It might seem surprising, but once women know who Suzi Weiss-Fischmann is, they remove their footwear and ask her to guess what colour varnish is on their toes.
The co-founder of OPI, the well-known, global luxury nail care brand, gets accosted pretty much everywhere she goes, but the strangest venue was in
a baseball field.
Laughing, she tells me: “I was on the bleachers with the other mums, watching our sons, and they said, ‘what colour am I wearing?’ I was like, ‘I don’t know!”
But the “First Lady of Nails” does know a lot about colour, for she was the creative brains behind OPI (working on colours, trends, marketing and advertising) and, despite selling it to Coty in 2010, remains a brand ambassador and in charge of naming colours.
But before becoming, in her own words, the “number one professional salon brand in the world”, OPI – which stands for Odontorium Products, Incoporated – was actually founded as a dental supply company in 1981 by Suzi and her sister Miriam’s former husband, George Schaeffer.
As Suzi reveals in her recently-published book, I’m Not Really a Waitress (named after OPI’s top-selling nail colour), George noticed that nail technicians and salon owners were buying dental acrylics in order to make their own artificial nail extensions. So the pair researched the market and won over their LA clients.
Grafting all hours, they branched out into ancillary products, including nail polish removers, brushes and files. But Suzi saw another gap in the market: nail colour. While there were coloured varnishes on sale, she says the brands were not connecting to women on an emotional level.
“OPI made nail polish personal and relatable to women – with seasonal colours and iconic names,” she explains, pointing to colours with such exotic names as Don’t Bossa Nova Me Around, Cajun Shrimp and Kyoto Pearl.
The company aimed to give every woman a bit of luxury, she says, and it stayed relevant through innovations and collaborations with some of the biggest stars of film, television, music, and sport.
“We realised we could change the whole category of nail polish to make it much more than just polish – a way to self-express and inspire women to colour. The nail plate is the world’s smallest canvas. Nothing was taboo anymore.”
Suzi is grateful to her late parents, Laszlo and Magda, for having brought her and Miriam out of communist Hungary (where she had secretly studied Hebrew with a rabbi) to the US by way of Israel.
“People don’t realise what freedom means until you don’t have it,” recalls Suzi, who was born Zsuzsi in Gyöngyös, 50 miles east of Budapest. The family fled in 1966 when she was 10.
“We had a very nice house. My father was a butcher and my mother worked in a store – government owned, of course. It was a good life but also very scary – we always lived in fear,” she recalls.
Laszlo was often taken by the secret police at night in an attempt to persuade him to join the communist party. When he refused, he was jailed, usually only for a night. It was when her mother was taken and kept for four days that Laszlo started making plans to flee.
“Me and George – who had come to the US in 1956 during the Hungarian revolution – were always so grateful for what we had,” she says. “My dad always said if you give, you get, and the first thing was to help our employees and their children.”
Aged 19, Magda had been sent to Auschwitz, where she spent 18 months. “My mum was with her two younger brothers and her mother on the train. They went left, my mum went right; they went to the gas chamber right away. My mum survived because she was young and strong and able to work.”
Family life is paramount to Suzi and her husband, George Fischmann, who was born in Guatemala, after his parents left Czechoslovakia during the Second World War. No matter how busy her schedule, Suzi still strived to attend shows and sporting events and did her fair share of the carpool – even if she was always the last to arrive at pick-up.
Judaism is extremely important to the couple, who gave their daughter and son a traditional upbringing. “We observe all the holidays and the kids grew up with a lot of traditions that I hope they will pass onto their children,” enthuses Suzi.
She sees her book as another way of giving back, filled as it is with business advice and inspiration for the next generation of entrepreneurs.
“It’s about living a meaningful life,” she explains. “It’s ok to have nice things, but it’s also very important to help others who are less fortunate.”
- I’m Not Really A Waitress: How One Woman Took Over the Beauty Industry by Suzi Weiss-Fischmann, is published by Seal Press, priced £20 (hardback)