Living the Art of Substance Versus Style.
By Steve Uhler, photos by Andrew Chan
It’s a prank John Paul DeJoria has pulled countless times, but one he never seems to grow tired of. Driving one of the seven custom-built motorcycles he owns, he’ll pull into a gas station with a new traveling companion in tow, under the ruse of needing gas.
“Let’s say I have the tank half full, right?” he says. “I’ll take a bottle of Patrón tequila, then I’ll pour it in the gas tank—except for the last quarter. Then I’ll take a sip and then pass it over. They go, ‘That is tequila!’ ”
As with many of the facets that make up the phenomenon that is DeJoria, there’s more to the gesture than meets the eye. He does, after all, own the Patrón tequila empire, and it’s a great way to showcase his product. It’s also a dazzling demonstration of converting to alternative fuels like biodiesel. It may not be turning water into wine, but it’s a lot more practical and a lot more fun. DeJoria believes life should be fun, and he lives it full throttle.
“Nothing in life is worth doing unless you’re having fun doing it,” he says.
And he’s leaving the world a little better off while doing it. As founder of both John Paul Mitchell Systems and Patrón tequila, DeJoria is a self-made multi-billionaire, hobnobbing with everyone from Bill Gates and the Dalai Lama to Cher and all personages in between. He boasts a net worth of more than $4 billion, with homes in Austin; Malibu, Calif.; Las Vegas; New York; Hawaii; Aspen, Colo. and other locales far from the East LA tenement of his childhood.
He owns a private jet but prefers traveling in his own antique railcar, and doesn’t use email or a computer. Politically, he eschews both left and right in favor of his own iconoclastic course, perplexing pundits who would have him pigeonholed. His face became an iconic image on the ’80s pop-culture landscape as the spokesperson for John Paul Mitchell products on TV, in magazines, on billboards. These days, he frequently appears as a guest on CNN, CNBC and Fox, and last year, he was a guest investor on Shark Tank. Often stopped on the street for photos, he’s flashed more peace signs than Ringo Starr, and is nearly as recognizable.
With his longtime wife, Eloise, DeJoria is a passionate supporter of and participant in countless charities and advocacy groups, and not just by affixing his signature to substantial checks. Tales of his hands-on commitment are many: Personally plowing fields for his Grow Appalachia Foundation; distributing food, blankets and other basic necessities to the Tarahumara tribe in Northwestern Mexico; standing astride an iceberg in the Bay of St. Lawrence to shield harp seals from hunters. In addition to his own Peace, Love and Happiness Foundation, he’s a major supporter of countless Austinbased advocacy and charitable organizations, including the Austin Children’s Shelter, SafePlace and Mobile Loaves & Fishes.
“John Paul DeJoria is a difference maker,” says Alan Graham, president of Mobile Loaves & Fishes. “His fingerprints are indelibly on our city through his commitment to Mobile Loaves & Fishes. People will be healthier, both mentally and physically, because he cares.”
“The main thing about John Paul is not the obvious, that he’s a self-made billionaire,” says friend and neighbor Turk Pipkin, director and founder of the Nobelity Project. “The real point is that he never forgets that he came from a modest background in Los Angeles, or the lessons he’s learned along the way. Many of those relate to goodness and giving. ‘Doing good is why we’re here,’ he told me one day when I asked him what motivates him.”
“Success unshared is failure,” is DeJoria’s oft-repeated philosophy. It’s a safe bet those four words will serve as his legacy. DeJoria was born the younger of two sons in 1944, and his parents divorced when he was 2, leaving DeJoria, his brother and mother to fend for themselves. The family lived in a very small house in the East LA suburb of Echo Park.
“For about four years, my mother was working and had no one to take care of us. So during the week, we were in a foster home in East LA,” DeJoria says, smiling as he notes that it was during that time that he had his first intoxicating experience as an entrepreneur. “We went to the Variety Boys Club. I was about 7 years old. My brother and I built a flowerbox. Built it for 25 cents, sold it for 50 cents. Made a nice profit.”
At 9, the industrious young entrepreneur got a job selling Christmas cards door to door.
“I decided it was wonderful to have a job, to go out and do something,” he says. “Later, I had a paper route. We’d get up at 4 in the morning, and it was a joy. We gave all the money to my mother so we could live a little better life. When I was about 15, my mother said, ‘Boys, you’re doing well. You should keep some of the money you make.’ So we kept 25 percent. The rest went to the family.”
It was the beginning of DeJoria’s lifelong doctrine of sharing his wealth, no matter how large or small. Growing up in the barrio of East LA, the grittier side of urban life was unavoidable.
“All the kids were in gangs,” he recalls. “I was in a street gang called the Pink Rats. In those days, believe it or not, you could buy switchblades in a hardware store as long as the blade was 4 inches or shorter. We all had them. You can imagine a bunch of little kids carrying around 4-inch knives. We’d carry them around and flash them. ‘Yeah, we’re cool. We’re bad.’ We got in fights, got kicked and punched, but nobody ever got hurt.”
In high school, DeJoria proved the despair of his teachers. He and a wispy young classmate named Michelle Gilliam often found themselves in detention for disrupting class.
“Our teacher, Mr. Wax, told us we’d never succeed or amount to anything,” DeJoria says. “He told everyone, ‘Never hang out with these two.’ ”
Within three years, Gilliam would attain fame as Michelle Phillips, aka, Mama Michelle of The Mamas & the Papas.
“Later in life, I got some pretty good breaks too,” DeJoria says with a smile. The two are still friends.
At 17, DeJoria joined the Navy. Following his discharge, he resumed his litany of vocations—pumping gas, driving trucks, cleaning buildings—eventually taking another door-to-door job selling encyclopedias. He kept at it for three years, all the time cultivating his trademark skills of perseverance, contagious optimism and relentless charm and tenacity.
“You get 10 doors slammed in your face,” he says. “The secret is to show up at door No. 11 just as enthusiastic as you were at door No. 1. Be prepared for rejection. Lots of rejection.”
There was a brief, doomed marriage.
“We were young. She just couldn’t handle being a mom,” he says.
His wife took off, leaving DeJoria with a young son to look after. Things got so bad that the two took to living out of the car. Just as it seemed there was no way out, DeJoria scored a job working for Time Inc. as manager of circulation for Time, Life and Sports Illustrated magazines in the greater LA area. The title was more glamorous than the job.
“I basically ran a boiler room, supervising 50 guys on the phone persuading customers to renew subscriptions,” DeJoria says. “You know, ‘If you subscribe, on behalf of the Police Kids Association, we’ll donate a dollar.’ I got bored with that and asked my manager, ‘How do I become a vice president?’ He said, ‘You’re 26 years old, never been to college, you’ve had 100 different jobs. Come back when you’re 35 and talk to me.’ That’s when I went looking for something else.”
The something else DeJoria found was a job selling hair-care products at beauty salons. With his extensive door-to-door experience, he soon developed a loyal customer base.
“In a year and a half, I went from being a salesman to district manager and then national manager,” he says.
During this period, DeJoria briefly moved to Austin, an ideal centrally located hub for his travels, living here from 1971 to 1972.
“I loved it,” he recalls. “I lived in an apartment on Manor Road, and hung out a lot at the Armadillo World Headquarters. I remember seeing Chuck Mangione and a lot of groups there and thinking, ‘What a cool town.’ ”
Returning to LA, he hooked up with another hungry young entrepreneur, hair stylist Paul Mitchell. In 1980, the two decided to stop working for others and start their own hair-care product company, John Paul Mitchell Systems. The rest is entrepreneurial history 101: The two parlayed a $700 startup investment into one of the most jaw-dropping success stories in American commerce. The company went on to become a $900 million empire, which DeJoria still oversees. The ’80s were halcyon days for DeJoria. As company spokesperson, his ponytailed, bearded visage was everywhere: on TV commercials and billboards, in magazines.
“I did it to add credibility to the Paul Mitchell product line,” he says. “I thought it was important to see a human being that started his own company with his partner who believes in his product enough to go out and talk about it to the public and, by God, it worked.”
DeJoria discovered one commercial was worth 10,000 doorbells. He never looked back. In 1989, DeJoria launched Patrón Spirits, the premium tequila that became a phenomenon. In 1993, he married Eloise Broady, a bornand- bred Texan, eventually moving to Austin in 2000 to raise their son, John Anthony. The city had changed radically from the folksy burg DeJoria remembered.
“Back in the ’70s, the biggest building was the university,” he says. “Suddenly, now there was the Frost building and a whole new skyline.”
Philanthropy has been a large part of DeJoria’s ethical DNA ever since his early days of giving away most of what he made to help his family. But after moving to Austin and planting deep roots, he became involved on an unprecedented level. Lending support to an ever-growing litany of regional charities, he often took an active hand in giving his time and effort. In 2008, DeJoria joined Nelson Mandela in Africa to help feed more than 17,000 orphaned children. Inspired by the experience, he returned to co-found Grow Appalachia, a nonprofit initiative that has produced more than a million pounds of healthy, organic food in the poverty-challenged region.
“Food is a No. 1 priority, and Appalachia is a place of need, so I created Grow Appalachia, which helps people to help themselves provide food for their families and communities,” DeJoria says.
In 2010, he founded the Peace, Love and Happiness Foundation, which invests in children’s charities. In 2011, DeJoria became a member of Giving Pledge, a select symposium of successful businessmen dedicated to making the world a better place. At least once a year, he confers with fellow members Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, Ted Turner and others at an undisclosed top-secret location
“It’s probably the most secure venue you’ve ever been in your life,” he says. “[There are] people dressed as waiters and janitors that are really super-security. There’s two gardeners outside your room, but they don’t look like gardeners. … What we talk about is what we do to give back, our checks and balances, and how we get results out of what we do. It’s all about making the world a better place to live.”
With all that financial and creative clout, you’d think DeJoria would be an ideal candidate for public office.
“I’ve been asked to run,” he acknowledges. “But I’d probably be assassinated within a week. I’d be too honest.”
Besides, DeJoria is too busy creating the future. Rushing out the door for an urgent meeting, he asks to borrow a pen. Grabbing a napkin, he quickly sketches out a rudimentary map of Cook Bay in Alaska, complete with a whale doodle in the middle, excitedly explaining his latest project, a method of extracting oil without damaging the environment. He has other projects to talk about, but his personal assistant gently taps his shoulder, and he’s gone. And when John Paul DeJoria leaves, even his closest associates have no idea how to reach him. He’s a paradox that defies analysis, accessible yet impenetrable, the Everyman who became the extraordinary man, an entrepreneurial savant and a humanitarian and environmental visionary who makes time for fun along the way.
“I love what I do. The world is getting better,” he says assuredly, and you want to believe him. “No matter what you see on television or see politically. … People all over the world are speaking up. If you’re not happy, by God, speak up about it and make a change. Everybody’s waiting to join the masses. They keep forgetting the masses are put together by individuals. You’re an individual, so you’re the start of a mass.”
John Paul DeJoria has supported literally hundreds of charitable organizations throughout the years. ATX Man asked him for a few words about some charity and advocacy programs he has supported, including his own enterprises Grow Appalachia and JP’s Peace, Love and Happiness Foundation.
Austin Children’s Shelter
“Growing up, I’ve been around children that were abused. I know how important it is to rescue them. You deserve to go someplace where you’re loved and cared for.”
The 100 Club
“First responders—law enforcement, firemen, paramedics—put their asses on the line so that we are safe, and, by God, they deserve to be supported if something happens to them.”
Sea Shepherd Conservation Society
“Somebody has to build the boats and take care of those beautiful dolphins, whales, seals and now, the shark, which everyone considers a bad guy. If they go, the whole ecosystem goes. I think with education, that’s all going to stop.”
Palmer Drug Abuse Program
“It’s a horrible thing, drug abuse and addiction. This helps children and adults get rid of this terrible disease, and then hopefully go on to The Arbor in Georgetown, where they make people clean.”
Habitat For Humanity
“If you don’t have a house, you don’t feel secure. Habitat for Humanity builds homes, affordable houses or free houses so people can have their own sense of security back.”
Boys and Girls Clubs Of America
“I was at the Variety Boys Club as a boy, and I know how it helped me out as a kid. So I’ve gladly supported them, as well as help rebuild their facility in East LA.”
“I’m blown away that there isn’t a cure for cancer right now, but I think we’re seeing that coming really soon. Billions are spent on that.”
“Food is a No. 1 priority in the region, and Appalachia is a place in need, so I created Grow Appalachia, which helps people to help themselves provide food for their families and communities.”
JP’s Peace, Love And Happiness Foundation
“The Peace, Love and Happiness Foundation helps children become safer along the way because we give to a lot of children’s organizations. Most importantly, we give to first responders, their widows, their orphans, local people that take care of your safety. We think it’s what everybody should contribute to. And now we’re getting involved in helping out our military—Navy SEALs, special-operations forces—that are coming back from the line of duty that our government is not doing enough for. We’re now doing work for them, to give them a way of life and an education, something brand new.”
John Paul DeJoria knows all kinds of people throughout the world. We asked him to give his brief impressions of a few of the many high-profile people he’s known.
“One of the finest human beings I ever met who took a tragedy and forgave everyone.”
“A nice lady who’s trying to accomplish a lot.”
“Um, very excited.”
“A real funny person when you get to know him. And cool. Appreciates a great tequila.”
“A very honorable, giving human being.”
“A wonderful, super-cool guy. He’s my friend.”
“One of the best engineers in the world, and people are totally unaware of that.”
“Whoa. When I met Hillary, she was very kind, and she’s smart.”
“A super-cool dude who is what he is. What you see is what you get. And he loves Patrón.”
The Dalai Lama
“Another magnificent human being that I was lucky enough to meet in my life.”