Business

The Bliss Kiss

A Saskatchewan ‘dame’ scores with a star-studded New York spa

Jane O’Hara February 14 2000
Business

The Bliss Kiss

A Saskatchewan ‘dame’ scores with a star-studded New York spa

Jane O’Hara February 14 2000
The teachers at Saskatoon’s Evan Hardy high school were trying hard last week to picture their former student Marcia Kilgore. “Nope,” said one, “I’m drawing a blank.” Added another: “Sorry, that name is not ringing any bells.”

Funny. Though she is not top of mind at the high school she attended in the late 1980s, the 31-year-old Kilgore is now one of the glam dames of New York City—and a multimillionaire to boot. She is the founder of the fashionably funky Bliss Spa, which, in four short years, has mushroomed from a single location in artsy SoHo into a lucrative international line of beauty and skin-care products that are sold online and through a catalogue that goes out to over a million consumers. Her client list reads like a who’s who of show business. Among the divas who line up for her facials or get rubbed, peeled and wrapped at her spa are Oprah Winfrey, Julia Roberts, Uma Thurman, Jennifer Lopez and Madonna. New York magazine just named Kilgore one of the Big Apple’s top leaders, along with developer Donald Trump and Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter.

If that doesn’t get attention in Saskatoon, how about this: last year, the Paris-based corporate giant, LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton—internationally acknowledged as the Goliath of luxury goods—bought 70 per cent of Kilgore’s business for a reported $45 million. For LVMH—also owner of such carriage-trade brands as Christian Dior, Guerlain and Givenchy—Bliss was their first North American acquisition. Its execs were lured largely by Kilgore’s star appeal and her hip, humorous savvy in marketing to the young generation of fashionistas. They are banking that Miss Bliss will be to the American body what Martha Stewart is to the American home. “Bliss is a great brand,” says Pierre Malvet, LVMH’s director of acquisitions, “but frankly we fell in love with Marcia.”

And what’s not to love about the woman they call Mar-w-a? At the end of a long working day, the hyperkinetic Kilgore strides into the boardroom of her corporate headquarters’ 2,300 square metres of space on the seventh floor of a converted Brooklyn warehouse. To shorten the commute from work to home, she and her business-partner husband, Thierry Boue, recently moved into a $2.9-million condominium right across the street. At Christmas, she gave her senior staff Palm personal organizers, so she could beam them messages at any hour of the day. “Marce is so busy, she doesn’t have time to pee,” says sister Jodi Preston, 36, who spent 10 years modelling for the Elite agency in New York, and now lives in Toronto.

Calling herself “neurotically perfectionistic,” Kilgore has spent the day tending to the endless details of an empire that did $30 million in sales last year (profits aren’t published). She still gives facials (now only two mornings a week), trains the staff, develops new products and writes all the witty advertising copy for her mail-order catalogue BlissOut (for example, Bliss Serious Seaweed Cellulite Soap: “Forget the rope, this is soap with hope”). She also personally answers complaint letters. And this day, one particularly sticks in her craw. It comes from a man annoyed that, during his spa visit, he hadn’t been offered crackers and cheese after his massage. Kilgore rolls her eyes and shakes her head. Human nature being what it is, she asserts, “people will try anything to knock you down.” In her quirky way, she threatens to get even with the complainers by turning their letters into a coffee-table book. “People come into Bliss now and they don’t just expect a great massage, they expect it to change their lives,” she says. “It’s hard because people have heard so much about Bliss, they always expect it to be perfect. And when it was really small, I really could make everything perfect. I had 20 hours a day when I could be awake, when I would work on everything, constantly.”

Kilgore’s small-town-girl-makes-good story started in Outlook, Sask. (population 2,300), 75 km south of Saskatoon, where she was born in 1968, the youngest of three daughters of Lorene and Monty Kilgore, a real estate agent. Monty, who nicknamed his girls Joe, Pete and Mike, raised them to be fearless and to feel that they were as smart as anyone else. By the late 1960s, the family was on the move. They went from Saskatoon to Edmonton, ending up in Calgary. In 1982, disaster struck when Monty, after a long illness, died of brain cancer at 43. Left alone with her children, Lorene moved the family back to Outlook, where she and Monty had grown up, then to Saskatoon so she could find work. “It was devastating,” recalls Marcia, who was 13 when her father died. “Mom had to work and took the attitude that she was going to hold things together, but I remember saying to her, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll get a paper route, I’ll help, I’ll hold it together.’ I really wanted to work to make my mom feel better.”

And work she did. A straight-A student, Kilgore remembers high-school life as a blur. She played in the school band and on numerous sports teams. At times, she held down three part-time jobs, waitressing, coaching gymnastics and teaching aerobics classes at local clubs. At a private gym, she started competitive bodybuilding—in her heyday, she could bench press 75 kg—and in 1987, she won the Saskatchewan middleweight bodybuilding championship. Prom the age of 13, she bought all her own clothes and paid for the expensive vitamin supplements needed for bodybuilding. At 16, when she applied for a loan to buy a car, the dealer took one look at her résumé and said it wasn’t necessary for her mother to co-sign. “She was never any trouble,” says her mother, Lorene, who is remarried now and lives in Saskatoon. “She was very self-reliant. The girls had a lot of street sense and common sense.”

So much so that Lorene was unfazed in 1987 when the 18-year-old Kilgore moved to New York to join sister Jodi, who was then an established model. Lorene remembers her Saskatchewan friends being concerned about her daughters’ safety on the mean streets of the big city. “I wasn’t worried,” says Lorene. “I thought New York could look out for itself.”

The cosmopolitan hubbub of the Big Apple felt like an oxygen blast to Kilgore. “The place suited her,” says Jodi. “Mentally, she can handle anything—the more the better.” Kilgore started hanging out with Jodi’s friends in the star-studded fashion world, contacts who would come in handy later on. To make money to survive, she fell back on bodybuilding and became a personal trainer to stars like singer-composer Paul Simon and his ex-wife, actor Carrie Bisher. In 1990, after taking an esthetician’s course, Kilgore also started doing facials on the floor of her cramped East Village apartment. Soon, word spread about her magic hands and her ability to cure pimply skin—an affliction she had suffered as a teenager. Kilgore couldn’t keep up with the demand. She started expanding, renting one room and then four to run the business and hiring other technicians to help her out. “I was running all the time between doing personal training and facials and leg waxes,” she says. “Thank God I was young. I was like a messenger service.”

Like any astute entrepreneur, she also grasped the underlying economics of the beauty business, figuring out where the real money is made: mail-order sales of those skin-smoothing, blemish-busting creams and emollients that seemingly promise eternal youth. As the word of mouth spread, the buzz among the fashion elite was heating up. In the spring of 1996, a small blurb about Kilgore and her fun facials appeared in Vogue magazine. It was no accident. Kilgore had courted fashion-magazine beauty editors—the arbiters of taste and trends—many of whom were longtime clients. After the Vogue piece, her phones started ringing, at one point creating a backlog of 500 clients who were wait-listed for appointments. Jordan Stein had just been hired by Kilgore as a part-timer when the magazine came out. “I was working three hours a day before the story,” recalls Stein, 26, now the SoHo spa’s trademark greeter, whose official title is King of Bliss. “After, it was 16 hours a day. It was insane. Almost twilight-zoney. But such is the power of Vogue.”

It also bespeaks the frenzy of New Yorker's desperate to keep up with the hottest trend. Spas, after all, have been around for a long time. But to Kilgore they were often stuffy and intimidating. In July, 1996, when she opened the Bliss Spa in 460 square metres in a SoHo building, she turned that attitude on its head. She banished pretension, mixing down-home comfort with high-concept design. To stressed-out women battling cellulite and crow’s feet, she offered fun-sounding treatments like the “Tunnel of Rub” and the “Carrot and Sesame Body Buff.”

Since then, the SoHo spa has doubled in size. And in late December, LVMH christened its office tower at 57th Street and Madison Avenue—the heart of New York’s high-end retailing—by opening a second Bliss Spa. Kilgore’s business, which was once just “me and my table,” now employs 225 people. About 350 customers a day cycle through the spas’ robe rooms and saunas, paying $200 for a Minty Mud Mummy Mask or $275 for the two-hour Deep Sea Detox, where clients are wrapped in hot French seaweed. Plans are under way to open more spas in California and London. Kilgore’s new masters at LVMH are coy about actual figures but predict “double-digit” growth annually. They boast that Kilgore and her company will be bigger than Estée Lauder, long the gold standard in skin care. It’s all a question of synergies, said Richard de Warren, LVMH’s director of U.S. ventures, on a recent visit to the Brooklyn headquarters of Bliss World LLC—the parent company for Kilgore’s operations. He believes Kilgore’s marketing skills, combined with LVMH’s manufacturing and worldwide distribution system, should push her Bliss and Remède beauty products around the world. “It’s like a baby, now,” says de Warren. “Everything is there around the cradle and we have to let them grow. But we are expecting rapid growth. Very rapid growth.”

The high-powered money talk and multinational marketing strategies are a world away from Kilgore’s spas. There, Bliss-goers are swept into a land of visual puns and wacky furniture, like feathery Mongolian lamb’s-wool ottomans and a pedicure room painted like a Caribbean beach scene. The sign on one door in the massage area, where clients pad around in Sensi sandals and white cotton robes, asks that the door be closed gently since “The thump, thump, thump is not very spa.” In the lounge, tastefully appointed and low-lit, there are brownies and white wine. Eleni Gage, beauty editor at New York-based In Style magazine, appreciated the guidebook handed out to nervous first-timers. It was full of cheekily written spa etiquette, such as whether to wear underwear during a massage. Answer: “If underwear makes you relax, you can wear six pairs. But most people get massaged in the buff.” After two visits, Gage was a true believer. “A lot of spas are hushed and clinical,” she says. “You feel like you’re going to the doctor for a checkup. Marcia has made Bliss upscale but not fancy—fun and whimsical.”

Even so, some clients are looking beyond the whimsy and trademark puns. On a recent Saturday afternoon, a 39-yearold New Yorker carrying a Bliss shopping bag admitted with some embarrassment that she had just dropped $900 at Kilgore’s spa—$ 150 for a facial, the rest on the face creams that the facialist told her to buy. This seemingly ideal client was one tough customer. “It’s great marketing, but I expected more,” she said. “And if these products don’t work, I’ll never be back.” That will be Kilgore’s prime business challenge: to produce high-margin, image-based products that still maintain a quality that ensures her customers don’t dis Bliss. ED