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I AM ABLE: Real Talk With ABLE Cosmetics Founder Dana Rae

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ABLE Founder Dana Rae opens up to Beauty Matter about finding her way as an individual and entrepreneur.

The Art of Panic

I’ll never forget the first time I felt real panic – that fight or flight, total body takeover, hit by a mac truck, wide-eyed, heart racing, can’t breathe, get me out of here panic. I was in middle school, one of 20 kids in a Quaker classroom’s reading circle.  Our teacher systematically made her way around the youthful sphere, asking each of us to read a paragraph aloud. I remember trying to follow along thinking “how do they know all these words?” I tried to skim ahead and decode what I could from the chunk of story that would be mine to broadcast. I panicked. I remember scanning the room for an exit strategy. The bathroom was my safe place. I would ask to be excused moments before my turn and then sit in the stall strategizing, trying to slow my heart while counting the minutes until I could slide my way back in unnoticed and in hopes that my turn would be forgotten until the next rotation, the next wave of panic. For years, I lived on the verge of this horror, treading lightly to avoid confrontation with any situation that might expose my inability. I became an expert at avoidance. Eventually, I found myself in 7th grade. I still couldn’t read and I didn’t know why.

My sanctuary was drawing. I remember feeling confident in my creativity. I would draw my notes. The visuals helped me remember the content and the context of the lesson at hand. I doodled in the margins of reading assignments – my own brand of hieroglyphics to spark a memory of what I had just read. It wasn’t easy, and it didn’t happen quickly, but I got to a point where I was able to feel better about my difference. I told myself that everyone has different strengths and that mine was art. I still didn’t understand why I couldn’t read, but I decided to focus on the positive. I was an artist and became a master at solving problems in my own creative way.

One day I found myself in a room with one glass wall. I was being observed. My differences had been identified despite the borders of defense I had built. I studied inkblots, did my best at reading aloud, and participated in an embarrassing clapping exercise fueled by beeps and syllables.  It was uncomfortable to withstand the humiliation, but the results were freeing. I was diagnosed with Dyslexia and additional issues with retaining information. It all made sense. My family was encouraging, telling me that Albert Einstein, Richard Branson, my mother, brother and even my favorite grandfather shared the same learning disability and had achieved such greatness despite their challenges. My school was less supportive. They said they didn’t know how to deal with my challenges and they were unwilling to individualize my education. They asked me to leave, forcing me out of the only school I knew because I wasn’t like everyone else. Luckily, my family and I found The Pennington School. It was the first educational environment in which I flourished – something I couldn’t have previously imagined. Their special learning center encouraged my creative tendencies and together we formulated ways for me to learn more visually and experientially. I felt supported and excited to be learning my way for the first time.

Makeup For The Win

Then I found makeup. Much like art, it came about organically and I felt so much excitement as I realized my talent. It all began on the set of my mother’s regional health and beauty magazine. At a very young age I started going to shoots with her. I loved being on set watching the hair and makeup teams work their magic. Having witnessed my obsession and listening to my enthusiasm, my mom gave me total creative control over the cover’s makeup. I remember being so excited and terrified that I was going to mess it up. I felt like she gave me the best gift and threw me to the wolves at once. Looking back on the cover, I wouldn’t have chosen a plum lipstick, but then again I was 13 and the assignment pushed me to my limits and set the stage for my endeavors.

 New Jersey Life

(My first real makeup gig aka the cover of New Jersey Life)

Life With Bobbi

Years later, my high school required a senior internship and when it came time to pick a focus, the choice was clear: Makeup. I sent a letter to Bobbi Brown in search of an opportunity. Weeks passed with no reply, until one day I received a Facebook message from her son. I still have it.

9/22/2006 7:07 PM

Hey sorry, this is Bobbi Brown’s son, she just received your resume and wants to speak to you, but you forgot to leave your contact information. I told her I’d look you up on Facebook. If you want, you could give me your number and she could give you a call.

I couldn’t believe I had forgotten to write my contact info, so I jumped at the offer and before I knew it, Bobbi and I were on the phone. Flash forward to my interview in New York. My mom and I arrived at her SoHo office. I still remember what I wore and the fear I felt when I was dropped at her door in the heart of a bustling city I knew nothing about. I was overwhelmed and awestruck by the amount of stuff going on in her office. There was so much to take in. Everywhere I looked I realized how incredibly big Bobbi’s operation was. This wasn’t the side of makeup that I knew. This was a massive business and everyone was hustling to make things happen. We sat in her office and she asked me about my interests, offering sound bites about the different departments I could explore in-house. I told her I wanted to see it all, that I wanted to be her one day. Next thing I knew, I was her assistant’s intern and it was incredible. I was involved in everything from basic errands, to color meetings, to laboratory visits. I had a hand in it all, which proved both overwhelming and invigorating. As my internship came to an end, I remember being so disillusioned. The last thing I wanted to do was leave this surreal makeup universe and return to academic reality.

Despite the positive atmosphere and my academic progress, I was still completely freaked out by the thought of reading aloud and speaking to a group. My insecurity and defense mechanisms enabled me to finesse a course schedule that freed me from participating in anything of the sort for my entire high school career. It felt like a win at the time, but as time passed my fear intensified. I quickly learned that the real world and the path I chose would force me to master everything I had so expertly evaded. Being at Bobbi Brown was eye-opening. I saw how communicative and involved she had to be in every step of the process, and I knew I couldn’t avoid it forever if makeup was my passion.

Back In The Stall

Having graduated Pennington with honors and excited to be continuing my journey at Syracuse University’s School of Visual Arts, I chose to be a painting major (with a self-declared double major in getting back to NYC as soon as possible to be closer to the makeup industry). I was loving school because I spent most of my days in six hour studio sessions, diving into painting and black ink, while finding opportunities around campus to strengthen my makeup muscle. I was advised to take a Business 101 class my sophomore year and the first day, the teacher asked everyone in the massive lecture hall to introduce themselves with their name and their major. Easy enough, right? Wrong. All of the sudden, I got hot. My vision started to narrow and I felt my throat closing up. I ran out of the room and sought refuge in the bathroom. There I was, back in middle school, holding my chest begging my nerves to get a hold of themselves, but this time was worse. I was on the floor, feeling completely out of my body, and utterly paralyzed by fear. From this point on, my worsening panic attacks and lack of control over them threw me into a deep depression. I was so upset, so disappointed in my inability to shake my nerves at what appeared to be so effortless for my peers. 

Woman Down

Turns out the bandaid I put on in middle school and kept on through high school wasn’t cutting it anymore. Long story short, my condition forced me to dropout of Syracuse. I returned to NYC, hoping the vibrancy of the city would distract me from my depression. I enrolled at Parsons The New School, but that didn’t work either. I found myself at home in my childhood bedroom, sleeping all day, depriving myself of food and everything that once brought me happiness. At this point, I was averaging at least one panic attack per day. I didn’t recognize myself and I didn’t want to. My parents were devastated. They did everything in their power to bring me into the light, but I could only see dark. After months of testing and observations, the country’s best doctors told me there was nothing “wrong” with me, that only I could make myself better. It might sound like good news now, but at the time I was completely defeated. I had nothing left to give and zero energy to tackle this from within. I yearned for doctors to find the problem, cut it out, and set me on my merry way, but that wasn’t an option. I was faced with the diagnosis that I was depressed and only I could snap myself out of it. It was a vicious cycle of anxiety induced by fear, coupled with severe Depersonalization Disorder and Agoraphobia. I was a shell of my former self and I saw no light at the end of the tunnel.

My family didn’t know what else to do, my friends didn’t know what to say, and my doctors were prescribing medications to numb the problem. I was taking four Xanax a day just to steady my nerves. It was helping to mask the panic, but I wanted a solution. I was so sick and tired of this version of me. I searched on Google for people going through similar situations and many rabbit holes later, I found The Linden Program. I read an article by a Vogue journalist who had been and I was inspired by her evident success. I won’t bore you with all the details, but the program was my saving grace. It was based in The UK and purely programmed to help people with a range of anxiety disorders. I flew there alone, which was jarring in itself, seeing as I had hardly left the house except for doctors’ appointments. When I arrived, I panicked in usual form on my bathroom floor. This time, though, there was a ladybug there with me. A sign of luck that made me smile through the pain. She stayed there through the program, reminding me that I could do it, that this time was different. TLP was tough love, but it was love. I left with a toolbox of mechanisms to help me through my future panic attacks. It wasn’t a matter of stopping them, but rather of dealing with them effectively.  I met so many people there who were experiencing their own worst nightmare and it felt encouraging to be surrounded by those who shared in my anxiety for one reason or another. We were all in it together. I wasn’t the outlier anymore.

Pushing Through

I returned home with a glimmer of my mojo back. I threw myself back into freelancing even though it would have been easier to throw myself back into bed. I looked my anxiety in the face and decided I had to make moves because they weren’t going to make themselves. I returned to New York, brought my “toolbox,” and got to grinding. Don’t get me wrong, the panic attacks still happened more than I wanted to admit. I’d leave the house and get five blocks before running back or sitting on the sidewalk in tears. New York made me stronger. No one cared about my problems or noticed my public breakdowns amidst the city’s chaos.  The surrounding apathy forced me to woman up and keep it moving, and for that, I am eternally grateful.

As a makeup artist in NYC, I began to grow my client base and gain confidence in the path I was carving despite the roadblocks I had recently endured. I soon began to notice a trend of insecurity and lack of confidence when it came to my clients’ faith in their own ability to achieve their desired look. They would say things to me like “you make it look so easy” or “I wish I could do it like you.” I would encourage them by default, explaining they could totally do it, but they didn’t buy my enthusiasm. It made me think. I considered their hesitation and my experience, their anxiety and my history, and it clicked. What if I was able to design and create a product line that made makeup easier for people by removing the intimidation factor, and simplifying the application process? For the first time in a long time, I was thoroughly excited about my purpose and grateful for my journey.

I Got This

I decided to tackle the Cat Eye first because it was timeless and felt so unattainable for so many. At the time, I remember seeing videos of influencers and internet tutorials using scotch tape and MetroCards to create a straight line. I even saw one girl using a switchblade and I thought, “I got this.” I recalled my painting school days at Syracuse, where my medium of choice was black ink. I would use rulers all the time to create straight lines for my work. I needed to create a straight edge that wasn’t a repurposed office supply that would enable women everywhere to achieve the perfect Cat Eye without fail.

At first, I was driving myself crazy coming up with a brand name. Then one day, while sitting in Barnes & Noble, it dawned on me. ABLE. I wanted to make people ABLE to create professional looks. I had such a close relationship with insecurity and feeling like I wasn’t ABLE to learn, progress, and achieve, so it really resonated with me. I made ABLE for the visual learners, for the hands-on achievers. It felt so right. It felt like a big “fuck you” to the school that didn’t know what to do with me and to the panic attacks that had relentlessly debilitated my confidence.

 

(ABLE Cosmetics first campaign in 2015. Makeup by Dana Rae / Photography by Daniel Clavero.)

It’s been a crazy ride since ABLE’s incubation. I received a U.S. Patent for Cat Eye 101. The line has received praise from so many mega publications and the momentum has been more rewarding than I could have imagined. It didn’t really hit me, though, until Sephora, aka every makeup artists’ mecca, approached me to apply for their Accelerator Program.  Upon researching the opportunity, I was overtaken with equal parts excitement and fear. There would be several interviews in the application process and if I somehow didn’t spontaneously combust during the preliminaries, the program itself required public speaking in front of industry leaders. I was freaked out to say the least. During the initial interview process I continually told the Sephora reps that I was not interested in participating in the public speaking portion of the program. They reminded me that I was the one being interviewed and I remember cursing myself after the calls for my outspoken resistance.

When I got the news I had been accepted to the program I was overcome with pride and panic. I was so close to sabotaging myself and contacting Sephora to explain I would be unable to participate, but I took a moment and re-focused my anxiety. I enrolled in what turned out to be the most humiliating improvisation and public speaking classes. I came home in tears and disbelief after each intensive, knowing that I was one week closer to doomsday (aka speaking on Sephora’s stage). It was too late to back out now, though. It was Sephora and I hadn’t come this far to run to the bathroom stall.

The program was incredible. I learned so much about the business side of things, traveling with impressive female entrepreneurs and gaining clarity about my brand and my purpose all along the way. As our time in the Accelerator came to an end, “Demo Day” became my sole focus and stressor. I was so comfortable with my fellow beauty insiders, so grateful for the opportunity, and so cemented in my brand identity, but that didn’t change the fact that I was freaking out. I went back and forth with my mentors, begging them to let me attend without presenting, desperately looking for a way out.

My Own Worst Enemy

The big day was near and I had totally psyched myself out, except this time it wasn’t a middle school reading circle. It was Sephora. It was my career, my brand, my everything. What was I doing? Why couldn’t I snap out of it? I shared my insecurities with my fellow females and, to my surprise, discovered that I wasn’t alone. Each and every one of them was dealing with their own version of nervousness, doubt, fear. Even the keynote speaker admitted she was jittery. I found comfort in this realization but it didn’t reverse my visceral reaction to public speaking. During the break between rehearsal and performance, I escaped to a nearby flower shop to gather supplies for my dedicated brand table. Before I knew it, I was having a full blown panic attack and texted the program heads that I was not coming back for the presentation. They came to save me from myself, talking me down from my frenzy and reminding me that I was integral to the program and the other women, but ultimately leaving the decision to me. I knew what I had to do. I took a couple deep breaths, a beta blocker, and levitated toward the stage.  On one condition: I had to go first before I lost my nerve. They called my name and there I was: front and center, my least favorite position. I killed it. I breezed through my presentation and got a wonderful response from everyone involved. I couldn’t believe it. Was it the beta blockers? Was it the hundred hours of preparation? Was it my fellow females’ encouragement? Who knows, but it was awesome and I felt more relief than ever before.

Writing this was a rollercoaster, much like the story itself. I felt obligated on some level to share my journey in hopes that it could help readers who are going through something similar. To anyone in the same boat, I want to let you know that it wasn’t easy getting here and it isn’t easy being here, but I’m making it work and so can you. I still struggle with anxiety and refuse to read out loud, but the creation of ABLE has given me an outlet to empower. Rather than focus on the roadblocks, I strive daily to create a brand and products that are aligned with what I believe in, reminding everyone that they are ABLE and can do ANYTHING. If I can speak in front of 250 industry insiders, you can do whatever you're afraid of. At the end of the day, I know it’s just makeup and I’m not single-handedly changing the world, but I’m inspired by everyday victories and I hope my story reminds you that you are ABLE to overcome your fears and realize your goals. In the meantime, I’ll help you achieve the perfect Cat Eye.

ABLE Founder, Dana Rae

xx
Dana Rae

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