“My parents are from Queens, but I grew up in Sweden. Then I moved to London. I was sixteen, seventeen years old, and there was that kind of new-romantic pop thing happening there. I had black hair and wore red lips, black eyeliner, and I had this sort of faux-hawk too. In early eighties London, it was very, like, you were a punk, or you were a skinhead, or you were something—everybody sort of had much more of a sense of fashion than anywhere else, I would think. Except maybe in New York. Somewhere along the way my best friend went to makeup school, so I decided to go to makeup school. I didn’t actually know that it was something you could do. You know what I mean? I was like, ‘Is that a job? Cool! That sounds good.’ Actually, believe it or not, I went to mime school first. I wanted to join the circus. I studied with Marcel Marceau’s teacher in Paris. But I always sort of knew that I wasn’t going to have a normal job, ever. I think that it was like, ‘Oh, well if I do makeup, I can always have a job.’
I was into makeup—we would buy the Biba makeup; you know, Biba makeup was around back then. You have to look it up. Mary Quant and Biba were big. But I didn’t really think about what I was doing…I didn’t grow up with this sense of, ‘You have to know what you’re going to do and you have to do XYZ to get there.’ It just wasn’t what it was like growing up in Europe. Here [in America], it’s much more goal-oriented than it was there. It was more like, ‘What are you doing right now?’ Makeup school was kind of like my ‘right now,’ if that makes any sense. The thing that was cool was that the teachers were real working makeup artists. So you’d come in and be like, ‘Oh, where’s blah blah today?’ And they’d be like, ‘Oh, she’s doing a video,’ or, ‘She’s doing a shoot.’ It was called Complexions London School of Makeup [said in a British accent, laughs]. I know. But it was cute! I don’t know if there’s anything like that today; it doesn’t seem like it. Is there? I always rag on people that they should start a makeup school—someone should start a decent makeup school! It was a six-month thing, makeup school. I was awful…I was terrible, I was so busy going out at night. I was all about living it up. You know what I mean? That was my time. No, I was not a good student. I don’t think they would’ve bet on me as ‘most likely to succeed’ in the yearbook. [Laughs] Class rebel—always.
I moved to Paris after that and did the mime thing. Nobody was telling me to pick a career. That was the time—hang out, do your thing, look at stuff. So I lived in Paris for two years and learned to speak French, and had lots of boyfriends, and went to Les Bain Douches every night. I just ran around, didn’t really work—I mean, worked here and there. Then I came back to the states, and I wanted to get into doing makeup. So first I worked at a Chanel counter—I was the part-timer—and I got fired. I got fired because I refused to wear pantyhose. I was like, ‘Look. I’m doing great, I can do my job, I’m not wearing pantyhose. Sorry,’ you know what I mean? It was the department store manager who had it in for me. [Laughs] My friend Dave from the Shiseido counter used to call me and pretend to be this character he made up—this lady from customer service, and he’d go, ‘I can see you’re not behind the counter again. I’m going to send somebody down from maintenance to take an ankle measurement and get your ankle shackled with a chain.’ We were so bad!
And then I moved to LA, and started doing makeup on jobs. I had a friend who produced videos; she was David Finch’s producer I think. Anyway, she gave me my first job. It was the video for that movie Hairspray—John Waters’ original one. And then I was the makeup assistant on Drugstore Cowboy. But basically, I started on doing videos and stuff—music people, mainly. I did REM, Wilson Phillips, Mötley Crüe, Ten Thousand Maniacs—guys, girls. I even did Mariah Carey’s first performance somewhere. You know, like really random—Pebbles, you remember Pebbles? I did a lot of like, New Edition, Ice-T, rapper dudes. It was hysterical. It was always like, you do one job, and you meet one new person. People always think, ‘If I could only get an agent,’ and it’s like, an agent can only do so much for you. It’s really up to you. I think that the first time is luck, the second time is you. You know, you get lucky and are asked to do a job—somebody drops out, somebody is sick, somebody isn’t available, they’re in the right mood to try somebody new, whatever. But ultimately, you have to show up and blow it out, you know? I do what is expected, and then some. Sometimes jobs would be really bad. Like, people are creepers. But that’s a different kind of challenge in and of itself, don’t you think? To make it through the day, and not freak out, or get bummed, or whatever you’re trying to avoid. Because you’re dealing with so many opinions, and so many different people, you know? I think because I lived on my own—I dropped out of high school—that I really had to have it together, social skills-wise. I always got fired. Like, if I had a regular job, I’d get fired. For sure. Hands down. Kicked out of school, or fired. That’s how it went. I was asked not to come back, so I guess that qualifies as kicked out, right? When I was eighteen, my dad was visiting me in New York and he said to me, ‘Honey, see that guy over there, with the hot dog stand? There’s nobody standing there, telling him to spread the mustard this way, or that’s how much relish to use. You need to get your own hot dog stand.’ I think that I’m lucky that my dad knew that I just couldn’t function like that—that I was never going to be able to work in a traditional job. I’m lucky though, because most parents would be like, ‘What the hell, you can’t even keep a job?’ So I would say that I’m very lucky that he just knew who I was, and didn’t have a problem with it.
So I’m living in LA and working. Doing whatever, happy. And then I had a friend, Allison, who was opening a clothing boutique. She wanted to have a makeup line in there, so she called me—she was like, ‘I’m opening this boutique and I have this makeup thing there—I bought this really great French antique mirror, and I want to have a makeup counter in front of it!’ So she wanted a makeup line to go with the mirror, isn’t that genius? It was called Mon Affection. I like to call that store Mon Affliction; she ended up closing it. So I go over to Allison’s and I’m looking at the makeup she’s doing. It’s all private label—you know, you buy it pre-fab and you just put your name on it. So I was like, ‘Okay, well. I’ll do it, but I don’t want to just slap my name on something. I’ll do it if I can do it from scratch.’ We kind of just made up the name, ‘Stila.’ It sounds sort of like stil in Swedish, which means style. My friend made the logo. Then I started doing all this research to find factories that would work with us on the smaller side, which is hard because the vats are so big that they can’t make less than a certain amount. So we went to this one factory, and we were waiting, and waiting and waiting. Anyway, long story short, they screwed us over, never made anything for us. We were like, bawling. Some lady in the office there felt bad for us, so she said, ‘I’m going to send you to this small lab in the valley.’ So we go, and the lady’s Hungarian, and amazing, and we totally bonded. I completely accredit her for being willing to help me, and just make five hundred units of each color. We would have never been able to do what we did.
But then, unless you’re doing custom molds, you have to use what’s called stock packaging, and then you print on it. You know those kind of twisty plastic containers, with the view caps? Those are the standard—they’re just basic shapes, and you can have five to ten thousand units. But it was ugly. Ugly, bad, plastic, plain, whatever. So I was like, ‘Ugh, God. I don’t want to do that,’ you know? I thought, ‘What about paper?’ In the old days, the lipstick tubes used to be paper. The blush came in paper. So I was like, ‘Why can’t I just do that? I mean, you don’t need a mold,’ Because to make a mold, the cost on your own is like $40,000 to $80,000 depending on how many working parts are in it, just for one product! For us, it was just not an option. So I got on the phone and called anyone who did paper this, paper that. I finally found this guy at a company called Custom Paper Tube in Ohio. His name was Lou Stevens, and I was like ‘Hey, so… are you married?’ ‘Yeah,’ ‘So does your wife wear lipstick?’ ‘Yes, she does,’ ‘Okay, so like—the thing that twists the lipstick up, and then you put it on—could you make that out of paper?’ ‘I sure can try!’ I was like, ‘Okay!’ I needed somebody that could do the circular thing, like a mailing tube, right? But shrunk down. You needed whatever special machinery to curl the paper. So I started with a guy who made mailing tubes. Lou Stevens. It was black at first, because black was the cool thing to do back then. Then we did colors, and we’d do seasonal papers—one season we had paper that was like denim, paper based on jeans. Remember how cute the jeans were? We started out just for the one store, and then I said to Allison, ‘Look, you can’t just be in one store. You see how much we have to make? You’re not going to sell all of it!’ So once we had all of our basic samples—the lipsticks, and the shadows—we went and showed Fred Segal Santa Monica and Barneys. When we had our meetings, my mom was strolling my son around the block.
We never had an office at that time. Stila had a little warehouse, and then I worked at my house. That’s how it’s always been, I’ve always worked at home so that I could be with my kids. So it was crazy—I mean, I worked a lot, I worked really hard. I’d go to the factories, making colors. At Barneys they really loved it. When Barneys likes it, you’re like ‘Okay, we’re going to be fine.’ [Laughs] If we had been rejected by Barneys, it would’ve been a different story. But to be honest, I didn’t really worry about that. I just made shit. You know what I mean? It just kept going, that much I know. We kept hiring people to help us. We always had our own counter. Everything has it’s own counter. My brother in-law made little tester units—when you go to the makeup counter, the tester units, to make those it costs a fortune. We went into Nordstrom, we went into Japan, Saks, then Sephora came along—you just kind of grow. I never went to the warehouse except for trainings. [Laughs] ‘Take it off, start over!’ Apparently I was a harsh teacher—I didn’t think I was, but apparently I was. It was like rehab: we tore you apart, but we’d put you back together before you left—and now you have real self esteem! [Laughs] You know what I mean? Anyway, we just kept adding things—we added brushes, we added pencils, we added blush. We kind of also invented a lot of things, like the Lip Glazes. We were the first to do cream blush in those fun little compacts for lip and cheek. We didn’t go for the big chunky glitter, we got into the sheen along the way—like the cream, and then the blue tubes that have the highlighter creams in them—they were really good, they came later. We went to Japan and they were like, ‘You brought cream blush and shimmer to Japan,’ saying they never wore sheen blush or shimmer on their face before. Illustration for cosmetics, nobody did that before us—using drawings of girls instead of photography. There were so many illustrations we were cranking out, mostly because we couldn’t afford a model. [Laughs] We were the first to do a lot of things. And I honestly can’t think of a brand at that time where the kids wanted it, and the twenty-year-olds wanted it, and the thirty-year-olds wanted it.
We were in business for five years before we sold to Estée Lauder. They were all knocking; we were kind of stressed out about it. We were bought two or three years after Bobbi Brown. We were going to sell to somebody else, then we sort of backed out of selling entirely, and Leonard Lauder called us—he called himself. I was like, ‘Oh my God, I have to go meet Leonard Lauder,’ you know what I mean? He came to town, to the Bel Air I think. He was staying in a room that had a big terrace, so we’re sitting on his terrace and I’m smoking—you don’t smoke in front of Leonard Lauder! [Laughs] But he was just this amazing guy. Forget it. He’s the coolest—amazing, charming, smart, funny. He wanted to buy Stila. And I wanted to work with him. I felt like, ‘You know what? All these people work with me now,’ it was a huge responsibility—it was too much for me really—and these would be good hands to put everybody into. You know what I mean? Everybody would have a future. After we sold, would I say I was at the helm? No. Which is why I don’t recommend it to entrepreneurs, unless they can walk away. If you sell your company to a big corporation, it’s nearly impossible to stay involved because you’ll never be on the same page. There just comes a time when you make something, then have to let it go. Maybe it makes me sound crazy…maybe it’s because I have kids. People are always like, ‘Well, isn’t it your baby?’ and I’m like ‘No,’ [laughs] ‘it’s a thing!’ These are my babies. I think it’s perspective maybe—kids give you perspective.
I love doing makeup, I do. I’ve been really lucky. I left LA, I came to New York, and I’ve gotten more into fashion in the past couple of years—working on editorial stuff that is more inspiring and challenging for me, where as in LA it was more limited with what you got to do. Working with people like Inez [van Lamsweerde] keeps me in love with what I do. I just wake up and I’m still happy to go to work. When I go to work, people know that I really want to be there and I’m really committed to it. You kind of feed each other in that way. In the last couple of years, I think I’ve done some of the most interesting things I’ve gotten to do, and it’s only getting more and more interesting. I’ve done some Vogue Japan stuff that was really awesome. Shows are not for me. I’m a photo nut—I love photography! I love to see the picture. And I’m still working on lines, so they’re still connected. Mary Frey and I are working on a kids’ thing right now—affordable natural bath and body products. What I’ve learned about my kids, and what they like, is sort of manifesting into a line. And my makeup artist side is manifesting itself into this line I’m putting together for Opening Ceremony. It’s “OCL”—so, Opening Ceremony Lobell. It’s really fun, because it’s just color—we’re not doing foundations and stuff like that right now. It’s more of a fashion-oriented kind of thing. It’s about me and my friends, Carol [Lim] and Olivia [Kim]—none of us are ‘full face of makeup’ types, but we wear something. So it’s like combining: this this this and you’re done! Done, done, done. And it looks like you’re keeping up. I either wear red lipstick or go nude and mascara, or a smudgy eye and a balm on the lips. Or you know that one thing you do.
I keep my celebrity work pretty limited. And I like it like that. I feel like I’m really lucky—the girls that I get along with are people who I think are amazingly talented and are real artists and also happen to be really beautiful. [Laughs] How do you beat Natalie Portman and Cate Blanchett and Michelle Williams? It doesn’t get better than that. I work with Rachel Weisz in and out. And she’s another crazy talented beautiful girl. You go on these big runs with people. It’s like SAG, the Golden Globes, the Oscars, the photo shoots for being a nominee. You’re in that with them. It’s kind of a whirlwind, you know? I make them look good, but I also sort of carry some of the stress for them, in a way. I’m a mom and I’m always mommy-ing everybody, believe it or not. You know, my son, he’s in the middle of applying to Harvard, Yale, Princeton. How did I get a kid like that? I barely got through high school! And I guess all I’m trying to instill in them is find something that makes you happy, because I can’t think of anything worse than going to work every day and hating your job. I want them to be more focused on fostering their imagination and their ability to think; be inventive rather than knowing every vocabulary word now. I feel like, when it’s time for them to go to work, I want them to self-create the way I felt creative. They can do whatever they want, as long as they are excited to be alive, that’s all I care about. Esme has a blog now! From Esme with Love and Squalor. That is where everything is going—into this internet world—and if she can use the computer instead of sitting talking nonsense on Facebook, and express herself, she’ll get used to all of that now in a brave way…in a positive way.”