The Full Stop, In Order To Start

Last year my new year’s resolution was to become an indoor cycling instructor. Instead, I had a double mastectomy. As an otherwise healthy 45-year-old who ate well and regularly exercised, this came as a shock.

I got my spinning certification in January and enrolled in a cycle mentorship program through Equinox where I spent every Saturday for eight weeks with a coach and a dozen others sweating towards the same goal. At the conclusion of the training we auditioned in front of a room full of Equinox GM’s.

One week later, still on a high from completing the course and braving the audition, I got the diagnosis and had to withdraw from becoming an instructor.

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After numerous tests, including seven excruciatingly painful needle biopsies, the doctor’s told me I had lobular carcinoma in situ, LCIS, which is considered stage zero breast cancer.  It was like someone threw a stick in the spoke of my bike wheel.

Suddenly, my five-day-a-week workouts came to a screeching halt and the once fit and active me was now filling out paperwork preparing to take a leave of absence from my job. I barely ever took sick days, much less faced something of this magnitude. It was incredibly humbling.

I decided to make the difficult decision of removing my breasts because the alternative options were not much better.  If anything, undergoing radical surgery was facing the issue head on. Cancer has taken people I love, so I wasn’t about to go down without a fight. I didn’t have it yet, but it was heading straight towards me so I was gonna knock it out like a cassowary bird.

(cue LL Cool J “Mama Said Knock You Out.”)

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After double mastectomy surgery

After the double mastectomy I faced months of recovery as I underwent reconstruction. It was one of the most painful experiences of my life, but not without a silver lining. In the process, a friend became a boyfriend and I found true love.

After my mother returned home Gerrard took over caring for me and never left. He’s accompanied me to every doctor’s appointment, even simple blood work, and hasn’t wavered once in his support. We’re now living together and preparing to adopt a cat.

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Coming home from the hospital with Gerrard

As the year draws to a close and I ponder what I’ll resolve to do in the next, I’m considering getting back on the bike and trying again. Everyone faces health hurdles at one time or another in life. After all, we aren’t machines (and even those break down too) so I’d like to help others right their ships and stay the course.

If I can bring this experience to a cycling class, it will be something else that made this past year’s struggle all the more worth it. And maybe, just maybe, that’s what was intended all along. The full stop, in order to start from the place I was meant to begin.

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Me to Cancer: Mamma Said Knock You Out!

The Scent of a Man

If you were a teenager in the 80’s you probably remember Ralph Lauren’s Polo cologne in the classic green bottle. Despite pimples, parachute pants, copious amounts of hair spray and neon color palettes, Polo made you cool. Or at least on the way.

Fourteen-year-old Chris Collins was obsessing over another popular fragrance at the time, Calvin Klein’s Obsession for Men. Prior to that he’d grown up smelling his father’s cologne, Geoffrey Beene’s Grey Flannel. The bottle, the label, even the flannel bag it came in all left an impression.

Collins always loved fragrance and the powerful associations communicated through the olfactory nerve. Scent was its own language and he found himself longing to be the author of its many stories. Decades later he met the Hemingway of perfumers himself, Kilian Hennessy, which resulted in months in the South of France learning the craft.

“My entire life I’ve been obsessed with fragrance.  I would always say to myself, ‘I wish I could create my own scent,” says Collins.  “When I started to learn the process of perfume creation I was hooked.  There are about 3,000 notes that can be used by a perfumer.  To see them work to build a scent from scratch is art.  The very concise method of building a fragrance with its top, heart and base notes… is magical.” 

What’s also magical is seeing a passion through to fruition. Collins spent his early career as the face of Ralph Lauren. After 20 years as a model, he is now the face of Chris Collins, Alchemy of Fragrance, having made his dream come true with the launch of his eponymous line.

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“After my experience with Kilian, I just finally had the courage to do it.  The courage to create fragrances that I fell in love with and to share them with the world,” says Collins, who debuted his fragrance line at Bergdorf Goodman in New York City. The launch party was so packed I said “Excuse me” to a mannequin I accidentally bumped on the floor of the men’s store. He was okay.

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The collection features three artisanal fragrances (Harlem Nights, Renaissance Man, and Danse Sauvage) which are inspired by Harlem’s rich history and Paris during World War I.

“This particular collection is dedicated to the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920’s and its influence on the one that’s happening now,” says Collins, citing a cultural rebirth within the community, where he lives in a historic brownstone.

IMG_4686His famous face no doubt lent to landing prestigious retailers such as Bergdorf’s (and Ron Robinson at Fred Segal Melrose in Los Angeles) but Collins also credits his extensive modeling experience with playing a key role in understanding an important element in the success of any new product: branding.

He recounts his first visit to the distinctive Ralph Lauren “Polo mansion” on the Upper East Side in 1999. The impeccable attention to detail impressed him, from the weight and size of the doors, to the stately antiques and mahogany cabinetry, to the classical music and art. Even the staff made him feel like a visiting dignitary.

“I learned that day that any successful brand has to create a unique experience their customer feels a part of, and the language and message have to be strong and consistent,” says Collins. “Almost as important as the product you’re offering is the way you make people feel when they possess it.”

The fragrances, which are 50 ml and retail for $160, come in an elegant glass flask with a copper cap, similar to those found in Harlem speakeasies. Danse Sauvage is a nod to the renowned late entertainer, Josephine Baker, the first person of color to star in a major motion picture in 1934.

And speaking of women, at the launch, which coincided with International Women’s Day, Collins gave a speech that began with a special shoutout to women, the most important of which was his proud and beaming mom standing nearby.  She later joked that she was relieved his line was finally complete so she could now throw away the hundreds of little sample bottles that had been accumulating in her home.

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Collins with his mother and brother

Even though the fragrances were created for men, they have a universal quality for anyone that appreciates a bold, daring scent experience. Several women I spoke with were purchasing Danse Sauvage and Harlem Nights, citing a unisex appeal, whereas I picked up Renaissance Man for one such gentleman himself.

Collins worked on the line for two years, taking the advice of his mentor Kilian not to rush the process. In an age where celebrities churn out fragrance like fast food, his careful approach is refreshing and with intention. You get the sense he’s not just in it for the acclaim, but rather to feed a deeply meaningful creative hunger. 

He’s also upfront in admitting that he’s not a perfumer.  He holds great reverence for individuals like Kilian and other notable noses, likening them to artists, whereas he is merely the curator assembling a memorable collection that will leave a lasting impression.

And, if the launch was any indication of how Chris Collins, Alchemy of Fragrance, will be received by the public, he could very well be the next iconic scent coveted by fragrance lovers everywhere.

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Let Them See You Sweat

If you wore makeup that prevented tears or used shampoo that stopped hair growth, that would feel weird, right? Yet millions of people apply aluminum-based antiperspirant to block their bodies from doing what’s natural: sweating.

I’d never really put too much thought into the difference between deodorant and antiperspirant until I started practicing Bikram yoga several years ago and learned to embrace sweat — and I mean really embrace it. The 90 minute practice takes place in a 105 degree room and you’re pouring buckets by the end.

At first it took some getting used to, as our preconditioned self-consciousness kicks in, but soon it became a liberating release that I looked forward to. I also started noticing the benefits of Bikram-induced sweating. My skin, mental clarity and even sleep were all improved as a result of the practice, much of which I credit to the release of toxins and impurities via sweat.

Which brings me back to deodorant versus antiperspirant and the brand that brought it into focus for me: Schmidt’s Naturals. I’d heard of natural deodorant before, but like many people I assumed it didn’t work or smelled like patchouli. I’m also skeptical of unsubstantiated claims linking antiperspirant to cancer or Alzheimer’s. But then again, why take the risk? There was a time when people drank alcohol and smoked during pregnancy before those dangers were established too.

SchmidtSchmidt’s was founded in 2010 in Portland, Oregon by Jaime Schmidt. Like many indie brands, it started as a side-project in her kitchen because she felt the market was lacking. Other brands either didn’t work effectively, smelled too hippy, or were just uninspiring and boring. Schmidt essentially wanted to take an unsexy product and make it not only clean, but cool.

So she set out on a mission to “change the way you think about deodorant.” Instead of clogging your glands with controversial ingredients to stop sweating, she created formulas derived from plants and minerals to combat odor instead. This is where she got creative, with scents like Jasmine Tea, Coconut Pineapple, Cedarwood and Juniper, to name a few. Occasionally the line features custom products based on the season. Last fall I purchased Earth + Wood, a limited time offer. The scent is subtle and unique.

After focusing on deodorant for six years the company decided to expand its product line and introduced bar soap in 2017, followed by toothpaste soon after. The toothpaste comes in flavors like Vanilla Chai and Coconut Lime, and the soaps have fun exfoliants like volcanic sand, orange peel and apricot seed. For people using products that contain microbeads, these natural alternatives are much better for the environment.

S2The aromas in the soaps and deodorant are delicate but present, which appealed to me because I’ve moved away from products with strong fragrance after learning about the reality of synthetic ingredients. But if you’re still new to natural and unsure about letting go of antiperspirant, Schmidt’s has a blog called The Natural, which helps ease in the laymen.

Sweat makes a lot of people uncomfortable, even vulnerable, and there’s a lot of messaging around connecting it to weakness in men and a lack of femininity in women. Yes, there are moments it’s not convenient or particularly attractive, but there are different kinds of sweat and it’s about learning to read it, not fear it.

Ultimately we all have a scent, and it’s that base animal element that draws us to certain people and repels us from others. We are highly evolved creatures that have developed innovative products to make us more socially acceptable, but sometimes it’s okay to go back to the basics and just sweat. And products like Schmidt’s Naturals help take the edge off without potentially compromising your health.

Daenerys Isn’t the Only One With Three Powerful…

Scrolling through Instagram one day I came across a post by a company called Mythologie that sells luxurious facial oils. The photo was beautiful, but it was the caption that caught my eye because it referenced the Halcyon, a mythical bird said to nest at sea holding the power to charm the wind and waves into calm.

It reminded me of another mythical bird, the Phoenix, which obtains new life by rising from the ashes of its predecessor. I’ve always associated the Phoenix with New York City following 9/11, so it was an interesting coincidence when I reached out to the founder, Tracy Atkinson, and learned that the aftermath of that day is what caused her to create the company.

In 2001 Tracy was living in Brooklyn Heights and I was in the East Village. That day would be a turning point for everyone. Shock, horror and devastating personal loss were just a few of the emotions we experienced.

Then came the physical side effects.

As Ground Zero smoldered in the months that followed, toxic fumes made their way toward Brooklyn Heights, only a mile-and-a-half across the East River. Tracy was told to close her windows and run an air purifier 24/7. She did, but within a few months everyone in her household had developed eczema.

For my part, I developed a strange stomachache that caused diarrhea for weeks. I saw a doctor, who told me it was stress, but the smells that followed the events of that Tuesday morning were so powerful and noxious that I began to question the health impacts of the air quality. I was given a prescription, but Tracy made a different choice. 

She explained, “I was faced with taking steroids to control the break-outs or adopt a more holistic approach. I decided on the latter. I began to make changes in both my diet and skincare products. Anything that was unnatural went out and I began using botanical oils both internally and externally.”

Over time she began creating her own face and body oils. She had no idea this search for gentle healing following that unspeakably violent day would eventually lead to the creation of Mythologie, but nearly 15 years later her Phoenix rose from the ashes and the brand was born.

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Like most small business owners in the green beauty space, Tracy is trying to educate consumers about the benefits of using natural products versus the mainstream familiars that often contain harsh ingredients. One of her products uses Kiwi seed oil, which is a powerful anti-inflammatory that calms the skin and promotes elasticity and the regeneration of skin cells. I currently slather this liquid gold all over my face and neck before bed.

In keeping with her mythological theme she explains the Mythologie lineage is both ancient and international. “We draw on beauty secrets and powerful healing traditions from cultures around the world dating back thousands of years. From the amazing healing ability of Sea Buckthorn Oil, with origins in ancient Greece and the Himalayas, to Neroli (Orange Blossom) Oil used by the ancient priests and priestesses of Egypt, to the African botanical treasure, Marula Oil, often called ‘Miracle Oil,’ we use some of the most treasured and powerful ingredients that the earth has to offer.”

So if you’re looking to go a little easier on yourself and support a brand that supports you, visit Tracy’s website to learn more about the three magical birds in her nest at Mythologie.

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Creative High

Creative people turn me on. I’m not just talking about artist types, but entrepreneurial types. People that think in ideas and advancements. Innovative problem solvers and visionaries. I love being around their energy, passion and purpose. Some are beautifully eccentric, others admirably courageous. But no matter the individual, they all share a fire that propels them to do what they do.

These brilliant and bold leaders are also a lot of fun, which is why the Indie Beauty Expo invites the public to come meet over two-hundred of them on Wednesday, August 23rd, from 5-9pm at Skylight Clarkson Square in West Soho (550 Washington St.)

If you’ve ever dreamed about starting your own business, regardless of the product or service, these are your people. Little guys and gals that all started somewhere. The inspiration in this room is palpable and we welcome you to be a part of it. And, if you happen to like beauty and wellness brands, even better. This is your mecca of discovery.

IBECome prepared to shop (major discounts offered) learn and laugh (interesting panel discussions) and party (music, drinks and other cool surprises).

So, if creative people turn you on too, then what a great way to end a long day at the office and serve as the ultimate aphrodisiac on hump day.

Visit the IBE website for tickets and use code IBENY17FRIENDS for a 20% discount.

After Her Diagnosis a Brand Was Born

Nothing prepares you for a life-threatening health diagnosis, especially at age 30. First came the fatigue, followed by hair loss, a full body rash, and a hundred pound weight gain. Then the joints locked up and the swelling began. It got so bad she could barely open her eyes.

Dana Jackson is among the 1.5 million people in the U.S. battling Lupus. Her illness took away her glamorous and glitzy life in the music industry and replaced it with a lonely new one, that of a recluse. At her lowest point she looked down from her 14th floor apartment and considered letting go.

And then she looked up.

Suddenly, faith meant something different and she knew this crossroads, however painful, had a purpose. She made a choice to release the person she was and embrace the one she became — not the one with Lupus, but the one who found deeper meaning as a result. The possessions and people that used to matter no longer did. Her perspective shifted and Dana realized that up until her diagnosis she had been wearing a mask and not living an authentic life.

It was because of this epiphany that Dana created Beneath Your Mask, a line of skin care products for those with health challenges involving the immune system such as Lupus, cancer, and other autoimmune diseases. These individuals have difficulty with the detoxification system in their bodies and sometimes struggle with mainstream products that contain preservatives or other synthetic ingredients. She also developed a hair and scalp serum to help those who’ve experienced hair loss due to illness, hormonal changes or age.
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Her story resonated with me on a personal level. May is Lupus Awareness Month, along with a couple of other lesser known auto-immune diseases such as Guillain-Barre Syndrome (GBS) and Chronic Inflammatory Demyelinating Polyneuropathy (CIDP), the latter of which I have.

I was in 3rd grade and it was Easter morning. I excitedly leapt out of bed to find the eggs and basket, but when my feet hit the floor my legs buckled and I collapsed. There was no pain. In fact, there was no sensation at all, just an inability to move. The doctors were flummoxed and had no idea what was wrong.

But just as mysteriously as the paralysis occurred, it also disappeared. Three days later I was back to my normal self, running, playing, climbing trees and tearing up the neighborhood on my bike. The crutches I had briefly relied on were the only reminder that something had been amiss.

My parents chalked it up to a fluke. That is, until it came back years later in High School. I was 14 and sitting in class. The teacher asked a question and I attempted to raise my left hand, but I could barely lift my arm from the desk. Inexplicably, my right arm was fine. After a series of tests, including a spinal tap, MRI, CT scans and multiple electromyograms (EMG’s), a neurologist diagnosed me with Guillain-Barre Syndrome and put me on steroids.

It turned out to be the wrong diagnosis and the steroids made my condition worse. I stopped playing the cello and eventually gave up basketball too. I hid the condition from most people because I was a teenager and back then appearances were everything. I was also an only-child and didn’t want to disappoint my parents. Since they didn’t have any “backup kids” I put a lot of pressure on myself to be perfect. I felt guilty for somehow being broken.

Dana’s description of wearing a mask very much applied to me during those years, but it also made me more sensitive to others. I started noticing people on the fringe, those that didn’t quite fit in, and began volunteering at a youth hotline. I also developed a passion for photography and video production and would spend countless hours alone in the editing studio or darkroom making videos and prints. Creativity and art played a big role in helping me channel things outside my control, like whatever was happening with my body.

For the remainder of High School I was in and out of the hospital. My mom would leave work and drive me to appointments. I knew it wasn’t easy on her either, but she never showed it. Her eternal optimism of seeing the good in everything got me through. I confided in a few close friends, but no one, myself included, really understood what was going on.

The symptoms of my condition would ebb and flow. One moment I’d be fine and the next I’d be struggling to tie shoes or comb my hair. This temporary paralysis would last a few days, a week, or up to a month, but then it would eventually fade away and go into remission. The time between relapses could be one year or five. There were no warnings or detectable triggers. It just happened when it happened.

I saw multiple neurologists and they ruled out MS, ALS, and even Lyme disease, so I considered myself lucky. It was manageable and I got used to living with it, whatever “it” was. I went almost an entire decade without incident until one night as I was leaving a fancy media event I became wobbly on the sidewalk and almost fell. I was completely sober but everyone assumed I was intoxicated. It was embarrassing and scary.

The following week I went to another neurologist, a new one, and that’s when I was finally diagnosed with CIDP. I was 40 years old. Fortunately, I have a less severe case of it (which is why it look so long to pinpoint) so I’ve lived a normal life, and will likely continue to do so. On the outside you’d never know I have this condition. Only a trained eye can detect the subtle signs. It’s not something I readily share either because it doesn’t define me, nor will I allow myself to be a victim.

I’ve been presented with various treatment options, but since my symptoms rarely manifest I’ve chosen to hold off. Recalling my negative reaction to the steroids no doubt plays a role in this decision, but I’ve also learned that maintaining a healthy lifestyle is sometimes the best medicine, whether you have a chronic illness or not. What you eat, what you don’t drink, getting enough sleep, consistent exercise, even meditation and spirituality, it all matters, especially as we age. Most recently I’ve been paying closer attention to the products I use, seeking natural alternatives whenever possible.

This is why Dana’s story connected with me. I am not someone with an incurable condition. I am someone despite of it. Her journey, and mine, are gentle reminders that life, despite setbacks and challenges, is worth giving your all. You never know what someone else is experiencing because so many masks are invisible. But whatever yours might be, or perhaps once was, discovering the individual beneath it and allowing vulnerability is one of the bravest things you can do. And strong.

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With Dana Jackson and Jillian Wright at the Indie Beauty Expo in Dallas, 2017

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The Indie Expansion: IBE Adds Another Market

The Indie Beauty Expo, a unique trade show for independent beauty, wellness and lifestyle brands, was born in New York City the summer of 2015. By the following Spring a sibling arrived in the form of Los Angeles. And now, IBE proudly welcomes a third to the family, Dallas.

As IBE grew, so expanded the platform and an additional day was added to the three-day event devoted solely to education and thought leadership. The decision was made because indie entrepreneurs, in addition to wanting access to buyers, press and consumers, also crave a community.

No one knows what a small business person goes through better than a fellow small business person. CONNECT INDIE was created to serve that purpose as well as provide a valuable learning opportunity to help brands achieve their business objectives and grow. It’s also a way to honor and recognize these individuals as leaders, innovators and industry pioneers.

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Jillian Wright leads a panel with fellow business owners

“IBE’s mission is not only to elevate indie brands in the marketplace, but to bring brains together in a highly creative and collaborative community,” explained co-founder Jillian Wright, also an indie brand owner who conceptualized the idea after feeling isolated and unwelcome in the larger expo market.

IBE co-founder, Nader Naeymi-Rad, echoes those sentiments, “We don’t want to just be a trade show in the conventional sense, where we provide mostly space and furniture. We are invested in the success of our exhibiting brands and deeply care, from the moment they put their trust in us and sign up, to the feedback we hear afterwards. Nothing makes us prouder than brand success stories, which I can now say after five shows is substantial.”

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Indie entrepreneurs learn how to scale their business

The Dallas Demo

IBE is still a relatively young company, so why add Dallas? The answer is strategic. Dallas is a top-ten retail market with one of the highest percentage of per-capita spending/income. Other markets were considered — and haven’t been ruled out in the future — but Dallas made sense as the next logical step in IBE’s business model.

Just like all firsts, there is a learning curve. It’s a different landscape requiring another set of navigation tools, but for its first foray into the Dallas market IBE exceeded expectations and definitely intends to return.

“Just like our indie brands, we took a risk on Dallas, but we were delighted with how receptive Texas was to what we are building,” said Wright, who is already envisioning a possible charity partnership next year.

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As for the venue and expo itself, which took place May 9-11th at the Joule Hotel for CONNECT INDIE, and sixty five hundred for SHOP and TRADE INDIE, IBE continues to deliver on it’s art-gallery aesthetic and experiential surprises, like LED cotton candy, alcohol infused ice cream (Frost 321), flower crowns (Branching Out Events) and larger-than-life photo ops. The open bar and coffee (High Brew) flowed throughout the event keeping spirits high and minds alert as indie entrepreneurs worked hard and had fun in the process.

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Having fun with flower crowns

There were over 70 exhibiting brands from around the country, including 14 Texas-based brands and a handful of international: Monte Carlo, Australia, Jordan, Korea, Dominican Republic and the UK. They represented a large cross section of the indie beauty industry and brought diversity, flavor, and new perspective.

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The next expo is August 22-24th in IBE’s birthplace, NYC, and boy has this baby grown! “We have a few exciting additions to the roster, including an expanded education track. We also have some big news, which we’re saving for IBE’s birthday. So come and be the first to find out,” hinted Naeymi-Rad.

So if you’re an indie brand in the beauty, wellness and lifestyle category that is seeking community while growing your business, the Indie Beauty Expo welcomes you to join the family.

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