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  1. The Business Interview
10 February 2022

“I never do a retake”: How Trinny Woodall spun her social media success into a £44m business

The What Not to Wear star has built a dedicated online community, and with it a booming makeup brand.

By Emma Haslett

Television viewers of a certain age will recognise the woman on the screen in front of me just by her voice: alongside her friend Susannah Constantine, Trinny Woodall formed one half of the acerbic television duo who taught a generation of women What Not To Wear

In the early Noughties she and Constantine made their names with their “brutal honesty”, grabbing and poking and plucking at the downtrodden, pointing out their “great tits” and “gorgeous legs” and telling them how to cover up bits that were less palatable. (“This is one of the worst tragedies of a jacket we have ever seen, actually,” Woodall said dryly in one episode). But 15 or so years later, Woodall, 58, is discussing profit and loss statements, supply chains and finding investors. Once she was the bitchy older sister of the Queer Eye boys, but here is a different Trinny: smart, canny and a little bit vulnerable.

What Not to Wear Trinny hasn’t disappeared altogether: she has a million followers on Instagram, where she does regular styling sessions. Today there’s a hint of her alter ego in her Zoom background, where a fluffy red coat she styled with a pair of pink trousers for a video earlier this week peeks out of her wardrobe. Her split personality is, she suggests, intentional. “I think what’s very interesting is that many people who watch me [on social media] don’t see me in my business capacity. I spend 90 per cent of my working week running a business with 200 people in it.”

The business in question is Trinny London, the makeup brand she set up in 2017 which also became a skincare brand on 8 February with the release of two cleansing products. Skincare was, she says, “my first passion”. There’s every reason to believe this new strand to the business will do well: documents filed with Companies House at the beginning of January showed the company’s turnover more than tripled to £44.2m in the year to March 2021, with pre-tax profits rising to £3.4m from a loss of £471,000 the year before.

The business marries elements from her previous careers: in the Eighties Woodall worked in the City, where she traded commodities (coffee) before moving on to trading funds at Anglo American. In the early Nineties she left the City, “took a timeout” and ended up writing a fashion column for the Daily Telegraph with Constantine, her friend. From there they moved into television. What Not to Wear was broadcast on the BBC from 2001-2007 and brought them international recognition including a style slot on the Oprah Winfrey Show.

Yet before she started her business Woodall was at a low ebb. Her professional relationship with Constantine had ended in 2008 when their ITV show, Trinny and Susannah Undress the Nation, was cancelled. After that she spent a few years collecting herself. In 2017 “I was in a house I could no longer afford, the mortgage was far too big for the salary I was earning, my salary was diving and, in my personal life, I had some tough things to deal with,” she says. She doesn’t elaborate, but in 2014 her ex-husband, Johnny Elichaof, killed himself. 

Woodall had an idea for a brand of stackable make-up that allowed women, predominantly those over 35, to buy direct, using an online process to figure out which colours work best for their skin. She floated it with a woman whose children attended the same school as her daughter, and who worked on beauty research at Mintel. The woman confirmed that online beauty was set to be a “trend” in the next five years. 

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Then she set about securing funding: £60,000 came from selling off her wardrobe, and she has raised another £7m from investors, including her daughter’s godmother and her partner, Charles Saatchi — a move for which she has been criticised. She finds that unfair. “Charles did invest at the beginning, along with other people — a smaller amount than any of them.” 

“It was very sweet that he did that — and he’s done very well,” she adds, pointedly. Would the same accusation be levelled at a man whose female partner invested in their company? “It would never happen if it was the other way around,” she says. “I’ve never seen an article in the press the other way around.”

Social media is a natural home for her, and her chosen platform to get word of Trinny London out. On top of her Instagram followers, she has a loyal following of 100,000 women on Facebook, the “Trinny Tribe”, who are “closest to the brand” and who provide feedback on her products. An eight-strong “community” team responds to every one of the comments — between 9,000 and 12,000 a week — sent through the brand’s channels. “It’s really important because we want to be understanding, all the time, our current customer,” she says.

Her personal social media is just as important. She responds personally to every comment, and picks “about 20 DMs [direct messages]” a day to respond to. Her week follows a strict routine, with one or two filming sessions each week to create eight videos for social media. “I never, ever, ever do a retake. What I film, that’s it.”

She focuses on video, which is what brought her early recognition on Facebook. “My followers went from half a million to 780,000 in six months because of that, because they were looking for people who were making videos,” she says. But she won’t do Reels, Instagram’s TikTok knock-off, which are aimed at time-poor Gen Z viewers. “I’m not a Reels person. I take too long to say shit. It doesn’t work for me.”

Now the brand has grown so much, does she regret weaving her own personality so closely into it? “Yes. No. I think mainly no,” she says. At the beginning, she was planning to name it something else — “I think I was going to call it Micro Makeover” — but a friend said “why the f*** aren’t you using your name?”

“If you start a business really young, you might think, ‘I might do three businesses [in my lifetime], so let me build this business to sell it,’ ” she explains. “I knew that, for me, I wanted to build a business and I didn’t want to look at what my exit strategy would be. Life will show me what I should do with that business. So therefore, being able to have the name above the door, to me, isn’t a hindrance at all.”

Now deep into what she calls the third “cycle” of her career, what would What Not to Wear Trinny say to this current iteration? “I think she’d say thank God I lost my insecurity, and thank God that your 50s are better than your 20s.”

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