She founded her own PR business aged 20 and became one of the world’s leading fashion, beauty and luxury PRs. This year Caroline Neville celebrated 25 years at the helm of Cosmetic Executive Women (CEW). Lysanne Currie went to meet this extraordinary and inspirational leader
“I was living in a very interesting time, and the world was open to me, which was unbelievable,” recalls Caroline Neville of her glittering, epoch-spanning fashion and beauty career.
Today, as president of Cosmetic Executive Women (CEW), a not-for-profit organisation for female executives working in the beauty industry, Neville helps champion products and services, lead the conversation on beauty, recognise innovators and entrepreneurs through the CEW’s annual awards, and support philanthropic organisations and charities. It’s all a long way from her humble roots in the East End.
A war baby, born in 1942, she survived the Blitz when the railway that ran beside their back garden was shelled and blew the windows in – “fortunately something fell on top of the cot, and all the glass fell on top of that, so I was protected. My generation was tough!”
As a young working-class woman in the 1950s, her career choices were somewhat limited; back then, she’d have been expected to get a job as, say, a teacher, a secretary or nurse. “East End girls wanted to get jobs in places like Selfridges,” she recalls. “But people used to tell me that if they had an E1 postmark on their application it was thrown away. They’d ask somebody else to send their application in from another address.” (Years later, such discrimination still resonated with her: “In my firm, I always had working mothers. I’d give them first choice of summer holidays.”)
Instead, Neville chose a different route. Inspired by the stories her journalist uncle told her, she set on a life in print. Her father, a newspaper printer, helped get her a job as a secretary for a British daily, the News Chronicle. But Neville had bigger ambitions. After her boss encouraged her to write a piece for The House Magazine, it led to a spell in its fashion department, where she’d carry and iron the clothes and write captions. More importantly, it meant she began to meet the people who mattered. “In the end, I was talking to all of the fashion bosses.”
Not yet 20, and clutching a freshly minted NUJ card – “I’m still a member and really loyal to them” – her next job as woman’s page editor of The Ocean Times (“I went to everything, all the invites, shows, film premieres”) resulted in something magical in the post. “I wrote a piece about a new mascara from Estée Lauder” she recalls. “It wasn’t anything grand, just a little column. That Christmas, a card came to my home. It was from [founders] Joe and Estée, saying ‘Happy Christmas, thank you for your support, we really appreciate it. Have a lovely year’. That stayed with me for a long, long time.”
It wasn’t all Christmas cards from beauty magnates at first, though. A new job on the Spice of Life page on Woman's Home Magazine collapsed on day one: “I was in a white suit, high heels, my hair was up, and the picture editor, who’d been there forever, asked if I’d get the felt backdrops down from a great big cupboard. I said, ‘If I’d known I was going to have to do this I would have come in a pair of jeans. I can’t climb up and down this ladder in this white suit.’ And then I said the worst thing: ‘I was hired to come here as a journalist, not to clean the felt cupboard.’ She took me straight to the editor – and they dismissed me on the spot.”
As Neville says, it was probably a good thing, really: after six weeks out of work, she teamed up with a “larger-than-life” PR with a clutch of fashion accounts under her belt, learning the ropes. It led to her starting up her own modest fashion PR business, working out of her mother’s Wandsworth flat. It also helped that she knew how to sell a story. Alas, it all ended “because people would ring up, and my mother would say ‘Oh, she’s in the bath. I was like ‘For God’s sake mum! Say something more than a bath, say I’m in a meeting or something’. So that definitely didn’t last.”
An encounter with a certain iconic Sixties muse helped steer her career back on track, however. In the course of working for a dress company, Neville hired the then-model Pattie Boyd for a photoshoot. “She looked adorable, wearing a little neon dress and a headscarf, and the next day I read in the paper that she had just got engaged to George Harrison.”
In the days even before fax machines, when everything had to be sent by motorcycle courier, or delivered to the newspapers or posted, Neville knew she had to act quickly: “I wrote the press release saying this is the dress, the model is Pattie Boyd, soon to become Mrs Harrison – and everybody used the picture. It was the first time I felt the power of the press.”
The second time was when she was working in Rupert Street, and the Daily Express carried “an enormous picture of me, saying how much I was making”, to accompany a series called ‘The Deep Enders’, about young people who went into business. “That story trebled my client list.”
Her next move was to open a model agency, providing models to showrooms, all the while being fated by the likes of PR Week for her entrepreneurship. “My whole bloody image was everywhere!” she grins. “I had three offers to sell, but I didn’t. I was having a great time – why would I?” Besides, she was never ostentatious. “I just got on with the job and earned packets of money. And my husband, who was 10 years older, quite sensibly invested it all for me. He had such a stabilising effect on me, earning that sort of money so early, that if I hadn’t met him, I think it might have been a different story.”
SCENT OF SUCCESS
A fashion maven for almost a decade (“you name it, we represented it”) she moved to the beauty industry in 1971; among her successes, launching Ralph Lauren’s first fragrance, Lauren Polo in the UK, as well as Calvin Klein’s Eternity: “I had Calvin and Kelly over… the stories are unbelievable.” While seeing Aldo Gucci every three weeks “was like being in an Italian movie”.
There were a few bumps in the road, of course. She’d had an early, “very sharp learning curve” when she was 25 after losing a quarter of her clients in one month; and the 1991 recession was “really bad”.
Through it all, she’s remained, “essentially, a sales person” – which is a bit like the Pope admitting to being a bit religious. “I lift enormous amounts of money based on understanding what people’s objectives are, and delivering a package for them.” And her heaps of awards for services to the industry (including a Lifetime Achievement from The City magazine) is testament to that. Albeit her favourite award of all “was when I was in Vogue’s 10 Best-Dressed International Women. I loved that!”
She’s truly self-made: “My parents had nothing, and didn’t leave me any money” says the woman who changed her name from Carolina to Caroline (because she thought it sounded better), then ditched her cockney accent: “I absolutely transformed myself, because I saw what was out there.” And the re-branding didn’t stop here. “I changed my name to The Caroline Neville, because that is what I called my company.” And then she changed her company name too. “My son said, ‘it’s about time it was less about a person and more about an agency.’ And he’s right. When we changed the name from Caroline Neville to Neville-McCarthy, we sent a card out which said ‘Caroline Neville is having a little makeover’, which I thought was quite sweet. I then became chairman, and my son and my daughter Natalie joined, and they now have the most fantastic client list of luxury lines.”
These days, among other innovations, she’s fascinated by recent studies into the effect of fragrances on the brain. “A girl came to talk to me about a new thing she’d created, which is the smell of Eccles cakes. And she wanted it to be plugged into the wall in old people’s homes. Because sometimes, if they have dementia, they don’t have an appetite, they can’t be bothered to eat. She said, ‘If I can re-create the smell, whether it’s an Eccles cake, or jam tart, it will stimulate them, it will bring back memories. I sent her to loads of places to see if she could get this going, and nobody picked up on it. It was such a wasted opportunity, because the girl was obviously gifted.’”
She’s also enthused about the clean beauty revolution: “It’s essentially a lot to do with the younger group, whatever they put on their face, they want it to be as pure as what they’re eating”. And especially on industry diversity: “It’s a complete melting point now – and I personally feel that’s how it should be.”