Courtney Henslee wears her heart boldly. She hangs it on her Brazen Bee logo and the names of her handmade products, à la Eff Off Face Wash. It shines through her warm smile and curls colored red.
A self-described introvert, Courtney, 40, knows what matters to her and is willing to step to the mic and speak with a full voice. That spirit is the pulse of her skincare company and its cozy slice of Manitou Avenue, west of the circle at 1107.
As Courtney shares her story with Humanitou, her eyes light up, and she smiles and laughs often. We talk about her left-wing political activism and radio show in Texas, and her go-for-broke attitude to turn dreams into convictions. We get into how she was a millennial before there were millennials, and how her clients spark her brazen adventure.
Humanitou: You make each of your products right here in the shop kitchen. How did this become a thing for you?
Courtney: This started out as helping people with really bad skin conditions that doctors couldn’t fix, or they just handed out another cortisone cream for, over and over and over again.
I feel like my job here is to get to the root of the issue and actually solve it on a systematic level for people, and help them figure out what it is.
My forte is reading, sitting down and truly reading scientific studies and being able to put those into more plainspeak for clients. And that’s what I really enjoy. I could pore over scientific studies for days without looking up, and be in hog heaven.
Humanitou: Is Brazen Bee all you, formulating, working in the store, everything?
Courtney: I have an assistant that comes in a few times a week. Emily [Grider] is a baker. She’s worked in kitchens. I can tell her [formulas] and she’s not wide-eyed and freaking out. Smooth, smooth-smooth. Smooth as body butter. Emily has been crucial to a lot of my growth.
And then my life partner, Traci Wallace, who I’ve been with going on four years, she’s actually the one that was adamant that I not stop doing this.
I went to work at a fracking company for a minute just to put food on the table. She was like, “You’re dying inside. I can see it. Let everything go. Stop being afraid.”
She can go on and on about what my products have done for her and what they do for clients. She is the reminder too. I get an amazing email from a client at least once a week that says, “You’ve changed my life.”
And Traci is, like, “We need to print this and put this up, because tomorrow you’re going to forget it and feel upset or sad or disappointed that you didn’t make a lot of money, or made $10 in the store or something.”
Humanitou: Let’s back up, and we’ll come back around to Brazen Bee. How did you come to Manitou?
Courtney: An ex had a good job [in Denver]. I feel like the blessing in that was — that person, I’m glad that they’re gone — it got me to get out of Texas, finally, where I felt like I needed to stay for the rest of my life and fight the good left-wing political fight, and I was going to win one day.
I had a political radio show in Houston for three and a half years and was just a big part of the activist scene there. That was difficult to uproot and take off from.
Humanitou: Yeah, let’s go deeper there. Tell me more.
Courtney: I started my show right after 9/11. It started out as a natural-parenting radio show. But I was so into all other types of politics, like feminism, that I interviewed women in Iraq and what was happening to them during the war, women in Africa and their trials and tribulations, and how they were setting up their own radio stations to be able to communicate with each other.
Unfortunately, I’ve been on the radio with Bill Cosby (laughs). Before any of that shit came out.
It was really good. Amy Goodman– I don’t know if you’re familiar with her and Democracy Now. She produces, to me, one of the best alternative newscasts in the nation, and I was on the air right after her. So, I got a lot of listeners, because of that.
Humanitou: What brought you into radio?
Courtney: Oh, gosh. Passion. Passion. I had done theater and debate, and all those things, in high school. I guess that was it, and getting fed up with what I was hearing all the time on the radio.
Humanitou: Are you involved politically in Manitou, or are you interested in being involved?
Courtney: I’m interested in those things. I think that we all go through different phases of life. From a parental perspective, you kind of migrate through different passions as your children are different ages.
I think that’s very appropriate, and we can take that and put that on a political scale or an evolution-of-politics scale, of how we tend to focus on different things at different times, and get up in arms about different things at different times.
So, I think that particular show, which was called “Whole Mother,” was very appropriate when my kids were little. It was like, the politics of Nestlé going into hospitals and giving mothers formula, and saying, “You probably shouldn’t breastfeed, because it’s really difficult.”
And then, in getting older and watching my children grow up — they grew up pitter-pattering around the radio show — one of my favorite interviews was with Julia Butterfly Hill.
She was the woman who’s famous for living in a redwood for two years of her life to save it. And [my daughter] Aurora was nursing in the background the whole interview. (laughs)
So, those things change. And that passion for being involved in activism and politics has never gone away. I helped a lot with Occupy Austin. That was, actually, right before I left.
Now, I teeter on, I would love to do something in radio again, or I would love to do something in politics. Not that I’m ever not paying attention closely to what’s going on and blasting my horn. But, I feel like I’m getting to that point.
You kind of get an itch. I feel like I can’t sit down for much longer.
Humanitou: You were super-engaged in Texas. How has the transition to a new life in Colorado been for you?
Courtney: Coming to Colorado, for that first year, was a huge blessing and a curse for the same reason: I had been accustomed to being known. Not famous in any respect, but pretty well known for what I did, what I used to do on the radio, being the person people came to for home remedies, like friend of a friend of a friend.
And then moving [to Denver] and going out and going, “Oh my god, nobody knows who I am and that’s really strange. Where’s my touch point for some sense of groundedness?”
But also having the freedom to, I wouldn’t say remake myself, but really strive at something without strings and past attached, has been really interesting. It’s a reason some days I feel really inspired, and some days I just wanted to go home and cry myself to sleep. (laughs)
But through all that, I’ve been in herbs and nutrition for a little over 20 years, and very self-taught. Partially, because 20 years ago there weren’t many classes. I’ve always carried that around with me.
I’ve done a lot of different jobs in my life. I used to go into failing pet stores and bring them back up to profitable and move on to the next one, little mom-and-pop shops in small towns in Texas.
But through all that has been a really deep love for herbs and nutrition and getting people healthy, and changing minds about what even health is.
That is, actually, where [Brazen Bee] was born, was making stuff for myself after spending ridiculous amounts of money at Whole Foods at the age of 30, feeling like I was on the decline, you know?
Every woman, no matter how feminist you are, the world gets to you and you’re like, “Ahh! I look old and I’m not supposed to, and it’s terrible! I’ve still got acne at 30, it’s terrible!”
So I started making stuff for myself at home, and really enjoyed that. I’d worked as a personal chef for some people in Austin. I had a clothing business for a while, where I did a lot of seamstress work for people.
But, I feel like my business is a really great example of do whatever until it hits you.
Humanitou: It sounds like none of this is the conventional path. You’re self-taught through and through?
I did go to college for psychology. I have almost a bachelor’s in psychology. And that’s fine and well, but I was, like, “I don’t feel like I can sit around and pathologize human beings all day.”
Humanitou: That’s funny. I was a psychology major, too — for a semester.
(laughs) I feel like anybody who cares tries that on for a second and goes, “Mmm, I don’t know.” Not to say there aren’t some really great psychologists out there who are doing it well and right.
And I think that feeds into the way that I help people here. Having a little bit of that background and understanding of habits versus desires to move forward, and how to uplift, has helped me a lot here.
Humanitou: And how about you, your outlook on life to dive in, learn, and build and rebuild …
Courtney: I think there are different types of personalities. Sometimes I tell myself, “You were a like a millennial before the millennials.”
We get onto these new kids about, “They can’t focus on anything. And they just get up and leave when they hate a job. It’s just terrible.”
I beat myself up until I was 35 and I truly felt like this was what I was going to do for the rest of my life. I’d been beating myself all that time, with every change.
For a minute, I’d get really high on it, “I just started something new! And I got a new website and a new blog!” God knows how many blogs I have in the world. (laughs)
I was angry with myself. And then I’d find something I was really excited about, “Fine, whatever! Who cares about all that other stuff I did!” And I’d wash that away in my mind and start new. And I wish that I had not beat myself up so much.
I think coming to the realization, finally, that we can remake ourselves over and over and over again, and just stop whatever everybody else says you should be doing. Even if you do it for five minutes for five years, it’s going to play into your story again later on.
Humanitou: You’re going on seven years with Brazen Bee. What is making it successful?
Courtney: It’s because I listen to my clients. That feeds me, because I want to make people happy and fix their problems. This is very client-led.
Almost every product in here is because somebody with a problem asked me to make something for them. And if we got that right, it then was a product for everybody else.
Eff Off Face Wash was my first product ever. It’s is a really great base product. It started healing up acne and other things for people. And I want to help fix everybody.
I tell them my perfection really helps them a lot, because I don’t stop until I’m done. I’ve had clients I’ve had to work with from six to eight months until we finally have perfected getting everything right for them.
For most clients, they’re great within the first few days, but there are those people who’ve been to the doctor several times and say, “I’m weird, nothing fixes this.” Well, I’m going to fix it, I’m going to do it.
The face washes are customizable with about 20 different herbs. And that means I can treat just about everything. I’ve figured that out. I know different herbs that for this type of acne they do this. For rosacea, I have a hundred percent success rate.
And I primarily do water-free formulas. That’s so I don’t have to add any preservatives or chemicals whatsoever.
I have a few products that have water in them, because there just wasn’t any other way to do that formula. And the products that have water in them have salt as a stabilizer, and should be used in a certain time period.
Second Skin, which is for psoriasis, has Manitou spring water in it.
Humanitou: I love that you use Manitou’s spring water.
Courtney: I used to make day trips down here from Denver just to fill up my jugs with spring water.
Humanitou: That’s a haul for the water.
Courtney: After I opened my shop, I commuted five days a week to Manitou. I did it for a year, until I moved here about a year ago. There were times I spent three and a half hours on the road in the snow, trying to get home in my little car.
Humanitou: You’re kidding! Wow. I couldn’t make that drive every day.
Courtney: I felt really passionate about wanting my first store to be in Manitou.