Even though I'm a big Burt's Bees fan—those minty balms were like social currency when I was growing up, and now I use the cuticle cream, body lotion and body wash—I never thought too much about the face staring back at me on the label.
That is, until I got to watch Burt's Buzz, a new documentary by Canadian filmmaker Jody Shapiro that just opened at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto.
Here are five surprising secrets I learned about the natural beauty brand (and the man behind it):
1. There really is a Burt!
His name is Burt Shavitz—and even at the age of 79, he's still instantly recognizable as the face of the Burt's Bees brand. Probably one of the last people you would expect to launch a major beauty line, Burt was a beekeeper in Maine who sold honey off the back of his truck in the 1970s. One day, he picked up hitchhiker Roxanne Quimby, who was looking for a way to make some cash. Using the wax from Burt’s hives, they started making beeswax candles to sell at local craft fairs before branching out into beauty products. The name Burt’s Bees comes from the tag Burt used to distinguish his hives from other beekeepers. Today, he still lives on the same land in Maine where the company originally got its start.
2. Burt used to be a (kind of important) photographer
Beekeeping wasn’t Burt’s first successful career. Growing up in New York in the 1960s, he started taking pictures of the city, and had a good eye for it. He caught the attention of major newspapers like The New York Times and the International Herald Tribune, and ended up becoming a pretty successful freelance photojournalist. Some of his most famous pictures include a shot of the Statue of Liberty rising out of a heap of garbage, and a portrait of Malcolm X.
So why did he end up in Maine working as a beekeeper? Ironically, it was because of one of his photographs. In the film, he talks about a picture he took of a woman peering out the window of his building, and how lonely she looked and how he never saw her outside. The shot freaked him out so much that he thought if he stayed in New York, he'd end up like her, trapped in his apartment. He decided to leave and seek out a new experience in Maine.
3. Burt is a bit of a health nut
Using Burt as the front man of a natural beauty brand was no mistake. Burt’s move to Maine marked a pivotal change in his life, where he really began to embrace a more natural and simple lifestyle. He lived off the land, had no TV or telephone, and made just enough money to keep himself going. He never meant to start Burt’s Bees—and even today, he maintains a simple lifestyle with only the absolute necessities. Burt is also a vegetarian and actually uses many of the products the company makes.
4. Burt didn’t actually invent any of the Burt’s Bees products
Believe it or not, Burt wasn’t the brains behind the products that are now synonymous with his name. It was Roxanne Quimby, the hitchhiker, who started making all kinds of beeswax-based products with the help of some recipes Burt showed her in old beekeeper almanacs. They included candles, shoe polish and the company’s breakthrough seller, lip balm—which was originally sold in that same iconic yellow tin! It was Roxanne’s idea to use Burt’s face on the packaging to add a personal touch to the products.
5. Burt isn't super-rich
Unfortunately, Burt’s story isn’t all smiles and roses. One of the biggest things the film sheds light on is how Burt was forcefully kicked out of the company in 1999. Though the company history page on the website will tell you that he retired, Burt explains in the film that he was given an ultimatum by Roxanne to leave. He still acts as a kind of mascot for the brand, making public appearances (prepare to have your heartstrings tugged when the documentary shows him on a tour of Taiwan). But despite Burt's Bees’ success, not much has changed for Burt since he first moved to his tiny cottage in Maine back in the '70s.
Check out Burt's Buzz at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto: see here for schedule.
Have Your Say
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