'If you don't shout about what you've done you're not going to get a promotion... there's no medal for being quiet'
She’s the beauty entrepreneur who faced down Lord Sugar in the boardroom every week and just missed out on a place in next week’s final. Pamela Laird, whose dad is originally from Co Down, tells Sarah Caden about her journey from her mum’s salon to national TV
I say we, it's really just me," says Pamela Laird with a laugh. "But I think it sounds better to say we." Admittedly, she has been using the first-person plural a lot, and I was wondering who exactly she was talking about. Her beauty business, Moxi Loves, is self-started, and her starring role on this year's The Apprentice is a one-woman gig.
The Dublin-born beauty entrepreneur has had a degree of profile in Ireland for years, appearing on Xpose and other TV shows, as well as featuring on Dragon's Den, where she turned down three Dragon offers. Now, however, on the strength of her soignee, cool-headed turn on The Apprentice, she's getting recognised on the street in the UK.
This is a young woman blazing her own trail, without the constraints of any 'we'.
This week Pamela appeared on the show as one of the final five battling for Lord Sugar's investment in their business. Sadly she narrowly missed out when the final five contestants were whittled down to just two, but evidently her stint on the show has proved an invaluable experience. Afterwards, with typical grace, Pamela admitted she was "disappointed" not to make it through, but added that Lord Sugar had made the right choice in choosing Scarlett Allen-Horton and Carina Lepore. "It was a hard choice, I'm sure, as we all have established businesses that are in profit. But it came down to what Lord Sugar wants to align himself with," she said.
Of course, you don't get to the semi-final with Lord Sugar by showing any weakness, and Pamela Laird had passed all challenges with flying colours.
Okay, there was a bit of hot water over alleged sexism on her part at one stage, when, during a challenge, she refused to put a male competitor in charge of the subteam, saying: "I need a girl to be in charge of you all."
Twitter went predictably insane, but once Pamela got over the shock of that, she realised it was no harm and was quickly old news. Also, as she has learned in recent years, through business disasters and personal challenges, sometimes you have to roll with the punches and just keep going.
This time last year, it looked like her beauty business, Moxi Loves, might be fatally in trouble, and when she was considering going for The Apprentice, she had concerns about leaving home while her mother and father cope with his illness. But as businesspeople themselves, Pamela's parents, Yvonne and Sylvester, were the ones pushing her to go and give it a try.
They always told her she could do anything she wanted, says Pamela, who was doing nails when she was just a kid, and had a job in Brown Thomas by the age of 16. Her parents always told her, no matter what, to keep going and everything will be fine. They, perhaps, are the 'we' of which Pamela speaks and, certainly, are the people to whom she gives most credit for her success to date.
Why did she decide to audition for The Apprentice? "It's funny," says Pamela. "I hadn't watched The Apprentice before this year. But my friend was watching it last year and she said, 'Pam, you have to go for it'. I thought he still hired you for a job, and I had no idea it was an investment opportunity."
And, having suffered a bruising 2018, when she had to ditch two of her four Moxi Loves products, Pamela needed not just investment, but the support of someone who believed in her. Lord Sugar might take 50% of the winner's business, she says with a laugh, but that also means he has 50% interest in the business working. It sounded like the opportunity was made for her, if she could get it.
It wasn't Pamela's first time looking for investment on TV, of course. In 2017, not long after she first started Moxi Loves, with the novel Eye Catcher eye-make-up-remover buds, Pamela appeared on the Irish Dragon's Den. Three Dragons were interested in her and she accepted their joint interest, but the post-show talks never came to anything, partly because Pamela took investment from her distributor, instead. Clearly, however, the experience didn't put Pamela off the idea of television.
The Irish Dragon's Den was nothing compared to the challenges she met with The Apprentice, though, even at audition stage.
"The auditions were extremely tough because it wasn't just based on your business idea," Pamela explains. "Which is sort of where I stand, and how I present myself. It was more about who you are as a person, how you work in a team, and being an only child, and working alone as an entrepreneur for so long, I actually had no idea how I was as a person, or a person who worked in a team."
It was challenging, Pamela says, but by the time the call came to say she'd got a place on the show, she knew she really wanted it.
Pamela grew up in Dublin's Terenure, just down the road from her mother's business, The Beauty Parlour. She also pretty much grew up in the salon, which was a bit more exciting and glamorous - and less freezing - than her father's garage, off Camden Street.
She loved the salon, and was sweeping up and building displays and decorating the Christmas windows from a young age. And, also from a young age, Pamela decided she was mad about nails, before nails were the big business they are now.
"I suppose my mum is very glam," she says. "Like, she wears high-heeled slippers. She can't even wear flat shoes any more. I think maybe I got that from her.
"I also loved the creativity," says Pamela. "It was what I was into as a kid, far more than the academics. I hated school. I liked primary school, but when it got to secondary school and it got a bit more serious, I found it difficult to latch on to anything. Maths and even business studies, I found it really difficult to apply, in my mind, to anything real. I was like, 'I see my mum's business and she's doing none of this'."
Pamela says she would have left school early, but her parents made her stay.
Her parents' faith in her was unshakeable, she says. "Even when the school was right, they said I was right," Pamela recalls, with affection.
Pamela grew up as an only child, but her father, who moved to Dublin from Killough in Co Down in his early 20s, had a previous family of eight children. He had been widowed when he married Pamela's mother, and his first family are much older than Pamela. Some of her half-siblings have children who are older than her, she explains. In fact, some of her half-siblings' children have children.
"I was a gran-aunt in my teens," Pamela says with a laugh.
Also in her teens, Pamela was travelling to England to do nail-technician courses, with her mum Yvonne chaperoning as her hand model. Once she left school, Pamela set up a Leighton Denny nail concession in the House of Fraser store in Dundrum town centre.
This meant that while all her friends were in college, Pamela was already working, already a boss. From time to time, she admits, she wonders if she missed out. Not the social life, or the carefree years, but sometimes she notices that her competitors, with degrees under their belts, have skill-sets or even just the lingo that she never picked up.
"I've always been the one that works," she says. "My friends all went to college, so in a way, we've had different lives. They were students when I was earning money and having nice holidays, but now they all have jobs and houses, and I'm still living at home, striving away at my business. It's just different lives."
"But I never really felt as carefree as they did, anyway," Pamela says. "Because mum and dad both worked,
I never just hung around at home. I could never do nothing. When I was 16, I was working in Brown Thomas. A lot of my friends went through four years of college and didn't work a day, but that would never have been me, because I like to work."
The nail bar lasted about four years, but Pamela knew long before that it was not for her. She wanted to be coming up with ideas and creating things; running a nail bar, she says, is more about paperwork and staff rotas and managing people. The nail bar wound down, and she took a job with Dylan Bradshaw as he set up a salon in Dublin Airport. The work was enjoyable, though the hours were long, but the upside of that experience was that she met Jay, now her boyfriend of nine years, who then also worked in the airport and is now a risk executive for Paddy Power.
Pamela realised that she wanted to set up something creative on her own, and left the airport job to give herself breathing room to make that happen. She went to work at her mother's salon, where she became massively in demand for nails, with clients, and on glossy photoshoots. She also got into doing false eyelashes, again spotting a burgeoning trend that is now huge business.
"Short and full," is Pamela's lash speciality, she says, and she's very fast. The lashes gave Pamela a great crash course in sourcing product, which possibly led her to setting up Moxi Loves. She gives me a detailed breakdown of how she sourced a certain glue at a certain price, how it was better and better value than what her competitors were using. Then she imported "the best" Korean lashes, and she learned a lot, Pamela says.
She never worked such long hours in her life as she did in that period, honing her skills, divining what stylists and clients and celebrities were looking for, and also building her personal brand through TV appearances and events. "I decided I wanted professional products for the masses and to make them affordable and available in places that people can easily pick them up. I thought I could do a nice brand of convenient, clever products," Pamela says.
In 2017, her first product went on the shelves, a 'cleansing bud' called Moxi Loves Eye Catcher. It looked like a cotton bud, but the plastic stem contained eye make-up remover, which was released by clicking the stem. It was excellent for tidying up make-up mistakes, and was beloved by make-up artists and regular make-up users alike.
"When Christine Lucignano (celeb make-up artist) said she loved them," Pamela says, "I knew I was on the right road. They worked and they were all hygienically individually wrapped, so they didn't get dirty in your make-up bag. At the time, my focus was all about usability and solving the packaging problem, but, flipping that over, they were encased single-use plastic in more single-use plastic, yeah, all delivered in a plastic bag."
"Yeah," adds Pamela with a sigh. "Hindsight."
Her product range grew once Pamela had appeared on Dragon's Den and had opted to take investment from her distributor instead of the Dragons. It wasn't a dream business marriage, she says, but it had allowed her to launch Tan Aid, a cloth that fixed self-tan disasters, and Power Pod Cleanser and Bare Faced, both of which are novel, travel-friendly, single-use cleansing solutions.
Things were going in the right direction. Moxi Loves was expanding, Pamela had lots of ideas for new products, and it all seemed to be positive. The hard work was paying off.
Then, last year, the EU began to make moves against single-use plastic, which culminated in a law to ban certain products, which comes into effect in 2021.
"First," says Pamela, "we got word of the ban coming in and at that the same time, consumer perception flipped. It happened so fast," says Pamela. "One minute, Eye Catcher was the most amazing invention the world, and the next day it was the devil in plastic. And that was really interesting to see, and I wasn't expecting that. So even though we officially had years to phase it out, we actually needed to do it yesterday."
Pamela goes on to explain that while single-use plastic like a cotton-bud product will be banned from next year, the small print at the end of the EU directives noted that wipes will be looked at again in 2025. "I thought, 'Okay, I'm in trouble'," Pamela says. She could either hang on to Tan Aid for a couple of years, or else just get rid of it at the same time as Eye Catcher. She decided to make the hard decision and discontinue them both.
It was crushing, Pamela says. She worried that customers would think that Moxi Loves was gone altogether, and she was worried that, maybe, it was. Also around the same time, towards the end of 2018, she decided to part with her distributor-investor.
"I felt embarrassed and so disappointed," Pamela says. "And you know at the time, as well, everyone assumes that it's going well and you're rolling in money. But really, it's like, 'I've lost this stability in my investor and now I have no product'. I'm on my own again, and it seems like you've gone backwards. Technically, we totally started again."
The 'we' she says at this point, is just her. And, you could say, part of the show going on was Pamela deciding to go on the show that is The Apprentice. She needs an investor, and the business could do with the cash injection that Lord Sugar offers only one of each year's 16 hopefuls, but Pamela also felt hungry for the kind of high-stakes, international-audience exposure that comes with The Apprentice.
It was a difficult decision to go for it, Pamela says, not least for the fear of failure. Also, she was potentially going to the UK for more than two months, if she got to the end of The Apprentice process, this meant leaving home and leaving her mother at home with her father, who is now suffering from vascular dementia. It was hard, too, with the limited opportunities available to phone home during filming. The fact that she couldn't tell anyone anything about what was happening on the show only made it worse. Her mother took care of Moxi Loves while she was gone, at a crucial time when her new product - a neat pack of on-the-go dry-shampoo sheets - was about to launch.
The experience of The Apprentice has been fantastic, however. Pamela says it has really brought her out of herself and made her much better able to stand up and speak up. A calm gutsiness, you could say, has brought her almost to the final, and possibly beyond.
It has been a "very glam" year on The Apprentice, Pamela says, but she felt very well able for that. She was the one up out of bed 20 minutes before it was officially allowed, often in the small hours of the morning, just to get a bit of a grooming edge for the challenges. Dunnes Stores dressed her from beginning to end, she says.
The more mouthy and showy contenders were another matter, however, though Pamela learnt a lot from having to both compete and co-operate with them.
"I don't know if it's being Irish, but I found it harder to shout about my accomplishments," she says.
"On The Apprentice, you learn to say, 'Well, actually, I did this and I did it well.' Because otherwise, you'll get overshadowed. It's like working in an office or a big firm. If you don't shout about what you've done, you're not going to get a promotion. I'm not going to go, 'I'm amazing', but, at the end, there's no medal for being quiet."
In person, it's hard to imagine Pamela Laird being quiet or nervous or putting up with second best or doing anything other than striving onwards and upwards in building her business to the best.
"Lord Sugar really wants to hear from you," she says of her interaction with the decision-making peer.
She has loved the experience and while her run on The Ap prentice is now at an end, somehow one just knows that Pamela Laird's show will go on.
She has that bred into her, no matter what.
The Apprentice final is on Wednesday at 9pm, BBC One
She's the beauty entrepreneur who faced down Lord Sugar in the boardroom every week and just missed out on a place in next week's final. Pamela Laird, whose dad is originally from Co Down, tells Sarah Caden about her journey from her mum's salon to national TV