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She’s often confused for a certain member of New Edition, but “Every Little Step” Bobbi Brown takes, she proves she’s a singular talent who shouldn’t be mistaken for anyone.
Of course, the makeup maven and my “Renaissance Man” guest takes this association in stride and with a good sense of humor.
“I got to meet Bobby Brown years ago when I was hired to do Whitney [Houston’s] makeup,” she told me. “He just said to me, ‘Nice name.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, you too.’ And that was the only connection with him. That was a long time ago.”
But one time in Chicago, her shared name almost made her miss an appearance on “Oprah.” She was waiting outside of the Four Seasons Hotel for the car to pick her up.
“And I kept calling. ‘They’re not here. They’re not here.’ And I would go over to the limousines and they look at me and, like, shoo me away,” she said. “And finally I called someone back in my office and they said, ‘[The driver is] there.’ Some guy was looking for the other Bobby Brown.”
Funnily enough, her father is named James Brown, so they have some serious musical names in the family. Which led me to ask: How did this 5-foot-0 Chicago native discover the passion that would make her a household name?
“If you ask me about my high school years, I don’t remember a ton. It was the ’70s. It was fun. I was not a student. I actually felt that I wasn’t smart enough,” she said. “I was bored to death and I didn’t get the greatest grades, except when it was art or an amazing teacher or something that I thought was interesting. And my parents really thought that I would probably just get married and not really do anything. So I think I’ve proven them differently.”
That’s putting it mildly. Bobbi is an absolute rock star businesswoman and innovator in the cosmetics field. In 1991, she started her eponymous line, which championed the “natural makeup” look. Estée Lauder bought the company, and about five years ago, she left to scratch that entrepreneurial itch. Bobbi started Evolution 18, a wellness and supplement brand. She and her husband bought and redesigned the George, a beautiful boutique hotel near their longtime home in Montclair, NJ. And she launched Jones Road, a clean makeup brand that includes the new cult favorite Miracle Balm. In other words, Bobbi is always causing seismic activity in the beauty and wellness space.
That’s not too shabby for someone who said she was sort of clueless about what she wanted out of a career. Her mother sat her down and said she needed to go to college and asked her: If she could do anything in the world, what would it be?
“And I said, ‘I want to play with makeup at Marshall Field’s.’ She said, ‘Well, I’m sure there’s a college.’ I found Emerson College in Boston. I went there and I studied theatrical makeup and minored in photography, not knowing what I was going to do,” she said. “And somehow it worked out incredible.”
She moved to New York to be a makeup artist, and being around the top models molded her identity.
“I was just the short, cute kid. And what do I do? I go into the fashion industry, where everyone’s got one name: Linda, Christy, Naomi. I’m at Fashion Weeks and on Vogue sets. I started to build a career for myself,” she said. “And I really had to talk myself into what mattered. Being comfortable in my skin is what mattered, because I couldn’t compare myself to them.”
You probably won’t find one of her most crucial keys to success in an MBA textbook, but it makes sense.
“I think one of the things that has helped my success is I’m really naive,” she said. “I don’t think something’s not going to work out. I’m not afraid.”
For instance, she once pitched Howard Schultz on a coffee-colored makeup palette to be sold at Starbucks. His response?
“He thought it was the dumbest idea he ever heard,” Bobbi said. “He didn’t want it. It was OK. I still put it out in the market and sold it. So I’m not afraid to try things. And things don’t work out. I feel bad for a second, and I just process it and let it go.”
One thing she hasn’t let go of is her love of sports, particularly hoops. The mother of three boys grew up a massive Bulls fan and had courtside seats for the Nets. She said she’s only been star-struck twice: by Michael Jordan and George Clooney. Otherwise, she’s the queen of introducing herself to anyone and everyone. That includes 7-foot-6 basketball player Yao Ming.
“I’m not sure he even heard me,” she said. But there is photographic evidence of this meeting.
She also has her name up in the Emerson gym.
“An urban myth is Bobbi Brown played basketball at Emerson, which is really funny,” she said. “The kids don’t know who I am, but they think I was a basketball player.”
Well, I am a basketball player. And I am on television, so I wear makeup. Of course, I don’t use it for my features to pop. I wear it to smooth over imperfections and look good. And I learned that’s what Bobbi does for women with her no-makeup-looking makeup. She said her hashtag is “how not to look like s–t,” which I can definitely get behind. She also was one of the first to create foundation for women of all skin colors.
“I could go from Oprah to Deborah Roberts,” Bobbi said. “They all wore these foundations. And Oprah said to me on the show, ‘How does a little Jewish girl know how to make colors for our skin?’”
I still need to check her birth certificate, but she claims to be 64. She said what she puts in her body — instead of what she puts on her face — makes her look youthful. Bobbi still indulges in alcohol, but she has only one cocktail. Her drink of choice? Tito’s with cucumber and lemon.
I also had to know what trends she hopes will go away. And apologies to every Kardashian and Instagram model, but she said contouring.
“Because that’s telling people there’s something wrong with their face,” she said.
But the best thing Bobbi told me is that she’s a big fan of my podcast. And, well, I have to say it: After this episode, the feeling is absolutely mutual.
Detroit native Jalen Rose is a member of the University of Michigan’s iconoclastic Fab Five, who shook up the college hoops world in the early ’90s. He played 13 seasons in the NBA, before transitioning into a media personality. Rose is currently an analyst for “NBA Countdown” and “Get Up,” and co-host of “Jalen & Jacoby.” He executive produced “The Fab Five” for ESPN’s “30 for 30” series, is the author of the best-selling book, “Got To Give the People What They Want,” a fashion tastemaker, and co-founded the Jalen Rose Leadership Academy, a public charter school in his hometown.
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