Sally Hansen is one of those comfortingly generic brand names that you can imagine being cooked up by a committee tasked with making beauty products more accessible and friendly, Think of her as the Betty Crocker of nail polish.
But it turns out Sally is a real person person, though until very recently, not even the corporation that bears her name knew of her identity. Unlike other beauty companies named for their founders—and there are legion—Sally’s face and story went missing at some point as her company was sold and re-sold.
In 2014, the powers-that-be at the Sally Hansen brand, which is now owned by Coty, decided to find out who their namesake was. The first round of research turned up 49,120 women with the name Sally Hansen. They researchers then narrowed the list down to 14,00 and after tracking down a number of fruitless leads, they found the obituary of a factory worker who had previously been employed by “Sally Hansen Cosmetics.”
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Through this lead, they found two living relatives of the actual Sally Hansen. Here’s what they learned: Sally Finney was born in Kansas in 1908 and moved to California in her teens to be a dancer. She was stylish and vivacious, and eventually got involved in her family business, a Los Angeles cosmetic store called La Finné. She wrote a beauty advice column for the Los Angeles Times called “Your Candid Mirror.”
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Hansen, it turns out, was something of a proto-beauty blogger. “I have just been reading advertisements. Beauty advertisements about powders, creams, reducing apparatus, eyebrow tweezers and nail polishes,” she writes. “What a wealth of American wit, brains and entertainment they provide. I would love to write one and head it ‘Can You Nail Your Man?’ Or ‘Polish Tips on the Marriage Market.’”
In 1935, a young Sally—now Hansen thanks to her second husband, Adolf Hansen, a doctor—acquires her parents’ store and rechristens it House of Hollywood. She develops her own cosmetics and fragrances.
By 1945, Hansen had moved to New York to expand her business. Her husband, “Hans,” stayed behind in LA. In 1957, Hansen trademarked the product “Hard As Nails,” a (you guessed) nail strengthening treatment that is still one of the company’s best sellers. “Hard As Nails” was the first product to bear Hansen’s name, and the logo was designed by her third husband, a graphic designer named Jack Newton who was 11 years her junior.
In 1962, Hansen sold her company for $1.425 million—making her a self-made millionaire. Four years later, she died at age 56.
Over the course of their search, Sally executives uncovered a trove of photographs, some of which are included here. In these black and white images, she may seem somewhat remote from Sally’s target audience of today, but she wasn’t the grandmotherly sort. Hansen was a glamorous woman of her era, thoroughly coiffed and elegant, a bon-vivant, an entrepreneur and CEO who apparently chose her dynamic career over traditional family life.
Corporate research isn’t usually a source of potent life lessons for young women, but the case of Sally Hansen might be the exception: You don’t have to look far to find heroines to celebrate. They’re often right there in your own family tree.
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From: Town & Country