Paula Kent Meehan, an aspiring Hollywood actress and childhood friend of Debbie Reynolds who became a serial entrepreneur and philanthropist — changing the way consumers think about their shampoo in the process — died earlier this week in her Beverly Hills home. She was 82.
Born Paula Jane Baer, Meehan “made her mark on the business world in the 1960s when she co-founded Redken Hair Care with nothing more than a small $3,000 fee she was paid for her acting in a [Hamm’s] beer commercial,” Matt Lopez reports in the Beverly Hills Courier, a weekly newspaper she bought just last month.
“With that, she built an empire in the world of beauty products that resulted in her being named among the ‘top 50 women business owners’ by Working Woman magazine; #1 on Los Angeles Business Journal’s list of women-owned businesses in LA for four consecutive years; and one of Entrepreneurial Woman’s eight most powerful business owners.”
Meehan was born in Burbank, Calif., where she met Reynolds. “Debbie actually wanted to be a gym teacher while my aspiration was to be an actress,’ she told the Courier’s John L. Seitz in a wide-ranging 2004 interview. While Reynolds became a star, “I had to settle with playing a minor bit part as Dino’s Restaurant hat check girl on ‘77 Sunset Strip’ at Warner Brothers,” she continued.
Eventually, “after painfully coming to the conclusion Hollywood wasn’t going to make me the next Joan Crawford, I wanted to control my own destiny,” she said.
Meehan partnered with her hairdresser, an amateur chemist named Jheri Redding, to form Redken Laboratories, which “began with three products and an intensive education program for hairdressers about the chemistry of hair and skin,” according to the company’s website.
Steve Goddard, a former Redken executive and founder of hair products manufacturer Pravana International, tells Bloomberg’s Stephen Miller that Prell was the No. 1 shampoo at the time.
“It was all about shine and fluff and the color of the product,” Goddard said. “Now comes a company that says the products you use on your skin shouldn’t be a different pH. It was a new way of talking about the product’s effectiveness.”
“She went on to build a beauty-products empire in Southern California that helped pioneer the teaching of hair chemistry to stylists who sold Redken's protein-rich products out of their salons,” writes Martha Groves in the Los Angeles Times.
“In the 1960s, the budding executive brought London stylist Vidal Sassoon to Los Angeles to show off the ‘bob’ haircut he had created for British designer Mary Quant, and the look took off.”
Meehan bought out Redding in 1965.
“Her partner in orchestrating the rise of Redken to a global company was her third husband, John Meehan, an advertising man,” writes Douglas Martin in the New York Times. “He had originally come to the company to solicit ads for trade magazines in the beauty field, and she hired him as an executive. They married in 1971. In 1976, she made $70,000 ($293,000 in today’s dollars) as chairwoman. He made $65,000 ($272,000) as president.”
They sold the company to L’Oreal in 1993 and it is now known as Redken 5th Avenue with a presence in salons in more 50 countries.
John Meehan died in 2004.
“[Paula] Meehan became a prominent philanthropist in Beverly Hills, where she lived in a home that previously belonged to Elvis Presley,” writes Bloomberg’s Miller. “In April she bought the Fine Arts Theater on Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills, hoping to renovate the classic Art Deco structure.”
“Paula is a proven philanthropist with only the best of intentions,” former Beverly Hills Courier publisher Clif Smith wrote when she purchased the paper in May. “Her name now appears on the restored Beverly Hills Post Office as part of the new Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts. She is dedicated to helping our weakest members — our pets. She personally funded two Rose Parade floats to promote adopting homeless pets and promoting Beverly Hills.”
“When it comes to getting something off the ground and getting it done, don’t ever bet against Paula Kent Meehan,” Seitz’ 2004 profile concludes. “She will never take ‘no’ for an answer and enjoys litigation, as she said, ‘just too much.’”
But her admirers extended far beyond the legal community.
“There are thousands of reasons to love and respect Paula, but the fact that she was one of the most powerful women running a powerful company is important,” said Maggie Mulhern, the beauty and fashion director at Modern Salon magazine.
“She inspired so many, including working salon professionals as well as other entrepreneurs wanting to share a product, tool or technique with the salon world. She had a ‘can-do’ approach to any endeavor.”