It’s happened. On a chilly Monday morning at The Reading Room in Katonah, sitting across from Indie Lee, founder of the clean beauty brand of the same name, I reached peak interview - I made Indie Lee cry. “I really didn’t expect this,” she exclaims while sliding out of her seat to go find a tissue. As she meanders over to the counter, she calls back over her shoulder, “but I needed it!” And that’s the real Indie Lee in a nutshell: a find-the-silver-lining-and-embrace-the-moment optimist so full of life that it’s hard to believe she once had only six months left to live.
But I digress.
Indie and I are happily sipping on hot Mint Mocha coffees while chatting casually about topics both serious and not, from the challenges women face in our healthcare system to the rising cost of manicures and how to treat well-water-damaged hair (she swears by dpHUE ACV Hair Masque). At 52, her skin is bare of makeup and glowing – “I have really great skincare,” she laughs when I say so, referring to her namesake collection – and she generously brought me a goodie bag filled with it. Within minutes, I feel as if I’ve known her forever and am oversharing tidbits of my life in one of those moments when you hear yourself speaking yet can’t stop. Thankfully, she gets it – she’s been oversharing details of her life since November of 2008.
At the time, Indie was Lisa, a 37-year old married mom of two young children and an accountant for HBO. “Lisa was safe and conservative and always wore beige,” says Indie a bit jokingly. “I had never thought about changing my birth name but life had other plans,” she tells me. The ‘other plan’ was a brain tumor diagnosis, uncovered by an MRI after Indie abruptly began losing vision in her left eye. “I’d been diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis just a few months prior, and that had been a shock to me because I was a young, healthy person – growing and eating vegetables, exercise, no smoking” says Indie. “But a brain tumor…..” She trails off mid-sentence. Doctors told her to get her affairs in order and spend time with her kids, ages 5 and 8, informing her that she would no longer be with them by the spring.
The tumor, which was not a candidate for surgical removal, was believed to be environmentally derived. Grasping for answers, her doctor posed the question, “What do you use on your skin?” Indie was flabbergasted. “I hadn’t thought about the fact that skin is an organ and absorbs what we put on it, but of course it does,” she says. “Nicotine patches, cbd patches, salicylic acid patches, all of it is being absorbed, and so are serums, lotions, perfumes, the list goes on.” It was the wake-up call that launched Indie Lee the brand.
Its first retailer was Beehive in Mount Kisco. “I knew nothing about retail and was so grateful for their support,” says Indie. Henri Bendel came calling after that, followed by Anthropologie, Blue Mercury, and finally, Nordstrom. “I’m so proud to say that they approached us,” she shares. Back then, there wasn’t a lot of clean beauty on shelves. “You could have launched as a successful, standout brand without sharing your diagnosis and all that goes along with it, but you chose to connect your story in the most vulnerable and authentic way,” I muse, sharing my thoughts. “You chose to live out loud with a not-so-pretty diagnosis in an industry that was still superficial, and I find that so brave.” Cue Indie’s tears and peak interview. After she returned to the table with a tissue in hand, she explained that she’d been so wrapped up in the business of the business this past year, including a bittersweet farewell to her South Salem home of almost three decades, that she’d forgotten why she began. “Thank you for reminding me,” she smiles. “Can I bottle you and put you in a cream so I can feel this good every day?” We laugh. Today, Indie Lee is available in 2,000 doors worldwide as a COSMOS-certified beauty brand pioneer, and is integrating and developing the concept of Green Chemistry. “We hold our products to the highest ethical and environmental standards,” says Indie, whose bold transparency in her own life is the cornerstone of her brand ethos.
In the midst of creating a clean beauty brand inspired by her brain tumor diagnosis, before the big retailers, there was still the matter of the tumor itself. It was inoperable, largely due to its precarious placement on her brain. “I named it Herman and would tell him to get out of my body,” chuckles Indie. “I’m a big believer in the power of positive thinking.” Indie became determined not only to live each numbered day with as much passion and joy as possible, but also to secure a different prognosis – one that would allow her to survive. While her children were at school, she poured over research, studied environmental toxins, and met with doctors near and far. Five and half months passed. With possibly only two weeks left to live, her phone rang. A doctor at NYU offered to perform the risky operation but warned Indie that she had less than a 50% chance of making it through the surgery. She leapt at the chance and waited more than another month for the procedure. When the day finally arrived, it was April 22, 2009.
“Welcome to the rest of your life,” were the first words Indie’s surgeon spoke to her post-operation. “We got it all.” Indie had been keeping her extended family updated through a private blog that she’d launched as a way of communicating news of her emerging beauty brand and her brain tumor. She’d landed on the blog name Independent Lisa, a nod to manifesting her tumor-free outcome, but that was too long “and boring,” she says. So she shortened it to Indie Lee. Sitting in her hospital bed post-surgery and tumor-free, “I no longer felt connected to Herman or to the old version of myself,” says Indie. Hence, Indie Lee the person was born.
Fourteen years later, Indie is as effervescent as ever about, well, everything. “I’m doing calligraphy again,” she says with so much delight that I’m delighted for her – and also pretty impressed. We gush over a mutual love of charcuterie boards (which we’re gleefully sharing photos of rather than of our kids), explore the beauty of making mistakes, and talk about the healing energy of meditation. When she’s not busy being a brand boss, Indie leads workshops and speaking engagements across the country on clean beauty and women’s health. “I don’t know everything but feel like I have a responsibility to share my experiences so that women can be more empowered and informed,” she says, noting that she joined the Board of the Autoimmune Association as a way to help create change in autoimmune awareness, diagnosis, treatment, and education. She’s currently fighting a second brain tumor, which popped up a year post-surgery but began shrinking five years ago, to the amazement of her doctor. I ask her if this one also has a name. “Hermione,” she grins, and I just know she’s going to beat it. “What’s your dream?” I ask. “Where do you see yourself in the future?” She smiles and takes a deep breath inward. “I’d like to be on a beautiful farm, feeling closer to the earth, and like I’m doing something that inspires people to get out of their own way and live the life they’re meant to,” she answers in such a way that I have no doubt she’ll manifest exactly that. I wonder if she celebrates her rebirth day every year. “I do,” she smiles. “But I also celebrate every day, because every day that I can wake up and be here, doing what I love, surrounded by the people and places that I love, is a day worth celebrating.” @indielee @indie_lee indielee.com
“Every setback has the potential to be a setup for something greater.”