They don’t call him the “MAC Daddy” for nothing.
In the beauty world – and beyond – John Demsey is a legend. He’s seen it all, done it all, and has the photos to prove it.
He also happens to be one of my best friends.
And when you spend as much time with someone as I do with John, it’s easy to forget your BFF is a big, damn deal.
John Demsey built MAC Cosmetics from a $100 million niche brand to a $2 billion behemoth.
He was instrumental in creating Tom Ford Beauty, one of the top fragrance businesses in the world.
And today – as Executive Group President of The Estée Lauder Companies – he oversees those two brands and Clinique, Too Faced, Smashbox and GLAMGLOW.
Buckle up, you’re about to learn a thing or two from one of the smartest people I’ve ever met.
ALINA CHO: So, let's talk about your childhood. You grew up in Shaker Heights, [a suburb of Cleveland].
JOHN DEMSEY: [I grew up] Jewish in post-war suburbia in Cleveland. I have amazing parents. My father was a self-made businessman in the steel business.
ALINA CHO: And your mother was an artist.
JOHN DEMSEY: My mother was a painter, very Matisse-like. She was a self-taught artist who became super successful. She sold her paintings at Henri Bendel. And then she became [the in-house artist at] Bergdorf Goodman, at 25. So, she did the shopping bags, she did the catalog covers…
ALINA CHO: Oh, I didn't know that.
JOHN DEMSEY: So, my mom was sort-of this New York thing…
ALINA CHO: … even though she wasn't living here.
JOHN DEMSEY: Even though she wasn't living here. And in the mid-seventies, my father gave my mother a choice. Either she could have a big house [in Cleveland] or [a smaller house there and] an apartment in New York, and she chose the apartment in New York. So, in 1975, my parents had a one-bedroom apartment in the Olympic Tower.
ALINA CHO: Isn’t that where you ended up living [for a time, as an adult]?
JOHN DEMSEY: Yes. [But back then], Halston had his studio there.
ALINA CHO: Oh, my God. That's right.
JOHN DEMSEY: And my mom, growing up, was walking around in Rudi Gernreich hot pants, white go-go boots.
ALINA CHO: What did you think?
JOHN DEMSEY: I thought it was normal.
ALINA CHO: Yeah.
JOHN DEMSEY: Honestly, growing up in such a preppy environment, everybody was trying to fit in. I couldn't have been in a family that stood more out.
ALINA CHO: Also, beauty is in your blood.
JOHN DEMSEY: Beauty is in my blood. My grandmother had a cousin in Chicago. He was Uncle Bernie, Bernie Mitchell. He made a killing in the air conditioning business after World War II. He did research and found out that a great margin business was to be in the fragrance business. So, he created, in the 1970s, Jovan Musk fragrance.
JOHN DEMSEY: For people who don't know what that is…
JOHN DEMSEY: Jovan Musk was the sex pheromone, unisex fragrance of the ‘70s.
ALINA CHO: It was the fragrance.
JOHN DEMSEY: So, when I wondered, what did I want to be when I grew up?
ALINA CHO: Did that seem glamorous to you?
JOHN DEMSEY: Seemed very glamorous to me.
JOHN DEMSEY: In 1998, I was offered another job working for a highly well-known French company in luxury. And Leonard [Lauder, Chairman Emeritus of The Estée Lauder Companies] said, "You can't leave." And he said, "What about MAC?" I said, "Yes, I could do that."
ALINA CHO: It was a $200 million company when you got it?
JOHN DEMSEY: No, it was less. It was less than a hundred million dollars.
ALINA CHO: And you built it to a $2 billion company?
JOHN DEMSEY: According to industry sources, yes.
ALINA CHO: When I met you, they lovingly called you the “MAC Daddy.”
JOHN DEMSEY: They still do.
ALINA CHO: How did you make [MAC] what it is today?
JOHN DEMSEY: It seems like it was very easy. It wasn't. People think I've been successful my entire life. I was an overnight sensation at 40.
ALINA CHO: Right.
JOHN DEMSEY: When I took the MAC job, it was considered to be a career risk because no one wanted to take it, because nobody really understood what it was about.
ALINA CHO: I remember when you signed Nicki Minaj, Lady Gaga to MAC, nobody knew who they were.
JOHN DEMSEY: Actually, when we signed Lady Gaga, it was considered to be such a commercial risk, that we paired her in the ad with Cyndi Lauper.
ALINA CHO: I remember.
JOHN DEMSEY: And when I came to MAC, the first thing that I did is, I embraced hip-hop culture and I signed Mary J. Blige and Lil’ Kim. And that was the first big moment for me.
ALINA CHO: But how did you know that hip-hop culture was the next big thing?
JOHN DEMSEY: Because I'm a kid who grew up in Cleveland, listening to the radio. And I always know that music…
ALINA CHO: … dictates the culture?
JOHN DEMSEY: The music dictates the culture. The ‘80s brought us MTV, and all the stars of the ‘90s were created by MTV, VH1, and BET. The same way that now, the culture on social media defines what's next.
JOHN DEMSEY: I met Tom Ford, originally because he approached me to be the president of Saint Laurent Cosmetics, when he and Domenico De Sole owned the brand. We hit it off. And when he left, I met with him. And I said, "Would you consider doing a collaboration for Estée Lauder?" And he said, "Yes." Conditionally, if we would help him start his brand. And we did.
ALINA CHO: So, you started with fragrances [15 years ago]. There were a lot of naysayers.
JOHN DEMSEY: Most people were naysayers. Nobody thought that Tom Ford would be able to create a brand. No one thought that Tom Ford could justify being a beauty brand. Nobody thought that Tom Ford would be a global beauty brand.
ALINA CHO: Because at this point, he didn't have his clothing line, yet.
JOHN DEMSEY: It was just starting.
ALINA CHO: Why do you think Tom Ford as a beauty brand took off?
JOHN DEMSEY: I think the thing about Tom that's unique is that he's very self-confident and he's ambitious and he has a strong point of view.
ALINA CHO: A strong point of view is everything.
JOHN DEMSEY: And the thing that was interesting was the more expensive the product, the more luxe, the more it sold. And today, it’s one of the largest fragrance businesses in the world.
ALINA CHO: I want to talk about your date to the Tom Ford [fashion] show.
JOHN DEMSEY: Oh, Saweetie?
ALINA CHO: I mean, Saweetie is the gift that keeps on giving.
JOHN DEMSEY: She’s our newest MAC Global Ambassador. It’s the beginning of what we hope is going to be long-standing collaboration.
ALINA CHO: How did you find her?
JOHN DEMSEY: During COVID, as I was watching my daughter TikTok the days away, [Saweetie] had a number one single with Doja Cat, "Best Friend”. She just did a collaboration with McDonald's, on what's called a Saweetie Meal, which is a reboot of the Happy Meal. And it is the most successful food campaign, I believe, in the history of McDonald's.
ALINA CHO: She has that star quality.
JOHN DEMSEY: It's also the power of Drew Elliott [Global Creative Director of MAC Cosmetics]. He saw her super early, and he said, “This one's going to stick."
JOHN DEMSEY: At the end of the day, the reason why the beauty business perseveres forever and ever and ever — more than fashion — is that wanting to look good, be attractive, feel good in your skin, is a universal aspiration. It's a need that you're constantly searching for. You're never fully, quite satisfied. No one has ever said, “I’m too good looking, I’m too young.”
ALINA CHO: But how has COVID changed the beauty market?
JOHN DEMSEY: It had a dramatic short-term negative effect on lipstick, highlighters, on liquid and full-coverage foundation. But in the Zoom environment, brow products, mascara, concealer, eye makeup, gloss, home self-care, all those things, home fragrances — it’s starting to cycle. Men and women want to feel alive. So, I see a resurgence taking place.
ALINA CHO: Have there been any surprises?
JOHN DEMSEY: The fragrance thing was a surprise to me.
ALINA CHO: Fragrance did really well during COVID. How do you explain that? Because we were all at home.
JOHN DEMSEY: I think that we weren't traveling. We weren't going out to eat. We weren't buying a lot of clothing. We weren’t wearing a lot of makeup.
ALINA CHO: And fragrance is a lift?
JOHN DEMSEY: Fragrance is a headspace and a lift, and people wanted to treat themselves.
ALINA CHO: Okay, last thing, Instagram. You have more than 60,000 followers on Instagram. To be clear, these are real followers.
JOHN DEMSEY: It's all authentically real.
ALINA CHO: People are completely obsessed with your Instagram. How many times a day do you post?
JOHN DEMSEY: 15 to 30 [posts a day]. You know what? I break all the cardinal rules of social media. I treat myself like a network. I'm streaming content.
ALINA CHO: You love a meme.
JOHN DEMSEY: I love a meme, and people are meme dealers.
ALINA CHO: I'm a meme dealer.
JOHN DEMSEY: You're a meme dealer. So, people send me things, and I don't know, it just organically comes to me, and now when I pepper it with a little TikTok, it makes it even more fun.
ALINA CHO: What do people say to you when they meet you?
JOHN DEMSEY: They thank me. Went to the coffee shop yesterday and a woman came up to me, she says, "Oh my God, I love your Instagram." I thought, like, "Oh my God, do I know you?"
ALINA CHO: People have said that it got them through the pandemic.
JOHN DEMSEY: Yes. It was a beacon of light during a dark period.