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People > Life Stories > Working Lunch. With Napoleon Perdis.

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submitted by Kytherian Cultural Exchange on 23.08.2011

Working Lunch. With Napoleon Perdis.

Culture magazine

When you have a name like ‘Napoleon’, people never forget you. So perhaps it was fate that this exuberant man was bestowed such a title by his parents, considering his incredible journey to become one of Australia’s leaders in the business of beauty. Napoleon Perdis’ remarkable personality combined with his inexhaustible energy are key to his success, and in a similar vein to his minute 19th century namesake, the makeup maestro immediately has a hypnotic impact on people, seemingly bending many influential movers and shakers to his will. But more than just fate has brought this man and his eponymous makeup brand to such fame and notoriety – a brilliant business vision and years of damn hard work complement the passion and creativity that he’s renowned for. Then again, if your name is Napoleon, you’re kind of destined for great things from the start, aren’t you? By Jenny Burns

When I catch up with Napoleon Perdis at the Hyatt Sanctuary Cove on Queensland’s Gold Coast, he’s on overdrive. But that’s just the way he is – permanently switched on, talking a million miles an hour with 20 different ideas concurrently buzzing around his head. He’s just finished a gruelling eight-show schedule at Rosemount Australian Fashion Week, has had book signings up and down the east coast, meetings with major retailers David Jones and Terry White Chemists and also spent nearly 60 hours on planes over a four-day period, thanks to some very inconvenient volcanic ash in Europe and a trip from LA to Brisbane.

“Cameramen, cameramen, where are you?” he yells. “Are you listening to me? Right, when the dancers come on I want you to zoom in on three things and three things only – tits, butts and faces – do you understand? This is what the audience wants to see, they want sex, sex, sex! Have you got it?”

We’re in rehearsals for tonight’s VIP Masterclass and ever the self-confessed control freak, Napoleon is insisting on run through after run through, tweaking lighting, volume controls, running orders, visuals, even arguing exactly where the Australian flag should sit on the stage during the event. He says he’s become more patriotic since he and his family moved to the US five years ago. Napoleon’s quite the celebrity in LA, often getting stopped in the streets by loyal fans, much to his delight.

“In LA, yes, it happens,” he says. “But when I go to say Dallas, although my customer base knows me, I don’t really get stopped. In New York, well everyone’s a celebrity there, so it takes time. But I’ve got a great following in Chicago, San Francisco, Kansas City, Oklahoma, Nebraska and Carolina. Over there, I’m known as the ‘Australian’ makeup artist, so lots of people recognise me. And when we do launches, we wave the Australian flag and sing the national anthem.

“Being here in Australia, I’m Greek Australian. In America, I’m just Australian. Greece gave me my heritage and my family and my passion. But Australia gave me my ticket to the world.”

In 2010, it seems as though makeup dynamo Napoleon Perdis is on a mission for world beauty domination. It’s certainly a long way from mopping floors at his parent’s fruit shop as a teenager.

Napoleon grew up in Sydney’s western suburb of Parramatta. His hard-working parents owned food outlets, fruit delis and the obligatory fish’n’chip shop, leaving Napoleon and his younger brother Emanuel in the care of his two grandmothers, who also lived in the Perdis household. Napoleon’s father was from a typical traditional Greek village, but his mother had a more international outlook on life.

“Mum was a very glamorous woman from Kythera,” Napoleon recalls, “and she wore a lot of makeup. We would watch her sit in front of a mirror and adorn herself. Dad used to call it ‘Operation Christmas Tree’.”

When Napoleon was a young teenager, his parents bought a fruit shop on the corner of Liverpool and Elizabeth streets in the city. He and his brother used to go there after school to help out, but it was department store Mark Foys that the boys used as their playground. And for Napoleon, it was like a dream come true.

“The makeup, the hair, the fashion, it was so glamorous for me and at the time, more than I’d ever known,” he says. “The women were so beautiful, with their immaculate hair and skin and coloured eyes. I thought I was in fantasyland. Sometimes mum would go in there and get her makeup done and I would watch. When I was 13, I started doing her makeup myself.

“She was quite beautiful my mum, dad used to call her ‘his Elizabeth Taylor’. And that’s what inspired me – I wanted to become a makeup artist because of her. She was my muse.”

Having aspirations of becoming a makeup artist wasn’t exactly a career of choice according to Napoleon’s parents, especially his father, who had dreams of his first-born training for a respectable occupation such as a doctor or lawyer.

“My father was concerned because I liked makeup,” Napoleon says. “Dad was a guerilla in the Greek Civil War and part of the left movement. He was very intellectual and idealistic, which is why he wanted sons who were strong and stood up on their own. He taught us that you had to be honest – in yourself and your dealings – and you had to respect people and their cultures. Dad would never let us talk Greek in public – he thought it was disrespectful to the Australian culture.

“Greeks want to know that their sons are going to make money and build homes. I suppose it wasn’t such a bad thing. Later in life, those things became important to me. But at the time I wanted to be creative and they didn’t really understand.”

Although he still aspired to become a makeup artist, when Napoleon finished school he went to Macquarie University to study political science and business law, coincidentally along with school mate Soula-Marie. He was mesmerised by the woman he calls his ‘tall, glamorous Athenian goddess’ and the pair married a few years later.

Napoleon started work as a barrister’s assistant, and not surprisingly, he hated it. He moved to the world of advertising and at the same time did a makeup course, then started doing makeup for brides on weekends to supplement his income. Soula-Marie, who had a much more financially lucrative actuarial job, would help out at weddings as his assistant.

Eighteen months down the track in 1992, after more training and experience, Napoleon started his own brand and launched a small makeup studio in the inner Sydney suburb of Leichhardt. Three years later he debuted his first concept store and academy on Sydney’s Oxford Street, boasting a full cosmetics collection including foundations, eye shadows, lipsticks and accessories. Vivid, vivacious colour soon became a Napoleon Perdis trademark and working intimately with women of different skin colours, skin types and ages, he also developed an immense appreciation for the uniqueness of every face, solidifying his intention to make trends accessible for all.

“I just wanted to be a makeup artist who had control of my destiny,” he adds. “I once went on a photo shoot where an agent started giving me instructions and bossing me around – and I knew I needed to be my own boss. I don’t cope well with people telling me what to do. I never have.”

With his dramatic personality and theatrical style, Napoleon never really quite fit into the world of session makeup, a habitually cliquey club that can often be too cool for school, regarding outsiders cautiously. For him, Vogue covers and the like would come much later, but at the time, he had bigger dreams. He wanted to go to the United States – and Hollywood was just his style.

“In 1991 Soula-Marie and I got married,” Napoleon continues, “and for Christmas the next year we went on a world trip. We started off in LA and stayed in Orange County – I thought, forget about this – so I checked us into the Hyatt on Sunset Boulevard. We couldn’t even afford to hire a car, we just walked everywhere. But from that moment, I knew that I wanted to be in LA.

“After that we went to New York, London and Greece. But we were on a strict budget. God, in New York, eternal accountant Soula-Marie made us catch a train with our suitcases and we were walking to our hotel from the train station, it was a nightmare! No drivers, no cabs, we couldn’t afford it. London was the same. But after that trip, I knew from then America was where I needed to be. I preferred the culture to English culture. It’s louder, it incorporates newness quicker, all of that. Brands in Australia do UK or USA, and I’m definitely USA.”

The Perdis family made the decision to move overseas when their eldest daughter was born ten years ago. But it took them another five years to put a plan into action and make it work. This left the Australasian business under the guidance of brother, co-owner and managing director Emanuel.

“We’ve now been in the States for five years, but really the business over there has only been operational for 2 ½,” Napoleon explains. “Basically, I just went over there, met with people and presented myself, my brand and my ideas. It sounds easy, but it took a long time. I was up until 1 or 2 o’clock in the morning when it was daytime in New York to talk to the buyers and I would always get voicemail, so I would wait until sometimes 3am to get to speak to them. This would happen every week. But it all paid off when we launched at Saks Fifth Avenue.

“In my first year in the US I lived in our home in New York, which I still have, and I did three weeks in New York and two weeks in Sydney. And let me tell you, I was working the whole New York thing at every level, every night and every day. I’d get up at 6am, breakfast with some people would be at 7.15am, then I’d train staff, Saks would open their doors at 10am, so I’d be in there setting up and getting the products ready to go, do my appointments, then come back at 5pm and keep working when I came home. Initially when we launched in Saks, we didn’t have a warehouse or anything, so they were importing the product from Australia.

“I got to know so many influential people at Saks Fifth Avenue, it was amazing. Plus, the customer base is phenomenal. The money and power that goes through stores like Saks and Bergdorf Goodman is not to be underestimated. I met Janet Tang who is EDP of Hearst International, then met all these editors at Hearst through her. I even used to look after Janet myself in New York, getting up at 5am to do her makeup in her apartment so she could be at meetings at 7am. I would look after people like that.

“You ask me how the whole US thing happened? Hard work. Lots of hard work.”

Once the Napoleon Perdis brand successfully launched in America and the profile of the product and its creator were growing at a steady rate, Napoleon and his family moved to California. And the energy was just right.

“When we first moved to New York, we felt like we were the immigrants crossing the border,” Napoleon laughs. “We had a one tonne white hire van we couldn’t afford, no credit rating and we were all living in a small two-bedroom apartment. There were six of us, plus our mother-in-law that were living there. But it was amazing, such fantastic energy.

“It took us nine months to find our home when we went to California. We bought Sheryl Crow’s home on Mulholland Drive in the Hollywood Hills, did it up then moved in. We put the kids in school, they went to a Jewish school at first, but now they go to a Hollywood school with a lot of actor’s kids. It’s liberated, it’s progressive and it’s got great education.”

Napoleon’s next big break came upon meeting Executive Vice President of Sony Pictures Television, Holly Jacobs. She discovered Napoleon through an article she read and said: ‘I want to do a show on you.’ Another pivotal meeting in Napoleon’s journey, his fame and notoriety hit another level.

So after being in the US for five years, the Napoleon Perdis brand is headed in only one direction – and that’s up. Since first launching in Saks Five Avenue in 2005, complete with windows on 59th and 5th, Perdis opened his Hollywood flagship store and academy on historic Hollywood Boulevard in 2007. The following year, he propelled his brand to the masses by launching sibling label NP Set in more than 1,600 Target outlets across America with a gigantic US$11 million advertising and promotional budget. Napoleon Perdis was on television, magazines, and billboards, everywhere. He also became the official makeup partner of the Primetime Emmy Awards and starred in his own reality TV series, Get Your Face On, on the TLC USA cable network. And just last year the Napoleon Perdis brand opened in more than 300 ULTA stores across America.

But it doesn’t stop there. In Australia, Napoleon Perdis has been the official partner for a variety of profile events and programs including Australia’s Next Top Model, the Australian Film Industry Awards and Brisbane’s Mercedes Benz Fashion Festival. All of this, combined with the homegrown operation of several makeup academies and concept stores in Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria, as well as partnerships with David Jones, Target and Terry White Chemists plus hundreds of salons around the country, Perdis says that, according to Business Update Australasia, his brand is now number one in the prestige colour category in Australia in 2010, the year he celebrates officially 15 years in business with more than 4,500 point of sale locations globally. The company reputedly turns over in excess of $80 million per annum.

“You know what? Some of my darkest hours were in those first couple of years when we moved overseas,” Napoleon ponders. “I left Australia with an empire – with staff I loved and systems that worked – to go to the US and set up my business in a country that’s fickle. Having to establish myself alongside the big players is daunting. But I’ve worked very hard and been blessed with meeting some amazing people and we are fortunate to have a very successful, profitable business.

“They did a big profile on me in the New York Times; for me, that was my real arrival. It was traction – everyone in the industry knew who I was.”

These days Napoleon Perdis and his family, including daughters Lianna, 10, and eight-year-old triplets Alexia, Athina and Angelene, are happy living a celebrity-style life in their Hollywood Hills mansion. Their home is eclectically styled to say the least and as outrageous in some parts as its dynamic owner. The four level abode with nine bathrooms, six bedrooms, three living rooms, three dining rooms, plus a den and performance stage for the girls, is a mix of Greek influences with old world Hollywood styling. There’s baroque-inspired Murano crystal chandeliers, a swagged upholstered fabric ceiling and gold faux-leather high backed chairs. Fendi sofas and vintage cheetah rugs sit beside Versace chairs and quirky art deco pineapple lamps. The pool is mid-century Mykonos, all blue and white, with animal hide rugs to dry wet feet. Artworks are sourced from both flea markets and galleries, including one of Napoleon’s favourite pieces, Salvador Dali’s Paradise Lost.

Perdis has just finished designing his new home in Palm Springs, right near the former home of Hollywood royalty Cary Grant.

“Soula-Marie and I try to go up to Palm Springs every second weekend with the girls and just sit by a beach and spend time together,” Napoleon smiles. “We spend those two days rejuvenating. We look at vintage architecture. We hike. We have beautiful food. We swim. We read. We also try to be more real and who we are in the short time that we have with each other.”

Superstardom aside, Napoleon does have a true sense of reality and being grounded, especially when he talks about his passion for his family. “No matter how busy I am, I want to make quality time for my children,” he says. “Being a father has taught me patience. It has also taught me to love someone more than myself.

“I don’t do things half-hearted. I love with passion and I hate with passion and I work with passion. I don’t do things in between. I’ve always been very energetic and very driven, but I don’t think creative people are any less really. I think anyone that I’ve met who is truly successful in their area is never anything less.”

“Sure, I get a little bit chuffed sometimes about where I am,” he adds. “But I want more.”

Next on the Napoleon Perdis quest for global domination is South America. The company recently opened two stores in Mexico and next will be Argentina and Brazil. After South America will be Canada. So it’s the Americas, Australia and New Zealand for now. After that will be the Asian market, followed by Europe. Seems as though Napoleon is truly following in the footsteps of his idol Helena Rubenstein.

Our interview is politely interrupted by Napoleon’s assistant, who reminds him that his massage is ready. Like many people of privilege, these days he travels everywhere with his own personal chef, trainer and masseuse. But later that evening, I’m reminded that despite the fortunes of fame and having devoted celebrity fans include Debra Messing, Sarah Michelle Gellar and Lady GaGa, Napoleon Perdis is just as dedicated to the every day women who watch those celebrities on TV.

“Oh Napoleon, we just wanted to come and shake your hand,” cries an older woman in a group of three who approach him following the Masterclass rehearsals. “We’re such big fans, we follow everything you do!”

“And I’m from the western suburbs too!” quips another, who simultaneously blushes and beams when her beauty hero gives her a warm hug.

“That’s wonderful darling, great to see you too!” Napoleon bounces back.

“Every woman has the right to feel the glamour that stars feel on the red carpet,” he smiles. “I truly believe that.”

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