Things aren't nearly as nasty as they were a few years ago, when Valerie Sarnelle and Anastasia Soare first crossed tweezers.
Back then, the Beverly Hills stylists-to-the-stars were vying for the title of "the Eyebrow Queen." There were accusations of client and employee pinching, pilfered packaging, even an alleged stink bomb attack.
The two beauty divas still have shops five blocks apart, both off trendy Rodeo Drive, and both say that a degree of d & #233;tente has been reached. Soare said she never really thought of Sarnelle as any sort of a threat.
"I don't know where that came from, I have never even met Valerie," Soare said. "I have a business to run. She is a woman, she works hard, and this is not an easy job. As far as I am concerned, I wish her the best there are customers for all of us. She will attract her clients, I will attract mine."
Sarnelle agrees that the war if there ever was one is over.
"We don't have the same goals, so there's no competition anymore. I want to be a makeup artist; she wants to be known for eyebrows," Sarnelle said.
Don't expect to see the two sharing a table at Spago, though.
"Isn't competition a good thing?" asked Sarnelle.
Ascending to the throne
Beauty is in some ways a currency in Beverly Hills, so the importance of being "the Eyebrow Queen" goes beyond bragging rights.
Not long after she set up her Canon Drive shop back in 1984, following a short stint as a television makeup artist, Sarnelle began using the title. As her celebrity-laden client list and reputation grew, she cemented her position. Her products, right down to her eyebrow pencils, were emblazoned with the "Brow Queen" moniker, and for years there was no disputing her pre-eminence. All remained peaceful in the realm.
That was when Anastasia Soare, who had come to the United States from Romania and worked as an aesthetician for several years, opened her Bedford Drive eyebrow shop. With talent, style and knack for self-promotion, she developed and grew a star-studded client base that numbered more than a thousand in just over a year.
It became clear, particularly to Soare, that there was a challenger for the title of "Eyebrow Queen."
"My name, Anastasia, is associated with the perfect eyebrow," Soare said. "You can't even say my name when I am in some places without creating a stir; people think of me as the eyebrow police."
Soare's quick rise to prominence lent a new intensity to the rivalry between the two attractive 40-somethings. Soare hired two of Sarnelle's top employees, who brought clients with them; Sarnelle later found a catty note under her door from one of the ex-staffers (penned on the back of an Anastasia business card). Sarnelle charged that Soare blatantly copied her product packaging; Soare found a stink bomb on the doorstep of her salon one day.
Over the years, Soare landed her brow kit, tweezers and highlighter pencils in large retail outlets such as Nordstrom Inc. department stores across the country, where they became wildly successful. Last year her products graced luxury powerhouse LVMH Mo & #235;t Hennessy Louis Vuitton SA's Sephora stores in the U.S.
Soare has appeared on TV's "Oprah Winfrey Show" several times, billed as a top Hollywood brow expert.
"I was on Oprah this May and gave my brow kit to the audience," she said. "Sales at Nordstrom and Sephora went crazy after that."
With her products increasing in popularity fueled by packaging Sarnelle found disturbingly similar to her own Soare has been on a steady growth binge, expanding with salons in Japan, Greece and Canada, as well as in a chain of French department stores.
"We want to bring the perfect eyebrow everywhere," Soare said of her mission. "We know better than anybody; why should we not be everywhere, teach people and be there for our customers and women in general, wherever they go?"
While Soare has achieved fame, Sarnelle points out that her base remains solid.
"She's been calling herself the Brow Queen all this time," Sarnelle said, "but I am the one fighting for the actual trademark with some other girl in Florida." She was referring to a legal battle over the trademark that has been going on for years.
Sarnelle has also broadened her focus, moving away from brows.
It's her makeup line including her "Thumbelina" powder, "Top Secret" concealer and "Roses" blush that accounts for the bulk of her sales today.
"Makeup is far more profitable than brows," she said. "I don't want a brow-factory feel here. We are more creative and artistic in our approach. It's more about the products and how we use them."
Neither of the pros' work comes cheap. A five- to 10-minute eyebrow shaping from Anastasia is $75; Valerie charges a relatively minor $50 for brow work but commands $250 for a full-fledged professional makeup application.
While Soare is aggressively expanding, Sarnelle has adopted a slow growth strategy, focusing on the exclusivity of her makeup brand. She will debut a signature beauty and "lash bar," with high-end mink, pony and squirrel fur lashes (retailing for about $500 a pair) at the Limited Inc.'s swank Henri Bendel store in New York next spring.
She is considering a Las Vegas boutique, but said it hinges on finding the perfect manager for the outfit. She has concerns about it being too far out of her oversight from a geographic perspective, since she prefers direct supervision of her operations.
So who really is the Eye Brow Queen?
Who better to answer that question than "the Eye Brow King"?
That would be Damone Roberts, who worked for both women (he was lured away from Valerie to Anastasia for more money at the height of the rivalry) before opening his own salon in 2002. Following a familiar formula of celeb-fueled expansion, Roberts currently employs eight artists at his salon, which is also located in Beverly Hills.
"They are both still in business, I am in business and we all seem to be doing very well," said Roberts. "Think of it this way: How many hair salons are there in Beverly Hills? A trillion, and there's no shortage of business."
Roberts, once a prot & #233;g & #233; of Sarnelle, was lured away by Soare with more money. His shift was seen as elevating the feud. Roberts, appears on the Learning Channel TV makeover show "10 Years Younger," was only too happy to talk about the competition. Not only did the "feud" boost business for Sarnelle and Soare, it helped Roberts carve a niche for himself.
"I think it was fun at the time," he said. "Everyone got a big chuckle out of it, and anyone who knows the business realizes it was all tongue in cheek."
It's a quintessential Beverly Hills situation, he said.
"We are in show business," Roberts said. "This is a different reality, and we are behind the scenes in some ways but end up becoming celebrities ourselves. Publicity is publicity."
It's all part of doing business here, the two women agreed.
"When he opened, I walked into his store and wished him well because, who cares?" Sarnelle said of her past with Roberts.
"The thing is, there were people here even before us who helped start the whole thing, like (the late celebrity skin care specialist) Aida Grey, who was here in the 1940s," she said. "We all have helped create the brow business and bring it up to a multi-billion dollar level."
Soare said her business is "well into the millions" right now, and that she wants to double sales next year.
"We have a great brand and a great force right now. I plan to do tens of millions in business next year," she said, outlining a broad expansion plan.
"You can't make just products for your salon, you have to make huge quantities. Any big lab won't make 100 or 200 units; they have to make 3,000 at least, so you have to go out big."
Unlike Soare, Sarnelle has only a handful of wholesale accounts and doesn't plan to go out en masse; something she said could limit sales volume.
In line with her more measured strategy, Sarnelle said she hopes to do $5 million in business next year, with an increasing portion of her revenues coming from Internet orders.
"It's all about careful brand control," Sarnelle said. "Can you imagine having your name brand in some crummy store with discount racks?"
At present, the two women are focused on their products for the upcoming holiday season.
Valerie is doing plum and brown shades for fall, and is forsaking the long-popular lip-glosses of seasons past for more matte lipsticks, which will appear in her store shortly.
Anastasia will have a brightly packaged brow kit, complete with a smooth-listening style CD enclosed, in Sephora stores next month.
Could that set the stage for a beauty battle royale?
Hardly, said Sarnelle. She suggests the spat, even at its height, has always been blown out of proportion.
"In the beginning, it really was fierce," Sarnelle said. "But as big as it was, it was always made out to be even bigger."
In Beverly Hills, at least for two beauty divas, that hasn't been such a bad thing.
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