05/22/2000 at 01:00 AM EDT
Vincene Parrinello looked in the mirror during her second month of chemotherapy in 1991 and barely recognized herself. The 33-year-old breast-cancer patient's cheeks had turned pallid, her skin "dry, ashen and leathery," she recalls. She began caking her face with five concealers and spending hundreds of dollars on big-name skin-care lines. Nothing helped. In fact, one cream burned her now ultrasensitive skin. "I got frustrated," Parrinello says. "I wanted to look healthy again. I didn't want people to look at me like I wasn't going to win this battle to get my life back."
So the Escondido, Calif., pediatric nurse turned to her own kitchen stove. After poring over chemistry texts and swiping skin-care secrets from her grandmother, she brewed up a line of 17 epidermis-soothing potions for ill and healthy women alike that she named Hope Aesthetics. Made with non-irritating natural ingredients spiked with extracts from disease-fighting foods like grapes, apricots and spinach, the line did $1.4 million in sales last year. "She gave me hope," says L.A. film writer-producer Kelly Gallagher, 37, a Hodgkin's disease survivor. "My skin color changed. People would say, 'You're looking good.' "
Healthy women—including Julia Roberts
, Drew Barrymore
and Jennie Garth—now make up 60 percent of the line's buyers (the products, including Parrinello's signature $38.50 BHW Hydrating Antioxidant Moisturizer, are sold via mail order and Web site, www.hopeskincare.com, and in spas and salons). The creams, says Susan Lucci, make her skin "feel smoother and more radiant."
But no customer has been more transformed than Parrinello herself, now 41 and cancer-free. Even before her own illness, cancer had devastated the Chicago native. She lost both her parents to the disease—mother Rose, a secretary, to breast cancer; father Arthur, a real-estate broker, to brain cancer—six weeks apart in 1983. Deeply grieving, the then-nursing student, who had recently wed husband Michael, now 47, a Spanish teacher, lost 30 pounds in six weeks. "I would pass out in patients' rooms," she says. "I could smell death in everything."
Eight years later, doctors discovered that Parrinello too had cancer: A malignancy in her right breast had spread to her lymph nodes. The mother of two young sons (Christopher, now 16, and Nicholas, 13), she underwent a double mastectomy and nine months of intensive chemotherapy. Battling nausea, she threw herself into finding a salve for her ravaged skin. She researched skin-friendly oils and quizzed her Sicilian-born grandmother Vincenzena Farina, who recalled that women in her family gave themselves facials by holding their faces over boiling water loaded with herbs and fruits. So Parrinello dragged her mother's ravioli pot from a shelf—"That was my way of bringing my mom in to comfort me"—and boiled up the botanical soup she uses as a base for her products. Her 93rd batch of moisturizer was a keeper. "I was able to go outside with only one concealer," she says. "I was alive again."
In 1992, when a double-blind study Parrinello had commissioned found that 93 percent of her creams' users saw significant changes in their skin, she decided to turn her discovery into a business. The going was rough. By 1997, Hope Aesthetics was $500,000 in the red, and Parrinello had to sell her wedding ring to pay the mortgage on her four-bedroom home. Word of mouth turned the tide. Now, Parrinello employs eight and steers 5 percent of profits to Hope for Others, a charity that pays for such services as child care and housekeeping for families stricken by cancer. "How can I place an ad that's going to cost 50 grand in Vogue when I know that there are 50 families about to lose their homes?" she asks.
Her husband and friends, however, fret about Parrinello's long hours. Chemotherapy left her with heart problems and a weak immune system. Nevertheless, "She's such a go-getter," says colleague Lupe Pesqueira, 44. On the drawing board are plans to create an ointment for burns and, next year, to take Hope public. "I have a chance with my company to embrace anyone who is hurting," says Parrinello. "That's what keeps me going."
Karen Brailsford in Escondido