Update: You can see Sally Hansen — along with nine other ambassadors that embody her self-made vision — in the brand's new campaign.
This story was originally published September 29, 2017.
“It was in the late 1950s when Sally Hansen, together with her chemist husband, pioneered a nail protection formula called Hard As Nails.”
That right there — that single sentence — is the only information the number-one nail polish brand in the world has ever provided about its namesake. There is no other context, no grainy black-and-white photos, no inspiring rags-to-riches tale of a scrappy young woman who took her entrepreneurial drive and passion for making people feel beautiful and turned it into a booming cosmetics business that she later sold for a million dollars. There’s no Google search you can conduct, no phone number to call, that can lead you to the true origins of the Sally Hansen brand and the woman who founded it. It is easy to conclude that there was no Sally Hansen, just a woman’s name, created to sell things to women.
But Sally Hansen was real. And her story — which was uncovered by investigative journalists this week — is far more fascinating than the single line that defined her for so many years. Before she was Sally Hansen, she was Sally Genevieve Finney, born in 1907. She was Sally Gunther in 1927, until she divorced her first husband in 1929, and in 1933 she remarried and became Sally Hansen. Sally Hansen ceased to exist in 1946, when Sally split from her husband, Adolph Hansen. She was Sally Newton from 1947 until her death in 1963 from lung cancer, at the age of 56. And none of this was known until Jeremy Lowenstein was named the Vice President of Global Marketing at Sally Hansen, a division of beauty behemoth Coty, Inc., and started asking the one question everyone before him had failed to ask: Wait, who is Sally Hansen?
“I didn’t understand how no one knew who Sally Hansen was,” says Lowenstein — and understandably so. “We always had this boilerplate answer, that Sally Hansen was a woman who was married to a chemist who created Hard As Nails, but I would always ask if there was more information on her.” There wasn’t. Not even his colleagues, some of whom had been with the brand for over 30 years, had any clue who its namesake might be, or if she had even existed. So, in 2014, after being promoted to his current position, Lowenstein took on the industry enigma as a passion project. He teamed up with investigative journalists and, without telling anyone else at the company, went out and found Sally.
What made the hunt especially challenging was that Sally had no children, no genealogical legacy left behind. It took Lowenstein and his team about a year and a half, during which they sifted through about 50,000 other Sally Hansens, before they finally unearthed theirs. They started with the only thing they had: the knowledge that Coty had acquired Sally Hansen from Del Labs in 2007, which had acquired it from Maradel in 1962, before which it had been known as Sally Hansen, Inc. With over 50 years from the first sale to Lowenstein’s inquisition in 2014, many of the executives who had worked at Maradel and Del during that time period were deceased. “We kept running into dead ends,” says Lowenstein. “We had no information to go off of.”
And then, a turning point. The investigators found the 2003 obituary of a factory worker previously employed by what was then called House of Hollywood and Sally Hansen Cosmetics. From there they found records of a Mrs. Sally G. Hansen, wife of Adolph Hansen, who had signed over Sally Hansen, Inc. to Maradel Products, Inc. on September 21, 1962. Then, after tracking down two living relatives of Sally Hansen, her story finally started to unfold — and it was a damn good one.
The brand found out that Sally moved to Los Angeles from her hometown of Kansas City in 1922 as a dancer, starting her own studio and becoming a choreographer for film. She was glamorous but not prissy, adventurous and sharp, equally at home in haute couture or fishing on the oil well in Montana she owned with her then-husband, who went by “Hans.” She was sexy. She was cool. She loved animals. She served as the first female chair of the California Cosmetics Association. She penned a beauty column, Your Candid Mirror, for The Los Angeles Times, which covered all matters of beauty inside and out. “Personal charm often is more desirable than startling physical beauty,” Hansen wrote on January 16, 1934. “If I were asked today to select my most thoroughly charming friend, I believe I should have to pick a woman, widely known in the theatrical world, who could never win a beauty prize but who makes you utterly forget nature’s shortcomings.”
In 1935, Sally acquired her family’s ailing cosmetics store, La Finné, and rebranded it as House of Hollywood. With help from her brother William, a pharmacist, and Hans, a doctor and surgeon, she launched “medically formulated cosmetics.” When the US entered World War II in 1941, she seized full corporate control of House of Hollywood, became its president, and took it nationwide. Compelled to relocate to New York City to expand her business, Sally tried to convince Hans to come with her. He wouldn’t — and so she divorced him (amicably) and moved east by herself in 1944. In 1946, Sally Hansen, Inc. was born; in 1957, she’d trademarked the name for what then became her iconic product, Hard As Nails. (There was no "chemist husband" involved in the creation of the lacquer. There was, in fact, no "chemist husband" at all.) She sold her eponymous company to Maradel on September 21, 1962, for $1,425,000, which is equivalent to over $11 million today.
When investigators uncovered Sally’s third marriage to Jack B. Newton, an artist 11 years her junior who designed her logos and packaging (and traveled with her on business trips to Japan, France, India, and beyond), they finally found some living relatives: Jackie Newton, Jack's niece, and a stepson from Sally's marriage to Hans. Lowenstein traveled to California and spent a week with Sally’s surviving family to learn more about her.
They had hundreds of photos of Sally, which Lowenstein and his team have digitally remastered, that show her as she really was: bright, eccentric, shrewd, gregarious, profoundly ahead of her time (she frequently and unapologetically shared drinks at upscale supper clubs with a close trans friend, which was unfortunately unheard of in the '40s and '50s), and funny. She wasn’t afraid to share her biting commentary on the industry, writing sarcastically of beauty advertisements at the time, “What a wealth of American wit, brains and entertainment they provide. I would love to write one and head it ‘Can You Nail Your Man?’ Or “Polish Tips on the Marriage Market.’”
For the Sally Hansen execs, this discovery led to an entire re-brand of the company to better reflect the person who started it. “I’ve launched hundreds of products. I’ve been in the beauty industry for over 15 years at this point,” Lowenstein says. “This is the most exciting project I’ve ever worked on, and I think will ever work on, because you only get to do this once.” He describes the process of finding Sally, and now bringing her to life as the newest muse of the brand she created, as extremely emotional — not just for him, but for the modern women who love Sally’s products yet have never known Sally.
But 60 years after she first changed the beauty industry as an entrepreneur, a CEO, a businesswoman, an innovator ahead of the curve, and a champion of self expression, Sally’s voice is at last about to be heard: The brand is updating its logo to reflect her actual signature, and using her image prominently in a new ad campaign set to launch next week. Sally Hansen's legacy will never slip through the cracks again — which is only fitting for a woman who made chipped, cracked nails a thing of the past.
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