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Michelle Pfeiffer trades the glamour of the red carpet for startup life

As she launches her clean perfume line, Henry Rose, Pfeiffer is creating a legacy beyond her illustrious career as an actress.

Michelle Pfeiffer trades the glamour of the red carpet for startup life
[Photo: Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic/Getty Images]

When Michelle Pfeiffer launched clean fragrance startup Henry Rose last year, she had to grapple firsthand with all the challenges of being an entrepreneur, from e-commerce headaches to customer service issues. “That was incredibly stressful,” she says.

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Speaking at Fast Company’s Innovation Festival, Pfeiffer said these daily struggles were worth it because she believes so strongly in the mission of the company, which is to make the beauty industry safer for consumers. “I was going through a period where I wasn’t working as much [as an actress], and I wasn’t raising my children anymore,” she says. “But I didn’t believe I was done contributing to society. That would have been sad.”

While the brand itself is new, this quest for cleaner beauty has been a passion of Pfeiffer’s for nearly three decades. It began when she was pregnant with her first child in the early ’90s and became concerned about the chemicals in her environment. At the time, brands weren’t transparent about what was in their personal care products. Perfumers were particularly secretive about their formulations, purportedly to hide their trade secrets. But this meant that brands included under-regulated chemicals in their products, including phthalates, which allow scents to linger for longer but can cause reproductive harm.

Pfeiffer didn’t set out to create her own company from the ground up. She first pursued the more straightforward path for an A-list celebrity: simply partnering with a cosmetics company on a licensing deal. But as she spoke with cosmetic conglomerates, she found they weren’t willing to create products that were transparent about their ingredients and free of known toxins.

In the end, she bypassed the companies themselves and worked directly with luxury fragrance house IFF to create scents that reminded her of very specific memories in her life. In contrast to the vast majority of other perfumes on the market, Henry Rose lists all of its ingredients. And while most fragrances contain more than 3,000 ingredients, hers contain about 300. The line has passed the rigorous verification standards of the Environmental Working Group, which researches toxic chemicals.

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When Pfeiffer launched Henry Rose, she had to make some difficult decisions about how much she wanted to be at the center of the brand. This has been a particular struggle for her, because even though she’s a household name, she’s known for being an extremely private person. In fact, she doesn’t even like promoting her movies. But she knew she would be instrumental in helping Henry Rose get off the ground, so in the run-up to launch day, she created a personal Instagram account, largely to promote the brand. “For months, I was the marketing,” she says.

Being so publicly facing has left Pfeiffer feeling vulnerable, at times. Particularly since the last few months have been so politically charged. Pfeiffer has used Henry Rose’s social channels, along with her personal ones, to express her support of Black Lives Matter, encourage mask wearing, and get people to vote. But there’s always a backlash. “It’s a minefield,” she says. “I know that I have conservative customers, and some have left because of my posts. But since they’ll push back at you no matter what you do, you may as well just be yourself.”

It’s clear, as she speaks, that Pfeiffer hopes to leave a legacy beyond her illustrious career as an actress. With Henry Rose, which is named after her children, she wants to create a company that actively makes the beauty industry cleaner and safer for the next generation. But she’s also taking joy in the creative process. “It’s liberating,” she says. “By creating a brand, you can create your own narrative.”

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About the author

Elizabeth Segran, Ph.D., is a staff writer at Fast Company. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts

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