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For me it happened in 1998. I was invited to do Oprah Winfrey’s eyebrows, live on her show. I felt like I got my Oscar. She became so in love with her eyebrows, and she couldn’t stop talking about eyebrows. I’d been in America for 11 years. It was almost the ultimate thing that you’d want in life: to be recognized for your work, to be so well regarded. It was incredible.
I grew up in Romania. My parents had a tailor shop — my mother made clothes for the wives and daughters of the important people where we lived, those who could make or break her business. And she would make the women so happy, and make them look beautiful. They adored her — my mother was the best marketer that I’ve ever met. That was something that I learned, and it doesn’t matter what part of the world you’re in: we want that attention. We need that. We crave that. That will never die. Because we are human.
But in the 1970s, you couldn’t own your own business in Romania. Everything was owned by the government. My mother was able to keep her business because my parents were always very good with money. We didn’t have banks or checking accounts or any way to keep money in Romania then. To grow your business and survive, you had to plan everything really well. Then my father died when I was 12. My mother came to me and said, “Well, we need to keep the business. You have to help me.” I said, “Mom, I’m 12. I don’t know anything about business.” She said, “You’re smart. I will teach you everything.” When your mother keeps telling you, “You are smart. You are smart,” you think, wow, this is kind of scary, but she said that I’m smart, so I should do it.
Every piece of clothing she made was custom: dresses, wedding dresses, whatever they wanted. I vividly remember when I used to ask, “Mom, you wake up at 6 o’clock in the morning and you go to bed at midnight. You work nonstop. Aren’t you tired? Aren’t you just sick and tired of all these women that are here every day?” She looked at me, and she always said, “I love it. I’m loving every single moment. I love it.” She would take so much pride when she would go to a wedding or to a big party and the women would feel so beautiful.
I went to art school. Then I studied construction engineering — which would actually help me a lot when I was developing my eyebrow technique. Eventually I got a job working at a warehouse for computer equipment — my monthly salary was the equivalent of two pounds of coffee, sold on the black market. But I had to have a job. In Romania then, if I didn’t have a job, they could put me in jail.
I got married in 1987, and not long after, my husband went to America. He moved to Los Angeles. I wanted to go to America as well. I remember him telling me, “It will be quite difficult for you to do anything in America because you don’t speak the language. I think the best and easiest way to get a job is to go to beauty school.” Every Romanian he met in L.A., they were all estheticians. So I went to beauty school.
When I left Romania with my daughter, I wasn’t allowed to take even 25 cents. I asked, “Can I have a dollar to make a phone call?” And I was told, “No. If we find you taking even one dollar, you will go to jail.”
I started working in a salon in L.A., and I was doing facials and body waxing. But I decided I wanted to get into eyebrows. I couldn’t believe this was Hollywood and people weren’t paying attention to eyebrows. As soon as I started working, I started saving every penny. I wanted to rent my own room in a salon. After a year and a half, I saved $5,000. I bought a salon bed, a steamer, a few products. I made a deal to pay $1,000 per month for rent. I was very nervous. My husband asked me, “Are you crazy? There are American people born here and they don’t have a business, and you want to open your own business?”
But what did I have to lose? I came to this country to do something else. I wanted to be an entrepreneur. I used to go to work at 8 o’clock in the morning, and if a customer wanted to come at 10 o’clock at night, I would work until then. And if I didn’t have a client, I would go across the street to Neiman Marcus or Saks, and I’d do the eyebrows for all the makeup artists at the counter for free. I’d say, just to send clients to the salon. I used to do so many free services. But it paid off. I rented the salon room from ’92 to ’96, and in four years, I saved $50,000. This is how I built a business. And I flipped houses, believe it or not. I bought my first house in ’94, remodeled it, and I lived there for a few years. Then I sold it.
Around ’96 I decided to open the salon. My husband had gone back to Romania. The landlord didn’t want to rent it because he thought that you couldn’t pay rent in eyebrows. I said, “I’m not leaving this room. You have to give me a chance.” He gave me the space for six months. Two weeks later he called me and said, “You open the salon at 9, and there’s a line outside starting at 8 o’clock. Are you sure you do eyebrows there?”
I had an incredible business. I went to all sorts of parties in Hollywood to promote my business, handing out cards and talking to people. I marketed myself — it was what I learned from my mother. To keep up with demand, I started working 14-hour days, meeting a new client every 20–30 minutes. At the time we charged $35 for brow services, and we were completely booked. I would shape hundreds of arches a week. I saw supermodels sent by their agents, executives on their lunch hours, and women in the neighborhood who had heard of me through word of mouth or had even seen me on Oprah. Many would become close friends and clients for years.
But I barely saw my daughter, and I wanted to have a product line because there were no products for eyebrows! To launch my line, I went to Wells Fargo, and they gave me a loan for $900,000. It was kind of scary for me, because I had never, ever taken a loan.
I worked even longer hours in the salon to pay back the loan, which took five or six years.
In 2000, we launched with a full line of makeup products, but I didn’t know that you had to pay the makeup artists at the counter to sell the products. Well, I didn’t have money for that. I had to pull back the makeup, eyeshadows, and foundations. We kept only the eyebrow products. Every Sunday and Monday, when the salon was closed, I used to travel around the country to promote the products in Nordstrom — and I dragged my daughter with me. Even when we were busiest at the salon, it didn’t compare with our reach once we launched the brow products. A $20 brow pencil reached thousands more customers. When we created an Instagram account for the brand during the early days, we were able to expand our relationship with our consumers. We were soon getting tens of thousands of likes, from people all over the world.
In 2008, at the time of the crash, no one could get a loan. But I had cash. I was able to buy inventory. When stores didn’t have inventory, because they were too afraid, I pushed. It was a huge decision that I made, to spend the money, to buy inventory and sell it. But 2008, 2009, 2010, there was a big peak in our business.
The truth is, I don’t have too much time to spend my money, because I work too much. The best way not to spend money is to work a lot! The thing is, now I don’t need to work, but I love to work. It gives me energy. It keeps me alive. I spend money on fashion because I love it, and my home, my Zen garden. The life that I have right now — I worked really hard for it. I deserve every single luxury thing that I do for myself.
As told to Alex Beggs exclusively for Wealthsimple; transcript edited and condensed for clarity. Illustration by Jenny Mörtsell.