Keyshia Ka’oir Davis has a lot of tips for running a business. As a CEO of three companies, she could probably write a book — but for now she just lobs little pearls of wisdom into casual conversation for free.
One tip: Start each day by making a to-do list, and check every item off by the end of the day. Davis has been doing this since she started her makeup company, Ka’oir Cosmetics, seven years ago. Each list is a running tally of all the things she has to do to build her brand — order more blue lipsticks, schedule a photo shoot. She still has the first notebook she used for this purpose, but now she keeps the lists on her iPhone 8. “I’m suuuuuper detailed,” she says. “It gets overwhelming when you’re running so many successful businesses and you have a successful husband” — that would be Gucci Mane, whom she married in 2017 — “and we have such busy schedules. If I don’t have this,” she says, waving her phone, today’s list on display, “I lose my mind.”
Some other tips she lets loose during the December afternoon I spent at her house: Don’t let anybody else handle your money — always write your own checks. Do your own inventory. Don’t procrastinate. Have confidence. Don’t rush. Don’t be late, especially not if you work for her. Stay focused — especially when it comes to men; do not get caught up in men. Be stern when you need to be stern. Pray for everything. Don’t eat salt. Wait, what? “Salt is the enemy,” she says, deadly serious. I suppose I’m willing to accept that as business advice from someone who owns a makeup and fitness line.
And another crucial warning: God help the makeup artist who doesn’t do Ka’oir’s makeup the right way. If her business rules are exacting, then her beauty rules are more inflexible than the laws of physics. For example, when she does her eyes, it’s with such precision it seems like she knows — down to the millimeter — how thick the black eyeliner that hugs her lash line should be and the exact protractor degree for the angle of her cat-eye flick. Highlighter must be applied to maximize the feline angularity of her face. And thou shalt not touch her lips. “No makeup artist touches my lips,” she says. She and she alone applies her lipstick — using her own super-pigmented matte product — because only she can fill in every part of her lips so that not a single smudge goes astray, without even using a mirror.
On this particular afternoon, Ka’oir, 33, is sitting in pageant-queen posture, fuzzy white slipper dangling from her pedicured foot. She’s in the designated beauty room of the Fort Lauderdale home she and Gucci Mane share. Their house — well, second house; the other is in Atlanta —well, okay, second mansion — is in one of those gated communities where it looks like someone planted stacks of hundred-dollar bills and McMansions sprouted up from the swampland, Bentleys included. Much of Ka’oir’s home has an air of the rarely used: echoing high ceilings, gigantic white furniture, and a Versailles-meets-Versace dining room complete with place settings that may never see the five-course meals they could accommodate. But not the beauty room, a lived-in space where she sits in a salon chair, amid stacks of her inventory, examining her face in the warm glow of her vanity and realizing she hates her makeup.
She doesn’t yell. That’s another tip: “I’m never rude,” she says. “I’m Jamaican.” She just casts a withering stare into the mirror and sighs deeply, before telling the makeup artist working with her today that she’d prefer to just do it herself, like she should have done in the first place. If beauty weren’t her business to begin with, she wouldn’t have added “beauty mogul” to her own résumé.
Most know Ka’oir as one half of the Wopsters, a couple name for her and Gucci, derived from Gucci’s nickname, GUWOP (an acronym for God Unity Wisdom Opportunity Power). Since getting together in 2011, their romance has become an internet fan favorite — thanks to her loyalty during his three-year jail sentence, his well-documented 2016 proposal at an Atlanta Hawks game, and a $2 million Miami wedding that was chronicled on their BET reality show, The Mane Event. But while conceiving of the show, Ka’oir wanted to make sure its ten episodes didn’t just focus on her diamond bouquet (she had a diamond bouquet) or Gucci’s rap career, or her role as a devoted wife. Instead, she hopes people see the parts of her personality that allowed her to build a three-headed beauty empire — made up of Ka’oir Cosmetics, Ka’oir Fitness, and Ka’oir Hair — that she says is worth tens of millions of dollars.
“Gucci always says, It’s crazy how of a great businesswoman you are, and how successful you are. People don’t know this,” Ka’oir tells me. “They get a glimpse of it, but they don’t really know how I run my business.”
Joy Mangano couldn’t find an alternative to wringing a mop by hand, so she created a self-wringing mop and made millions of dollars. Marion Donovan needed a waterproof diaper for her child, but they didn’t exist, so she made one out of a shower curtain and went on to found Pampers. And according to Aaron Sorkin, at least, Mark Zuckerberg didn’t have enough self-esteem, so he started Facebook to get some. Ka’oir’s business arose to meet a similarly simple need. There was something she wanted — a blue lipstick — and she couldn’t find it, and she doesn’t take no for an answer.
In 2009, after college, Jamaican-born Ka’oir moved to South Beach to pursue modeling under the name Keyshia Dior. She earned roles in a few music videos, including for Timbaland’s “Say Something,” and gained a following on social media. Her beauty-mogul origin story is well outlined in Gucci Mane’s 2017 autobiography (and also in her self-mythologizing three-part Vimeo documentary, Building the Brand). But as the story goes, one night in 2009 she wanted to wear blue lipstick to match her shoes and her dress, and couldn’t find one from any of the major cosmetics companies. “My friends were all like, you can’t wear blue lipstick because people people will make fun of you. I ignored them, because I’m always a unique person and I want to be over the edge.”
She mixed her blue eye shadow with some lip gloss to create a highly pigmented sky blue lipstick, wore it out, and ended up all over the blogs the next day.
“No one knew my name, no one knew who I was, but everyone wanted to be the girl with the mohawk and the blue lipstick,” Ka’oir recounts, waving her hand — and her 25-carat engagement ring — to emphasize each word. And she knew right away. “I had to come up with my own makeup line, starting with that blue lipstick.” It now retails for $17.99.
Ka’oir didn’t study business — she was studying to be a nurse, like her mother, until she decided scrubs really weren’t her thing and dropped out. She studied cosmetology for a bit after that. She’d never read a business book, and hadn’t started a business before. But her father had owned several businesses, including a cigarette company in Jamaica, where the family lived until she was 10. That’s when her father was killed — a subject she doesn’t discuss as often as she does the traits she inherited from him. “It must’ve just been in my blood,” she says, “because it was so easy for me to run a business. You would think it’s something I have experience in.”
She started cold-calling makeup manufacturers and saying, Hi, I see you’re a makeup manufacturer. I want to launch of line of lipsticks in colors like orange, yellow, blue, and green. She got a lot of nos. Finally, she got a maybe? and proceeded to call back until she got a yes. Which manufacturer, I interrupt to ask. “Well, I can’t tell you because then I’ll be telling you who my manufacturer is.” Another good business practice: Give nothing away.
Her connections from modeling and the music world helped: Ka’oir’s best friend is rapper Trina, and she designed a neon-pink lipstick for her. She also created a signature baby pink lipstick for Snooki from Jersey Shore, who is a fan. As Ka’oir tells it, the line became a music-video staple. “If you see someone back in 2010 with blue, yellow, green lipstick, I knew it was my brand,” she recalls. “It was successful because it was different. You couldn’t get it from anywhere else.” She officially founded Ka’oir Cosmetics in 2011 after the lipsticks gained popularity.
According to Ka’oir, she made her first million in six months after launching the business and bought herself a Rolls-Royce. “And when I bought it, I cried, and I don’t cry for nothing.”
Ka’oir supplements her beauty business with club appearances, but for the most part she’s a self-described homebody. She runs her business from home, too. On the afternoon when I visit, her Fort Lauderdale house has the quiet energy of the day after Christmas in the suburbs. A TV plays in another room; a smoke detector chirps somewhere; and Amina Diop, Ka’oir’s friend and manager, keeps offering me a fresh cherry slushy. (They are free-flowing in this house.) Gucci was wrapping presents — I spotted something Vuitton — before getting spooked by my presence and hopping in his Maybach to let his wife to promote her work.
The pair met in 2010. Gucci was at the end of his first prison sentence, trying to set up video shoots for when he got out, when he spotted her in XXL’s Eye Candy of the Month column. He told his then-assistant, Diop, to cast her in his video for “911 Emergency.” Ka’oir accepted, and appeared in the video wearing a skin-tight white bodysuit. Gucci was smitten and asked her out. The rest is a “goals” relationship for reality-show history. They married earlier last fall, after Gucci’s 2016 release from prison following a nearly three-year sentence on a firearm possession charge.
“Gucci is an amazing husband because he supports me,” Ka’oir says. “A lot of men are intimidated by successful women. Not him, though. He wants me to shine. He wants me to be successful. At least, it’ll have him save more of his money if I’ve got money, right? Because I’m an expensive wife.”
It makes sense Ka’oir’s home would also be her workplace — not just because she doesn’t like to go out, or because the reality show that films there is another arm of Ka’oir Incorporated, but because the entire empire is more or less built on her image (her “aura,” as she puts it).
She dedicated the second business she launched in 2013 to her second love, fitness. At the time, Gucci wanted to lose weight; she did, too. In particular, she wanted the freedom to wear whatever brands she wanted — high-end designers, couture, whatever. “I wanted to wear all the designers,” she explains. “I don’t want to be classified as this black girl with this big ass. I just want to look good in whatever I put on and what makes me happy.” She says that Fashion Nova has repeatedly offered her money to wear their clothes on Instagram. “I don’t wear no Fashion Nova. Go ahead and put that in your notes,” she tells me, with just the slightest hint of Jamaican patois creeping into her speech, as it’s prone to do when she’s talking money, food, and Gucci (her husband, not the brand) — presumably, three of the things that fill her with the greatest emotion.
Ka’oir Fitness includes her own line of waist trainers, which she calls Waist Erasers ($69.99), because she found corsets and girdles too painful and wanted something she could work out in, something that would help her lose water weight while cinching her waist. She wore the product herself for an entire year before releasing it to the public. Since then, she’s launched Ka’oir Slimming Tea ($26.99), Thigh Erasers ($54.99), a Body Burner slimming cream ($29.99), a full-body sweat suit ($89.99 to $110.99 depending your size), and a 14-day weight loss plan ($29.99).
Ka’oir is her own best brand ambassador — she says she doesn’t pay anyone else to use her products — and her own brand is the only one she’ll promote. (Sorry, Fashion Nova.) She used her reality show to not-so-surreptitiously plug her products: May we never forget the scene where she forces her nana to start wearing a Ka’oir Waist Eraser. (Nana loved it, by the way.) When Ka’oir wakes up at 6:30 a.m., the first thing she does is sip her detox tea. Then she’ll go work out in her Waist Eraser for three hours. She uses it almost 23 hours a day, which means she can point to her 17.5-inch waist as evidence of its success. And she wears almost strictly her own makeup, which she’s now extended beyond lipsticks into a full line.
Her customers, whom she retweets regularly, believe in her products because they revere the Ka’oir holy trinity: Keyshia’s body, Keyshia’s face, and Keyshia’s hair. Which leads us to her third business, launched just this January — Ka’oir Hair. “I find myself in a brand-new wig every day, and wigs are a billion-dollar business,” she informs me. She will be modeling the whole line herself.
In 2018, you have your choice of bright, matte, famous-person-affiliated lipsticks: Pat McGrath Labs, Kylie lip kits, and Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty all help women make their lips look like Easter eggs. Meanwhile, Instagram is littered with B- to D-list celebrities shilling waist trainers and FitTea that promises to de-bloat (but which probably just de-poops, uncomfortably). Vivica A. Fox and Raquel Welch have their own wig lines. What Ka’oir is selling doesn’t necessarily seem remarkable or unique — but it still sells.
Ka’oir doesn’t bristle at the comparisons. She interprets them, magnanimously, as evidence of her own business acumen. “I started this whole thing,” she says. “It’s flattering that the big makeup artists and the bigger celebrities completely learned from me or got ideas from me. I’m not going to knock anyone, because there is enough money for everyone to make. There’s nothing I can do. I’m not going to sit here and cry over it. I just move on and make my companies bigger.”
According to Ka’oir, her businesses are valued at $30 million — all hers — a fact she let slip during an episode of The Mane Event. When I later put in a call to the financial adviser she works with on the show, Rob Gordon of Investor Solutions, my call went unreturned; another financial adviser I spoke to told me that without seeing Ka’oir’s financial records, there’s no way to confirm, since it’s a privately owned business.
All I really have to go on is the diverse portfolio of her closet, which she’s showing me now: All the Gucci, Chanel, Dior, and Moschino that she’s bought herself. Then there’s the house we’re standing in, and the jewelry she’s wearing, which does in fact look like it could feed, clothe, and house a family of four for a few years. But I still want to know how her businesses really turn this kind of profit, especially when I can’t buy Ka’oir Cosmetics in Sephora, or the Waist Erasers (which I’m now convinced I need more than I’ve ever needed anything) at Target.
There once was a Macy’s deal, Ka’oir recalls. “It sounded amazing but I realized I’d lose so much money. It looks great, but I’m not here for the look,” she says. “I’m here for the money.” She backed out of the deal. Ka’oir sells her cosmetics wholesale to select private boutiques. She doesn’t wholesale the Waist Erasers because she “can’t keep them on the shelves”; those are only available through her website.
As I ask her about the $30 million figure, she shifts into full financial-planner mode. “My companies are super successful and I shared some ways with you of how to keep it that way, because I don’t have any overhead expenses. I don’t have any debt,” she explains. “I bought my house in cash so I don’t have a mortgage. I bought my car with cash. I buy my Birkin bags with cash. I don’t have credit cards. I don’t have partners. I like to write one check for ten million dollars, and done. It helps that I have a super-rich husband, but I’m making all this money and I invest in myself. It’s so easy for me to make 30 million dollars because I’ve seen a lot of celebrities go wrong.”
With Ka’oir changed into her comfies (red fleece PJs and a Waist Eraser) we return to the kitchen so she can eat dinner — Chick-fil-A grilled nuggets and fries, no salt. It’s about 5:30 and she’s already dreaming of the moment I leave so she can go to sleep.
I take this moment to return to the subject of her super-rich husband: Would it be difficult to build this empire if she wasn’t a famous rapper’s wife? I worry this question will get me kicked out, but again, she doesn’t even blink.
“I started my business before I even met Gucci,” she says. “So for me to transition into this super-successful businesswoman, it wasn’t difficult for me at all. I was never labeled as ‘dating a rapper for his money.’ For some reason, that didn’t come to me because everyone knew I grind for whatever I wanted.”
Ka’oir has the bulletproof confidence of any white man in business. Sometimes it seems like a lot of bluster — but if she doesn’t gas herself up, promote herself, and market herself, who else is going to? Maybe she should write that book.
“I’m not a trophy wife, and I don’t ever want to be classified as that. I almost feel worthless if I don’t have a new product coming out or something new to do. So no, the answer is no. Gucci’s wife? Laying home? Never. I would die. I want to see other women be as independent and make as much money as their husbands these days. It’s easy.”