beauty

Whatever happened to Poppy King?

In June last year, Mia Freedman spoke to Poppy King in New York City. She shared her fascinating story – which is far from over. 

If you were born in the nineties, shame on you. Just kidding. But if you were in fact born in the 90s,  the name Poppy King may not mean much to you. Go ask your mother about her. Your mother will lose her shit and then get a faraway look in her eye.

Because for those of us who were born BEFORE the 90s, Poppy King was an icon. She was our Estee Lauder but young and cool and amazing and AUSTRALIAN.

Poppy was a girl who launched a small range of lipsticks when she was 19 years old. She had no business background. Not even a tertiary education. But as a woman with lips, she felt alienated by the way lipstick was then being marketed to women.

After her iconic matte lipsticks came Poppy's gloss range, Shine.

It was all daggy brushed gold packaging and pearly, frosted or satiny shades called things like Pastel Princess and Snowberry Dream. These names and shades and the branding that went with them from the handful of multi-national corporations who owned the cosmetics market, did not speak to Poppy and she felt strongly that they didn't speak to other contemporary women either.

The way lipsticks were marketed to women had simply not evolved along with women themselves and Poppy saw a gap she decided to fill. So she did, finding an investor and launching a small line of matte lipsticks. She loved retro film stars and all the associated glamour of that era and though matte lipsticks were back-to-the-future modern for a new generation of women.

Poppy talks about what happened to her business:

“For me, I wanted these matte lipsticks that were 1940s, and I wanted something that was marketed differently" she says today. "There wasn’t anything that spoke to the complexity of women. It all sort of simplified us. It just simplified the equation of what it meant to be female.That’s why I called my first set of lipsticks the seven deadly sins - Ambition, Courage, Liberty, Integrity, Unity, Virtue and Inspiration.”

It was the first feminist cosmetic brand and it was a smash hit in a way that's hard to explain today. Think viral but lipsticks.

“I went into the beauty industry to do it differently - not to do it the same.”

Well she ticked that box. At its height, Poppy Industries was turning over $8m a year. This was unheard of.

Every woman had a Poppy lipstick - or five. It became a thing to whip it out in the bathroom at clubs and bars.... women bonded over their favourite shade and it was the first cult beauty item I can ever recall.

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Again, it's hard to emphasise just how amazing her success was, not just as an Australian cosmetics brand - which soon went international - but as a young women. In public life in the 90s, the only young women in a sea of white, middle aged men (politicians, businessmen, media personalities) were Poppy and Natasha Stott Despoja who, at the same time as Poppy was breaking into the business world, was the youngest ever senator elected into federal parliament.

They were oddities, Natasha and Poppy and they both copped a huge amount of sexist, ageist flak.

I met Poppy because I was starting in magazines at the same time as her lipsticks were launching. I was a beauty editor and we were both kind of bemused, as opinionated, outspoken women, to find ourselves in this very old fashioned beauty world where women were expected to be mostly passive,demure and superficial. We bonded over our inability to be none of those things and for a few years we were pretty close.

In the 90s  we were all hoping our lips looked exactly like Liv Tyler's:

But we both got busy and in the days before electronic communication (gather 'round kiddies, let me tell you about the olden days) it was easy to lose touch. We did.

Until a decade later when she and I met - just last month - in a cafe in Soho and chewed each other's ears off for three hours - with a memorable cameo made by the actor Gabriel Byrne who was sitting next to us and struck up a conversation that lasted a further hour.

The next day, I dragged her back to the Mamamia office in New York and we recorded this episode of No Filter. I had so many questions. Whatever happened to Poppy Industries? What was the story with the scandal and why did she leave Australia? What has she been doing in New York these past years and how does she look back at her phenomenal early success?

So many surprises and the most brilliant ending to her story. Except it's not finished, not by a long shot.

Listen to Mia's full interview with Poppy here:

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