VOGUE – The last time I met Scarlett Johansson, seven years ago, she had just given birth to her daughter, Rose, and had brought the infant on the press junket for a new luxury beauty launch. Johansson was running late, according to her publicists, who kept the details vague. She arrived within a few minutes, looking noticeably bright-eyed and fresh, especially for someone who was only a few months postpartum. “I’m so sorry, I was nursing my daughter,” she explained with a warmth and familiarity that were disarming coming from the woman who would shortly become the world’s highest-paid actress.
When we meet again in late fall, this time hovered over our respective computers, I am hiding from my children in a corner of my basement turned home office, while Johansson sits in her closed-door bedroom, shielded, for the moment, from her daughter and her son, Cosmo, who has just turned three months. Her Zoom background reveals a cheery frond-print wallpaper that the 37-year-old actor installed during the pandemic to simulate more tropical climes—or, she jokes, a retirement home in South Beach. “I’m so sorry I was late, I had to pump my boob,” she says, flashing a megawatt smile. Some things, it seems, haven’t changed.
Others have. “I’ve been the face of several luxury brands throughout my career, and all of those experiences were really wonderful. But—how do I put this?” she pauses, a black baseball cap semi-obscuring a furrowed brow. “I guess I always felt like I was sort of playing a character in those campaigns, and as I evolved, I wanted to create and represent a brand that was true to me.” This month, Johansson makes good on that goal with The Outset, a six-piece line of skin-care essentials that offers simple, clean, effective, and accessible formulas.
Johansson isn’t the first celebrity to get into the beauty game. Last year alone saw the arrival of new brands from Jennifer Lopez, Jennifer Aniston, Jada Pinkett Smith, Priyanka Chopra Jonas, and the singer Halsey, among other A-listers hoping to add “founder” to their résumés. But there are very few beauty hopefuls with Marvel superhero franchises and indie cred—and even fewer who possess the layered intrigue that has always swirled around Johansson: the bombshell, the beauty queen, the badass assassin.
“I walked into our first meeting kind of taking a deep breath thinking, Holy crap, I’m about to meet Scarlett Johansson,” says Kate Foster Lengyel, The Outset’s cofounder, an industry veteran who was introduced to Johansson through mutual friends. She too was immediately charmed by Johansson’s intelligence and humor, which translate as a kind of normal-girl energy that you just don’t expect from Natasha Romanoff. “She’s Old Hollywood in that way,” confirms her longtime makeup artist Frankie Boyd.
But being an engaging conversationalist doesn’t necessarily make you a good business partner, acknowledges Foster Lengyel, who was wary of working on yet another celebrity beauty line—until Johansson gave her the hard sell: a skin-care brand built around her own beauty rituals and the success she has had managing the breakouts, the dryness, and the general maladies that come with many hours spent in the makeup chair and in front of the camera. (“She always says, ‘If I wasn’t an actor, I would be a dermatologist!’ ” reveals Boyd.) Johansson had taken her pitch for clean, elevated basics at the cross section of drugstore finds, apothecary traditions, and French pharmacy efficacy to “the big guys” (Shiseido, Estée Lauder, et al.) before deciding that to make a product that held up to her own expectations, she’d need to do it from scratch.
Johansson took a few introductory calls with Foster Lengyel before they finally sat down to lunch in person—just as New York went into lockdown. “In a way, it sort of accelerated our relationship, because we now had this other kind of intimacy,” Johansson says of how the two women built their brand over Zoom and via FedEx, while homeschooling their children and contending with the fear and uncertainty that has plagued so many of us over the past two years. That shared experience—and the guidance of a product developer with a chemistry background, who educated them on everything from polymers to parabens in accordance with Credo’s exacting clean-ingredient standards—helped finalize their product assortment: The Gentle Micellar Antioxidant Cleanser washes away impurities without stripping the skin, while the Firming Vegan Collagen Prep Serum boosts hydration, and the Nourishing Squalane Daily Moisturizer offers up a quenching drink for parched complexions. That three-step regimen, as well as the rest of the line, which includes a rich niacinamide-spiked night cream, a soothing vitamin C eye cream, and a lip treatment, all retail for under $55 and feature hyaluroset, a botanical alternative to moisturizing hyaluronic acid that plumps and smooths fine lines. The less-is-more approach also extends to a minimalist design aesthetic that was instilled in Johansson by her Scandinavian architect father. “I wanted it to feel like something that was always there,” Johansson says of what she insists is not a “millennial pink brand”; The Outset’s signature color is more of an electric Ceylon blue, rendered in sans serif letters on the front of recyclable glass bottles and bio resin sugarcane tubes.
The Outset’s six-piece line of skin-care essentials offers clean, elevated basics at the cross section of drugstore finds, apothecary traditions, and French pharmacy efficacy.
Johansson is the face of the brand, but not the only face. She is joined by a diverse cast, mostly comprised of part-time models who work in a range of professions, from prop styling to construction. It’s part of a strategy designed to ensure that the products can speak to everybody’s everyday needs—and that they can stand on their own, outside of the celebrity beauty maelstrom. That’s what stood out to Priya Venkatesh, senior vice president of merchandising for skin care and hair at Sephora, which will begin stocking The Outset in April. “When we were first asked to take the meeting with Scarlett, I was joking that I’ve talked to so many celebrities during COVID, it’s like I have my own Zoom Oscars,” Venkatesh says of the recent influx of calls to her office from Hollywood agents and managers. “The world doesn’t need more products,” she admits, “but I really like Scarlett’s skin-care philosophy, which is just: Skin care is something that should be done every day, and it should be simple.”
“She’s not messing around,” emphasizes Foster Lengyel, a sentiment that was made abundantly clear to anyone (everyone) who watched the mother of two take on Disney in a blockbuster breach-of-contract lawsuit last summer. Johansson filed a claim in July arguing that the studio sacrificed Black Widow’s box office potential in order to grow its fledgling Disney+ streaming service. Much of the public back-and-forth PR barbs focused on Disney’s response, which seemed to cast Johansson as greedy and insensitive to the toll COVID had taken on the industry and the world at large. Privately, Johansson was managing a pregnancy and her son’s birth—which she and her husband, SNL’s Colin Jost, had kept quiet—while actively launching a startup. “It was scary, very scary, to take a step like that and not know where you’re going to land,” she admits. “Self-doubt crept in a lot, and I felt overwhelming sadness many times during that period,” she continues. But support from costars, industry friends, and even strangers helped buoy her. Jamie Lee Curtis memorably wrote an essay in Johansson’s defense for Time, issuing a warning to would-be aggressors: “Don’t fuck with this mama bear.”
“It made me feel like I could push the boulder up the mountain and it wasn’t going to roll back on me,” Johansson says, adding that the slow but incremental success women have recently had in shifting the industry’s male-dominated power dynamics made it “a good time to push the boulder over the mountain.” Part of her impetus for the lawsuit, which was settled in September, was to speak for other people facing similar circumstances, she says. “Now, it will be different for everybody.”
As the “do not disturb” time window we have both negotiated begins to close on our conversation, Johansson tells me that she is actively waiting for her dining room table to be picked up from storage and delivered to The Outset’s new office in the Flatiron District, where she and Foster Lengyel have assembled an eight-person team. “It’s getting very real,” she says of the brand’s impending launch and what it means for her personal growth, harnessing what appears to be all the feels—excitement, gratitude, and anxiety. “I mean, I’m the same person I’ve always been. But I think I’m more comfortable now with the idea that with every gain there’s a loss.” That’s a philosophy she has applied to her product development as well: New formulas are being consistently tweaked, scrapped, and tweaked again. But Johansson has held firm in her specificities for the lip treatment. “That was my passion project. Because I have a lot of surface area, obviously,” she says with a laugh while elaborating on the salve’s surprising lotion-like texture. Its consistency might be polarizing, she admits, but that’s just another risk she’s willing to take. Don’t fuck with Scarlett Johansson—or her lip balm.