Painting with a Twist co-founder Renee Maloney has a confession: She failed art.
There, it's out there. However, it didn't stop her and friend Cathy Deano from launching their paint-and-sip business in 2007 in Mandeville. Franchising began two years later, and there are now 320 studios in 36 states.
At the studios, two- to three-hour speed art sessions are paired with wine in a group gathering led by a professional artist. All receive instruction on completing paintings using the same subject, and all take their paintings home with them afterward.
While the business has branched out across the country, Maloney, 47, and Deano, 62, are still in Mandeville, minding the home office. But wouldn't it be beneficial to see how the other studios are running, unbeknownst to the staff and patrons there, by working as one of them?
Enter CBS' "Undercover Boss," the reality series in which "high-level executives … slip anonymously into the rank-and-file of their own organizations."
Show runners contacted the Painting with a Twist executives last year, and things clicked this year for Maloney (no way was Deano doing it) to go incognito within her own business for a week. The episode featuring Maloney airs Wednesday night.
Maloney recently spoke about her fast-growing venture and her experience on the show.
How did the idea for Painting with a Twist come about?
"After (Hurricane) Katrina, we were trying to figure out what we could do as a business that would bring money to our families, but also help the community. A friend suggested speed art, because who has time for art classes? 'Well, I failed art, and who's going to come paint?,' I said. And Cathy said, 'What if we could drink?' We tested it in a little barn building on Cathy's property, and we invited over a bunch of friends — high school students all the way up to retired attorneys — 20 people, and a friend who's an artist led us. We all just step-by-step followed directions on how to paint a painting. We actually had a blast. It took us about two hours and at the end of that event we polled the people: 'Would you do this again?' 'Was it fun?' and 'Would you pay for this?' And that was our business model. I'd like to say it was really sophisticated, but that was it."
And what about helping the community?
We did fundraising events — raising money for roofs, refrigerators, school programs. Our charity arm is Painting with a Purpose (they've donated more than $3.25 million so far).
And why do you think people kept coming back?
"They said, 'We don't think about Katrina; we don't think about FEMA; we don't think about the flood, the storms, the kids, the bills. We can escape for two to three hours painting a painting, and drinking wine and hanging out with friends."
How did you like going undercover?
"It was an awesome experience — crazy, wonderful and hard, altogether."
Did you have a say in your undercover disguise, as sometimes the get-ups are pretty cheesy?
First we tried wigs; they looked really fake. So we bleached my hair blonde. I thought I was going to have that cute blonde look, but I kind of looked haggard. So I said let's embrace the 'I'm not cute' card. So we went to the dentist and did these little retainers to kind of stain my teeth. The camera is in my face in the dentist's office, talk about embarrassing! We got oversized clothing, because I usually have a tailored, blue jean look. The clothes were kind of flowy, and then I just sort of took on this persona of this California hippy chick, and my story was that I was in the middle of a divorce and I had three kids, and I was on this reality show hoping to make some money and save my family business."
And what did you find out undercover?
"Well, going undercover was scary in that you just don't know what you'll find. There were some opportunities that we came back here and we improved, but we found most often that our franchisees and the artists in our system are doing it better than we ever imagined."
Where did you go that week?
"I went to Louisiana Art Supply in Hammond. They supply all our studios, and I worked in the warehouse there. I went to a studio in Texas, outside of Dallas, one in San Antonio, then to Pennsylvania, that's where the reveal was. They transformed me back, made my hair brown again."
Did you have any close calls (employees recognizing you)?
"When we walked in one studio, the franchisee was at the front desk. There I was, nose ring and all, and we made eye contact, and I knew she knew who I was. So I turned about and went straight back out. We called her and had her leave, so it didn't mess up what we were doing."
What was the most difficult part?
"One of my jobs was I had to be an artist; they put me on stage to teach. I mean, like one of my biggest fears, I was frozen, I don't know how our artists do it every time, I guess they're just natural up there, and they know they're good at it. It's not only teaching someone how to paint, it's really entertaining them and connecting with the audience. I tried telling a joke, and it totally bombed."
What important things did you learn?
"You really start to understand the artists that work in our system, they have real-life stuff and they still show up, and they still do a great job. They leave it (their problems) at the door, and give it 100 percent. "Cinderella never has a bad day," we say. Also, that our customers make a difference in our artists' lives, because it's just as much of an escape for the artist as it is for the customer, which was really eye-opening.
Have you changed anything about the business since then?
Right away, we started an Artist Advisory Board (which helps to acknowledge and compensate artists for work they have created). Without the artists, we wouldn't have a business."