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From Hairdresser to Voodoo Queen

Marie Laveau’s tomb in New Orleans is the third most visited burial spot in the U.S., behind Elvis Presley and John F. Kennedy. They all developed an iconic status during their lifetime that grew larger after they died. And while dozens of legends, tales & folklore circulate about Marie Laveau the Voodoo Queen, what we know historically about Marie Laveau the woman is relatively little.  

What we do know: Her life story is a prime case study for building a business and a brand. 

 

FIRST, YOU NEED THE SKILLS

Marie was born a free person of color in the late 1700s, and was of mixed heritage. Her father was a Caucasian and was Catholic, and her Haitian mother practiced voodoo. Marie grew up devoutly observing both religions. She married sea merchant Jacques Paris while in her teens. Not long after, her husband left on a trip abroad and never returned. He was presumed lost at sea. Marie became known as the Widow Paris, and now had to support herself and her baby. So she started her career as a hairdresser.

One of the few things history knows for certain about Marie Laveau is that she was an excellent businesswoman. Throughout her long life, she owned various business enterprises and they were profitable. We see her business sense emerge in her early career as a hairdresser. She was a beautiful young woman, knew all the latest hair and makeup techniques of the day, and served as her own best advertisement. 

Her Haitian mother had taught her the art and skill of growing and using herbs for various purposes, and she knew how to concoct herbal remedies for hair, scalp and skin ailments.

Marie quickly became the preferred beautician to the wealthiest ladies in Creole high society. They called on her for regular beauty treatments, or to do their hair and makeup for the elaborate galas and balls they constantly attended. As a young woman, Marie gained access to the wealthiest homes in New Orleans. She was the 1800s version of a celebrity hairstylist.

Though the hairdressing career has evolved in many ways over the years, parts of it have never changed. One is the trust and confidence that people place in their hairdresser. Not many other occupations have their customers so willing to share personal problems — or gossip about other people’s! Marie quickly learned a lot about the wealthiest people in New Orleans (and she was hearing these accounts from women on all sides of the story).

 

THEN, FIND YOUR COMPETITIVE EDGE

She was learning who was secretly in love with whom … which two women were competing for a man … whose husbands were running around on her … and who was running around on her husband. She learned which neighbors were feuding … whose businesses were failing … who was having infertility problems … who was having financial troubles … who was sick. In short, Marie was learning about the biggest problems of New Orleans’ elite. As an astute young businesswoman, she began approaching them with solutions to their problems.

A voodoo priestess, Marie could cast a spell that would make him fall in love with you instead of her … or to keep your husband faithful. She could make you an amulet to wear that would bring you better luck in love. She could mix you a potion to draw better business opportunities. She’d do an elaborate cleansing ritual to get rid of all the toxic energy that surrounded you. She was best known for her love oils and fertility potions.

All these services came at a price, of course … and, apparently, Marie delivered. Word of mouth quickly spread. Her clientele grew far beyond the ladies she styled, until the wealthiest, most powerful men in New Orleans were knocking on her door asking for her help with their personal matters. She became wealthy and powerful in her own right.

Here’s where the legend of Marie Laveau begins. Because she was not the only voodoo priestess in New Orleans, and she may not even have been the best one. But she understood and harnessed the power of … marketing.

 

FINALLY, LIVE YOUR OWN BRAND

Marie Laveau developed a signature image. She was meticulous about her appearance, always dressing stylishly. In the 1800s, Creole ladies of color wore a traditional headscarf called a tignon. Marie took to wearing her tignon in a unique way. She would tie seven knots into it (seven being a magical number in voodoo) so that they encircled her head with all the points sticking up, like a crown. Because she was not just a voodoo priestess … Marie Laveau was a voodoo queen. 

People began recognizing Marie Laveau wherever she went. In a time before cameras and paparazzi, she was an early celebrity. Also, New Orleans’ most elite class couldn’t figure out how she could possibly know these intimate details about their lives. 

There was only one way to explain it: She could read your mind.

Everyone was whispering about Marie Laveau’s clairvoyant powers. And she did everything in her power to keep them talking.

She carefully cultivated other stories about herself. Marie would go on to have several daughters, who looked just like their mother. When they grew to her height and proportions, they joined the family voodoo business. She and all her participating daughters would dress identically — down to the last detail — before any of them left the house. So people saw Marie Laveau all over town! Her brand was out there, and it just kept growing and growing with time. 

Not only did people see Marie Laveau everywhere, but they’d spot her in one location, turn the corner and walk a couple blocks — and there she was again. People started whispering that Marie Laveau could teleport from one place to another. And in this time before cameras, when people had to rely on their memory to recall what someone looked like — wow, Marie Laveau looked great. She never aged a day in her life!

So, Marie Laveau stayed young and beautiful throughout her lifetime … she could be in several places at once … she could read your mind. This is what people were saying about Marie Laveau while she was still alive, and why her legend has grown to almost mythical proportions today.

Marie Laveau

A painting of Marie Laveau & her 7 knots (source: http://alchetron.com/Marie-Laveau-1118635-W)

 

AND OF COURSE, ALWAYS GIVE BACK

Marie Laveau was not just a prominent voodoo priestess and successful businesswoman, but she was famed for her philanthropy. She gave generously to charities. She started her own nonprofit to educate former slaves. Her skills with herbs extended into medicine — she proved to be an excellent tropical nurse, so when yellow fever epidemics swept New Orleans throughout the 1800s, she didn’t flee town like other wealthy people. She stayed and volunteered in local hospitals, helping sick people recover, and is credited with saving many lives.

Today, hundreds of people visit Marie Laveau’s tomb in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 in New Orleans every day to pay their respects to the Voodoo Queen. Of the many trinkets and offerings left daily at her tomb, the most popular are hair accessories and makeup. It’s a tribute to the key role that her hairdressing career played in her rise as one of New Orleans' most famous historical figures. 

Source: Eileen Loh, IM Copywriter & licensed City of New Orleans tour guide 

 

Marie Laveau's Tomb in New Orleans

A recent pic of her tomb taken (thanks for the photo, Yelp!). Hair clips, elastics & bobby pins are among the offerings at the base.

 

 

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