In only a matter of months the beauty industry, like so many others, has been turned upside down by the COVID-19 pandemic. In these uncertain times, it’s important to keep our heads up and focus on the light at the end of the tunnel and the bright future it holds for the next generation of beauty professionals. That's why we've decided to publish a series of profiles on people across the industry.
This week’s profile is on Alison O’Neil, a long-time beauty professional and the founder of the Beauty Becomes You Foundation. We were so inspired by her moving account of how Beauty Becomes You came to be and how her charity is still touching lives while still social distancing and protecting one another!
Below is a little recap of our conversation. Alison is passionate about what beauty can do for our world, even amidst a pandemic. Her inspiring words are exactly what beauty students and professionals alike need to hear!:
We wanted to start off by asking about you and what you do?
I’m Alison O’Neil and I have been in the aesthetics and beauty industry for over 35 years. I actually started the first dermatologic rehabilitation facility in the entire country, which preceded medical aesthetics. So my work has involved skincare, wound healing, and the psychology of appearance. I have treated many patients and spoken to many physicians about their work in medical aesthetics. I was also on the cosmetology board in Georgia for 11 years and wrote the national exams 5 times for aesthetics and have examined probably over 50,000 cosmetologists in total. My own license is in cosmetology because, although my passion is in working with camouflage cosmetics and skincare, cosmetology was the only license that was available when I started. So that is the foundation of 8 years of training- I was trained by the doctors at Emory dermatology and then other doctors I worked with in the dermatologic aspect of my work. My degree is in counseling and rehabilitation with an emphasis on the psychology of appearance and cosmetic treatments.
Wow! You have done a lot! How did that lead you to Beauty Becomes You and what you do now?
Well, in 1984, I developed the ‘Look Good, Feel Better’ program, and in 1987 it was released to the American Cancer Society. So I’ve worked a lot with cancer patients and those going through chemotherapy. I did that for over 10 years as a volunteer. Volunteerism has played such a huge role in my career. I have done everything I possibly could to get experience. Early on, there were no advanced classes in certain things I was interested in, so the only way I could get practice was to volunteer my time and take some pretty big risks! This led me to do a good thing, which led me to do more good things! I started The Beauty Becomes You charity in 2006. I didn’t start it with the idea that it would become a charity, rather it started with my own personal experience working with my dad while living and working to help both my parents while my father was in the last 9 months of his life. My mother and I were his primary caregivers. Just before he died, his cancer had metastasized to his bones and brain and he wasn’t speaking to us in conversation anymore. But every day he woke up and would say ‘I don’t know what’s wrong with me but I’m going to feel better tomorrow’ with his thumbs up. Overall he was very positive during this experience. One day he was on the porch digging in some flowers. About a half an hour of silence had gone by as he and I were out there together, and he suddenly called my name. I went over and said ‘Dad how can I help you?’ He just kept digging and digging and eventually, he looked up at me and said ‘beauty becomes you’. As I held my heart, to me he meant ‘Thank you for everything you’ve done for me, and, because of it, you have ‘become beauty’. To me, it also meant everything I had been doing with my patients for almost 30 years at the time. I had never heard those three words together before in my life but I knew that those words encompassed everything I had counseled. I had always worked to help them find their true duty in life, regardless of if they had lost their appearance to a trauma or a chronic illness or a deformity. And Beauty Becomes You was born. We didn’t know it would be for seniors, it took another year.
That is such an inspiring story. How did Beauty Becomes You transition from an idea to the beautiful and life-changing charity it is today?
My dad passed away suddenly and someone encouraged me to start a charity called Beauty Becomes You. That someone happened to be one of the executives at Estee Lauder. He was actually the person who started the ‘gift with purchase’ concept in 1967. When I got my interview with him it was such a brilliant day in my life. It was one that I had dreamt about forever and ever, even though I never knew who he was. The reason I dreamt about this day forever and ever though was because, when I was seven years old I got lost in a department store in Clearwater, Florida. The Estee Lauder woman saved me. She brought me behind the counter with her. At that time, the Estee Lauder women were every little girl’s awe, almost like a flight attendant. They were perfect it seemed- their hair, makeup, and these beautiful blue suits with gold buttons. They were really something. At 7 years old, being with the Estee Lauder woman was like being in heaven. To console me she gave me a little gift with purchase, which was ironically the first gift with purchase that was ever released. Inside the gift with purchase was a little pouch with Este Lauder lotion, powder, and signature perfume. I kept that pouch for 37 years because there was something inside my mind that said I will either work for Estee Lauder or be just like her when I grow up.
So, the day I got to meet Joe Spellman, the head of marketing for Estee Lauder who had been there 50 years, was a dream come true. But, he said ‘You don’t belong in the industry because you’ve done too many nice things for people and you really have to work your way up from the counter…’ There were so many reasons why I wasn’t going to get a job for Estee Lauder that day. But, he said something special- that Beauty Becomes You is the name for a charity and that I should start it. So I went out into the world without any idea of how to start a charity but I had some friends and other things happen that just made me feel that this was meant to be. A few months later I got a call from an old friend who said ‘Ali I’d like you to meet someone who is here from Washington D.C.” This person was the VP of Philanthropy for the AARP Foundation. So we went out to dinner and once Joe Spellman had said that this should be a charity, I had moved past my original intention that it was going to be the title of my book- From Glamour to Grace: Beauty Becomes You. And she said, do you have a book? And I said no- because Joe Spellman had guided me away from that and into the idea of this as a charity. She said that I needed a book because she wanted me to come to Washington D.C. and speak to 500 women at a women’s conference there. So I called my friend and she helped me self-publish my book; we only had 35 copies made. At the conference, I sat on a panel with five other women who were renowned authors with big publishing houses behind them and all I had was my little self-published book, talking about how beauty becomes you. But I was astounded as some of these women were raising their hands asking me ‘Can I get a copy of your book for my ya-ya sisterhood book club?’ And I only had 35 copies.
I came home and two weeks later was invited to the 30th anniversary of Meals on Wheels. And this was exactly one year after my dad had said those special words to me- Beauty Becomes You. At this point, I still didn’t know who the charity was going to be for, what our mission was going to be. I went to this center and as I walked around, I noticed that all of these different rooms were lit up, as bright as day. There were gardening centers and art centers and so much more. But as I drifted away from the group, I noticed dark space in the back. This space had two old shampoo bowls and chairs, a manicure station, and a pedicure stand. So I immediately went to the director and asked ‘Why is everything lit up as bright as day except for that spot?’ And she said these words: ‘This is the most important spot for our members but we can’t afford to keep it staffed and we can’t afford the products.” So that is where our mission was born.
That is so inspiring. I have been taken aback by how much you do for these people and how you’re keeping the older generation at the front of mind during a time like this. Speaking on this topic, how have you been during this pandemic?
When all this started, I promised myself that I would use this to come out even better than when I came in. I have my own way of doing that, which is by walking. I walk anywhere from 7 to 15 miles a day which is exhausting. But I am more physically fit than I have ever been. Mentally, it has given me the opportunity to really get clear. I feel so fortunate and glad that I have the ability to really understand how things are getting better through this. I look at crisis as an opportunity and otherwise, I would never be able to do what I do. I want to use this to see how can I get better. Starting the Circles of Light initiative has given us the opportunity to build Beauty Becomes You by building our volunteers and connecting more. I wake up every day excited because it is a beautiful opportunity for our industry and that excites me so much. I’m not feeling overwhelmed or pushed because I’ve also learned that everything opens up in its own time. I wake up with these fears like ‘What if we have this need for thousands of letters and not enough people to write’ but I remind myself that every letter is written one at a time. I also have hope and always pray with thanks, which leads me to clarity. My faith is a huge part of my personal way of getting through this. Amidst confusion and angst, I always say thank you and I feel that my faith through the challenges brought me to a place where I know how to be in the eye of the storm rather than in the storm.
It’s amazing to hear someone have faith through such a discouraging and challenging time. That’s so motivating to hear!
I just know as students and teachers, I know schools are really struggling right now. Like when are we going to open and the lack of hands-on experience? I spoke to two different schools this week. Their teachers brought me on and they’re wondering, ‘How do we go forward?’ The most important thing though is the present! Making the most of this moment because it is the only one that matters. We will figure out how to move forward but the future isn’t as vital as staying positive as the present. The pandemic is unique in that we’re all in it together. There’s no worry that we’re doing it right or wrong, no competition! We’re all doing the best we can do and if we come out of anything we’re doing the right thing!
How has your day to day changed? Before the pandemic vs now, what does your day look like now compared to just a few months ago?
I’m an entrepreneur. I work from home a lot. I live in a small place with a beautiful view, but only 800 sq. feet. I’m very different and unique that I wasn’t going somewhere every single day. From that perspective, my life didn’t change. What I’ve been doing is applying what I’ve learned. I’ve already been given the gift through the trials and tribulations of my entrepreneurial life of knowing that you can’t push anything forward and realizing that life will come as it comes. If anything I have been able to feel less stressed knowing I wasn’t alone anymore in this way of life. I can talk about it in that I can help others who this isn’t normal for. I’m not afraid. Every day is beautiful. The worst part of this pandemic is that it threatens to take our breath away. But there are so many things in life that can take your breath away in awe, and there are many more of those than there are this.
That is such a beautiful lesson. One more question and I’ll let you go: How do you feel about the beauty industry right now?
I’d say I feel excited. It’s because one of my passions is the history of the beauty industry and throughout time our industry has flourished in times of chaos, trama, and difficulties. I think one of the things that I understand is the trepidation that people feel, even though here in Georgia we’re the first ones to be able to go back to work. But the reason I feel excited its because the people that receive our services were so focused on the superficial outcomes. Although they’re beautiful and lovely and that is our goal, they don’t understand, know, or realize that the reason we’re licensed is to protect the public first. The reason I’m excited is that after being a board member, writing exams, and thousands of people for over 50 years, this is the opportunity to see the true value in our work, and people are using it. ‘Safer than ever’ I saw an advertisement from a local salon post on Facebook. I don’t think the public ever realized the protective value in what we do. It was about the perfect eyebrow or the perfect facial. It was about accentuating their lives- they didn’t realize that there was this foundation of having to understand how we as protect them. And I find that so exciting.