11/20/2000 at 01:00 AM EST
It's the last place in the world you would expect to get cosmetic advice, but the sterile, concrete-walled room at Los Angeles's Twin Towers Correctional Facility is buzzing when the 28 inmates—all women imprisoned for drug offenses—see Victoria Jackson handing out eyebrow pencils, mascara wands and compacts. "I know the power of makeup," Jackson tells them. "I know the power of looking better and feeling better and the success that brings to your life."
Unquestionably, Jackson, 45, has a lesson or two to teach about turning a life around. As a teenager she suffered a traumatic sexual assault when an intruder broke into her home. It took years to regain her footing, but she fought through the psychological wounds to become a talented makeup artist, then parlayed that skill into the multimillion-dollar Victoria Jackson Cosmetics line. Today she uses her clout and life lessons to help other women rebuild their lives. "She teaches that the perfect place to start, when you're in a self-esteem crisis, is by looking in a mirror and saying, 'I can do this,' " says actress Ali McGraw, a friend who has appeared in Jackson's ads.
At the Twin Towers Jackson demonstrates for the group on the face of Valeria Amador, 25, serving an 18-month sentence for narcotics possession. "You're going to see how soft, pretty eyebrows look," Jackson tells the group. "How one little eyebrow pencil will change your look, change the message you put out and how you feel about yourself." The audience is willing, and the message gets across. "The way she showed us to use makeup doesn't make you look mean," says inmate Leslie Crippen, 19. "It makes you look easy to approach."
Jackson has been equally successful with cancer patients who suffer hair loss following radiation and chemotherapy. For nearly a decade she has taught workshops at cancer clinics, bringing along makeup artists to show patients how to create eyebrows where there are none. "I thought, 'How could I help women look and feel better when they're at their lowest?' " Jackson says. "I can help them take some control."
That impulse comes in part from the shattering moment she experienced as a young woman. Born in New York City, one of two daughters of a wallpaper salesman and his wife, a model and bookkeeper, she moved with her family to the Los Angeles area at age 9. By the time she was in high school, her mother, Barbara, now 66, had been twice divorced, and Jackson was floundering academically.
Victoria was watching TV in the bedroom of her West Hollywood home late one night in 1972 when, she says, a masked man broke in and started to force a pillowcase over her head. "I don't know exactly what he did," says Jackson, who believes she may have fallen victim to a serial rapist. "I truly have blocked it out." Feeling unsafe in her own home (she still suffers from severe claustrophobia), she moved out and, at 18, married her high school boyfriend, splitting just a year later.
To support herself she went to beauty school. "I always wanted to help people look better," says Jackson, who got a job selling makeup at a department store, then quit in 1975 to become a freelance makeup artist, eventually preparing celebrities such as Brooke Shields
and Jacqueline Bisset for magazine covers. She married set designer Joseph Minogue in 1983, though they divorced in 1990.
Frustrated that she couldn't find makeup she liked, she worked in her garage with a cosmetic chemist to develop her own line. "Mine was the first foundation that came in neutral skin tones," she says. "It worked for everybody." In 1989 she made her first infomercial and sold $1 million in makeup in a week. Now selling on QVC, infomercials, a Web site and in her own catalog, her company projects sales of $20 million this year.
Those big profits have helped her and her third husband, Bill Guthy, 45, who runs a TV direct-marketing company, settle with their children Evan, 14 (from her second marriage), Alexandra, 7, and Jackson, 4, in a three-story Encino, Calif., home complete with pool and tennis court. They have also encouraged her to help others. "Now that I've achieved personal success," she says, "I feel compelled to give back." In fact her visits to places like the Twin Towers have proven to be as inspiring to Jackson as to those she helps. "If I can help them take that confidence out into the streets, if I can reach just a few of them," she says, "then I feel good."
Meg Grant in Los Angeles