‘I was fighting for my life’: Poppy King’s lipstick comeback

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Beauty entrepreneur Poppy King has returned to Australia to give her fairytale the happy ending it deserves.

Once upon a time – 1995 to be exact – King was hailed as a home-grown success story. That was when she became Young Australian of the Year, and the business she started in 1991, aged 19, reported profits of $6.5 million.

Poppy King in Melbourne for the launch of her new lipstick Original Sin. Based in New York, King will now return to Australia four times a year to produce her latest brand.Credit: Justin McManus

That happy ever after faded when Poppy Industries entered receivership in 1998 and King was branded with a scarlet red “F” for failure.

“I joke with my friends in America that if I were ever to win the Nobel Prize, the headline in Australia would be ‘Failed lipstick queen wins award’,” King says. But that’s not the narrative she follows.

Now 51, King has returned to Australia from New York, her home for 20 years, to launch a business with her original matte lipstick formulas, the original Melbourne manufacturer and her original belief that lipstick transforms lives.

“The only reason I’m willing to expose myself to the hashing up of this idea of failure here is because of the generation who grew up with me,” King says. “I was on their lips.”

With contacts from working with US beauty giant Estee Lauder, which purchased the remains of the original Poppy Industries in 2002, before closing it and hiring her as creative vice president of its Prescriptives brand, King could have avoided any awkward Australian encounters.

While overseas, she happily launched her second business, Lipstick Queen, which sold to British private equity firm Manzanita Capital in 2011, but COVID-19 changed King’s priorities.

“I unfortunately got COVID in March 2020 in New York. I was an early adopter,” she says.

“There isn’t an easy way of saying this. I was fighting for my life. There were times when I felt that the Grim Reaper was in the room.”

Poppy King in 1997, a year before her first lipstick business entered receivership.Credit: Belinda Pratten

At that moment, King decided her next move would have meaning that lasted longer than a gentle swipe on the mouth.

“The only thing left after all these years in business that felt meaningful to me was coming back and manufacturing in Australia.

“Everything I’ll be doing globally will be coming exported out of Australia. I had to earn that Young Australian of the Year award and give back, right?”

Australia is the launchpad for the new range, starting with the metallic matte red lipstick, Original Sin. Diving deeply into nostalgia, King will have a pop-up store from September 19 to 25 on Chapel Street, South Yarra, where her lipsticks were first stocked in Bettina Liano’s boutique.

In the store, King hopes to reconnect with her original customers.

“Some of these women had their first kiss with a Poppy lipstick. Some of them have daughters now called Poppy because of those lipsticks.”

Capturing the attention of those daughters in a beauty market crowded with products from reality-TV and rock stars, influencers and fashion designers is King’s fresh challenge. “I’m not using algorithms,” she says. Poppy King Lipstick’s fledgling Instagram account currently features lo-fi photos of customers wearing Original Sin.

Poppy King describes the metallic, snake skin finish of her red lipstick as “like a ring light for the face.”Credit: Justin McManus

“Generation Z is pretty much my spirit animal because what they are looking for is authenticity. I’m doing an authenticity campaign and let’s see what comes from that,” she says.

Another change since the ’90s are the potential profits of an Australian beauty business. Melbourne-born Aesop’s sold in April to L’Oréal for $US2.53 billion ($3.95 billion) and Japan’s Kao Corporation’s purchased fake tan brand Bondi Sands last month for an estimated $450 million cash deal.

For the time being, King, who confesses to be being better at entrepreneurship than business, is ignoring future pay days. “It’s going to sound really silly, but joy is my goal,” she says.

“Something difficult happened to me when I was 17, which I’ve never really talked about, that sent me into the world of my imagination. In the world of my imagination, I was going to start a lipstick company.

“So the first time around, it was definitely going into the world of the imagination. This time is about joy.”

Part of that joy is realising that you don’t have to be a princess or a villain in your own fairytale.

“As a child, I thought people might see me as a princess with these big eyes or a witch with my strong nose. Surreptitiously playing dress-ups with red lipstick I realised I don’t have to be either.”

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