Lipstick brought Anna Warner-Mayes comfort during her multiple fights with cancer. Now she’s helping other women feel the same way with her company the Lipstick Journey
By Claire Zulkey
Featured photo via The Lipstick Journey Facebook
Anna Warner-Mayes is currently stable — that means the 15 or so tumors on her lungs aren’t growing, or are only growing a little bit. “They’re just kind of sitting there,” says the 50-year-old, who was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer in 2017. “For now I’m not doing anything [but] eating more vegetables.”
This marks the fourth time that Warner-Mayes, who lives in Rochester Hills, has battled cancer. The first three times it attacked her thyroid, paralyzing one of her vocal chords, which took away the onetime Western Michigan University musical theater major’s ability to sing in radio jingles and in church.
Warner-Mayes’ health journey is long and Groundhog Day-like, and she hasn’t always wanted to rehash it with friends, family and colleagues. Fortunately, the self-described “lipstick junkie” could always communicate her feelings through the color on her lips. “Cancer has always colored my moods and lipstick has helped me communicate them,” she says. On Lipstick Journey, the blog she’s kept since 2011, Warner-Mayes would end each post with a meditation on what lipstick she was wearing and how it reflected her feelings. In 2018, she decided to start a company named after her blog to sell the product that gave her emotions a voice and made her feel attractive.
Never mind that, as she says, “I’m not a makeup artist and I’m not in the industry.” With a loan from an acquaintance and her own knowledge as a lipstick enthusiast, she found a cosmetic chemist and manufacturer and nailed everything from the formula and colors to design and marketing through trial by error.
Building her consumer base and inventory at the same time was tricky: Her manufacturer promised she’d have lipstick in time for Christmas 2018. “I did a soft launch with no products,” she says. She received the shipment on Dec. 22 and overnighted all those orders. “That was very stressful.”
Lipstick Journey’s five colors are named after different moods Warner-Mayes has wanted to express through her own experience (Stormy is a deep plum; Serene, a bronze peachy brown), and each sale benefits a cancer organization like Imerman Angels or Gilda’s Club. “Last year I donated about $5,000, which was probably above and beyond any profit I made,” she says.
Warner-Mayes still works her day job in pharmaceutical sales, selling oncology medication — “a coincidence,” she says — so for now, Lipstick Journey is more than a hobby, but not her full-time gig. “It’s somewhere in between,” she says. “It’s a mission; it’s a passion.”
That passion is evident to fellow cancer survivors: “Anna is such a star,” says Jenna Benn Shersher, who met Warner-Mayes through her own organization, Twist Out Cancer. “She’s been through extraordinary hardship but has somehow managed to find meaning in her journey. She’s driven by the need to educate the community, bring people together and help them find color in the midst of darkness.”
Warner-Mayes initially promoted the company any which way she could, from social media giveaways to charity events. “It does get exhausting and I do struggle sometimes as the company progresses and more people want to do stuff. I got burnt out last year because I said yes to everything. I was doing pop-ups everywhere. When this year started, I thought ‘Do I still have to post on Instagram? Because I’m tired.’”
Warner-Mayes, who plans to release an update to her 2011 eponymous self-published memoir about her journey as an entrepreneur and fighter, doesn’t pretend to be a hero. When people, including her teenage kids, complain, she can lose patience. “[They say] ‘Life sucks,’ [or] ‘My stomach hurts.’ I’m like, ‘Oh, really? I have cancer.’” (She has three children of her own, plus two step-daughters.)
She gets sad, too. “I struggle most when I feel like everything is progressing forward and I don’t know how long I have,” she says. “I get a little bit sad as my kids get older.”
In 2019, she was dealt another blow when her 17-year-old son had a stroke and she helped him — as much as she could — get through physical therapy. “To me, he’s doing great, because he can walk, he got cleared to drive, and he can talk, but he’s not as far as he’d like to be.”
Contemplating the future is tough, she says, adding that she goes for CT scans and bloodwork every few months. “Do I want to be in every Sephora and Ulta? I can’t see that far.” Promoting the product and interacting with clients is rewarding but also draining. “Every time I write a little letter with a free lipstick to somebody fighting cancer, it brings me to tears. When they share their story with me, I get emotional.”
As taxing as it can be, hearing her customers’ stories brings Warner-Mayes encouragement. “There are people whose paths are way worse and I’m like, ‘I’m grateful, I’m stable, I haven’t lost that much functionality in my body so far.’” If she had to state a company goal, she says, “It would be ideal if every woman who had battled cancer had a Lipstick Journey lipstick in her bag.” At this point she’s shipped lipsticks to every U.S. state except three.
At the time of our interview, the color Warner-Mayes says she’s found herself wearing most frequently is called Playful, a bright plum. “The first year [of Lipstick Journey] I never wore it because at the same time I was launching I was grieving that I had cancer,” she says. This year, when she hit the two-year-stable mark, the first lipstick she put on was Playful. “That’s exactly how I was feeling: I’m stable and I think I’ve got this down,” she says. “I started feeling like I could play again. Now, I wear it all the time.”
For more information visit thelipstickjourney.com