You could be forgiven for thinking that the picture of the bearded man found on all Burt’s Bees product is just that–an illustration designed to humanize the company. But Burt Shavitz is a real man, and he’s the subject of a new documentary that delves into the life of a curmudgeonly beekeeper and former photographer who improbably became the face of a global brand.
Like many people, Jody Shapiro, the director of Burt’s Buzz, didn’t initially know that Shavitz was a real person. He came across the Burt’s Bees founder while working on a film project about bees with Isabella Rossellini. “He’s an authentic person with a unique philosophy,” he says. “I wanted to keep this as Burt’s story and not the Burt’s Bees story.”
Shavitz never set out to launch a big business. In fact, the documentary would have us believe that Shavitz would rather live like a hermit, alone in the woods.
That’s not far off from how he currently lives–so much so that it’s hard to believe the Burt’s Bees founder would allow a film crew to follow him around. (When I asked Shavitz why he agreed to the film, he replied, “’I’ll get back to you on this one.”)
Shavitz whiles away his days in a former turkey co-op in the Maine backwoods, preferring to do without amenities like television and a hot water heater. He lives with an assistant named Trevor, and sometimes travels for Burt’s Bees promotional appearances, even though he’s completely divorced from day-to-day operations.
“I do it as requested if there’s any interest,” he says. “I’ve got a life, I don’t have to go on these tours. If I do go, it’s interesting, which is an overused word.”
The unlikely icon started out as a freelance photographer in New York City, snapping pictures of famous subjects like John F. Kennedy and Allan Ginsberg before the rise of television caused his work to dry up. In the 1970s, he started beekeeping in upstate New York and eventually purchased a small plot of land in Maine where he began selling honey out of his Volkswagen van.
In the early 1980s, he met Roxanne Quimby, an entrepreneurial waitress who would become his lover and business partner. It was Quimby who came up with the idea of putting Shavitz’s face on decorative jars of honey. Soon, the pair started selling beeswax, shoe polish, and the biggest seller, lip balm.
Quimby bought out Shavitz’s shares of the company once it started growing, and took home $177 million once she sold her slice of Burt’s Bees in 2001. The company is now owned by Clorox. Shavitz seems perfectly content with his simple life, but makes it clear in the film that he still harbors resentment towards Quimby, whom he no longer speaks to.
Nonetheless, he’s happy to do paid promotional experiences, including one documented in the film where he heads to Taiwan–a place where, apparently, Shavitz is a rock star-like figure among fans of the brand.
“It’s always an enjoyable opportunity for me to go somewhere and drop down and meet people I’ve never seen ever and land I’ve never seen, surrounded by people who speak different languages, none of which I understand,” he says. Not that he thinks about Burt’s Bees on a daily basis: “I don’t think about the brand every day, certainly not. It’s more going to the post office, making sure there’s no semi-flat tires, whatever. I’ve got a life on the land and I enjoy that daily.”
Shavitz is also concerned about the plight of the bees, noting in our interview that they’re disappearing because of pollution and new technologies that disrupt their ecosystems. “Your interest is best served by looking up the local beekeeping community and looking at what it is they actually do, and having a conversation around what’s going on, if anything is, in their neck of the woods,” he says.
Burt’s Buzz is now in theaters, on iTunes, and available on demand.