Bangor native whips up cosmetics for the stars

Posted Oct. 07, 2011, at 11:02 a.m.
Last modified Oct. 08, 2011, at 11:29 a.m.
April Leffingwell on KUSI TV in San Diego.
April Leffingwell on KUSI TV in San Diego.

When Bangor native April Leffingwell first began making soap in her garage, she never imagined that her products would end up in 2011 Emmy Awards swag bags just one year later, waiting at the seats of TV stars, celebrated talk-show hosts and famous news anchors.

Her company, Shea Chic, began as a diversion from chronic back pain, an artistic challenge for her to pursue while healing at her San Diego home.

“I have a herniated disc in L4 and L5 [lumbar segments] and scoliosis, and I think it was just a perfect storm type of thing — it just gave,” Leffingwell said in a recent phone interview. “I’m kind of a hyper person, so imagine me stuck in bed for six months. It was terrible.”

“Summer Crush” soap, inspired by the Victoria Secret fragrance “Amber Romance,” was her first product. Since then, her line has expanded to more than 70 soaps, candles, bath salts, lip balms and body creams.

Leffingwell has no idea how organizers at the Emmy Awards heard about her products, but when she received the request to make 800 Shea Chic items for the 32nd Annual News & Documentary Emmy Awards held Sept. 26 in New York, she only had 72 hours to decide on a product, make 800 of it and ship it out.

In a whirlwind, she began concocting her most popular product, the “Cupcake” cream.

“I know this sounds wild, crazy, but it flies off the shelves, and it smells like cupcakes,” Leffingwell said. “I had made four batches, and then I got to thinking — you know, everybody knows my ‘Cupcake’ cream, I should do something special.”

She had been holding onto one fragrance, “Cashmere Musk,” for something special — and there seemed no better occasion to debut a product. The fragrance, inspired by a cream she purchased in Arizona, went into a body cream she cleverly labeled “M.E. Chic.”

“It’s a very light fragrance — a bit musky and really sophisticated,” Leffingwell said.

A sophisticated fragrance is fitting for news media Emmy Awards guests such as Larry King of CNN, who received the Lifetime Achievement Award, and Katie Couric of “CBS Evening News,” which won two Emmy Awards. The event was attended by more than 900 television and news media industry executives, news and documentary producers and journalists.

Switching to “M.E. Chic” set Leffingwell back nearly a day in preparing for the event, so she called in her husband, mother and friend Dianne to help her label and package the product. But she was on her own when it came to making the many tubs of cream.

“I haven’t shared my recipes with anyone, even my husband doesn’t know my recipes,” Leffingwell said. “It’s all in my little book, all scribbled down.”

They finished in the middle of the night, had a glass of champagne to celebrate and shipped it out the next morning. Leffingwell prides herself in always making deadline.

Leffingwell graduated from St. John’s School, now All Saints School, in Bangor and earned a psychology degree at Southwest Missouri State University before cold weather drove her south. Before her back injury, she worked in advertising for several radio stations, including Clear Channel Radio. A work transfer led her, her husband, Matt, and her mother, Barbara Rohn, to San Diego where Leffingwell now lives with her dogs and three talking parrots.

And although Leffingwell calls the West Coast her home, she retains her East Coast roots with many family members still living and working in the Bangor area. Maine residents might know her uncles Aquelido Rodrigues and Mike Rodrigues of State Wide Distributors Inc. in Bangor or her aunt, Bangor nurse Dianna Johnson.

Though she has pursued many interests, including police training, Leffingwell has always been a cosmetics connoisseur. Her mother taught her that she can put together furniture while wearing “a pink belt” and wielding “a pink hammer.”

Expanding her line, Leffingwell has had fun matching bright colors with playful names and heavenly scents. “Divalicious” cream is a blend of rose, mandarin and gardenia, while “Snuggle Bunny” is a woodsy cream with brown sugar, fresh figs and a touch of jasmine. “Sweet P” is floral and “Bite Me” is a mixture of berries, amber and vanilla musk.

“I want women to feel feminine, pretty — not take everything so serious,” Leffingwell said. “I just want women to feel good about themselves, even if it’s just for a couple minutes every day.”

Shea butter, as the name “Shea Chic” implies, is the most important ingredient in all of her products. The cream-colored fatty substance is made from the nuts of African karite trees. For thousands of years, it has been used to help heal burns, sores, scars, dermatitis, psoriasis, eczema, dandruff and stretch marks. Shea butter also contains cinnamic acid, a substance that helps protect skin from UV rays, and it’s an effective moisturizer.

To come up with new scents and improve the quality of her products, she shops her competitors fiercely, comparing their products to her own. She then works with a perfumist in San Diego to mix up fragrances without phthalates, controversial chemicals that are used in making many fragrant body products but some studies show may be harmful to people’s health.

Though women are her top customers, she has branched out to create body products for children — “lil’ dudes” and “lil’ divas” — and earthy soaps and creams for men. And her “Naked” line is fragrance free.

This week, she’ll be whipping up holiday candles and eight different creams that need restocking. With her business growing so quickly, she realizes that she soon may need to hire help.

“I want Shea Chic to be known in South California, so that everyone who comes here leaves with Shea Chic,” Leffingwell said. “And for some reason, I just want Katy Perry to have some of my stuff. If there was any person that Shea Chic would be perfect for, it would be her. That’s my girl.”

Maybe next year Shea Chic will make it to the Primetime Emmy Awards.

To check out Shea Chic products, visit sheachic.com.

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