Fat Times For A French Woman

The skinny on how diet author Mireille Guiliano is milking her newfound fame

Mireille Guiliano, with the modesty that intimates a certain amount of success in life, persists in calling her best-selling memoir her "little book." French Women Don't Get Fat -- officially, her guide to the secret of eating for pleasure, unofficially, her musings on how to enjoy life -- has sold some 450,000 copies in North America since it was published in December, is available in 22 languages, and will even come out in French this fall. It has led to invitations to speak at London School of Business & Finance and appear on Oprah. It has turned the 59-year-old Guiliano, who runs champagne and wine company Clicquot Inc. in Manhattan, into an arbiter of the good life.

In this age of self-promotion, that sort of cachet rarely remains unexploited. Guiliano is no exception: She has used her celebrity to help sell Veuve Clicquot champagne (naturally) and her favorite yogurt maker, too. "My friends say everything I touch turns to gold. I'll say I've been very lucky," Guiliano says. However inadvertent her recent success, Guiliano is an experienced enough marketer to know how to take advantage of it. She has become a cottage industry of her own.


Guiliano has written an epicurean's memoir. She tells of growing up in the French countryside, lingering over meals, drinking in the rules of gracious living. But she forgot them all during a disastrous year in high school when she lived in suburban Boston as an exchange student and gained 20 pounds on a diet of brownies and chocolate chip cookies. When she returned home, she slowly lost the weight under the guidance of her family doctor who retaught her the secrets of French women: moderation, balance, and pleasure when it comes to food. Guiliano says she has maintained her weight since then (she is 112 lb. and stands 5 ft., 3 in.). After attending university in Paris, falling in love with an American, moving to New York, and working first as a U.N. translator and then in advertising and public relations, in 1984 she was asked to help start a company, Clicquot Inc., to import the venerable French champagne to the U.S.

Guiliano has been an effective representative of Veuve Clicquot: by all accounts, charming, smart, and indefatigably social. Her first job at the company was as a (actually, the) salesperson, and it is her distinctly French voice that has been heard in the company's radio advertisements ever since. The chefs, the distributors, the retailers, they all know Guiliano from the early days when she would regularly visit them. She still sends cards and bottles of La Grande Dame on their birthdays; she gave a draft of her book to their wives (hers is a business dominated by men). And although Clicquot was purchased by what became French luxury group LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton in 1986 and recently became part of a new billion-dollar company, Moët Hennessy USA, that combines all of LVMH's wine and spirits brands in America, Guiliano has so far been able to do as she sees fit with little interference from Paris. In two decades, Veuve Clicquot has increased its share of the U.S. market from nearly nothing to about 23%.

But her little book may have done more to introduce Clicquot to those outside the privileged class than anything she has attempted before. As Guiliano says: "Those first two months of publicity, it's like 10 years' worth of publicity combined..... I was on 60 Minutes Australia, with a bottle on the table. Do you know how much that would have cost? And with wine and champagne, you don't get on the CBS morning show here anyway [which she did appear on, as well as ABC and NBC]. And not only showing the bottles, but mentioning the brand. This is priceless. I should ask for a huge commission. Just kidding."


When interest first began gathering for French Women Don't Get Fat, Guiliano imagined a brief book tour with perhaps a few champagne tastings. The president of Moët Hennessy, Christophe Navarre, saw something more: "He said: 'It will be great for Clicquot. Tell us what you need."' What started out as a series of small events has turned into this year's marketing strategy at Clicquot. Guiliano is working with restaurants around the country (Aqua in San Francisco, Fountain at Four Seasons in Philadelphia, Carmen The Restaurant in Coral Gables) to create dinners based on the family recipes included in her book. "It's a whole new initiative that we can do as much or as little as we want," she says. "And every time we do one, there's coverage from TV, newspapers, magazines."

The free publicity doesn't end there. At Sherry-Lehmann Wine & Spirits in Manhattan, for example, Michael Aaron, the chairman and a longtime friend of Guiliano, decided to help promote her book. He displays a copy with a poster, "A Must Read for Men and Women of Any Size," and a photo of the two of them at La Tour d'Argent restaurant in Paris. So far he has sold 600 books. And, he says, his sales of Veuve Clicquot increased 20%, to 125 cases, in March; sales for the other champagnes he carries didn't budge.

Veuve Clicquot is not the only business that is benefiting from Guiliano's newfound prominence. At Cuisipro, which distributes a $42 Donvier yogurt maker she mentions in the book, the machines are "going out as fast as they're coming in," says Deb Flynn, the company's marketing manager. Cuisipro isn't even promoting the connection. "We're letting the book do the PR for us," says Flynn.

The illustrator of French Women Don't Get Fat, Nick Hanzlik, is taking the opposite approach. Hanzlik now features the book on his Web site and says that all of the online orders for his R. Nichols stationery in February (about 150) were from people who had read about him on Guiliano's own Web site. "That's my only marketing plan," Hanzlik says. "That and get on Oprah."

As for Guiliano, she says she doesn't think about her celebrity but is "amazed by the evolution of the book from best-seller to cultural phenomenon." And, no doubt, of herself into a brand. In the language of the experts, she is the modern European: elegant, accessible, more disciplined than, say, British chef and bon vivant Nigella Lawson, and more relaxed than, yes, the very Yankee Martha Stewart. The only risk for Guiliano is coming to be regarded as the next Dr. Atkins, says Julie Cottineau, the executive director of consumer branding at Interbrand Corp.: "People are tired of diet gurus. She has to become multidimensional to last."

Which sounds about right to Guiliano. She has already rejected the idea of hosting a cooking show. Then there are the proposals to write a "lifestyle" book, get involved in some other television project, and develop a documentary film: Those she is considering. She says she won't make any decisions until the end of the year. What if her appeal has diminished by then? "I've never been ambitious.... If I was, I would have left Clicquot after the first five years," Guiliano likes to say, with a modesty that suggests she believes she hasn't yet received her last offer.

By Susan Berfield in New York

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