ABERNATHY, NICHOLS FETED AT BEAUTY BALL
NEW YORK — Forget Cindy, Vendela, Amber and Elizabeth.
The cosmetics industry got a peek Monday night at a new lineup of beauty queens — Delilah, D’va Rober, Evangeline, Jennifer Michaels and Gusty Winds. They made up the posse of cross-dressing downtown divas, who normally sling entrees and high step through floor shows at Lips, a restaurant in the West Village.
But Monday night they were at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, working the 22nd annual March of Dimes Million Dollar Beauty Ball, which honored Jerry L. Abernathy, president of Coty U.S., and David L. Nichols, chairman and chief executive officer of Mercantile Stores Co.
Beauty Ball chairman Daniel J. Moriarity told the industry crowd of 740 that the drag queens from Lips had provided their services as “volunteer hostesses” — helping to coax the crowd from the cocktail area into the dining room — in hopes of procuring “one of those big buck modeling contracts we hear so much about.”
Moriarity, vice president of corporate relations at Christian Dior Perfumes, said the Lips ladies were recruited out of a desire “to give [the annual event] a fresh feeling.”
That is also why a disk jockey — Tom Finn — was hired, instead of the usual dance band. While Moriarity had worked on Beauty Ball committees before, this was his debut as chairman, and it wasn’t until February that he took over and got a chance to start planning.
As a result, this year’s event provided a ripple of drama on the normally placid fund-raising front. The contribution tally was $28,000 short of the million-dollar mark by the time the dinner began. However, Sally Ledes, wife of Beauty Fashion publisher John G. Ledes, had put up a $15,000 matching donation. During dinner, David Nugent, president of the Toronto-based Riviera Concepts, donated the needed $15,000.
That allowed an obviously relieved Moriarity to appear at the podium, brandishing a huge mockup of a check and declaring at 9:26 p.m. that the Million Dollar Beauty Ball had indeed lived up to its name. The total exceeded the million mark by $2,000.
There also was a hint of uncertainty when executives discussed business during the evening. Nichols described Mercantile’s results as “fair, not spectacular,” due in part to the early Easter this year, in March instead of April. Cosmetics is “OK,” he said, adding that volume is limping ahead in single digits.
Dan Brestle, president of Clinique, agreed that the March business was tough, compounded by lackluster activity in gift-with-purchase. But he cited the rising pattern of last year’s business while predicting that volume would continue to swell this year to a 6 percent annual gain by the time parent Estee Lauder Cos. closes its fiscal year June 30.
The Revlon camp was upbeat. George Fellows, Revlon president and chief executive officer, and Kathy Dwyer, president of Revlon Cosmetics USA, concurred that while it will be difficult for the cosmetics industry to match the double-digit growth spurt it experienced last year, it could still see healthy gains.
“The color business grew 16 percent last year because a lot of our competitors launched their own transfer-proof products,” Dwyer said. “I think it will be closer to 8 percent this year because trial purchases of transfer-proof items have fallen off. That’s still strong growth. We had a good first quarter. Our spring shades, ColorStay cheek color, our pencils and Street Wear are all segments that are looking good.”
Coty’s Abernathy was optimistic, too. His sales are running 8 percent ahead this year, buoyed largely by the recent launch of Nokomis, which marks the first time Coty has introduced a fragrance in the spring. In addition, he reported that mass market retailers appear surprisingly optimistic about their Christmas fragrance business, a subject that has elicited groans for the last two years.
During the award presentations, Robin Burns, president and ceo of Estee Lauder USA and Canada, described Nichols as “a caring and generous individual who likes to have fun.”
“He also is a winner. He likes to think of himself as Tiger Woods,” Burns said with a smile. “Although he only plays [golf] three times a year and he’s usually carried to victory by his foursome.”
Without missing a beat, Burns smoothly told the noisy crowd to quiet down. “This is our honoree and I want to make sure he gets everything he deserves, including your attention,” she said, adding with a laugh, “That’s why Dave asked me to do this.”
Abernathy, who plans to retire at yearend after 32 years with Coty, received a standing ovation from the crowd when he accepted his Beautiful Apple award.
The previous speaker, John Ledes, had implied that Abernathy, a star baseball pitcher in college, had missed out on a major league career because of a stint in the Army.
The honoree, however, remembered it differently.
“Just to get a couple of details straight,” Abernathy said with his typical candor, “the reason I didn’t play in the major leagues was that nobody offered me a job.
“As for my 32 years with Coty,” he continued, “I want to make it clear that I started when I was 12.”