December 06, 1976 12:00 PM

“He’s the absolute supreme boss,” says Paula Meehan of her husband, John—and though he chivalrously puts in a disclaimer, he is quick to admit, “I am the company’s No. 1 male chauvinist pig.”

In another couple, such sentiments might imply that hubby slouches home to watch Monday night football while the wife tackles the nightmare of waxy buildup. But in the Meehan household, no one is exactly oppressed. At 49, John is the $65,000-a-year president and chief executive officer of Redken Laboratories, Inc., of Van Nuys, Calif. It is the nation’s largest manufacturer of hair-and skin-care products sold exclusively through beauty shops. Paula, his deferential spouse at home, is his ostensible boss at work: Redken’s founder and $70,000-a-year chairman of the board.

The Meehans’ formula for happiness may chill a libber’s soul, but it is an incontrovertible commercial success. Since John joined the company full-time in 1969, it has diversified, gone public and multiplied its income more than tenfold. (Last year’s gross: $42 million.) Redken products are now sold in seven countries outside the U.S.; the company’s regional and national seminars for beauticians are hot-ticket sellouts, and the Meehans personally netted some $5 million from recent stock offerings. When they established their bed-and boardroom partnership in 1973, John says, they agreed on one ground rule: “Paula is in charge from 9 to 5 at the office, and I’m in charge from 5 on at home.”

Paula, 45, demurs: “John is the one in charge at the office.” He protests that if they ever came to loggerheads, he would be the one to give way. “Redken is her baby,” he says. “She went through the agonies of its birth.” This loving Alphonse-and-Gaston routine was tested at least once. The only time anyone remembers a head-on disagreement—on the question of whether unwed women employees should receive maternity benefits—his decision stood: the answer was no. “See,” says Paula with a smile, “I told you he was the boss.”

Her deference masks an unshrinking violet. Born in West Hollywood to an accountant father and a stage mother, Paula began an acting career at the age of 12. At 15 she was married and had her first child (“Debbie Reynolds was a junior high school classmate; she gave me a baby shower”). At 17 she was divorced. Five years later she took up acting again and landed a few commercials, some small parts on TV and the title of Miss Las Vegas Turf Club of 1954. That same year she was married a second time—to ad man Frank Miller.

She was only 29 in 1960 when she and a hairdresser friend, Jheri Redding, started Redken (which is a combination of Redding and Kent, her stage name). Deciding to compensate for her meager education, she took night classes in management, accounting and law. Such absorption in the company soon put a ruinous strain on her marriage, and in 1963 Paula divorced again.

Enter Meehan, who first called on Paula while selling ads for a beauty shop trade magazine. He too had been born in L.A. to a showbiz family (his father was a film director), but his background was somewhat less frenetic than Paula’s. It involved a tour in the merchant marine after World War II, a degree in English from Loyola University of Los Angeles and an early marriage to a Loyola homecoming queen that produced two sons and lasted 13 years before breaking up in 1965. “We very often didn’t agree—and rather emotionally,” he says. “When it came right down to it, I wasn’t going to have a wife make the decisions.” Adds Paula: “His first wife was more independent than I am, even though she was a housewife.” (John’s older son, Chris, 23, is now a Redken sales manager. Matthew, 20, is in college. Paula’s son, Michael Miller, 29, is a West Coast singers’ agent.)

Gradually John and Paula’s business relationship developed into something more, and—with some shrewd tactics—she overcame his resistance to remarriage. “Glenn Ford came over to my house for dinner once and then started asking me out,” she remembers. “I think that helped John make up his mind, and I still appreciate Glenn for that.” John was understandably impressed by Paula’s courage when a trip they took together to Puerto Rico in 1972 turned into a skyjacking to Cuba. “She tried to sell this guy at the airport in Havana on the virtues of capitalism,” he recalls with a laugh. “Things like that get you together.”

Today the Meehans live in the elegant Holmby Hills section of Los Angeles in a million-dollar, 24-room mansion previously owned by Elvis Presley. On their plush acre and a half are a tennis court, a swimming pool with cabana, a pond stocked with fish and two gardens—one formal and the other for vegetables. His Cadillac and her Rolls-Royce decorate the winding drive.

Sharing the work load has cut down their hours at the office to eight or nine a day—and they never bring their problems home with them. “John insists that we watch television during dinner,” says Paula, “so I can’t talk business.” Weekends are reserved for tennis and looking in on their horse-raising operation. Their first equine investment was an untested 2-year-old named Agitate. The colt later came in third in the 1974 Kentucky Derby. He generated a lot of publicity for Redken and is now at stud. (“At last report, he was impregnating 88 percent of the mares at $6,000 a throw,” says John. “I envy him immensely.”) The Meehans bathe their horses in Redken products, and do the same for their Irish setter, Dublin, who often accompanies Paula to work. “Is he still flaking?” she asks. “I used Climatress on him today.” “Well, it won’t work overnight,” replies John, explaining with mock impatience: “If Paula gets a bright idea for a new product on Wednesday, she wants it developed on Thursday, manufactured on Friday and marketed by Monday.”

Despite her apparently heartfelt protestations to the contrary, Paula’s rank at the company does not go unheeded. When Jimmy Carter’s staff was looking for a representative of the cosmetics industry to meet with their candidate, they asked for Paula, not John. (“We don’t talk about that too much,” she says, though of course she met with Carter. “We’re both conservative Republicans.”) In their new headquarters in Canoga Park, Calif., she has the choice corner office. No matter, friends say; they’ve learned to work together hand in glove. “As busy as she is,” claims actress Terry Moore, Paula’s best friend, “she would think nothing of running across town to buy a steak for John. She lays out his clothes and packs for him when he goes on a trip.”

The Meehans’ delicate balancing of love and profit may seem nearly miraculous. According to John, it is marriage that makes their business teamwork possible. “If we couldn’t reach a meeting of the minds at work,” he says, “we’d realize there were greater values involved, and we wouldn’t get into a confrontation.” John pauses, then adds, “You only learn that with a few miles on you.”

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