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The lipstick that helps fight AIDS

MAC Cosmetics has launched a repackaged edition of the original MAC Viva Glam I lipstick for its 25th anniversary. Courtesy: MAC CosmeticsPremium
MAC Cosmetics has launched a repackaged edition of the original MAC Viva Glam I lipstick for its 25th anniversary. Courtesy: MAC Cosmetics

  • Now in its 25th year, the Viva Glam lipstick by M.A.C Cosmetics has raised more than $500 million for the fight against HIV and AIDS
  • Over the years, Viiva Glam ambassadors have included Elton John, Lady Gaga, Miley Cyrus, Rihanna, Christina Aguilera and Ariana Grande

For the past 25 years, MAC Cosmetics has been selling its Viva Glam lipstick to raise money for the fight against HIV and AIDS. The subsidiary of Estée Lauder sells the $18.50 (around 1,300) lipstick in three shades—bluish-red, pinkish-beige and brownish-plum—but donates 100% of the proceeds to the cause. Each year, those tiny wands of colour generate $20-30 million; to date, the campaign has raised more than $500 million. The MAC Viva Glam Fund has used the money to deliver nearly 10,000 grants to 1,800 or so different programmes around the world.

Now, after 25 years in operation, Viva Glam plans to expand its mandate. It will inject money into underserved communities, including the LGBTQ+ community and vulnerable women and girls. The fund has also approved a three-year, $1.5 million grant for Unicef that will go to treatment programmes for mothers living with HIV in various countries.

“I had no clue or expectation that this would have gone as big as it has," says John Demsey, the executive group president of Estée Lauder who oversees MAC and the fund. “I hope that day comes that the money’s not needed for HIV. But I know that, even today, if there was a cure, a charitable organization would need to exist to ensure that the medication and the services got to people who would never be able to afford it."

Sales of Viva Glam fluctuate, depending on the hype built by its celebrity campaigns. Over the years, ambassadors have included Lady Gaga, Miley Cyrus, Rihanna, Christina Aguilera and Lil’ Kim. The label’s biggest year ever was led by pop singer Ariana Grande in 2016.

Several of Viva Glam’s previous spokespeople still publicly support the brand. Elton John has called Viva Glam’s method “a wonderful and tangible way to engage people in supporting this critical work". Chloe Sevigny noted that the personality-driven model has an uncanny knack for attracting eyeballs. “MAC always knows how to put big personalities together to draw attention to this extremely important cause," she said.

It hasn’t always been easy to get celebrities on board, said Demsey. The celebrities are paid, but Estée Lauder doesn’t spend “a ton" of cash for an endorsement because it’s a charitable endeavour. Many stars didn’t want to have their names connected to such charged subjects, hoping not to alienate fans. They considered it a “career risk", says Demsey. Executives wouldn’t share which celebrities they are currently pursuing.

MAC’s founders, Frank Angelo and Frank Toskan, started Viva Glam in 1994 just as AIDS became the leading cause of death among Americans aged 25-44, according to the US department of health and human services. Estée Lauder acquired a majority stake in MAC that year, before buying out the rest of the business in 1998. As Estée Lauder moved to grow MAC, the cosmetics conglomerate decided to keep the Viva Glam product line and retain its charitable focus.

The US represents the largest percentage of sales, according to the company, though the product’s global presence has grown significantly. Around 65-70% of the business now comes from abroad, up from about 10% when Viva Glam first hit shelves. Future growth will come from emerging markets such as Brazil and South Africa.

Where it won’t expand, however, is beyond lipstick.

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