Why are so many actors launching their own businesses? Inside the growing movement

For two decades, tequila brands courted Eva Longoria to promote their products or launch her own line. And for a long time, the “Desperate Housewives” alum was adamant about saying no.

“They’re like, you’ve gotta do a tequila. You’re Mexican,” Longoria told The Times. “I didn’t really drink it back in the day, and I didn’t want to put my name on something that I didn’t authentically like or consume.”

Then came the pandemic, she said, “and COVID drove me to cocktails.” For the first time, Longoria found herself drawn to the taste and “the art” of tequila.

Longoria’s tequila awakening arrived at an opportune moment for Casa Del Sol, which impressed her with its “smooth,” Cognac-barrel-aged drinks.

The actor-director-producer joined Casa Del Sol as a co-founder in 2021, and she’s among a rapidly growing contingent of actors who are also entrepreneurs, juggling their film and TV projects with business endeavors outside Hollywood.

“It’s a lot of work,” Longoria said, “but I really enjoy the work.”

Pioneering celebrity businesswomen such as Jessica Alba (the Honest Co.), Iman (Iman Cosmetics), Gwyneth Paltrow (Goop) and Beyoncé (Ivy Park) have opened the floodgates in recent years for more performers to branch out and embark on their own entrepreneurial journeys.

Nearly 60% of all celebrity brands — spanning beauty and cosmetics, apparel and footwear, wellness, home goods and other retail sectors — were founded in the last six years, and more than a third of modern celebrity brands were launched in 2020 or later, according to a report published in September by JLL Research. Actors make up the biggest group of retail business owners in the entertainment industry, the study found.

“In some ways, it maybe is a little surprising that it didn’t happen sooner,” Olav Sorenson, chair of entrepreneurial studies at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management, said about performers starting their own businesses. “There’s obviously a lot of power in celebrity endorsements. Why not endorse your own products?”

Though the practice of actors leveraging their fame to sell a product is nothing new (dating back to the 1800s) and working actors have traditionally supplemented their income with side jobs to stay solvent — especially during the recent Hollywood strikes — a significant number of performers are now launching their own brands instead of endorsing or partnering with existing companies.

Sorenson said the idea of building a business from the ground up is attractive to actors seeking creative autonomy. It also solves what Sorenson called the “potential problem” of attaching one’s name to a company that may misbehave or a product that may have quality issues that are out of the actor’s control.

Plus, there’s a bigger cut for talent with a higher stake in a profitable business.

“Why should the celebrity be willing to take a few 100,000 or maybe even a few million dollars for their endorsement, when they’re responsible for the success of the product?” he said. “By taking on a little bit of risk … they potentially own 60, 70, 80% or more of the product.”

Creative control was especially important to actor Tia Mowry when founding 4U, a hair-care line for textured hair.

The “Sister, Sister” alum recalled not being permitted to make certain recipes while hosting her Food Network show “Tia Mowry at Home” because they “didn’t speak to” the network’s audience. Now, Mowry has the freedom to cater to her own audience through her webseries “Tia Mowry’s Quick Fix” and 4U.

“I’ve been in this industry for such a long time,” Mowry said. “When you’re working for someone, you’re boxed in.”

“For me to have my own brand … I am able to make decisions that I know my audience will like,” which has led to greater success, she added.

In addition to providing more creative license, actor Dominique Fishback said running her own business has allowed her to operate on her timeline, instead of being constricted to another company’s schedule.

“Sometimes when we wait for a partnership, or wait for somebody else to give the go-ahead or to agree to come on board, it holds up whatever it is that you wanted to do,” the “Swarm” star said. “And so I thought, ‘Let me just do it now.’”

Fishback kick-started her business — an online journal and apparel shop called Be Yourself, Love — earlier this year with the help of her loved ones. The idea first took shape at singer Billie Eilish’s 21st birthday party. During the event, Fishback admired the “Bad Guy” hitmaker’s custom party favors — T-shirts with the phrase, “‘Been a good girl for 21 years’ or something like that” — created with the support of her parents and brother, music producer Finneas O’Connell. Fishback thought to herself, “I could do that,” and began recruiting a “home team” composed of her uncle and close friends.

She made a conscious decision to go into business with people who “cared about the brand and the mission, but cared about the person more.”

“I don’t know what’s gonna happen or how big it’s gonna get,” Fishback said. “I really do want it to be a movement. But you have to start somewhere.”

So far, Fishback has designed roughly a dozen pieces — including jackets, sweatshirts, bucket hats and notebooks — that are made and shipped to order. All of her products bear the advice of one of her friends: “Be yourself, love.”

The BYL logo, in her mother’s handwriting, matches a tattoo near Fishback’s wrist — there for reassurance during stressful moments in her burgeoning career.

“What I remember to tell myself is: If I am myself, and I am love, then it doesn’t matter if I make a mistake,” Fishback said. “It’s like, ‘Be yourself’ … and calling the person ‘Love.’ But then also, ‘Be yourself. Be love.’”

Paul Yoo, head of ventures and licensing at United Talent Agency, said the starting point for all of their clients who want to launch a business is passion. Typically, talent will approach Yoo’s team with an idea, having already “deeply thought about where their creative efforts can live in another medium.”

Then, the agency helps them bring their idea to fruition by providing them with the practical tools they need to run their business, as well as access to experts who can “handle the execution of their vision,” Yoo said.

A key part of that process, Yoo explained, is identifying a “reason to exist” — or a void in the marketplace that the talent can fill — and analyzing what competitors are already doing in that space, in order to give their client’s brand a better chance to succeed.

The “reason to exist” factor was top of mind for Mowry when developing 4U. After making “the big chop” (cutting relaxed and/or chemically processed hair in order to regrow it) and embarking on her natural hair journey in 2012, the “Twitches” star struggled to find products that met her specific needs.

Living with endometriosis, Mowry tries to be “conscious and aware” of what she puts into her body to mitigate potential complications, such as infertility. So she sought hair-care products that claimed to use “all-natural ingredients” — only to discover through her own research that wasn’t really the case.

Enter Mowry’s 4U, billed as a textured curl care line for type 2A to 4C hair that uses sustainable ingredients, from rosemary and sea moss to flaxseed and watermelon extract.

In addition to working directly with scientists to develop formulas that were “natural and safe and clean,” Mowry was heavily involved in the branding process for 4U. For example, she came up with the idea to display the “star ingredient” on the front of the bottle so customers could make more informed decisions about what they were putting in their hair.

“I wanted to make this line accessible,” Mowry said. “I’m passionate about everybody having the right to have access to healthy, clean, good products.”

Organic ingredients and product transparency were also priorities for actor Freida Pinto, co-founder of Rookie Wellness — a U.S.-made line of vegan protein powder and nutritional supplements free of sugar, soy and gluten.

As a business partner, the “Slumdog Millionaire” star is among the first to test new products for Rookie Wellness and offer feedback that is incorporated into the final version. Pinto was concerned that one particular Rookie Wellness product — Wake, a fruity energy supplement meant to be taken in the morning — tasted too sweet. Adjustments were made, and Wake is now the company’s most popular item.

According to Ben Enowitz, head of investments and talent ventures at William Morris Endeavor, it’s common for actor-entrepreneurs to take a hands-on approach to “product formulation” — which can encompass anything from taste-testing to packaging and design. Lately, he said, talent has gotten particularly involved in retail distribution — or determining where their products are sold.

Yoo said talent involvement can entail weekly creative discussions, talking to retail partners, throwing events and other “back-end work” that is essential to keeping their business afloat.

“There is no detachment from this type of work versus the type of work that they do in their day to day,” Yoo said. “In order to make it successful, they have to be all in.”

Top Hollywood talent agencies, such as WME and UTA, have recently created entire departments devoted to supporting their clients’ entrepreneurial activities and ambitions.

Since WME instituted its talent ventures department about six years ago, the team has grown from zero to 10 staffers whose workload ballooned from a couple of deals to 20 to 40 deals per year. UTA, which launched its ventures division seven years ago, has also seen a sustained increase in client demand for entrepreneurial services.

“It’s never been easier to start a company,” Yoo said. “For those that are really thoughtful about building it for the long term, they’ve seen outsize rewards. And as a result of all of those things happening, we’re continuously seeing a spike in demand.”

Though it’s become increasingly desirable for actors to build their own businesses from scratch, plenty of performers are still choosing to endorse or partner with existing brands, Yoo and Enowitz said. Celebrity-made brands aren’t necessarily replacing celebrity partnerships or endorsements — they’re dovetailing to diversify and fortify actors’ business portfolios.

Enowitz divided his clients’ collaborations with existing brands into two categories: Partnerships with highly profitable, late-stage companies that already have a strong presence in the marketplace, and partnerships with early-stage companies that are looking to expand their revenue, distribution and exposure.

Pinto’s work with Rookie Wellness exemplifies the latter.

Rookie Wellness was co-founded in 2020 by Roxanne Wise — a friend of Pinto’s husband — who sent them some products as a gift. The “Mr. Malcolm’s List” actor recalled the package just “lying around the house” — until she decided on a whim to take it on a work trip to London.

“Because I was pregnant and working, I just needed something to grab onto so I could eat throughout the day,” Pinto said. “After I finished a whole bag of the protein powder, I literally was like, ‘Who sent this? This is so good.’ … Protein powders — and especially vegan protein powders — can taste awful, which this one did not.”

Shortly thereafter, Pinto joined Rookie Wellness as a partner and co-founder, hoping her name would help the brand stand out in the crowded wellness space.

“There’s so many things that I’m doing,” Pinto said. “I also have my own [production] company … I have a household and a little child to take care of. So … why didn’t I just do the quick and easy thing — which is just do a one-off [post] on social media or join as a brand ambassador?”

“I would feel super guilty pushing something out there that I haven’t even tried, so for me, this is a long-term investment. Health is a long-term investment,” she added.

Longoria cited similar motivations for signing on as a co-founder of Casa Del Sol, a tequila company that aligned with her commitment to uplifting women and the Latino community. (Casa Del Sol’s Jalisco-based distillery is Mexican-owned — something Longoria “didn’t know was rare” until she entered the booming tequila business.)

“The fact that this particular brand was giving back to the region, was Mexican-first, had a lot of women in key positions — I was like that. That is what my brand is all about,” Longoria said.

Longoria knows a thing or two about branding, as Casa Del Sol is far from her only business venture. Last year, the “Young and the Restless” alum launched a line of nontoxic cookware, Risa. She’s also one of several entertainment luminaries backing the L.A. women’s soccer team Angel City FC.

But wait, there’s more: Longoria had her own clothing line and owned two restaurants (Beso in Hollywood and SHe steakhouse in Las Vegas, both of which closed after legal obstacles).

Longoria and Mowry hailed fellow actor Alba as an inspirational figure for women in Hollywood who want to break into the business world.

The “Fantastic Four” star’s baby, beauty and cleaning product brand, the Honest Co., made more than $300 million last year alone, per JLL Research, and reached a major milestone when it went public in 2021.

“What she has built with Honest is something to be applauded,” Longoria said. “And the fact that she’s Latina makes me very proud. She is … an example to other young, Latina entrepreneurs who look up to her and go, ‘OK, if she did it, I can do it.’ … You can’t be what you can’t see.”

What makes actors particularly well-suited to launch a business in the digital age is their knack for getting innovative with material, Enowitz said. Similar to how a seasoned performer might riff on a film or TV script, Enowitz explained, they tend to get clever with social media ads and other promotional content for their products.

This phenomenon is especially prevalent in the beauty space, where actor-musicians such as Selena Gomez (Rare Beauty), Rihanna (Fenty Beauty), Lady Gaga (Haus Labs) and Ariana Grande (R.E.M. Beauty) appeal to their fans with makeup-tutorial videos in which they share anecdotes and show off their personalities.

According to JLL Research, beauty is the most popular industry for celebrity retail brands — which could be due to lower production costs and fewer competitors in the market overall than other industries, Sorenson explained.

“I think some of this is a little bit of a trend,” Sorenson said. “You see another celebrity successfully making it with some type of product … and go out and start your own. It’s also an area … [where] margins tend to be very large. So you can be very profitable very quickly compared to, say, something in the food space.”

If successful, a brand may also boost a performer’s exposure to the general public.

After examining the trajectories of four leading actor-entrepreneurs — Grande, Issa Rae (Hilltop Coffee + Kitchen and Sienna Naturals), Gabrielle Union (Flawless) and Blake Lively (Betty Buzz) — measurement firm Q Score determined that their name-recognition spiked anywhere from 8% to 66% since launching their respective businesses. (Other factors — such as high-profile film and TV roles — likely also contributed to this trend.)

Of course, a celebrity name doesn’t guarantee success. Last month, Kristen Bell and Dax Shepard’s baby product line Hello Bello filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and numerous celebrity restaurants and clothing lines (Natalie Portman’s Té Casan, Mandy Moore’s Mblem, Heidi Montag’s Heidiwood and Britney Spears’ Nyla, to name a few) have failed over the years.

Even the wealthiest celebrity brands — such as the Honest Co. and Goop — have faced their share of controversies and legal woes.

Still, actors and other entertainment luminaries continue to take the leap of faith in hopes that their business endeavors will not only survive, but thrive in the booming celebrity-brand economy.

“I thought it was important for my community — meaning the diverse community — to see that something like this can be done,” Mowry said. “I wanted to be an example. … If you have something — a dream, a passion, something on your mind — it can be done.”

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