How Tequila and Shampoo Might Save the World
Even $5.1 billion can’t hold John Paul DeJoria’s attention for long. It’s four days after Bacardi announced it was buying Patrón, the tequila maker (70 percent of which is owned by DeJoria), in a deal that valued the company just north of $5 billion—a staggering sum for a business that is essentially a side hustle for a man whose primary gig is running haircare giant John Paul Mitchell Systems.
But after a minute of reveling, DeJoria is already pitching his newest enterprise. “My next business will be bigger than both of them put together,” he says, blue eyes ablaze. The minders flanking DeJoria jump in to advise him that the details must remain top secret. “My partner is one of the most famous people in the world,” he teases. “We have something that’s one of the biggest breakthroughs ever!”
We’re in the restaurant of the Mandarin Oriental in New York, overlooking Central Park. DeJoria flew into New York from Austin last night in his Dassault Falcon and slept at the hotel because his Upper West Side apartment is under construction. In addition to the Manhattan flat and his primary residence, a six-acre spread in Austin, he has a place in Malibu, a house in Vail, and a Balinese mansion that carpenters built in Indonesia, disassembled, then rebuilt on Hawaii’s Big Island.
His relentless positivity is almost Muppet-like.
Forbes estimates that the 74-year-old JP, as his friends know him, is worth about $3.4 billion, though he puts the number closer to $5 billion. For
DeJoria sold his Patrón tequila brand to Bacardi for $5.1 billion.
DeJoria is a peculiar type of billionaire. He doesn’t use e-mail, and he carries a chunky 12-year-old Nokia phone he treasures for its long battery life. Politically, he’s impossible to pigeonhole, having contributed to both Ted Cruz and Lloyd Doggett, perhaps the most liberal congressman ever to represent Texas. He’s attired this morning in his standard garb—starched white oxford shirt, black suit, no tie—and his aspect, with his thinning ponytail and Mephistopheles beard, suggests an aging hard rocker.
But his relentless positivity is almost Muppet-like. Josh Tickell, who co-directed the 2016 documentary Good Fortune, which details DeJoria’s unlikely history, concurs. “At some
Much of the energy he exerted in getting rich—building a shampoo empire out of nothing and convincing the world that tequila could be a top-shelf spirit—is now devoted to philanthropy. In 2011 he signed the Giving Pledge, joining the fraternity of billionaires committed to donating at least half their fortunes; he also launched JP’s Peace, Love, and Happiness Foundation to further divest himself of his wealth by funding charities involved in animal and child welfare, sustainability, and social responsibility.
When DeJoria started making money, he experimented with small acts of kindness. He once spotted a mother with her kids in a diner and noticed that she was scanning the menu for the cheapest meal. He picked up her tab, instructing the waiter to keep his identity a secret. “I walked out of there high as a kite,” he says. “The greatest high that you could ever have is when you do something for somebody else and ask nothing in return.
But DeJoria, who claims to never have been drunk on Patrón, is not chasing some philanthropic dragon. “My dad was a child of the ’60s, but he didn’t have the luxury of going to Woodstock,” says his daughter Michaeline DeJoria Heydari, who, as vice chairman of John Paul Mitchell Systems, is the business’s heir apparent. “He couldn’t afford to be a hippie.”
DeJoria says his philanthropy started with a dime given to him by his mother, Yvonne Madelo, a Greek immigrant. “My mom left a big, beautiful dent in my heart with that dime,” he says. He grew up poor in Echo Park, a densely populated Los Angeles neighborhood that was a landing ground for immigrants. His father, not many years off the boat from Italy, left the family when DeJoria was two, so Yvonne had to work several jobs to support him and his older brother Bobby.
Dickensian details pepper the story of his childhood. For a period he and Bobby spent weekdays in a foster home and saw their mother only on weekends. Still, DeJoria claims he never felt deprived. In a story calcified through decades of retelling, one Christmas his mother gave him and Bobby one dime to share and instructed them to drop it into a Salvation Army bucket—because, she said, “no matter how much you don’t have in life, there’s always someone who has less.”
John Paul DeJoria rings the bell and donates at The Salvation Army Celebrity Kettle Kickoff.
DeJoria still gives to the Salvation Army; he gave 1 million dimes—$100,000—in 2015 to renovate the group’s Austin kitchen. In recent years, in addition to the millions his companies give, DeJoria’s foundation has donated between $1.5 million and $2.2 million a year to dozens of causes (many of which have personally touched him), from Sea Shepherd, the international conservation nonprofit, which named a boat for him, to Kentucky’s Berea College, to which he gave $1 million to
Internationally, he’s interested in environmental causes, while domestically he’s also focused on veterans affairs and ending homelessness. In fact, DeJoria paid to build houses in a 27-acre village for Austin’s Mobile Loaves & Fishes, which aims to permanently house the homeless—a category that once included DeJoria.
DeJoria found himself homeless for the first time in 1967, at the age of 22. After a stint in the navy, he married, and his wife gave birth to John Jr., the first of DeJoria’s six children and stepchildren. “My first wife was just too young; I was too young,” he says. “She couldn’t be a mom, and she just left me with a kid.” They were evicted from their home, and for a time they slept in DeJoria’s car—dad in front,
DeJoria’s skill as a salesman saved him. He and his brother had been selling practically from the time they learned to talk—hawking greeting cards to supplement their mother’s income—and in 1965 he started selling encyclopedias door-to-door. The average salesman lasted three days; DeJoria lasted three and a half years. “The first year, I made $12,000,” he says. “I thought I was the richest guy in the world.”
In 1970, DeJoria had a meeting with a headhunter named John Capra. Although Capra focused on insurance jobs, his wife owned one of the first hair salons licensed to sell Redken products. A hairstylist and amateur chemist named Jheri Redding had co-founded the company in 1960 and revolutionized the industry by exclusively selling its products inside salons. Capra introduced DeJoria to the Redken people. “Johnny was perfect for beauty,” Capra says. “He was a good-looking guy with a great smile. Girls would gravitate to him.”
It was far from smooth sailing, though. Within a span of just a few years, DeJoria was fired by Redken, his second marriage dissolved, and his brother Bobby was killed in a motorcycle accident, at the age of 29. In 1980, after two more haircare companies had axed him, DeJoria met Scottish hairstylist Paul Mitchell. “Paul didn’t do business, but I didn’t do hair, so it was a perfect combination,” DeJoria says. But before they could launch John Paul Mitchell Systems, DeJoria found himself homeless again. Alexis, his oldest daughter, remembers being able to visit her father in his car parked in the driveway. “He gave my mother the house, God bless him,” she says. “When he started making money, he got his own place, but it took a while.”
The legend goes that the pair started John Paul Mitchell Systems by pooling their resources—about $700—and that the brand’s iconic black-and-white bottle came about by necessity. With Paul Mitchell, DeJoria followed the Redken model of making all of his products salon-exclusive and eventually launching a chain of styling schools. And DeJoria updated the company for the 1980s: Products like Freeze & Shine hairspray provided the hold required for the decade’s big hair, but with a cool factor not found with brands like Aqua Net. With cases of product in his trunk, DeJoria personally conquered the country’s salons, one by one.
In 1989, Paul Mitchell died of pancreatic cancer, leaving a nine-year-old company already valued in the hundreds of millions. That year DeJoria was in the midst of building a monument to his success, a 22,000-square-foot villa overlooking Malibu Canyon. Martin Crowley, an architect working on the project, was regularly making trips to Mexico to acquire
Though Crowley handled the day-to-day operations, DeJoria served as Patrón’s ambassador, carrying bottles wherever he went. He got it into the hands of Clint Eastwood, who gave the tequila a role in 1993’s In the Line of Fire, and of Tom Cruise, who ordered it by name in 2001’s Vanilla Sky. By 2003, the year Crowley died of a heart attack, at 60, Patrón had invented the high-end American tequila market and was selling a million cases a year. Bacardi bought a 30 percent stake in the company in 2008; the offer Bacardi made DeJoria in 2018 to buy the remainder was more than he could resist. “I took Patrón to a certain level,” he says. “Bacardi can make it twice as big as we did.”
John Paul DeJoria and his wife Eloise Broady.
His longest-lasting partner has been his fourth wife, the former Eloise Broady, a Texan who for years appeared in Paul Mitchell ads. DeJoria took Broady on a blind date in 1991. (She was Playboy’s Miss April 1988. Turnoffs: “desperate men, sushi.”) Moments after picking her up in his Porsche, DeJoria presented her with a list. “There were 11 items on this list, like height and weight, hair, keep the house looking nice, and I thought, Well, I can do that
“Hello! Hello!” A few weeks after our breakfast, DeJoria is on the phone. Unleashed from his embargo, he’s ready to spill on his newest product, the big launch he couldn’t elaborate on back at the Mandarin Oriental. “James Cameron and I will be making the announcement,” he says. “It’ll be called the ROK NASA Phone.” Four years ago DeJoria started ROK, a mobile phone company, where $49 a month apparently buys you dozens of unlikely perks—including $100,000 worth of accidental death insurance. Now, in partnership with Cameron and NASA, he says ROK will make its own smartphone that incorporates the space agency’s technology. “They’ve come up with coatings to keep radiation from frying our astronauts,” he says. “We’re coming out with the first phone that eliminates almost all the radiation!”
There are barriers to the phone’s success. The World Health Organization stated in 2014 that there was no definitive answer as to whether cell phones are harmful, and not only does NASA have a policy of not endorsing commercial products, its press, merchandising, and legal departments haven’t heard of such a project. But selling it effectively may call for artistic license, and if history is any guide, it’s never wise to underestimate DeJoria.
He admits that as an entrepreneur he has had his share of losers—his solar car didn’t take off, and an oil and gas deal went sour—but those efforts seem to be forgotten. Now it’s all about ROK’s spacephones—until the perpetually hopeful DeJoria turns his attention to what will follow: an invention he claims will save thousands of lives. “It’s called ROK Water,” he says. “We’re developing this unique machine. It cleans two gallons of dirty water in an hour, just by exposing it to the sun. It’s going to change the world!”
This story appears in the June/July 2018 issue of Town & Country. SUBSCRIBE TODAY
This story originally appeared on Townandcountrymag.com.
* Minor edits have been made by the Townandcountry.ph editors.