid-1990s? "I didn't even know what a brand was then!" But she had grandfather 'Cadillac Sam's' business gene. A Russian immigrant, he worked his way up to head one of the biggest car dealerships in Chicago. She also had her theatre make-up training at Emerson, a smart liberal arts college.
It is hard to remember now how much Bobbi Brown's make-up came as a blessed relief when she started out in an era of sticky lip glosses, spidery mascara and over-bright, unblendable eyeshadow. She wanted to "create simple products that could solve problems for women. I used to stare at rows of stuff and have no idea what to buy, because I felt I did not need 22 taupe eyeshadows".
This, I have to say, is a contradictory boast when you examine the serried rows of her trademark neutral shades in department stores from New York to Shanghai. The trick of her success story is that somehow, we do want another feather-light foundation and finely milled pinky brown eyeshadow set after all.
Today's beauty business circles an awkward paradox about feminism (she's told me she doesn't readily use the word, but prefers to talk about 'empowering women' and 'independence').
Brown is proud that her latest upbeat campaign entitled 'Be who you are' features four models and 40 civilian women side by side. But how does she respond to a young contemporary feminism that says women should not need to get their 'confidence' (another word she uses a lot) courtesy of foundation or eyeliner?
"Most women want to look their best. And if they feel great without make-up or just the tiniest smidge to achieve that, that's fine." She cites a friend, a political journalist in the US, "who turned up at a party with eyeliner on one eye only, because she got interrupted by a work call, so of course I offered to do the other eye or to take it all off, but then I realised that it simply didn't matter to her - and I think that's charming".
Unfailingly warm and polite, there's steel in those eyes behind the sexy secretary geometric specs. Even this trademark look has been turned into an opportunity. Liberty is now stocking a discreetly funky collection of glasses and sunnies she's developed with an Italian partner, with make-up lessons for specs-wearers to match. She pops her oblong black specs on my nose, stands back and muses: "For your skin tone, the same shape, but tortoiseshell. Mascara is hard behind specs, I confide - they magnify clumps and it can all look a bit pantomime. For you, one coat of mascara - but really black. I don't think you're wearing a strong enough black to get the emphasis. For me, two coats because eyes get smaller as you age" (she's a hard-to-guess 59).
I feel like Anne Hathaway in the style clutches of Stanley Tucci in The Devil Wears Prada, but her warmth offsets a natural command-and-control instinct. She says she frequently pulls aside one of more than 100 women who work for her. "I'll say: 'That foundation isn't right for you. What are you using?' It's usually because we don't trust ourselves to go for a yellow undertone, which is more warming for the skin than just a beige or pink." She founded the firm as the 1980s gave way to the more naturalistic 1990s. "I love Charlize Theron, but hers was not a practical look for someone dark-haired and small like me." That led her to create make-up for darker skins and emphasise diversity of appearance. What would her ideal appearance be now? She cracks back: "I'd love to be tall, young, skinny. But it's not gonna happen, so we're going to make the best of what we have."
We discuss the challenges of office make-up. It is easy to start the day thinking the natural look is great and end up looking wan under the fluorescent light - or go the other way, overdo it and look like an extra from Mad Men, done up for cocktail hour at the 10am meeting.
"Workplaces are more varied, which is great but means that people are often confused about what's appropriate in the culture of where you work."
This season, she has produced several nifty solutions: a smudge-proof mascara to avoid panda-eyes after a long day ("I thought of it while doing my make-up in the back of a car"); a re-touching corrector pencil to avoid faffing with a concealer tube, and a smoothing primer and moisturiser because: "I am always tired and want something that hides that from the world!" She invents constantly, grabbing ideas from all around her - a job that gets harder, she admits, now that the brand has imitators and many more competitors "so you need a laser-like focus".
Her bestselling eye-gel pot was the result of being stuck for eyeliner and using a make-up bud with the cotton wool torn off to apply mascara in a line around her lashes.
"It felt a bit like using a quill and ink. So, I asked the product team if we could make it with a tiny inkpot." She says she wants to take more catwalk tricks into daily life - so a new blusher comes with a tiny tube of sparkle.
For the runway, she uses a slick of Vaseline on the model's eyelids. "You can't do this for everyday because it goes smushy, but I've been working on something that will give the same translucent look but stay put."
She was annoyed by the focus on Hillary Clinton's looks during the presidential election: "She has the right to look good and care about the way she looks." How did she feel about the election campaign. "Let's just say, the whole thing was bizarre and I am going to leave it at that." She does, however, have kind words for the Donald Trump's wife, Melania. "I did her make-up when she was a model and she was very nice, very kind and sweet."
And Donald? "Well, he did intervene quite a bit and at one point, he suggested I do something else. So I handed him the brush and said, 'Do you want to take over?'"
Opinions, she adds drily, "are fine but I made clear I wasn't taking direction. I have said the same to Ralph Lauren and Julian Schnabel". She thinks that Trump "cares a lot about how he looks - but it's the women who get judged".
She has done make-up for Jill Biden, wife of out-going Vice-President Joe, and was a frequent guest at the Obama White House to promote charities empowering young women.
She tells a yarn about being in a car with Bruce Springsteen, when he took a call from Bob Dylan. It all sounds like a high-octane Democrat world. Usually voluble, she won't confirm the way she voted, though I think we can safely guess. "I could say A LOT," she sighs. "But let's keep it to - I'm liberal and outward looking."
A neat swerve follows: "Brexit wow - I mean, would you guys like to do-over, like just start the whole thing again?" Theresa May, on the other hand, impresses her. "I think she is very stylish, very simple, very cool and very modern."
That comes as a bit of a surprise, given the contrast in their styles - BB is all jeans and funky trainers. "I admire political leaders who are cool and confident in their style and she is. I'd love to meet her," she enthuses.
Earlier, at a celebratory breakfast for 25 years of Bobbidom, the beauty pack had turned out in all its spooky morning perfection.
It feels like the clan gathering around a matriarch. The perfumier Jo Malone, a close friend, toasts Brown with her coffee cup. Brown gives an off-the-cuff-riff about her life and work. "Balance? There's no such thing: or at least I've never found it." Domestic life? "Always listen to your husband or partner - you don't need to do what they say, just remember to nod a lot."
Occasionally, she shoots from the hip. Kardashian style contouring, she asserts, "is firmly out and, in my view, it should never have been much in because you can't make a face you don't have".
Any fears about modern women and beauty?
"I worry a bit about the impact of social media, though I use it a lot. But there is a lot of not-nice out there, so my rule is, if someone sends a mean message, cut them straight out." A friend, she says, complained that looking at Brown's swish Insta pics made her feel inadequate as a stay-at-homer. "And I said to her: 'What my feed is not showing you, is that I'm permanently exhausted and there are days I envy you for being with your family or going out to play a game of tennis.' Social media is not the whole story of our lives."
Her husband, Steven Plofker, a property developer who helped build her home-office base in New Jersey, is on his way to London and she's soliciting travel tips. "We are going to have two full-on romantic days." They're heading to Gymkhana, the Indian restaurant for dinner and will maybe see some contemporary art.
"And then I am going to Boots." Really? The women with the make-up world at her feet rifles through No7 creams and verruca cures? "I'm completely obsessed by the things you can get there to fix all sorts of things, things we don't get in the States." Does she ever stop working? "At 7pm precisely, I am having a tequila on the rocks, so I think we can say yes to that."