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About Face

About Face

Mountain Life
By Paul Tolme
posted: 10/17/2001

Six years after founding an organic cosmetics company in Telluride, Colo., former supermodel Sunny Griffin can hardly believe her luck. Her skin-care line, Astara, is winning accolades from Hollywood to Manhattan. The upscale retail chain Sephora carries her products, and spas around the world are pampering guests with Astara natural moisturizers and facials. If the economy picks up, Griffin expects to break $2 million in revenues this year. "I'm so blessed that I can run an international business from Telluride, she says. Then Griffin leans across her desk and adds matter-of-factly, "You know, I was flat broke when I moved here. Nearly penniless.

It's a surprising admission, not just for its brutal honesty, but because it seems so improbable for a woman who was the Christy Turlington of her day. Three decades ago, Griffin was, perhaps, the hottest model in the world. Her image graced the pages of Vogue, Harper's Bazaar and Redbook. She was the face of Avon, Virginia Slims and Clairol. In 1966, Griffin was the subject of a New York Times article that pointed out, with raised eyebrows, that she earned the same amount—$100,000—as the president of the United States. When her modeling days ended in 1980, Griffin worked as a health and beauty consultant on Good Morning America and as an Avon spokeswoman. In the early 1990s, Griffin and her husband, a builder, sank their money into Los Angeles real estate, and Griffin expected to sail into her 60s in comfort. But fame and fortune, like youthful beauty, can be fleeting.

Griffin and her husband "lost everything when the real estate market crashed shortly after they bought in. Looking for a fresh start, they scraped together a down payment and moved to Telluride in 1995. Griffin, an expert skier, had fallen for Telluride during a visit in the late 1980s. And after years in L.A. and Manhattan, she longed for slope time.

Griffin first learned to ski at the late age of 30 during a 1969 visit to Aspen, where she ran into pal Suzy Chaffee, an Olympic skier and fellow Ford model. When Griffin told "Suzy Chapstick she planned to take ski lessons, Chaffee insisted on teaching her. "I was hooked, says Griffin, who soon found herself taking ski trips from her Manhattan home to Vermont. In 1974, she bought a condo in Sun Valley, Idaho. Skiing was in her blood, which made Telluride an easy choice of venue for her new life.

Griffin hoped her husband would find work in the mountain town of movie stars and CEOs. Their business ambitions and their marriage didn't work out. In 1999, they divorced. Alone and broke, Griffin knew she had to rebuild her life. "I can't stand it when people say, 'I don't know what to do.' I'll tell you what to do: Get to work.

Founding a skin-care company was a logical move for a former model, and Telluride's climate made her decision that much easier. Like many newcomers to the Rocky Mountain West, Griffin quickly realized that while high-altitude living soothes the soul, it ravages the skin. After several weeks in the sun, low humidity and wind, Griffin felt as if her face would crack. Having used innumerable products during her modeling career, Griffin—a health nut—knew she wanted her cosmetics to be organic. So, with few assets other than her name and good credit, Griffin took on $130,000 in credit-card debt to launch Astara in 1997. She was 57. She borrowed another $50,000 against her home. "I put everything I owned at risk, she says. With no budget to hire a public relations firm and not even a sales team in place, Griffin hit the road. She drove to spas in Aspen, Vail and Beaver Creek. She worked her modeling-industry contacts and stormed Manhattan fashion magazine offices, where young editors said, "Sunny who? Then Griffin got her big break. The fashion editor at the New York Times flew to Telluride to do a story on the former supermodel's reinvention as a natural cosmetics entrepreneur. The story—a full-page piece on "the birth of a cult cosmetic—floored Griffin. The phone rang immediately as spas from Singapore to New Orleans ordered products. It hasn't stopped ringing.

Now 63, an age at which a woman with her résumé could be excused for relaxing, Griffin is just getting revved. "Sunny is such a great natural athlete, says Chaffee, still a close friend. "She's got energy coming out of her ears. But more than that, she has a real balance of brains and beauty.

Revenues have grown steadily and are now "well over a million dollars, though Griffin declines to be more specific. She works with the company's product developer to find organic plants, extracts and ingredients that enhance the skin, then contracts with laboratories that mix the products, which are then bottled and shipped to Griffin's two-story warehouse in a tiny business park on the outskirts of Telluride. Even though her company has grown to seven full-time and five part-time employees, Griffin still works long hours and handles many of the most tedious tasks. When she recently decided to sell a shoe-box-sized gift kit with a variety of Astara's skin-care products, she assembled and folded nearly all of the 5,000 boxes herself. When a shipment of the kits is due, Griffin rents a movie, orders takeout and assembles boxes long into the night. "I'm a champion box folder, she laughs.

Detecting a male aversion to beauty products from a visitor, she notes that "men looove our products. She says Mel Gibson and Liam Neeson have Astara's signature little blue bottles on their nightstands, as well as female celebs such as Liv Tyler and Lauren Bacall. "It's brilliant, British comedian Tracy Ullman gushed in a voicemail message after receiving a box of moisturizers from Griffin's daughter, a Hollywood casting director.

A raw-food junkie and juicer, Griffin reasons that if raw veggies are good for the body, raw moisturizers must be good for the face. Astara's raw ingredients, such as aloe vera, wild yam and evening primrose, are never heated above 103 degrees, which preserves their enzymes, she says.

Griffin, a woman of immense vitality who confesses she moves at "mach speed, is elated to be busier than ever. Her only regret is having too little time to ski. Last season, she got in just nine days because of her hectic schedule. "My goal is to master the bumps, she says.

Her favorite Telluride trail is Bushwacker, which is half moguls, half groomed. "I can duck into the bumps for six turns, then get the hell out before I kill myself.

More than just a ski retreat, however, Griffin says Telluride has the advantages of a small town, combined with the arts and culture of a big city. When the Joffrey Ballet made its summer home in Telluride in 2001, Griffin took classes with some of the troupe's top dancers. "You can't do that in Manhattan. She also enjoys Telluride's egalitarian vibe. "I like the fact that the guy next to you in yoga class could be a jillionaire or a ski bum.

Plus, Telluride allows Griffin the opportunity to strut the runway once again. The town holds an annual AIDS benefit where locals model fashion from Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, Bill Blass and dozens of others. Griffin is always a crowd pleaser. Indeed, at a trim five-foot-eight, she can still swivel heads when she hits the town with her fiancé. They plan to marry—when they find time. Work hard and play hard: Griffin can't imagine living any other way, or in a more beautiful place. "I wake up every day, look out my window and say, 'Thank God I moved here.'

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