Modern Original Person – Deborah Carver

Every super hero has an origin story, and Deborah Carver’s is as good as anything Horatio Alger could have written. Born to an Austrian mother and a father who immigrated to the United States from Russia when he was five, Carver is Alger’s American Dream writ large, a first-generation American who rose from humble beginnings to oversea a publishing empire (Creative Age Publications) that includes titles like NAILPRO, DAYSPA, Beauty Launchpad, MedEsthetics, Beauty Store Business, The Colorist, Eye Lash and MAN.

Growing up in Philadelphia where her father was a union leader for the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, Carver had little interest in the feminine arts, like cooking or sewing. Instead, she played sports with the boys in her neighborhood and—no big surprise to anyone who knows her—became the leader of their little gang.

“My parents divorced when I was five or six,” she remembers, “which was pretty unusual in those days.” Her father also remarried. He died when Carver was only 18, but her stepmother took her on a trip to California that would change her life. “I fell in love with California and decided that I was going to live there someday,” says Carver.

Meanwhile, back home in Philadelphia, Carver met a movie producer who was in town working on a film with actor Lee Marvin. “I was a good looking young lady, and I was tall,” says Carver, who at six-feet (six-four in her stilettos) is not exaggerating. “He got me a job as a showgirl at the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas.” At the time, the only hotels on the Strip were the Hacienda, the Flamingo, the Sands and one or two others, but Las Vegas was the place when Carver was 18 and it was a stone’s throw away from the mythical Golden State. So, she took the job. Her official title was strutter, which required her to wear a flimsy outfit and an enormous headdress while strutting across the stage carrying a sign.

“What they really wanted me to do was go out with the high rollers who gambled at the casino,” she says. When she refused, she was literally held captive in her room at the hotel. Carver escaped through a window and high-tailed it to the bus station where she sent a telegram to the producer who’d landed her the job in the first place and asked him to get her out of this fix. “He wired me a hundred dollars and got my car and all my belongings,” says Carver, who lived in her car for a week and a half trying to figure out her next move. 

Her next move was to go to Hollywood where she was hired to work at an escrow company. “I knew how to take shorthand,” she explains. Carver met her first husband there (his brother owned the company). “He was a genius of a man, a concert violinist, a composer and a conductor, and he also owned a comedy school. I met Jerry Lewis, Lucille Ball, Morey Amsterdam, Don Knotts, Dick Van Dyke, all of those people through him,” she says. “He was the most fascinating man, but there’s a very thin line between genius and insanity, and he walked that line every day until he became impossible to live with, but he’s the father of my son, Jason.”

In time, Carver left the escrow company and got a job at Brentwood Publishing as a secretary/receptionist, and that’s where her life took a surprising turn. Carver quickly moved up the ranks, working in Circulation, Editorial and Production. Meanwhile, she was also coming up a lot of ideas that helped the company grow. “Finally, I thought that if I could do it for them, I could do it for myself,” says Carver, who started Creative Age Publications with a $12,000 loan.

Carver has no education past high school, but she had good instincts, and her business took off. Looking back, she admits that if she’d had an MBA, she might not have taken the chances she did, but because she was supporting her son and her mother, she just forged ahead.

When she went into business, Carver hired an editor named Carol Summer and made her a partner. “I wasn’t a writer, and she was the only writer I knew,” she says. “We split everything 50/50 even though I was doing most of the work, which left a bitter taste in my mouth after awhile, but what she did was vital to our success.” When they dissolved their partnership after 15 years, Carver took NAILPRO and Dialysis and Transplantation. “We had a bunch of medical magazines, but we just killed them. We had no idea that you could sell a magazine. It just never occurred to us. We were so stupid.”

For years, Carver was known for the elaborate hats she wore to walk the trade show floor. In a way, they became her brand. “I have the world’s worst hair, and I found out that if I just put a hat on my head, I could get out of the house in a hurry,” says Carver, who estimates that she must have owned 500 of them. “When I found a really good hairdresser, I stopped wearing them.”

Having spent so many years publishing medical magazines (she had at least eight of them), Carver was pleasantly surprised when she dipped her toe into professional beauty. “Everyone in the medical industry was very proper. They all wore suits and ties. Then I walked into my first beauty show and saw all these people with crazy hair, tattoos and lots of makeup and fell in love with this industry,” she says. “I guess you could say my vocation became my avocation.”

Don’t mention the word retirement to Carver, who still comes into the office every day. To relax, she invites friends to go sailing with her. “Being on the water is life-giving to me. It’s the one time I don’t think about anything else,” she says. “I’ve had boats for 35 years, but my lifelong dream was always to build my own boat, and that’s what I did with the one I have now.” The Elysium (a place of ideal bliss and perfect happiness) is 70-feet long and has three staterooms. 

Another lifelong dream? “To see one of my magazines on the newsstand when I walked through the airport,” says Carver, who did just that when she launched a magazine for consumers called Nail It! The timing couldn’t have been better since there was an explosion of interest in nails and nail art, and the glossy did well enough for a time. Then came the online revolution, which posited the theory that no one was interested in print anymore, and it simply became too hard to compete for advertising.

Last year Carver received the Spirit of Life Award from City of Hope. It was an unforgettable affair that celebrated her philanthropic achievements and the hope for a cancer cure. She had been an avid supporter of City of Hope for decades so this was just icing on the cake.

So, what’s next for Carver? It’s hard to tell, but she’s always been a visionary so stay tuned. In 2001, she had an idea for a professional hair and beauty magazine that she described as “Allure meets Lucky.” The idea was to promote fashion and beauty, while also providing a venue for advertisers to market their new products. It was a revolutionary idea, and she called it Beauty Launchpad. Nearly 20 years later, it’s still going strong.