Into the Sturm by Michaela Cordes | 8th March, 2019 | Personalities
Some career women seem so easygoing that one might assume success had come easily. When in fact they worked super hard for their rise to the top. The unusual success story of Dr. Barbara Sturm and her skincare empire that started out behind the Iron Curtain in Eastern Germany, accelerated during her years as a student of sports medicine in Düsseldorf and eventually catapulted the beauty entrepreneur right into the heart of Hollywood. Kim Kardashian, Victoria Beckham and Gwyneth Paltrow are among those who swear by her luxury cosmetic products. A meeting with a modern superwoman.
The Tower Bar Restaurant at the Sunset Tower Hotel. One of the hotspots in the city of Angelinos. Almost every evening you can witness big Hollywood names dining here by glowing candle light. It’s the night before my interview with the woman who is making headlines with her “Sturm Glow,” creating a hype not only in the beauty world. Right next to my table, I see Kathy Hilton and her husband Rick – of the hotel dynasty and parents of Paris and Nicky – enjoying a cozy dinner with an elegant friend from Mexico. When I later get up to leave, Kathy Hilton catches my hand and asks if we haven’t met before. We start chatting. I tell her that I normally live in Germany. With much joy she asks me: “But then you must surely know my dear friend Barbara!”
Here in L.A. you call this a “Hollywood minute” – a crazy, almost unbelievable moment like this. But what it shows me is: There’s no getting around Dr. Barbara Sturm! All of Hollywood – and finally also her native country Germany – seems to be crazy in love with the luxurious skincare line created by the extraordinary doctor from Düsseldorf. Due to her skilled marketing activities and clever use of social media, Dr. Sturm made her company grow 400 percent last year and she has become a celebrity herself. The biggest following of her “Made in Germany” cosmetic products can currently be witnessed on Instagram, where Victoria Beckham just recently shared her morning “Sturm” skincare routine. On their respective platforms, Gwyneth Paltrow, Ellen Pompeo and also supermodels Gigi and Bella Hadid use the #Sturmglow hashtag frequently to describe their love for the products and their amazing effect. They’re all also great fans of the laid-back, uncomplicated businesswoman whose luxurious skincare line cause such a sensation, primarily among young women.
It’s the following morning and we are having breakfast at the Bel-Air Hotel. Dr. Sturm just flew in from New York. Tomorrow, the German beauty doctor with a degree in sports medicine is heading out to London before continuing on to Moscow. Instead of a white doctor’s coat, she appears in a cozy red turtleneck and sweatpants by Isabel Marant. In her face I can not find a trace of makeup. She orders her usual breakfast: yogurt and granola. Suddenly two young women approach our table and bashfully ask if she would pose with them for a selfie. “Sure,” she says in accent-free English, stands up, runs her hand briefly through her short, pale-blond hair and puts on a radiant smile for the cellphone camera.
Dr. Sturm, you’re a star in your own right here in L.A. Your revolutionary “vampire facial” made headlines already eight years ago when Kim Kardashian underwent the beauty treatment that involved using her own blood. Hollywood swoons even louder since you launched your own skincare line. Have you ever thought of moving permanently to L.A. ? Dr. Barbara Sturm: L.A. is my second home. I’ve been coming here at least four times a year since 2003 and did briefly consider moving to the States permanently, but I wanted my children to grow up in Germany, also because I wanted them to be brought up according to more down-to-earth values. It was particularly important to me that my elder daughter Charly grew some strong roots and went out into the world well prepared with a sense of where she is from. In addition, my clinic is in Düsseldorf, as are my parents and my brothers. Family is and has always been extremely important to me. The only reason my younger daughter Pepper isn’t with me right now is because she loves her kindergarten in Germany so much, and I didn’t want to take her out of her familiar surroundings (Editor’s note: Pepper, 4, Dr. Sturm’s daughter from her second marriage to the Washington lawyer Adam Waldman). It was the same with Charly when she was little. She was always also very much my parents’ child and I didn’t want to take that away from her.
What was your own childhood like? I spent the first 12 years of my life in former East Germany, in a village near Bad Liebenstein in Thuringia state. My father was an architect, my mother a laboratory consultant. I have two brothers, one older and one younger. We were always a very close-knit family, and I remember that much of my childhood took place outdoors. I collected mushrooms, climbed trees, played with the boys and played a lot of tennis and soccer.
Your mother worked full time when you were a child. Was she your role model? Of course! My mother raised three children without any additional help and both my parents worked full time, so we children automatically became quite independent that way. My parents were pretty rebellious anyway, and with this attitude, our family was a thorn in the side of the East German government. I remember being told by my parents not to repeat anything in school that we had heard at home, but I didn’t care. My grades said it all: I did very well in all of my classes except for Conduct and Behavior, in which I never received more than a C or a D. I was a real class clown and never put up with anything I didn’t like. When my grandmother died and we were not allowed to travel to West Germany to attend her funeral, my father said: I’ve had enough! A short time later, my parents applied for an exit visa and my father told us children: We have to leave. You wouldn’t be able to study here anyway. One year later, the visa was granted and we were able to go. It wasn’t easy though, leaving everything behind.
How did you react to the news that you were about to start a new life? When my parents told us we were moving to West Germany I immediately thought: Oh, how exciting, I can finally see what’s on the other side! We often had visitors from West Germany and when they went back we always accompanied them toward the border. As a child, I couldn’t understand why we weren’t permitted to drive any further. When we left East Germany, we moved to the city of Moers, near Düsseldorf, close to my father’s family, where he also found work. After graduating from school, I began studying sports and medicine. At the age of 4, I had already known that I wanted to be a doctor. My daughter Charly was born while I was still at university, but I didn’t take a semester off or anything. I just kept on going.
You were only 23 and a student when you had your first child. Yes – I was married at 23 and divorced at 27 (she laughs). I met my first husband in Düsseldorf when I was 19. He was ten years my senior, worked in the textile industry and showed me the world. At least that part of it that appealed to a 19-year-old. The medical licensing exam in Germany is very difficult and I had to do a lot of preparation. I used to take my daughter to kindergarten in the morning before going to the library to study. At first, I considered taking a semester off to prepare for the exam but then I thought: Never mind, I’ll just go through with it. And although I still sometimes went out to parties in the evenings and never forced myself to stick to a strict study regime, I did quite well on the exam. I have a photographic memory, so it’s easy for me to memorize charts. I remember my husband saying to me that medicine can’t be that difficult after all. That’s when I realized that he didn’t take me seriously. I started to became increasingly unhappy and eventually suggested that we go our separate ways for a while. I went to the university, took out a student loan, moved out of our home and left everything behind – except for my child. I didn’t want to be depending on anyone for material things and remember thinking – and this gave me hope –, that I had a degree in medicine und would certainly one day earn enough money to support and raise my child all by myself! Charly was only three years old at the time. Yes, it was difficult. And I probably would never have managed if it hadn’t been for my parents.
You finally ended up in sports medicine although you originally wanted to become a pediatrician. How did that happen? I was studying sports and saw a notice in the orthopedics department that they were looking for someone to write their doctorate on professional ski racers. I love skiing, and at one point, even had considered becoming a professional skier myself, so I thought: That’s me. But when I was told that the topic had been assigned to someone else, I became so insistent that they finally relented and gave it me, after all. So I traveled with the professionals to the Sölden ski resort in Austria and started training with them. That’s how I got into orthopedic medicine. I thought it was cool, also because I liked working with men at the time. When I turned 27, I went on to work at a orthopedic doctor’s office in Düsseldorf, where I became closely involved with scientific research for the first time. I worked in a team consisting of German orthopedic doctors and professors from Pittsburgh and Harvard who helped developing a therapy that consisted of drawing blood, extracting anti-inflammable substances and injecting these back into a person’s joints. A revolutionary method back then! I supported them with their studies, attended conferences and through all that developed a quiet scientific approach.
In 2001 a friend of mine, a dentist, asked me if I wanted to follow him to Stuttgart, where a company was teaching lip injections, a beauty procedure that had originated in the United States. I was fascinated by it! In Canada and Brazil I went on to learn the best techniques from the gurus and developed my own methods of treatment. Luckily, I am quite a creative person. You have to be if you want to do that kind of thing as a career. At some point, I came up with the idea of adapting the orthopedic method and transferred it to the skin. That was around 2002 and the beginning of my beauty career. Today, this treatment is known as a “vampire facial” or a “blood facial.”
How exactly does the method work? You use a syringe containing tiny, irregular glass balls to draw blood. The cells in the blood then attach to these irregularities because they “think” it is damaged tissue, and begin to produce proteins and healing substances that we then collect in high concentrations. The result is a kind of healing cocktail consisting of anti-inflammatory substances that also reduces swelling.
Why does this method work differently for every single person? Because everyone has different cell tissue. From the very beginning, it was important to me to develop individual skin care products and treatments that were tailormade. I myself have had serious skin problems back then: My skin was very dry and I suffered blackheads all the time. Every three weeks I needed to go and see my cosmetologist for a clearing facial. Until I had enough! Because I could not find any product on the market that would help me, I started creating my own face cream. My grandmother was a pharmacist and knew how to do it. She advised me on what ingredients you need to to make a good cream. Then, together with my pharmacist, I developed my MC1 cream: Free of preservatives, mineral oils and fragrance – but containing my own proteins, created from my own blood. I still use it today, by the way.
How much does a costum made MC1 blood cream cost? In Germany, the entire process, including bloodwork and cream, costs roughly 650 euros. Each cream you order after that costs only around 250 euros. Outside Germany, for instance in Great Britain, the cream costs more, about 1,000 British pounds.
“I had skin problems myself and couldn’t find anything on the market that would help me. That’s why I developed my own products.”
Introducing the application of the orthopedic method into skincare symbolizes the breakthrough that jump-started your career. How did you come up was this unusual idea of using the platelet-rich plasma therapy (PRP) method for treating the skin? I think when you’re working with well-known researchers you tend create unusual ideas. I am also a person who loves to go against the grain and does things differently than everybody else. Back then already, I started wondering about the practice of injecting hyaluronic acid because it dissipates quickly and you have to keep reinjecting it. It became more and more clear to me that one would have on the molecular level of the cells. That’s the reason why I called my company Molecular Cosmetics. You have to stimulate the cells and draw out inflammation.
When did you realize that your method was actually working? At the time, there was a doctor here in L.A. who was treating all the big Hollywood stars. He had heard about our method and had sent his patients to Germany on numerous occasions. One day, I found myself sitting across from Sylvester Stallone. I’ve remained friends with John Cusack to this day, the same with Danny Glover. Then on my second visit to L.A. I met the chiropractor Dennis Colonello who works on all the Hollywood stars who introduced me to many of his patients. Over the years, Dennis and I became good friends.
For every great career you also need a bit of luck. Its seems you were lucky to have met all the right people at the right time … You have to be good with people in this business. And I’ve always been a real people person. I’m very communicative, which helps, naturally. And it was very easy to get to know people in Hollywood. Today I’m familiar with both the old Hollywood and the new. Many of the older generation flew in to see me in Germany for treatment and then I would send them our creams. Back then, I only used the method on my patients, I never commercialized it.
“In this business you have to be good with people. I’m very communicative, which helps, naturally!”
Today, your brand Dr. Barbara Sturm dominates the luxury cosmetics market. What made you start your own cosmetic skincare line? (Editor’s note: There are 45 different products available, including a line for children). When the MC1 cream was the only cream in my program, my patients would start to ask me more and more often: What else do you recommend? Which cleanser or mask? I switched on to the problem right away and thought to myself: I can’t just send them to the next best drugstore! And of course I knew from my own experience that there was nothing on the market that had helped me. So it became clear to me pretty quickly that I would have to develop those products myself. That’s how I started developing my own line. From the very beginning, I always wanted nothing but the best for my patients and it was important to me to use high-quality, scientifically tested ingredients that really worked. I spent many years studying ingredients. In the end, I had to decide which ones suited my philosophy the best, namely, which ones kept the cells alive, drew out the inflammation while moisturizing and protecting the skin.
What was it like back then to work with skin doctors – in an almost exclusively male environment? Back then I really enjoyed working with men, I thought it was cool. When you’re a young woman and still doing your residency, men are absolutely no problem at all. But as soon as you develop your own profile and start competing with them, their egos start to bruise and the fun ends. Looking back it’s funny what happened after Nick Nolte came to see me at my office in Düsseldorf, I told him then that I was just about to leave for the island of Sylt with my daughter for two weeks and asked if he could come and see me after I got back. Instead, he came along to Sylt! The owner of the well-known Sansibar restaurant saw us and arranged an interview with Germany’s biggest Sunday paper. A few days later, the phones back at my office starting ringing off the hook. At the time, there were five or six men working there along with me. Those male doctors all pulled pretty long faces when new patients called and specifically asked to be treated by me (she laughs).
One day the actor George Hamilton appeared on your doorstep. That doctor’s visit turned into a love story that lasted seven years … George was so funny. I certainly hadn’t planned to fall in love with him. He came into my office for treatment and we became friends. Some weeks later, he asked me if I wanted to go along to a conference in Las Vegas with him – that’s how it began. Through him, I met Cher, who later introduced me to my current husband Adam – the first man I am with who is my age. (she laughs). Five years ago, the two of us got married in Cher’s garden. I have never been happier than with Adam!
How did your male colleagues reacted to your growing success? They didn’t treat me very well. That’s why I set up my own office in the same building on the same street, with five cabins. My father helped me with the extension. I opened in 2006 along with my oldest assistant, Uli, who is my confidant to this day. I still remember how, in the hard beginnings, there were days when we didn’t have a single patient!
But even during those testing times you continued traveling between Germany and L.A. to see your patients in the States. Wasn’t that quite a balancing act? Yes of course. Back then I also used to travel to the States four times a year and always paid for the trips out of my own pocket. In Germany, the funny thing is, I would often hear people say: “Oh, she has such a rich boyfriend, he pays for everything.” But the thing was, I have always only ever paid for myself! On the other hand, I thought it was kind of cool that people underestimated me to such a degree and thought to myself: Let them think what they want, maybe it will make them feel less threatened. Just imagine what they would have thought if they had had the slightest idea that this doctor would one day cause such a stir in the cosmetics industry!
“Looking back, it’s actually quite cool how some people completely underestimated me.”
How would you advise women today who are just starting out? What always helped me was my pure, naive optimism. It kept me from falling prey to doubt, and my openness to people and ideas enabled me and my success. The road was often difficult and stony, but I’m a tough cookie. Even today people are often asking me: My goodness, how on earth do you do it? It’s not just my skincare line, I also still have my patients. I don’t have a CEO running the business side of things either, I take care of that and of marketing, too, as well as looking for new employees and exploring new markets such as Asia, for which we’ve just developed a new Brightening line. But I love being involved in all the different aspects of my life and my business. I don’t want to spend all my time standing beside a treatment chair. I’ve done it for so long and still do it for my regular patients because I love my work. But I am driven to develop the best products and technologies to help as many people as possible achieve a more beautiful, healthier skin.
Your great breakthrough happened in 2013 when you convinced the online fashion retailer Net-A-Porter to take on your cosmetic line – which turned into their bestseller. According to Laetitia von Hessen, co-founder of NicheBeauty, the incredible success of your brand started the current G-Beauty trend – a new demand for beauty brands made in Germany.
But despite your successes you also have to struggle with criticism. How do you handle that? I have developed a very good skincare line. But skincare is not the jewel in the crown! And G Beauty, in my opinion, is a marketing concept developed by marketing people. My interest begins and ends with science, with ingredients and the development of incredible products and skin results. My competitors are often my greatest critics – they should concentrate more on their own products and less on what other people are doing.
Currently you are building your first Dr. Barbara Sturm shop on Bond Street in downtown Manhattan with three cabins, where you intend to offer primarily cosmetic treatments. Where do you see yourself in ten years? I live in the present and don’t make ten-year plans (she laughs.) But after New York, I’m planning to open my next shop in Los Angeles. My brother is helping me with construction – he’s a wonderful architect, just like my father.
It’s quiet interesting to see how popular your cosmetic line is among young women in particular. Your main target group (according to Niche Beauty) is between 25 and 35 years old. Your Instagram business account has 141,000 followers, 21,600 are following you on your private one. What is your secret? More and more young women today are investing in good-quality beauty products as well as very expensive ones. This is something we have learned over the past few years. They want to do the best they can for their skin before it’s too late. And our philosophy – love your skin and stop the aggression – resonates with this young, very critical group of consumers. A surprising number of young women approach me directly, they write to me or even address me on the street. Emma Roberts, for instance, wrote me a personal message on Instagram. Jaime King is another celebrity who contacted me. I’ve become friends with quite a few of my customers and we are constantly in touch on a personal level. That sort of thing can be challenging, of course: Trying to stay in touch and not forget about anyone despite my extremely busy schedule. But I’m a very unconventional person when it comes to lots of things, so I prefer to rely on my intuition.
Last question: If someone wanted to treat themselves to just one of the products in your, granted, rather expensive line, what should it be? What would you recommend? If you can only buy one thing, buy the Face Cream! The next step would be the Cleanser, which gives you incredibly fine pores, then the Hyaluron Serum and finally the Glow Drops. But we’re constantly expanding our portfolio, and in 2019 we are looking forward to launching 16 new products.