Meet Paula Dorf

Location: New York, NY
Age: Over 50
Marital Status: Married
Education: Self-taught

“Powder and paint makes you what you ain’t,” FOF Paula Dorf’s mother used to tell her. Funny enough, it’s ‘powder and paint’ that has made Paula what she is today—founder of her eponymous cosmetics line.

A record-label-exec-turned-makeup-whiz, Paula was the go-to makeup guru for rock stars in the 80s and early 90s such as Billy Joel, Carly Simon and The Bangles (for their 1986 music video, “Walk Like An Egyptian.”)

“I got along with the musicians. It was hard for them to sit in front of a camera because they’re used to moving on stage,” says Paula. “Our experiences [in the makeup chair] were a moving collaboration while we would play music and say, ‘Let’s dance.’ They thought it was great.”

Paula did not sit still either. From her behind the scenes makeup work on musicians, she segued into working with stars including Katie Holmes, Jennifer Garner and Sarah Michelle Geller. And taking the advice of her celebrity clientele and makeup up artist friends, Paula launched her own beauty line in 1995 starting with her signature foundation brushes. Accolades from Allure, Self and InStyle editors soon followed and now, almost two decades later her cosmetics company has 180 products and a cult following.

Where did you grow up?

In the Bronx. I used to hang out in the Village [in Manhattan] when I was a teenager. My older cousin was a painter and had her own apartment on MacDougal Street. We used to hang out and listen to poetry in Washington Square Park. She introduced me to all her artist friends.

So you were surrounded by creative types from a young age… Were your parents creative?

My mother was very, very creative. She made all my clothes. And she loved make up.

Were you artsy as a child?

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All through school I was in the band. I played the saxophone. My dream was to be a studio musician but I really did not think I was good enough.

What was your father like?

My father was a very, creative man. He was from Poland and most of his family died in the camps. He used to say that everyday was a celebration of life.

What did he do when he came to New York?

He was a butcher in Harlem. Women used to come in and order meat and when some could not afford the price, my father would say, ‘You take it and when you have money, you pay me.’ He was very generous.

Are you married?

Yes. My husband, Sandy, is my business partner.

How did you meet him?

On a blind date. My friend Robert called me up and said, ‘I had dinner with the man you’re going to marry.’ And I said, ‘You’re out of your mind.’ We have been married for twenty years.

Is he your first husband?

He’s my second.

Do you have children?

No, I always say I forgot!

Siblings?

I have a sister who is older than I am.

Did you attend college?

I was living in Queens at the time and ran into two women, Pinky and Diane, who owned a small fashion design company. So I decided to put college on hold, and work for their line.

Did you stay in fashion for long?

After working with Pinky and Diane, I worked in the Garment Center briefly. The experience was not great and I thought ‘I am not going to go into fashion, if I do not want to work in the Garment Center.’ I was really confused. I had a friend who worked for Mercury Records, and she recommended me to a small record label called Ebony Sounds Records.

Did you stay with Ebony Sounds Records?

[While working at Ebony,] I heard about a job in the Artist Relations department at Atlantic Records. So I made the call, got the job. After some time there, I felt that I realized it was not my passion, so I decided to leave.

How did you end up working as a makeup artist?

I was in rock and roll and didn’t know much about the beauty business. For a year I had temp jobs answering phones during the day. I received a list of ‘testing’ photographers (photographers working on projects with no budgets for makeup or hair stylists) from Wilhelmina Modeling Agency. They would book models and I would call them to practice makeup application. I worked every night for a year gratis but I was collecting both make up and experience.

Had you done makeup before?

When I was 16, I did the makeup for all my friends for their Sweet Sixteen [parties]; I never realized that it could be a career.

Your first big break?

After a year of working and gaining makeup artistry experience, I called an art director I knew from Atlantic Records and said, “I’m a makeup artist.” He gave me my first paying job. I did the makeup for the cover of a movie soundtrack called “Soup For One.”

How did that work out?

Well, I got a call a week before the shoot and the art director said, ‘The model is African-Amercian. You’ve worked with an African-American model, right?’ I said, ‘Oh yeah.’ I lied. I went to Bloomingdale’s and bought Fashion Fair makeup and thought, ‘Oh my God, he’ll never hire me again.’ Luckily, the model was very sweet and guided me. It came out great and the art director hired me for more album covers after that.

How did you transition from makeup artist to founder of your own makeup line?

In order for me to have make up that would stay on under hot lights for 16 hours a day, I realized I had to invent things that were beneficial to what I was trying to achieve. I used to cut up brushes from art supply stores long before I even thought about having my own line.

Tell me about that.

I was using sponges to apply foundation. The foundation would absorb into the sponge and wouldn’t release the foundation. I was constantly going through sponges and makeup; I couldn’t afford that. So I started using nylon brushes from the art supply stores and “painted” the foundation on (it would stay in place better using this application). The actresses and models used to ask me if they could keep them and many told me that I should create my own line. I started with the brushes; and invented the Foundation Brush.

When did you officially launch your line?

1995. But really, it took me over a year to develop everything. We were in small stores and spas at first.

What’s unique about your products?

I test everything I make on myself. I’m not a chemist but I tell them what I want and how I want it to feel.

Did you use your own money to launch the line?

Yes. And I was working while I was doing it. I didn’t have a huge line [when I started]. It was small, but I knew exactly what I wanted—brow products, certain colors. I name everything myself to this day.

How many products are in your line now?

About 180.

What product has been a big hit?

Transformer. It transforms eye shadows into a liquid eyeliner. I have a lot of ‘trick’ products.

What was a turning point for your makeup line?

Our brushes were on the cover of Women’s Wear Daily. Then, we launched in 1998 at Bergdorf Goodman in NYC.

What did they like about it your line?

Paula Dorf Cosmetics was very unique back then. They liked the Transformer, I told you about. Also, I have an eye pencil called Baby Eyes Enhancer that was inspired by the always clear white in my baby nephew Ethan’s eyes. It is a soft peachy pink color and you line the inside of your eyes with it; the color will brighten and define the eye and make the white “pop.” It’s like 8 hours of sleep in a stick.

Who is your favorite fashion designer?

Ann Demeulemeester. Her clothes are not traditional. I never liked ordinary looks and have been layering clothes before anyone else. I have been wearing skirts over pants from my 20s.

Your favorite color?

Green. But I never wear it (though I do have special emerald rings). I always wear black because it’s comfortable and it works for me.

Do you have a passion?

We have three grand-nieces and I’m with them constantly. I’m addicted to them. They are my therapy.

[Read Paula’s 7 most common FOF beauty sins and enter to win her products]
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