Author Sharrie Williams is a woman who wears many hats. She is the great niece of Maybelline founder Tom Lyle Williams, an heiress to the Maybelline cosmetic legacy, steward of the Maybelline acrhives and the author of a fascinating new book! “The Maybelline Story: …and the Spirited Family Dynasty Behind It” celebrates the origins of an iconic American brand, the rise of a multi-billion dollar business and the colorful characters involved along the way. The book features never-before-told story of family secrets, details the family’s triumphs and tragedies and serves as a true rags to riches story. Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with Sharrie Williams to learn about the author, her experiences in documenting her family’s rich history and the challenges she encountered along the way!
What are your fondest memories of your family as a child?
I remember how special it was having my great uncle, Tom Lyle Williams, come to our house on Christmas day at 5 p.m. and stay until 5 a.m. every year. My younger sisters, Donna and Billee, and I performed for Unk Ile, (as we called him,) while he applauded, threw back his head, slapped his knee and made us feel like we were really talented. The tradition continued until the Maybelline Company sold in December of 1967 and we moved from Culver City to Newport Beach, Calif. I still miss the simplicity of those magical joy filled years.
At what point in your youth did it dawn on you your family was less than ordinary?
I was about 12 years old when I noticed people reacted to me differently when they found out my uncle was the founder and owner of the Maybelline Company. I considered us a close knit middle class family, with a rich uncle, but my friends seemed to think it was quite special. By the time I reached 15, they called me ”That Maybelline Girl,” and though it was fun being popular with my girlfriends, it scared guys away when they found out I aspired to be an actress and a Maybelline model.
What motivated you to write about your family and their billion-dollar Maybelline empire?
When Maybelline sold to Plough Inc. in 1967 it wasn’t a billion-dollar empire, but today the company is owned by L’Oreal of Paris and does have that reputation. My desire to write the Maybelline story was planted in my mind when I was 15, because my grandmother, Evelyn Williams, Tom Lyle Williams sister-in-law, enjoyed telling me the family history and how it was tied in with the Maybelline company. I knew I had to tell the story someday or a thread of American history would be lost forever.
Did you have reservations about writing a tell-all book about your entire family? What was their reaction?
My father’s generation was absolutely against it. They wanted their uncle Tom Lyle Williams’s memory to remain private. My father had mixed feelings and ran hot and cold. He’d tell me stories from his childhood, but when I signed with The William Morris Agency, he worried his privacy would be invaded and insisted I drop the contract. Several years later I signed a contract with The Renaissance Agency and Hearst publications optioned a movie. At first my father was excited, but, when the project began to move forward, he worried they’d take creative license and tarnish Maybelline’s good name. Tom Lyle was gay and he wanted it to remain private.
Tell us about the process of putting the book together. You covered a lengthy period of time, people and a dynasty! It couldn’t have been easy!
After letting go of literary agents, lawyers and ghost writers, I decided to write the story myself. It took two-and-a-half years and wound up being 973 pages. Going deep into my family’s history was the most cathartic thing I’d ever done and helped me forgive many resentments. It was at that point the book stopped being a family dearest tell-all and became a historical document. In 2006, after my father, Bill Williams, passed away, I was introduced to Bettie Youngs by my childhood friend Cheryl Manbeck and eventually signed a contract with Bettie Youngs Books in 2010. My 973-page manuscript was edited down to 400 pages, woven with historical facts and Old Hollywood nostalgia and became a published book.
What was the biggest challenge you encountered while putting the book together?
Having to rewrite it over and over with several different editors. Just when I thought it was finished, Bettie would say, “I think I need to have one more editor look at it.” I almost fainted when the last editor sent me 200 editorial questions. She said, “Holes needed to be filled, so readers wouldn’t have to stop and figure out what I meant. Even after that, Bettie and I edited the final manuscript up until the UPS truck was ready to take the finished product to print. Writing a family memoir is extremely emotional and gut wrenching. My mother died five weeks before the book hit the bookstores and on her death bed I laid a copy of “The Maybelline Story” on her chest in intensive care and told her to tell my dad and the family in heaven that I did it and I think they’d be proud.
Did you discover anything about your family you didn’t expect?
Countless feelings had to be processed and sometimes it was so painful I had to put the manuscript down for a while and just live my life. However, the most heart stopping information appeared after “The Maybelline Story” was published and there was nothing I could do about it. I discovered that Tom Lyle and his lifetime partner Emery Shaver were entombed together and that Emery had, had another relationship the family never knew about and that person wound up with Emery’s large fortune. We are still spinning from the new information.
What did you discover about yourself while writing this book?
I never realized how good I had it. My grandmother, Evelyn, used to say I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth and my mother-in-law said no, I was born with two silver spoons. That used to make me crazy, because I thought I had it so tough. It wasn’t until I finished the book and lost my parents that I realized how lucky I was to grow up in this incredible family and I should have been more grateful and appreciative. Only life can make a wise lady out of a spoiled brat, I guess.
There are so many fascinating characters in your family. To which member of your family do you most relate to on a personal level?
My great uncle Tom Lyle Williams was my hero. He started with nothing, but never gave up on his dreams. He’d say, “It’s easy to be happy when everything is going your way, but the true test of character is keeping your chin up and staying positive when life gets rough.” I may have been a spoiled young girl, but I’ve lived by my great uncle’s motto and have always tried to keep a good attitude even while I’m waiting for the worm to turn.
There are so many interesting moments in your family’s rich history. What do you consider the defining moment of this intriguing family and your life?
My grandmother, Evelyn’s death. To this day, we’ve never really gotten over what happened to her. After her horrible death, my real life began and it wasn’t easy, because she’d always been there for me in every way … though I resented her many times for being so controlling. I also think her death was the beginning of my father’s real life beginning, but, unfortunately, he took over control of his kids, by spoiling us with money but demanding we do his will. I guess I had to lose them all to really wake up and smell the coffee. I now realize that control to them meant love and protection, but when you want to spread your wings and fly it can be quite upsetting. Today I can say I’ve made a lot of mistakes doing it my way, but I’m grateful to know what I’m made of and that I’m not just another pretty face … I’m a woman of substance.
What is the biggest lesson people can take away from your family or your story?
Never give up on your dreams and dream big. “The Maybelline Story” is about a 19-year-old entrepreneur born in Kentucky who became an advertising mogul. That entrepreneurial spirit is what made this country great and I’m afraid it is being lost now. I hope my book inspires others to keep believing in themselves and make that idea they have a reality. Everyone has a dream but somehow it’s never ignited or they stop somewhere in the middle and give up when the going gets too tough.
You are the steward of the Maybelline Archives which were almost lost in a fire years ago. What can you tell us about that experience and the treasures the archives hold?
My home was destroyed in the 1993 Laguna Beach, Calif. firestorm. Luckily my ex-husband was able to get some of my Maybelline family pictures out before he was forced to evacuate. After the fire, my family and friends sent me pictures and now I have a treasure chest of priceless photos I’d never seen before. Losing everything that day changed my life as you can well imagine. I’d always identified with my material belongings, but the shock of losing everything forced me to repackage myself and, in the process, I lost the desire to replace jewelry, furs, crystal, china, silver and designer clothes. Instead of replacing stuff, I went back to college, finished my bachelor’s degree in psychology, wrote my book and now inspire others to stop spending and make their art a reality.
I am sure our female readers would definitely be interested in the best piece of beauty advice you could pass along!
According to my Grandmother Evelyn, your skin is the first thing a person notices and you can only make a first impression once. She was fanatical about her skin and never sun bathed. When I was a teenager and baked in the sun covered in coconut oil, she’d go ballistic on me. Today my face has held up because I’ve had many deep peels, but the skin on my body is not so good. I wish I’d listened to Nana, because she looked 45 when she died at 77. One thing she believed in was her homemade mud packs. She’d take a tablespoon of rice flour, a bit of yogurt and Vitamin E oil, mix it into a paste, cover her face and lay down until it dried. She said it fed her skin and brought the blood to the surface. Her skin looked like porcelain and even without her Maybelline she was a knockout. Take care of your skin.
Do you have any immediate plans for future books?
I’m so involved with my blog at www.maybellinebook.com and my power point presentations that sitting down right now and writing a book sounds impossible. I’m hoping a movie will eventually be made and I can consult or co-produce.
Where is the best place for readers to find out more about you and “The Maybelline Story – and The Spirited Family Dynasty Behind It?”
Please check my blog at www.maybellinebook.com, which I update three times a week. You can also follow me on Twitter, @sharriewilliams or Facebook at Sharrie Williams or check out my Publisher Bettie Youngs’ website at www.bettieyoungsbooks.com.
Jason Price founded the mighty Icon Vs. Icon more than a decade ago. Along the way, he’s assembled an amazing group of like-minded individuals to spread the word on some of the most unique people and projects on the pop culture landscape.