Interviews

Kate Somerville Shares How She Turned Her Battle With Eczema Into a Skincare Empire

Photos by Christopher Brown

In The Path, we spotlight different women making a difference in the fashion, beauty, wellness, medical aesthetics, and more industries. Here, skin guru Kate Somerville shares her road to success. 

“I have to say, Kate Somerville® the brand is a bit fictitious in terms of its look and feel,” says the actual Kate Somerville, who founded an eponymous line of skincare products and a namesake clinic located smack in the middle of Melrose Place (one of the most prestigious streets in Los Angeles). “People who really know me are always like, ‘What?!’ When my products went into Bergdorf Goodman® and Neiman Marcus®, I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, I don’t belong here.’” 

The real Kate Somerville grew up in the mountains just north of Fresno, California with her dad, a football coach. She is a self-proclaimed “tomboy” who still knows how to handle a dirt bike, ride horses, and cut her way through the snow on skis. “I have a family of boys now, and I totally belong,” she says. “I’m tough as nails. We just got back from Mammoth [Lakes] where we went on these crazy mountain bike rides.” In fact, Somerville even restored her first car, a “one-ton truck” she affectionately dubbed the Blue Goose.

Despite being “happiest in nature” getting her hands dirty, Somerville, 50, also has a softer side that is perhaps more aligned with the refined, radiant Kate the world has come to know and love. Her clinic regularly hosts Hollywood royalty (and actual royalty, as Meghan Markle was a frequent visitor before hopping across the pond). Her celebrity-favorite products are packed with ingredients proven to work — in fact, many of them were tried and tested on Somerville herself who has battled eczema since childhood. 

“As long as I’m involved, I’m never going to come out with a 24-karat gold moisturizer that’s $700,” she says adamantly. “If you need really good skincare that’s transformational, you know you can get it from me. I’ll never be trendy; I’m just going to change your skin.” And there’s nothing fictitious about that. Here, Somerville sums up her personal skincare routine and explains how to make “bad things” blossom into “your flower.”

Photo by Christopher Brown

Spotlyte: When did you first become interested in skincare and beauty?

Kate Somerville: I had really bad eczema as a kid. I was an athlete. Every time I'd sweat, my poor skin would flake, get red, and itch. It was awful. I also lived in an area where there were many allergens. My emotions also played a role [in the state of my skin]. My parents got divorced when I was about nine, so it was a crucial age. I'd get hives. My skin has always been an issue. Since we lived on a farm, my mom would put goat’s milk in my bath.  Goat Milk™ was literally one of the first products I developed and launched because I knew that it really helped sensitive skin and the skin barrier.

Spotlyte: When did you realize that you wanted to make skincare a career?

KS: My interest [in skincare] started really young, but [it really took off when] I moved to San Luis Obispo. It’s a small town, and you have to create your own path. I had a friend who was a dermatologist, and she said, “Hey, you should start doing medical facials inside of a doctor's office.” I didn't even know that was a career — well, back then, it wasn’t! When I went to aesthetics school, I put together a business plan and pitched it to a bunch of doctors. My best friend was getting her business degree, and Kate Somerville became her thesis for her final.

Spotlyte: Were doctors receptive to your business plan?

KS: I would go into doctor's offices, and they would say, “An esthetician — what is that? Are you going to put my clients to sleep?” But I started really early, so I was in the right spot at the right time. I was lucky, because every one of the doctors in my area ended up saying, “Let’s do this.” I split my time between a dermatologist and a plastic surgeon’s office. 

When lasers came onto the scene, I saw one of the first [laser treatments] ever done. My specialty became developing pre- and post-operative care, because lasers were like a third-degree burn at that time. That’s also when I started developing my skincare line, because I couldn't use products that were on the market [on my clients]. I found a really cool compound pharmacist and chemist, so we started working on formulas in the mid ’90s.

Photo by Christopher Brown

Spotlyte: How did your best friend’s thesis turn out? She must have aced that presentation!

KS: She’s super smart. It's so funny — she presented later in her life and she was like, “So, this thesis came to be Kate Somerville.” She was collecting all of the data, and I would basically go in and help her write. She’s one of those people who I’ll be friends with forever. I have a handful of them — she was there when I gave birth to my son. Even though we don’t see each other often, as soon as we do, we're just like sisters again. 

Spotlyte: Did you experience any setbacks in the beginning? 

KS: 

I found the Melrose Place location, which was just three tiny rooms. The building was actually built by the first woman to win an Oscar® for Best Actress, Janet Gaynor. Her husband was the costume designer for the Wizard of Oz. It was Sean Connery's L.A. house at one point. Then I took it over from Johnny Depp. When I saw the space, I said, “I'm going to have this someday.” It was for lease, but it was $12,000 a month. I could barely put two pennies together at that moment. My husband is a musician. But a client of mine said, “I see your drive, so anytime you want to do your own thing, let me know and I'll invest.” I took him up on that offer and I opened my clinic on Melrose Place in 2004.

Photo by Christopher Brown

Spotlyte: What are the perks of being your own boss? 

KS: You're in control of your own destiny. My mom was an alcoholic. I was in really bad situations as a child. I wasn’t in control of my surroundings. That shaped me. I was always entrepreneurial. Even in high school, I hardly ever worked for one place. When I did, I was like, “I can't do this. I have to forge my own path.” For me, bad things have turned into positive things. When I do motivational speaking, I always say, “Those bad things may turn into your flower.”

Spotlyte: Are there any downsides to being your own boss?

KS: You have the responsibility of carrying everybody's livelihood. If the business isn't doing well or you have a tough month, you don’t sleep. I hate to tell you how many sleepless nights I’ve had! A business is up and down no matter what — I don't care who you are. You can talk to [Mark] Zuckerberg, or anybody who has created a monster. The risks can take a real toll, mentally and emotionally. Business is not easy. Half of the time you’re in bliss, and half of the time you’re in battle.

Spotlyte: What is the biggest lesson you’ve learned about business?

KS: I’ve grown too fast at moments. When Oprah was at her highest point, if someone went on her show it could tank their entire company because they couldn’t fulfill orders. They didn’t have the cashflow or structure to handle the demand. If you look at Chanel®, they go slow, but they always do what’s right for the brand. In the beginning, my business was so hot that I couldn't keep up.

How to balance cash flow is probably the biggest thing I've learned. You have to build slowly and properly to get an infrastructure underneath you. You also have to find the right people, because honestly, you can have a crappy product or a really awesome product. If you don't find the right people to believe in it, the crappy product can win. We've all seen it. The good product doesn't end up surfacing because it didn't have the right people in place.

Spotlyte: Who inspires you personally and professionally?

KS: Paul Newman. You've heard of his salad dressing: Newman’s Own®. He was an actor who became a philanthropist. He just made the salad dressing for his neighborhood, and people loved it. He knew nothing about salad dressing, so he decided that 100 percent of the proceeds would go to charity. Even after his business was established, his daughter gave an interview where she was asked what she was getting her dad for his birthday. She said, “He doesn’t need anything. He told me he needed duct tape.” He lived simply, even though he could live an insanely lavish life. He gave back to people in need. He was passionate about it. He had such values. 

Spotlyte: What is the best piece of beauty advice you’ve ever received and who gave it to you?

KS: I left home at 15. One of my mentors early on was a woman named Barbara Wells. She battled cancer for 12 years. She was a single mom of three kids, and her husband left while she was sick. One of her kids had schizophrenia. She had everything stacked up against her, but she took me in. This woman was an angel. I was freaking out as a teenager over a zit and here she is, no hair, 50-60 pounds overweight because of chemo, and clinging onto life for her kids. She just looked at me and said, “Katie, everything is borrowed. Everything, including your looks. I'm telling you this because someday you will reach 60 or 70 and your looks will go away. You really need to be okay with who you are inside.” 

Listen, I'm in the beauty industry. I see women and men who are fighting [aging]. They’re not okay [with who they are inside]... You just have to face that you’re going to get old, and skin is going to sag. That commodity of being young and beautiful — if you're lucky enough to be beautiful — will eventually be gone. You have to be okay with what's inside and what you do in your life.

Spotlyte: What is the most common piece of advice that you give to your clients?

KS: Basically, I tell them to do something called our Five Daily Do’s: cleanse, exfoliate, hydrate, treat, sunscreen. I looked at all my years of working with clients and asked myself,  “What's the common denominator to keeping their skin really healthy?” I remember discovering SkinCeuticals® B5 Gel in ’98 or ’99, which had hyaluronic acid in it. I found a way to push the smallest molecule of hyaluronic acid into skin using oxygen, which resulted in a patented product called DermalQuench®. This is the step that really transforms skin, and it’s the first product you apply to a clean, dry face. 

I like to think of skin like leather, in that it needs to be hydrated and conditioned in order to move and bounce back. I suggest plumping the skin with DermalQuench and sealing in hydration with a moisturizer. If you walk outside wearing only hyaluronic acid, it will evaporate pretty quickly. You can really customize the treatment step. For example, I’m American Indian, so I experience a lot of pigment changes. I use vitamin C, retinol, and peptides. The last step is to protect with SPF. If you start the Five Daily Do’s early, you'll have great skin for a lifetime.

[Editor's note: Retinol shouldn't be used by women who are pregnant, considering getting pregnant, or nursing. Please consult with your doctor before use.]

Photo by Christopher Brown

Spotlyte: Since you have quite the roster of celebrity clients, how do you get a VIP ready for the red carpet?

KS: It honestly depends on their age and skin type, but I mainly exfoliate and hydrate. If they need it, I’ll use lasers to stimulate collagen. We use DermalQuench in every facial to push hyaluronic acid deep into skin so that clients get an instant lift and glow. Prior to a big event, we typically don’t do anything harsh, like microneedling or peels. I always tell my clients, “Do not use anything you haven't used before if you have a big event.” I’ve had to put out fires for a lot of clients. Brides, too. They’ll think, “It’s my big day, so I'm going to try this new product.” Then, they have a massive reaction. 

Spotlyte: Let’s talk about your personal routine. Do you get injectables?

KS: I have a very expressive forehead. I started injectable wrinkle reducers [years ago]. Now that I'm older, I go in once or twice a year. It’s very subtle. I want to look like me. 

I started using filler around 23 or 24, because I didn't have an upper lip. [Now,] I get a little filler in my cheeks. Occasionally, I do my lips because as you age, you start to lose [volume in] your vermilion border. 

[Editor’s note: Injectable wrinkle reducers temporarily smooth the look of moderate to severe wrinkles in certain areas of the face, including the forehead, frown lines, and crow’s feet; they should not be used more frequently than every three months. Injectable filler is a temporary treatment that adds volume to areas of the face such as the lips, cheeks, and laugh lines. Like any medical treatment, both injectable wrinkle reducers and injectable fillers have potential risks and side effects. Talk to a licensed provider to see if they’re right for you. And learn more now by chatting with a trained aesthetic specialist.

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Photo by Christopher Brown

Spotlyte: What are your favorite laser treatments?

KS: I use lasers when I can, which isn’t that often. As they say, the cobbler’s children have no shoes. Or in my case, the cobbler! I swear, I haven’t had a facial in two years. I put myself on the books, and then I get too busy. 

My favorite is called Laser Genesis™. That’s always my first choice. It does a lot of things and there’s no downtime and minimal pain. (I’m a baby.) It increases collagen, refines pores, and tightens skin. It helps with scars and rosacea. I call it my secret wand for polishing skin! It’s a real miracle worker.

Spotlyte: What does your daily skincare routine look like?

KS: I’m obviously someone who has an arsenal of products, but my routine really depends on where I am. For example, my skincare would be different in Arizona than it would be if I was in Florida, where it’s super humid. I’ll usually use ExfoliKate® Cleanser in the morning and sometimes at night, if I need a really deep clean. If I haven't worn a lot of makeup, I'll use the Goat Milk Cleanser, because it’s really moisturizing. I'm 50, and I have dry skin and eczema.

For day, I'll use my Kx™ Active Concentrates Bio-Mimicking Peptides Serum, which is really potent. Then, I do the Ceramides + Omegas Serum on top of that to keep my barrier healthy. I call this step “taking my medicine.” I need all of the age-defying things I can get to stimulate collagen right now! Next, I use DermalQuench Wrinkle Warrior™ for hydration, and seal it in with my Deep Tissue Repair Cream with Peptide K8. It’s my favorite moisturizer on the planet.

Spotlyte: What goes into your daily makeup routine?

KS: I dust on Jane Iredale’s® mineral powder foundation and seal it with my UncompliKated™ SPF Setting Spray. I wear Chanel Rouge Coco Shine™ in Saga — it’s the only gloss that doesn’t make my lips peel. I wear GrandeMASCARA™ because it helps my lashes grow. 

Spotlyte: We know you don’t have time for facials right now, but how do you treat yourself?

KS: I have eczema, so I take a bath twice a day. That’s my time. I use ExfoliKate and a mask while in the bath. At night, when I’m tired, I’ll light some candles. That’s how I take care of myself. It’s my moment. As soon as I get off a plane, I go straight into a bath. I also love a massage. I think the best one I’ve ever had in my life was at the XpresSpa® in the Denver Airport. It was insane. When I come home to L.A., I go into the ocean. It helps me stay grounded and keeps my body on the right time zone.

Photo by Christopher Brown

Spotlyte: You’re the ultimate skin guru, but who are your go-to beauty pros?

KS: For my hair, I go to the girls at Nine Zero One℠. I work with several makeup artists if I have to go on air, but they all work for Chanel. For brows, I see Michelle Kass in Montecito. She’s the best brow person I’ve ever been to, and I’ve been to a lot! For facials, I see Kelly. I mean, I see everybody, but Kelly and I have been together 14 years. I also see Kimberly when I can get in. I go to Alice’s Nail Boutique℠ in Montecito. People drive from L.A. to see Alice [Tran]. Every time I go in, somebody big is getting a manicure. Her roster must be as big as mine!

Spotlyte: Do you have a daily mantra?

KS: I’ve had the same meditation cards for 20 years. I shuffle them and pick a different card every day. I swear, the card is always right! Yesterday, I got one called “Getting Calm.” It changed my entire day. They are written by Melody Beattie who is the author of The Language of Letting Go. I was raised by alcoholics, and that book literally changed my life.

Spotlyte: What is your happy place?

KS: At home in Carpinteria with my family and my animals. I love my bed. I have a tiny fireplace in my bedroom. I watch Netflix® with my two kitties in my bed. My two doggies sleep at the foot of my bed in their beds. This is where I'm the happiest!

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