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Beauty Inspiration: Tracey Woodward turns dark past into executive drive

The UK beauty maven shares how she overcame teenage illiteracy to make a career in cosmetics

When Tracey Woodward drives to and from work at the Marks and Spencer headquarters, she passes through the public housing estates in Stockwell, England where she once lived. Although the area has seen some improvements, Woodward uses the trip to remind herself of the importance of staying humble, and always moving forward.

“There are no burnt out cars there any more” said the fifty-year-old executive, “but when I pass close by, I get a bit of that same push I felt back then.”  

Today, Woodward is hailed as a beauty maven, respected in the industry for having one of the best “little black books” and chased down by multinational retailer Marks and Spencer (M&S) to tackle their two-year project to reimagine the brand’s cosmetics sector. But travelling back down that bumpy road to Stockwell, a darker past emerges.

Raised by a young single mother on State checks, Woodward struggled with food deprivation, exposure to crime, and teenage illiteracy. Her life at home was always in flux; a series of abusive men moved into the family’s “dingy, two-bedroom flat,” with the last being fifteen years her mother’s junior. Woodward, recounting her story to the Daily Mail, remembers him as “a nasty piece of work who encouraged Mum to go shoplifting in a gang.”

“Occasionally they would take me with them and my job would be to guard the bags of loot while they went back to steal more.”

Surrounded by stolen furs and perfume which her mother would sell for drug and alcohol money, Woodward picked up advice that would last her until she was a global executive.

“She was always well dressed and used to tell me, ‘If you look the part, no one will question why you’re there.’

Many would never guess Woodward’s hard past seeing her breeze through various roles on the board of Cosmetic Executive Women, the Women’s Leadership Group for the British Trust, and charity work. Heading up the M&S project, she worked alongside nearly 500 beauty consultants and a fifty-person management team.

“It’s ground-breaking to be a part of something that actually is changing the history of a legacy brand, one that is the second most trusted brand in the UK from a retail perspective. I love it because we’ve brought in external brands that celebrate the best of Britain, as well as international brands like Ren, Phillip Kingsley, and Living Proof,” said Woodward.

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Even as she helps to handpick cult brands and boost sales into the upper millions, Woodward knows she certainly didn’t follow a traditional path to get there.

Woodward felt that life was out of her control until at age seventeen she borrowed a pair of heels—two sizes too small—and turned her authentic adoration of beauty products into a job at a Clinique counter. There, she beginning training in sales and as a makeup artist.

“I only ever wanted to be a beauty consultant, but I had a very open mind and an eagerness to learn and develop- especially having no schooling and being completely unable to read and write at fourteen,” said Woodward.

She climbed the ranks at Clinique because of her comfortability with clients, eventually running the Duty Free department at the London Heathrow Airport. Woodward built up confidence by asking questions, not ashamed by her knowledge gaps. By age thirty, she made the scariest career jump of her life.

“Sometimes you’re not taken seriously until you start talking. I am always surprised when people assume you’re not well informed, or you won’t speak out. I am very honest and open with my views and if I don’t have one, I want to learn about it,” said Woodward. “I also think everyone should take one job in their life that they are completely terrified of. For me, that was Donna Karan. I cried every night, it felt like.”

She was head-hunted for the position of Brand Manager, which entailed trips to NYC and five-star hotels. At the time, Woodward was raising a four-year-old son, Josh. Her role transitioned to negotiations and business, and it took her away from the female-dominant beauty counter world. She cherished the “girl-power” mentality that had existed- even in a competitive sales environment on the floor. Now in upper management, Woodward relied on straightforward talk and dependability.

“Any successful woman knows that if you want to do both- business and a family- and you want to do them well, you have to be organized. You have to have a routine for everything.”

Today, she has launched three personal, food-related businesses with her second husband and the father of her daughter, Ava. Her past has motivated her to remain fearless as she branches into more unfamiliar, risky ventures.

 “I remember my Mum always used to say, ‘Whether you think you can or can’t, you’re right.’”

Woodward was lured back into beauty by a top position at Urban Retreat, founding its location at Harrods, the department store of choice for the Royal Family.  She followed this with the M&S campaign, and this fall Woodward has taken over as CEO for The Refinery, a men’s grooming brand, and Aromatherapy Associates, a global spa and beauty company.

Woodward’s time is also split between board positions for UK charities, where difficult experiences with poverty and abuse hit closer to home than many would guess. At The Eve Appeal, she sits at tables with struggling young mothers, while at Beanstalk she provides one-on-one literacy support in primary schools. Whether volunteering or directing a boardroom meeting, Woodward exudes a soft strength and humility that stand as proof of a different, more admirable kind of beauty.  

“I’ve never wanted to sound like a victim. I’ve always talked openly about my past because it gives people a greater understanding of why I ask the questions I do, and it breaks down barriers. I’m never going to hide my past, because if I can talk about my success and what I’ve achieved, then I can give inspiration to someone else,” said Woodward.

Looking into the future, Woodward now relies on her own daughter, Ava, fourteen, to prep her face for events, calling her “a much better makeup artist.”

“I always used to say, ‘I am so lucky.’  But the other day I was reminded of something by my friend Sharron Lowe, author of The Mind Make-Over. She says, ‘Labour Under Conscious Knowledge’- that’s what luck really stands for. I think that’s quite true.”

“Choice is a powerful tool; I spent a lot of time with limited choices. I’ve been empowered to believe I can do whatever I choose, that I am equal. Sure, there will always be someone younger, thinner, more beautiful or rich…Don’t be too hard on yourself, and always be grateful to your feet. They keep you upright everyday- look after them.”

Woodward has learned to heal from her own past, now able to spend her days bringing out the best in others—she’s one beauty consultant whose advice is worth taking:

“Finally, a good lip gloss is a cure for everything.”

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