On the morning of the most momentous day of her professional life, Lina Kennedy was lying on a sofa bed in her tiny apartment, recovering from horrific injuries in an accident caused by a drunk driver. Unable to go back to the three part-time jobs she had been holding down, or even to sit up for more than a few minutes without pain, she was in anguish, wondering how she would support herself and her son.
A SWEET RECOVERY
Kennedy was 31 years old, always ambitious and hardworking, but without any obvious prospects – a single mother with little formal education, no savings or financial backing, and a troubled history in a poor, dysfunctional family. And now, she was weak and in pain. In her new autobiography, “The Sugar Queen,” she describes what happened next.
“I picked up my remote and turned on the TV,” writes Kennedy. “It gets lonely being home alone, stuck in bed all day, every day. ... As I began to click through the channels, one station caught my attention with a caption at the bottom of the screen: ‘Women Inventors.’”
It was a talk show from Toronto, 80 miles from her home in Welland, Ontario. A female guest was demonstrating something totally new to the marketplace, not only in Canada, but in all of North America – a little known way of removing hair from the places on a person’s body where no hair was wanted. It had an intriguing name – body sugaring.
The trendy method of hair removal was waxing and everyone knew it hurt. Body sugaring, the talk show guest said, used a gentle paste that could remove hair just as well as waxing and with little or no pain. “My eyes widened,” Kennedy writes, “and my ears perked up. This could be a great new thing!”
Few people would have found the courage to do what she did next. Fueled by hope and adrenaline, she got up from her bed, wrapped her torso in gauze, loaded up on pain pills, and drove to Toronto to meet the woman she had seen on television.
Twenty-eight years later, Lina Kennedy is the Sugar Queen, the recognized, global authority on body sugaring and an expert on skin care. Her company, Alexandria Professional, is her own creation, a multimillion-dollar business that sells 36 products in 37 countries.
The products are her own formulations, developed one-by-one as she educated herself about healthy skin and hair. The ingredients come from natural sources around the world. Some address pain issues as well as beauty. A recent innovation, based on an herbal remedy she found in Africa, is a topical cream called Comforté that relieves menstrual cramps.
The Toronto company she joined at the dawn of her career in 1991 faded away within a few years, crippled by problems at the top. Kennedy bought out its functional elements and, for the next 24 years, built on the foundation she herself had structured.
The incident on the sofa bed, the turning point in Kennedy’s remarkable life, comes halfway through “The Sugar Queen.” After that day, her story is full of twists and turns – rocky and joyous, inspiring and humorous – but always upward to success. Before it, there was another kind of drama, and it could be heartbreaking.
One lifeline in her difficult early years was a message that came to her in a near-death experience at age seven, which she describes vividly in her book. “You are never alone,” a voice told her, and those words would come back again and again.
Another savior was her irrepressible sense of humor. “I went through a lot of difficult times, challenging times, frightening times,” she says. “But, in between those, I laughed a lot. Laughter is my saving grace.”
Kennedy’s story began in Welland, a pretty small town near Niagara Falls. Her French-speaking family, the Gagnés, were poor, and her father was an alcoholic who squandered his paychecks on drinking and gambling, leaving his wife to cope as best she could on her own meager earnings from a factory job. He was also abusive physically to all of his children; but to Lina – his only daughter he was sexually abusive, too, from her toddler years until she was 11.
“How can a grown man have sex with an infant without damaging her body?” she asks in her book. “I can say with certainty that it can be done.”
Sadly, that is not a unique story. Plenty of children have been horribly abused. But how did Kennedy, with a warped childhood and little to go on, triumph over her circumstances so completely, leaving trauma behind to achieve not only success, but happiness?
A BRIGHT NEW FUTURE
Alexandria Professional is headquartered in Williamsville, New York, a Buffalo suburb about an hour’s drive from Kennedy’s Canadian hometown. The home office is a sleek, modernistic space adjoining a well-appointed training center for body sugaring. Kennedy insists that professionals using her sugar pastes go through a course of training over several days, following the techniques she has developed and using a comprehensive manual she wrote, now in its twelfth edition. Some of these trainees go on to become Alexandria Professional educators across North America and around the world.
A few miles away is Kennedy’s factory, a manufacturing and shipping center with spotless facilities and proprietary secrets – she openly lists all the ingredients she uses, but not her recipes for blending them. Her sugar pastes and other body sugaring products, the core of Alexandria Professional, go out from here to a worldwide network of distributors and are sold to thousands of salons, beauty schools, and spas on six continents. Alexandria Professional’s retail products, for home skin care, travel the same distribution pipelines, to be picked up by spa customers.
Close by in another direction is Kennedy’s home, a spacious, stylish condo in a quiet community of green lawns, trees, and gentle hills. It is a far cry from the rented house in Welland where, in the 1960s, she and her three brothers shared one tiny bedroom.
On a snowy November day, after pouring a glass of wine for a visitor and soothing Sebastian, her excitable Maltese-poodle cross, Kennedy sat on a leather sofa in front of a glowing fireplace and showed her family pictures, her three children, now grown and successful; four grandchildren, all from the son she worried about when she lay helpless on her sofabed; a wedding photo from a marriage that did not work out but produced her two pretty daughters – now both employed in her business – and gave her the name Kennedy. “When I got married, I couldn’t wait to take my husband’s name!” she says, laughing. “Lina Gagné or Lina Kennedy. What would you do? It was a no-brainer.”
THE ROAD TO HEALING
There are photos of her mother, in her eighties and still close, and her dad, now passed on. When Lina was 11, he turned his life around with the help of Alcoholics Anonymous. Almost overnight, he stopped drinking, stopped abusing his daughter, and became a responsible family man. “His real personality came out,” she says. “The personality that had been camouflaged by the alcohol.”
His transformation was rapid, but the family’s recovery was a long process.
Combating sexual abuse of children, as well as human trafficking, is now a passion for Kennedy and the focus of much of her philanthropy. Her advice to anyone being abused is, “Tell someone.” From her own experience, she knows how secrecy and denial can compound the damage. Yet, once abuse is stopped, healing can begin to happen.
“One of the themes of my book – of my life – is forgiveness,” Kennedy says. “I believe in the power of forgiveness, not only to get away from the turmoil you feel within yourself, but because the positive energy ripples out into the world.
“With my father, it took a long time. At first, I was skeptical that he had really changed. I’d hear footsteps in the hall and think, ‘Maybe it’s him coming into my room.’” But as the days went by, she began to relax.
In her teenage years, Kennedy started going to some of her father’s Alcoholics Anonymous meetings with her mother. “The stories I heard there were shocking,” she says. “So much pain, terrible mistakes that people made – but bravery, too, facing up to the addiction and the hurt they’d caused. I think everyone should go to an AA meeting or two, just to see the raw truth of what life can really be like.”
Over many years, she learned to empathize with her father and then to trust him. “Trust is very important to me,” she says, her voice deepening with emphasis. “Trust and integrity. People know they can trust me – and in business, they trust my brand, its quality.”
Seeing how hard her father worked to overcome his addiction, she even felt proud of him. “He became an AA sponsor, and he would get up in the night to go and help someone else who was fighting the urge to drink. Maybe he didn’t have two nickels to rub together, but he was philanthropic with his time.”
Finally, in her 30s, Kennedy was able to take the last step. “I will never, ever forget the abuse,” she says. “But I forgave him.” The scene between her and her father that took place then is one of the most powerful in her book.
PAVING THE PATH TO SUCCESS
Long before that moment, Kennedy left home and entered the work world. She began with a series of low-level jobs, from washing windows in a department store to waitressing in a nightclub.
When she was 19 and expecting her first child, she was eager to welcome the baby but not to marry her son’s father. “I knew it wouldn’t work,” she says. Determined to shape her own future, she followed her heart and kept going on her own.
“In my 20s, I never dated anybody more than six months or kept a job more than a year. My friends and family couldn’t understand why I wouldn’t settle down, especially with a son to raise. But everything I did, I learned from.”
The business world was full of eye-openers. A fraudster tricked her into helping him sell phony schemes to investors until he was unmasked by his bouncing checks. A “cockaroochie” lured her to Florida with empty promises of helping her launch an invention, leaving her to find her way back home to Canada on her own. She made it, driving for three days with her eight-year-old son in a rental truck with a seat that would not adjust and she could only reach the pedals with her toes.
There were positive experiences, too. A restaurant owner and gifted chef became a mentor who taught her about excellence. “He used only the best ingredients,” she says. “And his example is part of the reason I use only high-quality, raw ingredients now in my products. If you skimp there, it just dominoes.”
An executive at a large oil company plucked her out of its collections department and offered to send her to business school. But, instinct told her not to get on the corporate ladder.
She was still looking for an opportunity to build something on her own. And, the opportunity came with body sugaring, and everything took off.
“I started by sugaring 60 people for free,” she says. “I would take off hair anywhere they wanted it gone. They were my models while I learned, and later they helped me spread the word.” She also removed the hair on her own legs, every day, to observe what happened. “I wanted to feel, look – really look, understand. How does this work? How does it work best?”
She became a pioneer, developing optimal sugaring techniques.
Kennedy’s first salon was a single room. It was an instant success, but she knew from the start that she wanted to go deeper into the business than just owning a salon. With a $10,000 insurance settlement from the auto accident and a $5,000 loan, she bought a distribution territory for the Toronto company’s sugaring products and began training new professionals, who became customers for the sugar pastes she was selling. Her income soared, and she bought another territory, then expanded her distribution network across the border, into the United States.
Her salon business grew quickly, too. She bought a building and hired employees, including hair stylists, then moved to a larger building and opened a larger salon, a fitness center, and a day care center. In the same years, she gave birth to her two daughters and was soon taking them to work with her, along with diaper bags and highchairs. She laughs at the memory. “Who says you can’t do it all?” she says, fully aware now of how hard she was pushing herself in those days. She was testing the limits of how much one woman can hold together.
Kennedy had to learn on her own how to operate a company, and it was still very much a man’s world. “Why don’t you, uh, don’t do so many things?” one bank manager asked her, “and take care of your family like a good woman?”
She almost went broke in 1999, when her building was expropriated for an urban renewal project, with insufficient compensation to allow her to keep all her businesses going. The salon and ancillary ventures were gone, her equipment sold at a loss, and her employees dispersed.
It was a blessing in disguise. What was left was Alexandria Professional, her body sugaring manufacturing and distribution company, still small but, by now, all hers. For the first time, it became her sole focus. With a small core of loyal employees, she concentrated on building Alexandria Professional, vastly expanding her networks and diversifying, creating new products as she deepened her knowledge of how to nurture healthy skin. Within five years, she had her first year of more than a million dollars in sales, and there was nothing but growth ahead.
On that snowy day in November when she shared wine with a visitor in front of her fireplace, Kennedy had just finished five days of reading “The Sugar Queen” aloud with an audio engineer to make it into an audiobook.
“It was exhausting,” she said. “I had no idea. So much work. Sometimes you have to stop, repeat... maybe say the same word over and over ... it feels like 10 times. You’re tired, your tongue is dry and feels thick.”
She was talking about the work of making an audiobook, but what Kennedy said next could almost be a summary of her career.
“You get tired, but you don’t stop. You drink hot tea and start again.”