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I'm Not Really a Waitress
How One Woman Took Over the Beauty Industry One Color at a Time
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- ebook $15.99 $20.99 CAD
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In I’m Not Really a Waitress–titled after OPI’s top-selling nail color–Suzi reveals the events that led her family to flee Communist Hungary and eventually come to New York City in pursuit of the American dream. She shares how those early experiences gave rise to OPI’s revolutionary vision of freedom and empowerment, and how Suzi transformed an industry by celebrating the power of color-and of women themselves.
A Great Opera-tunity
I USED TO BITE MY NAILS. CHRONICALLY, UNRESERVEDLY, obsessively.
I chewed on them any time I was nervous, and I was in the midst of gnawing a cuticle when the executive sitting across from me stopped his presentation. “Ms. Weiss,” he said, “you know you have to stop that, right?” His look said it all: the co-owner and creative director of a global nail care brand couldn’t very well go around with mangled nails.
It was 1991, just eighteen months after OPI had released a debut collection that was already revolutionizing the nail care industry. With bold, trendsetting colors like Malaga Wine and Coney Island Cotton Candy, OPI had made manicures the hot new fashion essential, and women everywhere were asking for OPI by name. Public relations guru Harris Shepard, who specialized in beauty and wellness brands, had taken notice and asked for a meeting. He was right about the nail-biting. Sheepishly, I nodded and sat on my hands.
I admit my mind wasn’t entirely on Harris’s presentation. Though I knew we’d created something special, no one had been prepared for such explosive growth. My co-founder George Schaeffer and I were working ten- and twelve-hour days, seven days a week. We hadn’t given much thought to anything besides trying to keep up with customer demand, and I was anxious to get back to work. We sat through Harris’s spiel, and then I asked for a moment to speak with George alone.
I’ve often wondered what must have gone through Harris’s head as George and I ducked into the next room and launched into loud, rapid-fire Hungarian. He probably thought we were fighting to the death, but George and I always spoke this way. We’d worked together for years, first in New York City and then at OPI’s headquarters in North Hollywood, in a shared office that was so small one of us had to sit behind our desk in order for the other to get through the door. And we were family. George was my brother-in-law, and we were both Hungarian immigrants who, like so many before us, had arrived in the United States with almost nothing, risking everything to pursue the American dream. He went on and on about all the possibilities of PR and what it could do for OPI before I was finally able to break in.
“George,” I said, “this all sounds very nice—but what is pee-are?”
George, who has been silent for perhaps two minutes in the more than forty years I’ve known him, stared at me openmouthed for a full ten seconds. Then he burst out laughing. After wiping tears from his face he stuck his head back in the conference room. “One more minute, Mr. Shepard,” he said. “We are learning something!” Then he collapsed into laughter again.
Apparently I felt sufficiently educated after that meeting, because we hired Mr. Shepard. No one could have known it at the time, but the three of us were about to be whisked away on a journey that would make many people’s dreams come true and transform the beauty industry in ways none of us could have imagined. Our modest family business, which improbably enough had started as a dental supply company, would become the number-one professional salon brand in the world, famous for trendsetting colors; quirky, unforgettable names (every chapter and section title in this book is named after an OPI Nail Lacquer); and groundbreaking partnerships. We’ve teamed up with A-list celebrities, such as Justin Bieber, Carol Burnett, Mariah Carey, Selena Gomez, the Kardashian-Jenner clan, Cyndi Lauper, Jane Lynch, Nicki Minaj, Katy Perry, Gwen Stefani, Carrie Underwood, Kerry Washington, and Serena Williams, and global lifestyle brands ranging from Coca-Cola and Hello Kitty! to Sony’s Skyfall 007 Bond franchise, from Disney to Ford Motor Company to Dell, to create exclusive nail lacquer collections.
The OPI family would grow from George and me and our immediate families, who showed up to help fill, label, and package bottles by hand, to more than seven hundred employees housed on a seven-acre campus. Together we’d create a beauty icon that even after more than thirty-seven years in the notoriously fickle beauty industry is a bestseller in more than one hundred countries.
The OPI journey continues to be a grand, improbable adventure. I have no doubt it has fashioned me into the person I was meant to be. Harris Shepard, that inscrutable purveyor of “pee-are,” has now been my best friend for more than twenty-five years, and perhaps he puts it best when he says that OPI led me to become my true self. From Zsuzsi Weiss, the shy, reserved schoolgirl who fled fear and oppression and arrived in this country with no English and little means, to Suzi the First Lady of Nails, the entrepreneur who put her passions for color and beauty to work to give women everywhere an unlimited means of self-expression, to Suzi Weiss-Fischmann, the wife and mother who—with a great deal of help—still did carpool and made it to family dinners and school plays while running a multimillion-dollar business.
As you will see, if I can do this, anyone can. And yes, I even learned to stop biting my nails.
— one —
SUZI WITHOUT A PADDLE
WE FLED UNDER COVER OF NIGHT.
It was 1966 and I was ten years old, and for years the Hungarian Secret Police had been pressuring my father to become an informant. This was just part of life under the Communist system. Everyone was encouraged to spy on each other, and those who could deliver information were rewarded with favors such as better housing or shorter waits for goods like cars, televisions, or meat. As it could take five years or more to get a car, most people were highly motivated to provide information.
The Secret Police would consider anything, but they were especially interested in knowing if people were coming and going from your house, or if you’d received any packages, or if you appeared to have more than your neighbor—more food, more livestock, better clothing. Under the Communist system no one was to have any more than anyone else. Indeed, two years before, the Communist Party had decided that our two-bedroom, one-bathroom house was too much for a four-person family, so they moved a family of three in with us. What I remember more than the cramped quarters was how my family spoke in whispers after that, afraid our new housemates were spies. My parents had already endured the horrors of the Holocaust—my mother had survived Auschwitz, and my father had been captured by the Germans on the Russian front and put in a forced labor camp, where his brother had been killed—so they were well acquainted with spying and betrayal. And, as kulaks—landowners—we were already under constant surveillance, which helped explain why my father had long been a special target of the Secret Police.
There was also the matter of food. Because my father was a butcher we had access to meat. We owned a few cows and chickens, and we grew grapes. My mother also had a cousin in New York City who occasionally sent us packages containing hand-me-down clothes, American toilet paper—a true luxury compared to the stiff, scratchy Communist-issue stuff—and aluminum foil, which we gathered around and gazed upon, amazed. In every package the cousin included the American candy M&Ms, which my mother would collect in a jar and then ration, giving my older sister Miriam and me a few precious pieces a day.
The Secret Police’s tactics were always the same: they arrived without warning in the middle of the night. Each time, they’d try to persuade my father to become an informant for the Communist Party, and each time he would resist. The consequence was always jail. Because he could pay a bribe to get out, he was usually detained only for a night.
Then one morning everything changed. Miriam and I woke to find our mother missing. As we were to learn, the Secret Police had come in the night and taken her. They’d directed her to bring some clothes and a bucket. The clothes meant she’d be gone for days. The bucket was for relieving herself.
Leaving us in the care of a housekeeper, my father hurried to the police station to try and bring my mother home. It was the most frightened I’d ever seen him. As odd as it sounds now, we’d become somewhat accustomed to his arrests—and he always returned. But my mother… this was unheard of. My father knew at once that her arrest was a message intended for him. Cooperate, or your family pays the price.
For three days he begged the police to release her, offering more and more money each time, and finally they accepted. She came home on the fourth day.
That was when my father began making plans for our escape.
In Judaism there is a concept known as tzedakah. It can be translated as “charity,” but the true meaning goes much deeper. It is a sacred act of giving back, of enacting justice in the world. Tzedakah is both an obligation and a privilege. When we have the opportunity, we are to help others—just as we will be helped from time to time. Throughout life we will be both the recipient and the giver of acts of generosity.
I’ll never know the many acts of tzedakah that enabled my parents first to escape the camps and, later, imprisonment (and worse) by the Hungarian Secret Police. What I do know is that somehow, despite all they endured, they were the very embodiment of tzedakah: warm, loving, generous people. Even in the environment of fear and intimidation in Hungary, I was raised in a home full of warmth, by parents whose love was unfailing.
I am sure acts of tzedakah were at work during my family’s escape from Hungary as well. All I knew at the time, however, was our cover story: we told everyone we were moving to Budapest so Miriam, age sixteen, could enroll in a good high school. We sold our house to a doctor, who, because he held a high rank in the party, promptly evicted the family who’d been living with us and had the house all to himself.
Despite the plausible cover story, we packed and left in the middle of the night, fearful of being detained. We drove fifty miles west from our home in Gyöngyös to the capital, Budapest, and moved into a one-room apartment. My father arranged to meet with a Ministry official, a man he’d known from his childhood village, so we could obtain four passports. To prevent escape, the Communist Party never allowed entire families to travel together—at least one person had to remain behind. Getting passports for all four of us was highly irregular, so when my father met with the official he had only one question: “How much?” He paid an exorbitant sum, and then there was nothing to do but wait for the passports to come through.
That was a time of terrible anxiety and isolation. Because my parents didn’t want anyone asking us questions, they didn’t enroll Miriam and me in school, and we only left the apartment when absolutely necessary. We could go out a little at night, and if anyone happened to ask us about ourselves, Miriam and I pretended we’d been in school all day like other children. The one exception to our isolation was that in another extraordinary act of generosity, a kind rabbi visited our apartment in secret. We’d close all the blinds when he arrived, and he taught us to pray and read in Hebrew.
After what seemed an eternity the passports arrived, and once again we made a nighttime escape. We took only what we could fit in a few suitcases. My father’s best friend, a man who’d been in the forced labor camp with him and who had settled in Budapest, came to get us. He and his wife drove us to the airport, and I can clearly remember these two brave men embracing as they said goodbye, and my father’s friend crying as he left us. They knew they would never see each other again.
There is no way to describe the terror we felt as we went through passport control. The officials had us file through one by one, my mother first, then Miriam, then me. After each person was scrutinized and her passport stamped, we were directed to another room, which left us unable to see the rest of the family. Miriam and my mother and I began to despair when many long minutes passed with no sign of my father. We were shaking when he was finally permitted through, convinced he’d been detained. But we all had to maintain an outward demeanor of calm, as if we were a family just going off on holiday. No one relaxed until we were out of Hungarian air space.
We landed in Athens, Greece, where an Israeli relief organization was waiting to meet us. Again I marveled at the preparations my parents had been up to—my mother’s cousins had connections with the relief organization, and she’d somehow arranged for them to help us. They took us to a hotel, where we stayed until a ship bound for Israel arrived. After a three-day journey, in which I was violently seasick the entire time, we landed at Haifa, where more of my mother’s cousins were waiting.
I will never forget my first glimpse of Israel. We arrived just as the sun was rising over Haifa. The golden dome of the Shrine of the Báb was afire with sunlight, surrounded by gleaming white buildings, and beyond, the evergreen-covered Mount Carmel mountain range loomed. It was so beautiful it brought tears to my eyes.
We lived with the cousins in Holon until we found our own apartment there. My father found work as a butcher, and shortly thereafter I took on my very first job—of sorts. My mother got a job cleaning a bank at night. More to be near her than anything else, I would go with her and help mop the floors. That job didn’t last, however, as she was constantly setting off the panic button by accident. The bank manager and the police grew tired of coming out every night, and we were unceremoniously let go. Eventually my mother found work watching children in a private home, which mercifully had no panic button.
Life in Israel could not have been more different from life in Communist Hungary. Whereas Hungary was all about uniformity and intimidation, moving to Israel was a little like Dorothy’s transition from Kansas to Oz—everything seemed to be in full, vibrant color. The air was fresh and clean, we could play outside, there was no fear of Secret Police or spying neighbors, we could practice our faith openly, and we were all agog at the vast array of choices available. Our first trip to a market was overwhelming. There wasn’t one brand of coffee but three. Not one type of bread but three or four, all fresh and delicious. Whereas before an orange had been a rare treat, the markets in Israel were overflowing with mounds of fresh fruits and vegetables. There was no longer any need for rationing or waiting in interminable lines, no need for working hard to preserve and store enough food to get through the winters. In Israel all we had to do was pop down to the market. It all seemed like a miracle.
Our transition wasn’t without its difficulties, however. We were strangers in a strange land who knew no Hebrew beyond what we’d learned from prayers. For me, fifth grade got off to a rough start. I’d hoped to blend into the background, but when I showed up to school in a Communist schoolgirl’s little pleated skirt and starched blouse I couldn’t have looked any more out of place. Then, when my teacher summoned me to the front of the room to introduce me to the class, I spontaneously got a terrible nosebleed! I wasn’t used to the dry air, and there I stood, mortified, blood dripping onto my starched white blouse. I tried my best to clean it but I had to wear the stained shirt all day. As if all that wasn’t bad enough, on my way home that afternoon boys threw eggs at me, which hit my head and cracked, leaving me terrified, crying, and covered in egg yolk. Having been raised by such positive parents I’m normally quite an optimistic person, but to this day I still remember the shock and the humiliation of that incident. Word got around about it, though, and a kindhearted teacher admonished the boys. No one ever bothered me again.
Soon enough, I discovered certain benefits to the highly disciplined Communist education system I’d been brought up in, where everyone was expected to live and perform at the highest standard—if not perfection. For one, I was completely comfortable with memorization and with studying for many hours, which enabled me to pick up Hebrew relatively quickly. I don’t think I was ever the most brilliant student in the classroom, but I did possess the ability to work hard and stick with something until I got it. This kind of discipline helped me many times in life.
Another huge benefit, ironically enough, was the assumption that girls and women were capable of anything. It was hardly Communism’s intent to foster a bunch of feminists, but here’s the blunt truth: in Hungary in that day and age under Communist rule, many of the men turned to alcohol, which was one of the few things in plentiful supply. With so many men spending their days drinking, the women were left to do everything. So I grew up seeing women as the doctors and scientists and engineers and lawyers and architects—all while managing households as well. I grew up knowing that girls and women were capable of accomplishing anything they set out to do. Later in life this set of assumptions would figure directly into my career path, but right then as a student in Israel, I had the supreme advantage of confidence: it never once occurred to me that I couldn’t master this new language and this new culture if I just worked hard enough.
Once I was fluent in the language, I was able to do well in school and make friends. The world opened up to me, and I was the happiest I’d ever been. I loved everything about Israel, which to my young mind seemed a land of total freedom. You could leave your house any time you wanted. You could practice your religion in peace. You could play outside for many hours, with no fear. You could say anything you wanted, to anyone you wanted, with no fear of hidden microphones or lurking spies. It was unbelievable to me that we didn’t have to whisper at home or go around town with our eyes downcast, hurrying to get back indoors. Even when the Six-Day War broke out and emergency sirens wailed and residents were forced to take cover in bunkers, I absolutely loved Israel.
For my parents, however, this was a time of great uncertainty. Their intention was to remain in Israel just long enough to get our green cards and move to America—perhaps six months, tops. Everyone knew that only in America was it possible to start with nothing and end with great success, if only you worked hard. This was the irresistible siren song that called to so many people all over the world, and my father was one of them. He wanted freedom and safety for his family, the opportunity to make a new life for us, and the chance for his daughters to create the same for their future families.
But as defectors from a Communist country, getting green cards proved tougher than we’d anticipated. At that time America was, to say the least, deeply wary of Communists, and after such a huge influx of Hungarians following the revolution in 1956, the government had instituted a quota system. The process was first come, first served, so all we could do was get in line and wait for our numbers to come up. My parents could not plan on anything because our number could come up literally at any time.
After six months, that’s just what happened—but only for one of us. Miriam would be permitted to travel to the States to attend high school. We didn’t want to be separated but no one turned down an opportunity to go to America, and we thought we’d join her shortly after she left anyway. She moved in with some of my mother’s cousins in New York City, so we knew she was safe in the meantime. But then the weeks and months kept accumulating, and my parents were summoned multiple times for interviews at the American embassy. Miriam would call from time to time, wondering where we were and what was taking so long, but we had no answers to give.
Because learning Hebrew had proved much harder for my parents, I accompanied them to the embassy so I could translate. The Americans’ questions were surprisingly detailed. They would ask about specific dates and times when party meetings were held, and they wanted to know if my father had attended. Or, they would begin by assuming he’d attended, and they’d want to know what went on at the meeting. His answers were always the same—no, he hadn’t attended any meetings, and he kept insisting that this was the very reason we were in Israel, because he hadn’t wanted any part of the Communist Party! After a while I didn’t even bother translating and just answered the questions myself. That was when the embassy officials relieved me of my translation duties.
In the end it took two and a half years for our interlocutors to be satisfied that my parents weren’t Communist spies. But finally we were permitted to leave. Yet again we packed our belongings and left, bracing ourselves to learn another new culture. This time it would be for good.
Big Apple Red
When we were finally reunited with Miriam we could hardly believe our eyes. She was no longer a gangly adolescent but a young lady of nineteen. She had really flourished in New York City and loved it there. She’d worked as a camp counselor each summer in the Catskills, she was dating, she had lots of American friends, and she was fluent in English… she was an American!
The four of us settled in the neighborhood of Forest Hills in Queens. Our apartment was nice but small, with one bedroom, one bathroom, and a kitchen. Miriam and I slept on a sofa bed in the living room. We lived together in that apartment for the next three and a half years, until Miriam moved out in 1972 to get married. I would remain there with my parents for another twelve years, when I moved out in pursuit of a career.
But in 1969, my parents and I faced a difficult adjustment. Again there was a new language to learn, and as I was now almost fourteen, it wasn’t as easy this time. Every day after school I stayed late to attend English classes. Again I faced the same scenario of being teased because I was different, except this time it wasn’t an isolated experience on the first day of school but the daily nuisance of boys who blew spitballs in my hair. But once again my strong sense of discipline and excellent study habits came to the rescue. I put them to good use to learn English as fast as I could so I could get out of those dreaded after-school classes with those dreadful boys.
I was also supremely determined to learn English so I could fit in and be like the other kids. It was in New York City that I took my very first steps toward cultivating my own sense of style. Looking back, I think I always had an affinity for beauty, whether it was a gorgeous sunset or a work of art or a lovely fabric. But it wasn’t until we moved to America that I gained both the maturity and the opportunity to pay attention to things like fashion, style, color, and self-expression. In Hungary there simply were no choices when it came to style—we all dressed alike and the government suppressed freedom of expression in any form. In Israel there was more choice, but I was still young, and playing outside and relishing freedom took precedence over everything else.
But in New York, everywhere I looked there were millions of people with millions of individual styles. I saw that one’s personality could instantly be broadcast through one’s fashion choices, and I saw that first impressions were of great importance. In no more than a moment, you could discern a great deal about people by what they wore. Put another way, people size you up—they judge you—at a glance. I caught on quickly that the way I was dressing wasn’t going to get me anywhere.
What did my look say? Still in my pressed skirts and starched blouses, buttoned all the way up to my chin, I came across as an awkward little girl. In fact, that is what a stranger once called me when Miriam was showing me around Manhattan. After she ducked into a store and I stood on the sidewalk nearly stupefied at all the noise and activity, I bolstered my courage to practice my English, and I asked a passerby where the Empire State Building was. He stared at me incredulously. “Little girl,” he said, “look up!” I followed his pointing finger to see the Empire State Building looming right over us.
- "Suzi Weiss-Fischmann set out to create a red polish that every woman could wear, and with I'm Not Really a Waitress, she nailed it."—Allure
- "Meet Suzi Weiss-Fischmann, the brains and bravado behind the brand's trend-sparking shades."—Martha Stewart Living
- "So you're at your standing manicure appointment trying to decide between You Don't Know Jacques! and Lincoln Park After Dark, and you find yourself wondering: Who is the creative mind who comes up with these fantastically punny nail polish color names? Mystery solved: It's Suzi Weiss-Fischmann."—Cosmopolitan
- "The woman who has shaped the way we do nails is Suzi Weiss-Fischmann."—Los Angeles Times
- "Suzi's such a fierce female entrepreneur."—Kerry Washington in WWD
- "[Suzi Weiss-Fischmann] is just as rad as you think she'd be."—Elite Daily
- "Suzi is a true risk taker, right down to her perfectly manicured tippy toes."—Family Circle
- "The average person can't detect the difference between berry and burgundy or tell fuchsia from hot pink. It takes an exceptional eye and special sensibility to recognize the exact shade of scarlet that women all over the world will be swooning over next season. Suzi Weiss-Fischmann has spent a lifetime doing just that, season after season, year after year and created a brand that's now the most recognized and revered in the world."—Vogue India
- On Sale
- Mar 12, 2019
- Page Count
- 240 pages
- Seal Press