Jess Bell did not set out deliberately to become a big man in the beauty business. For one thing, he doesn't exactly look the part: he is 46 years old and just a bit jowly, he prefers faded denim clothes to fancy duds, and he would rather go skiing than stand around looking arty in some perfumed salon. Besides, who would ever have guessed that such a thing could happen to a guy from Ohio. This is no knock on Ohio—but "cosmetics" and "Cleveland" would never match in a word-association game.
Yet here is Jess Bell, red bandanna and all, surrounded by a tree draped with beautiful young girls, his Mercedes 280 SL parked just off camera, and he is wearing the look of a man who has found the secret. He found it first, which is why he is there.
There was the family business, a concern called Bonne Bell Cosmetics, which had been moving along modestly since 1927, certainly no threat to such as Revlon or Fabergé or Helena Rubinstein, especially since customers often had to be told that the funny first name was pronounced "Bonnie." When Bell took over from his father in 1959 he knew that, for all its scented exterior, the cosmetics business is a fierce game full of mean infighting. The big, established firms already had a lock on the beauty shop and well-advertised glamour end of the line. So Bell took a sidestep that everybody figured was crazy at the time: he aimed his cosmetics at sport in general and skiing in particular.
Anyone who once bet against selling sporting makeup knows what happened next. Bell's first move was to start producing a mixture he calls "serious ski lipstick," then suntanning and high-altitude creams, all avoiding the oldtime, pasty-white zinc-oxide stuff that makes wearers look like refugees from the Land of the Living Dead. He added antichap preparations, after-ski pomades, even a tanning stain that instantly transforms city folks into ski instructors, and he called the whole line ski cosmetics. Then, when major store outlets and ski area shops were slowly warming to the idea, Bell tossed in the girls. And that did it.
November 22, 1971
Bell's beauties all look as if they had just dropped in from the wholesome house next door. Or you wish the house next door produced such neighbors. They definitely do not make up in the oldtime, Hollywood sense; there isn't a purple-shadowed eyelid or a rouged cheekbone in the bunch. Instead, the emphasis is on a sort of dewy-cheeked outdoor look, complete with creamy tan and snowy teeth. Pure, too, is the team's costume-shiny red, white and blue, star-spangled outfits.
While the more elegant cosmeticians continued to fight over the big-city sales, Bell added his key slogan, "Out There You Need Us Baby," and began a campaign of color ads and calendars that almost always pictured his girls romping heartily through the snow or zestily up a tree, which is certainly unchic and just about corny enough to catch on.
And cosmetics for men? Well, why not? Refusing to mess around with masculine smells and suitably beefy packaging like other manufacturers, Bell simply added ex-Olympian and FIS world gold medalist Billy Kidd to the team. Kidd's ruggedness has never been in question, and he wears Bell's outdoor cosmetics with never a blush. The ads note, "Billy Kidd wears our stuff". You should, too." Then, just so there would be absolutely no mistake about his stance, Bell introduced himself in another ad: "Jess Bell Likes Girls."
Before all this business with the beautiful girls and before the millions began to roll in, Bell had almost given up the skin game for a military career. He spent seven years in the Army, the last three as a paratrooper in the Korean war, for which he had re-enlisted. "I've been criticized for being extremely patriotic," he says, "but I just believe in courage and our country." In Cleveland, Bell works in a fiercely early American atmosphere and when he dresses up for dinner he puts on a stars-and-stripes tie.
Plenty of Bonne Bell candidates were applying for jobs even before an article in Skiing magazine noted, "If you're blonde, beautiful, have car, will travel and can beat Killy in slalom, write: Jess Bell...." Now more than 100 girls apply each season, all lovely and each one an expert skier. The chosen nine start at $600 a month, plus expenses and free ski equipment, ready to ski, dance, demonstrate makeup, backpack or drive through blizzards for the cause.
"A Bonne Bell girl doesn't say, 'It's cold, I'm going inside,' " says one of them, Ann Douglas. And while "Bonne Bell girls have been known to dance on tabletops," Sally Liman says, the constant schedule of skiing-to-be-seen is tough. Six-foot Betsy Glenn Barrymore, onetime New York ski queen, is called Big Bets by Bell, and can lug four pair of skis through an airport lobby and still look attractive. Bettie Evans, an ex-ski instructor and stewardess who works out of Denver, thinks nothing of driving alone over icy Loveland Pass at night—quite a scary experience. Some ski-shop owners won't place an order with a Bonne Bell girl until they have seen her ski. "Let's take a run," they will say. "Let's see if you know what you're talking about."
All of them profess to enjoy the job, and Karin Allen, team captain, figures that it is better than being Miss America. "A girl must be a good skier," she says, "but for the rest of her qualities, Jess goes by vibrations." At one recent company dinner, Linda Agustsson arrived in a floor-length gown. Bell protested, "But you have great legs." Next dinner, Linda wore her miniskirt.