Beauty mogul Rowena Roberts’ Herne Bay, Auckland villa is a monument to art, cosmetics and colour
They say your home is a reflection of yourself and that saying has never been more true than in reference to Rowena Roberts. They also say home is where the heart is – another phrase that is just as fitting for the founder and owner of Red Honey Cosmetics, through which she sells luxury brands Jo Malone London, Bobbi Brown and MAC in New Zealand. Yet while a number of idioms apply to Roberts’ gorgeous abode, her story is nothing if not unique.
Situated in a quiet part of Herne Bay, but close enough to the shops for her to wander among the growing hub of cafés and fashion outlets on weekends, Roberts’ two-storey villa is entered via a small white picket fence complete with a fairy tale thatched gate and an enchanting little path to her doorstep. Before I even have time to knock, I am greeted at the door by Roberts, who embraces me with a kiss on the cheek and a sincere greeting. Stepping inside onto polished wooden floors, I am engulfed in femininity and warm colours. I can tell immediately that warmth will be the theme of the day, from the home and its colours to the lady of the house.
As far as first impressions go, Roberts’ interiors certainly make a lasting one, thanks to the art that fills every space. It cloaks the walls in breathtaking colour and so obviously has such an intriguing story to tell that I forget all manners and instantly ask about the multitude of pictures. A passionate collector and curator of all things art and otherwise, Roberts smiles at the acknowledgement of her gallery-like walls, explaining that the art is a representation of herself. After listening to her story as we weave through each room, admiring the pieces that embellish the entire home, I concur. Rowena Roberts has collected pieces of art that reflect herself and the rich life she leads.
Roberts begins by telling me about her childhood as we ascend a narrow staircase to the second floor. Born and raised in the UK, she spent her teenage years in London, living the kind of life any woman in the world would envy. Her first job was in the cosmetics sector of fashion and beauty queen Mary Quant’s business, where she spent a lot of time hosting international retail partners, entertaining guests in London’s finest restaurants and nightclubs. This experience, she explains, is where her love for all things beauty began. “I walked in on my first day and was told to know everything there is to know about make-up. They sent me home with one of every product. Of course, I didn’t complain.”
Roberts’ passion for beauty is evident as we enter a room at the top of the stairs, which is lined with a counter and drawers filled with pristinely presented cosmetics. Across the way is the master bedroom. Roberts opens the door, announcing how much she loves her room. “Because my room, wardrobe, bathroom and make-up are all upstairs, I’m quite self-contained. When I have my family and guests over I still have my own space up here,” she says. And it is her own space, a feminine sanctuary that looks out over the rooftops of Herne Bay towards Auckland harbour. “It’s really warm and cosy up here. When I’m tucked up in bed at night I can see glimpses of the lights going over the harbour bridge between the palm fronds,” she says.
We venture downstairs and Roberts pauses, admiring the large red and black picture of her father, the saxophonist Don Honeywill, that supervises every descent to the ground floor. “He started out playing in big bands,” she says proudly, “he played with Stan Kenton and Benny Goodman. When the ’60s rolled in big bands went out of vogue and he became a session musician. I hear him all the time on the radio. He sings and plays the baritone on Tom Jones’ Delilah, and he does the ‘da, dadada’ part in All you Need is Love.”
Downstairs, every room is well considered and designed for ultimate comfort, including a guest bedroom and the kids’ room. The former has a garden and floral theme and is filled with light reflected through the window off the white fence outside. The kids’ room has me itching to sit on the floor and tinker away with the abundance of toys, books and art filling every nook and cranny. Toys that once belonged to her own children are now played with by her grandchildren, including a one-eyed Pooh Bear and countless books of fairy tales.
We step into Roberts’ study and it feels like a photo album of her professional highlights. From the blown-up images of her 1960s icon Twiggy and mentor Quant, to a framed joint Nobel Peace Prize, which she earned as part of a wider team while working for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Geneva. There are shelves dedicated to her more recent years, memorabilia from her stint as a director of boutique corporate travel agency Quay Travel, and, of course, reminders of her current job running Red Honey Cosmetics. She shows me all these professional achievements proudly, but the single item that really has Roberts’ eyes sparkling is a photo frame filled with her proudest accomplishments – her children and grandchildren.
As we make our way to the kitchen for a cup of tea, Roberts fills me in on her three children, giving a fascinating insight into her life. Her eldest, she says, was born during her year-long stint living in Morocco, where she moved after a three-year posting in Geneva for her husband’s work. Ben was born in a local hospital with very basic healthcare, no incubators or even scales, meaning the weight section on her firstborn’s birth certificate remains blank. Despite this unusual beginning, Ben has gone on to find great success as the chief talent officer worldwide at Saatchi & Saatchi. Once back in Geneva for another three years, Roberts gave birth to her daughter Bex, who now works in television production and has a two-year-old daughter, Tilly Plum, who spends time with her “nana” most days. Roberts explains that Bex lives in Ponsonby, and this was the reason she moved to nearby Herne Bay from her former Remuera home.
“I was looking around Herne Bay because Bex loved it here. I always liked the atmosphere and the people are really friendly,” says Roberts. It was love at first sight when she came upon her heritage villa. “I’ve always loved villas and how homely they feel. I feel so lucky to have found it, with its wraparound balcony.” She gestures outside to her recently redone balcony and beyond to the pristine garden, complete with quirky statues and an impressive vegetable garden. “I love spending time in the garden, having the fresh scent of sweet peas and being able to dash outside for herbs and veges when I’m cooking,” she says.
We return to the story of her children and Roberts explains that her youngest, Dan, was born on a trip back to England while she was living in Cyprus. He grew up in Cyprus and also Canada before the family moved to New Zealand, although Dan has more recently moved back to London where he works as a digital creative for Harlequins rugby club.
Roberts’ move to New Zealand in 1989 was supposed to be for a maximum of three years but she never left, first working as a director of Quay Travel before returning to her first love, the cosmetics industry. A conversation with the Estée Lauder Companies in 2000 about the possibility of opening a MAC store was perfectly timed, since Smith & Caughey’s exclusive deal to distribute the brand had come to an end. Roberts opened her first MAC store in Auckland in 2001 and followed this with Jo Malone London in 2006 and Bobbi Brown in 2012. “I like to visit all my stores regularly,” she explains. “I head down to Britomart and the other stores in the city every day, and I go to the farther ones, like Botany and St Lukes, at least twice a week.”
As I reluctantly leave Roberts’ home, past a floor-to-ceiling bookcase that appears to summarise her incredible globe-trotting life, I think how fitting it is that she works in the beauty industry, because her story, her children, her home, and Roberts herself are all extraordinarily beautiful.
Words by: Diana Clarke. Photography by: Sally Tagg.