VIVA GLAM Article By Avijah Shaye
Walking into Sharrie Williams lavish Laguna Beach home and seeing the blonde beauty for the first time, I couldn’t help but think the scene I walked into was exactly what one would expect from an heiress of a beauty empire. The dramatic ocean views, expensive décor, and immaculate furnishings showed vast wealth and class. And Sharrie, who is now a grandmother, sparkled with youthful glamour and an energetic passion for life – which was most evident when she began talking about her remarkable family and their creation of one of the world’s most prominent cosmetics brands: Maybelline.
It all started out in 1915 when Sharrie’s great uncle Tom Lyle Williams witnessed his sister Mabel experiment with a trick called “the Harem’s Secret,” something she had read about in a women’s magazine. She mixed a little bit of burnt cork with some petroleum jelly and coal dust and used the concoction to fill in her eyebrows and eyelashes. Tom Lyle watched in amazement as Mabel made herself look as beautiful as the Hollywood film actresses he idolized as a kid working in a local Nickelodeon. The next day Tom Lyle set out to do research on eye beauty products and realized the market was wide open and that eyes were the last feature neglected by the beauty industry. After hiring a chemist to create a solution, the family business named after his sister Mabel, was started.
Tom Lyle Williams, 1915
Tom Lyle Williams, 1940
The rest is history. A fascinating and dramatic tale with so many twists and turns and ups and downs over the span of a century that it would make an excellent book. And that is exactly what Sharrie did – she made it her life’s work to preserve her family legacy in a book she wrote titled, The Maybelline Story and the Spirited Family Dynasty Behind It.
“It was very important for me to write this book,” Sharrie said. “My personal story may be inspiring and encourage other people to write their family's story, if only for future generations. It is a gift to leave a legacy, a road map for your children and grandchildren. The Maybelline Story is a thread in the fabric of America's Story and would have been lost forever if I didn't tell it.”
And listening to Sharrie’s story was like a history lesson itself. Each decade had its own customs and beliefs when it came to women, fashion, beauty, and what was considered acceptable at the time. Maybelline played a huge part in setting new trends and standards for women at a time when Victorian ideals were considered what was proper.
“Women back in 1917 didn’t wear makeup on the street. Prostitutes did and actresses did. But really it was difficult to try and convince regular women to make up their eyes in public. And it happened because of the movie stars just like it happens today,” Sharrie said.
Maybelline ad with Hedy Lamarr, 1943
Maybelline ad with Joan Crawford, 1945
And indeed it was Tom Lyle’s brilliant marketing strategies that capitalized on the love triangle between products, movies, and celebrities that is still in tact today. Some of Maybelline’s first models were actresses Gloria Swanson, Clara Bow, and Viola Dana. The ads featured photos of them heavily made up in Maybeline, with print that said things like, “You too can have eyes that charm.”
Maybelline ad WWII
Maybelline Ad with Betty Grable, 1940
“Young girls were starting to want to be beautiful like their favorite movie stars, and were learning how to do it from the magazines since their mothers didn’t wear a stitch of makeup,” Sharrie explained. “The 1920’s girls were the first to drive in cars with boys, have sex out of marriage, smoke cigarettes, wear skirts above their knees, go out dancing and wear makeup. It was a cultural transition that started with my Great Uncle Tom Lyle and has turned into what we have today.”
Maybelline mascara, 1916
Tom Lyle’s business and marketing skills were way ahead of his time – especially for a young man who grew up on a farm in rural Kentucky. But it was those early days that helped prepare him for his remarkable future.
“Ever since he was a little child on the farm, he was so curious and inquisitive. He lived by the Sears Catalog. Even as an eight-year-old child he would take himself out of the farm and into the world by studying that catalog. With that, he taught himself advertising and marketing because there was nothing else to do,” Sharrie said.
His self-taught marketing skills combined with several other factors to become the driving force Tom Lyle needed to fulfill his destiny. After getting his girlfriend pregnant when he was just 16-years-old, it seemed as if he had something to prove.
“He wanted to do the right thing so they had run off and gotten married, and her parents forced her to annul the marriage because he was a dreamer and was never going to make anything of himself. They thought he was a loser,” Sharrie said. “He became hell bent on making a success of himself for his child.”
Tom Lyle then moved around a bit and dabbled in several business before starting Maybelline with the help of his older brother Noel James Williams who postponed his wedding for one year and loaned Tom Lyle $500 to start his business in Chicago. Together Tom Lyle, Mabel, and Noel J founded what would someday become an empire and make the entire Williams family multi-millionaires when the company sold in December 1967. But the journey was not an easy one for the Williams Clan or the Maybelline Company.
Noel James Williams
The business challenges documented in the book ranged from surviving the great depression, almost going out of business, and dealing with lawsuits while some of the more personal problems within the family included alcoholism, extramarital affairs, and homosexuality when it was far less acceptable in society. But it was these trials and triumphs that made the book remarkable and one that many people can gain inspiration from. And Sharrie’s descriptions of each family member’s character really draws you into their world. And like the other Williams, Sharrie herself ran into challenges while making her own mark.
Tom Lyle Williams, 1965
“The biggest challenge was dealing with my fear. Fear of what my family would say, how they would feel about what I wrote about them,” Sharrie said. “Also since it took over 20 years to write the book and find a publisher, I had to constantly overcome feelings of wanting to give up and destroy my work. It isn't easy facing all the insecurities that come up for artist's of any kind. Some drink, do drugs or kill themselves. The process isn't for light weights that's for sure.”
In the end Sharrie’s hard work paid off. Even her house burning down in the midst of writing her book, during an infamous Laguna Beach fire, didn’t stop her. Her book and her blog became immensely popular, and she gained an incredible sense of accomplishment from telling her family’s story. “I now realize I was chosen to be a channel for those who have passed on - to live again through my words,” said Sharrie.
Sharrie Williams, 2013
And Sharrie’s words really do bring them back to life, from the first page up until the shocking and mysterious ending. To really understand the legacy of this glamorous family and their part in the history of American beauty, you can purchase the book The Maybeline Story at www.maybellinebook.com. or bettieyoungsbooks.com. Follow Sharrie on Twitter @sharriewilliams and Facebook, Sharrie Williams.