In the 1950s, Paula Jane Baer, an aspiring actress who had adopted the stage name Paula Kent, came to the realization that she would never match the success of her junior high friend, Debbie Reynolds.
She was stuck mainly doing commercials and grabbing at small parts, like a hatcheck girl in the television drama 77 Sunset Strip. And not only that: All the cosmetics and hair-care products to which actors are subjected irritated her skin mightily.
But if her allergic reactions were the final straw in a struggling career, they were the unlikely catalyst for another venture that flourished.
By the time she died on June 23 at 82 in Beverly Hills, Calif., Paula Kent Meehan had built a beauty company that earned hundreds of millions of dollars in sales and fundamentally altered the marketing of hair-care products. In addition to creating so-called scientific shampoos that were widely copied, Redken Laboratories pioneered the selling of beauty products in styling salons.
It began with her hairdresser, Jheri Redding. She complained to him about her allergic reactions as he did her hair, and it turned out she was talking to the right man.
Mr. Redding, an amateur chemist on the side, had come up with the idea of pH-balanced shampoos that would match the mild acidity of human skin and put protein, vitamins and minerals in hair-care products.
And, as he told Ms. Kent, he was starting a company to sell them. There was a hitch, though: His partners had dropped out. So he had a proposition for her. Would she like to join him in the enterprise?
Ms. Kent put up the $3,000 she had earned from a Hamm’s Beer commercial and immediately put her acting talents to use to promote the new products to salon owners. They named the enterprise, founded in 1960, Redken Laboratories – the first word a combination of their last names, and the second an affirmation of Mr. Redding’s conviction that the shampoos and rinses he had invented amounted to major advances in chemistry.
After teaming up with Mr. Redding, Ms. Kent took night classes in management, accounting and law, even as she put in long days building the new company. Its revenues were $90,000 the first year, $350,000 the next. By 1966, sales had reached $1.5-million.
Mr. Redding sold his share of the company to Ms. Kent in the mid-1960s, and she went on to make Redken the largest maker of hair- and skin-care products sold exclusively through beauty shops, expanding distribution to 35 countries. Vidal Sassoon and others followed suit by selling their signature products in their own salons.
Her partner in orchestrating the rise of Redken to a global company was her third husband, John Meehan, an ad man. He had originally come to the company to solicit ads for trade magazines in the beauty field, and she hired him as an executive. They married in 1971. In 1976, she made $70,000 ($293,000 in today’s dollars) as chairwoman. He made $65,000 ($272,000) as president.
The Meehans adhered to Mr. Redding’s vision of selling the company’s products only through beauty salons and stylists. Mr. Redding had seen retail sales as a shrewd way for salons to extend their business – not least because a woman in a haircutter’s chair, in his view, was the perfect captive customer.
“Salons began to realize that it was crazy not to sell a woman a shampoo,” Paula Meehan said in an interview with Forbes magazine in 1984. She sued merchants who tried to sell Redken merchandise outside salons.
In 1971 the company sold shares representing 48 per cent ownership of the company to the public. In 1988, the Meehans bought them back for $48.9-million. In 1993, when Redken’s annual sales had reached $160-million, Paula Meehan sold the company to an American subsidiary of the L’Oréal Group for an undisclosed sum.
She had become wealthy years earlier.
By the mid-1970s, she lived in a 24-room mansion in Beverly Hills, previously owned by Elvis Presley, and bred champion racehorses.
Paula Jane Baer was born in Beverly Hills on Aug. 9, 1931. Her father was an accountant. Pushed by her mother, she began her acting career at 12 and at 15 had dropped out of high school, married Donald Slocum and had a child. Ms. Reynolds gave her a baby shower, she told People magazine in 1976.
She divorced at 17. Five years later, she took up acting again, appearing in commercials and small parts on television. As a single mother, she worked as a secretary and gas station attendant to make ends meet. In 1954 she was named Miss Las Vegas Turf Club. That same year she married a second time, to Frank Miller, an advertising executive. That marriage, too, ended in divorce.
John Meehan died in 2004. Paula Meehan leaves her son, Michael Miller; her stepsons, Chris and Matt Meehan; two grandsons; three step-grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren. Her family announced her death.
After she sold Redken, she started a firm to invest in real estate and other enterprises. In May, she purchased The Beverly Hills Courier, a weekly newspaper. She was known for prowling the country in her Gulfstream III business jet to scout new opportunities.
“After painfully coming to the conclusion Hollywood wasn’t going to make me the next Joan Crawford,” she once said, “I wanted to control my own destiny.”
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