July 14, 1997 12:00 PM

CALL IT BRONZE AMBITION. DURING A vacation in Florida as a teenager, Bobbi Brown slathered on layers of baby oil and iodine. Then, on the airplane back to Wilmette, Ill., determined to be Even Darker Brown, she ducked into the bathroom to cover herself with dark foundation. “I would make myself as tan as I could be,” says Brown, now 40. “When I went to school the next day, everyone said, ‘You’re so tan!’ I didn’t want anyone to know I was wearing makeup.”

Sleight of hand (and face) is still Brown’s thing. Author of the how-to Bobbi Brown Beauty, she is also the woman behind Bobbi Brown Essentials, a $30 million-a-year cosmetics line that specializes in natural-looking colors. Among its fans: Oprah Winfrey (“How does a white girl get these colors so perfect for us girls?” she once asked), Princess Diana, who wears a tea rose lipstick, and the Spice Girls, who favor the various shades of pressed powder.

Available at Saks Fifth Avenue, Bergdorf Goodman and other stores (prices range from $16 for lipstick to $35 for foundation), the line was bought in 1995 by Estée Lauder. That was probably a wise investment. Brown, says Linda Wells, editor-in-chief of Allure and a fan, knows how “to let a woman look like herself.”

Brown’s fascination with foundation began early. The eldest of three children, she used old makeup from her mother, Sandra, a homemaker, as if it were “crayons or markers” to doll up her dolls—as well as sister Linda, now a massage therapist. (Brother Michael, now a photographer, was spared.) “It was something she always had on her mind,” says father James, a lawyer.

But it wasn’t until she dropped out of the University of Arizona in 1976 that she considered turning her passion into a profession. At her mother’s suggestion, she enrolled at Emerson College in Boston, a liberal arts school that allowed her to create a major in theatrical makeup. After graduating in 1979, she eventually began work as an assistant to a New York City makeup artist at a salary that barely kept her in eyeliner. “If it wasn’t for my dad sending me my rent,” she says, “I would have been in trouble.”

Soon, Brown was working solo on models for Glamour and Vogue. But she didn’t think much of the available makeup, with its unflattering colors and poor consistency. With help from a chemist, she came up with her own lipsticks. Friend Rosalind Landis, now the company’s president, was so impressed by the lipsticks’ colors that, in 1990, she and Brown put up $10,000 each to market them. Within months, the pair were selling 100 lipsticks a day at Bergdorf Goodman.

These days, Brown works mostly out of the Montclair, N.J., house she shares with spouse Steven Plofker, 40, a lawyer and real estate developer, and sons Dylan, 7, and Dakota, 4. Balancing motherhood and mogulhood is not without hazard. With a groan Brown recalls a recent trip to the grocery store. “This woman said, ‘Aren’t you Bobbi Brown?’ I said yes—but was embarrassed because I looked like a schlump!”


LAN N. NGUYEN in New York City

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