Gemma says she’s “grateful and thankful” that she was diagnosed with relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis when she was 26-years-old.
The former youth development officer and qualified teacher was in the midst of a successful career at a local council when she heard the news that would set her life on a completely different course.
“I remember the day I went to hospital and they took one look at me walking down the corridor and the doctor said, ‘I think you have MS’ and I thought, ‘I think you’re an a-hole’,” Gemma says.
“I think I could have quite easily just given up and become a victim then and there. There was a big part of me that just thought, I’m disabled now and this is going to be the end of me.
“It sounds really macabre but it was where my head was.”
Multiple sclerosis affected Gemma’s mobility, leaving her temporarily unable to walk properly due to numbness in her left leg. It also affected her long and short-term cognitive recall.
“It’s simple things,” she says. “A classic and common example is forgetting where you put your sunglasses and running around trying to find them before you realise they’re on your head.
“It’s things like that that I never had before the diagnosis – at least not all the time as a common occurrence.”
While Gemma may not look physically sick, she says multiple sclerosis was her “wake-up call” to live a healthy lifestyle.
She became increasingly aware of what she describes as “toxicity” in her everyday life – from the chemicals in the food she was eating to the products with which she used to clean her house – which she says could have impacted her susceptibility to the disease.
“It then became about reducing that and eradicating toxicity completely, making sure I was just going back to a natural, organic lifestyle,” Gemma explains.
“It is definitely about a consciousness and an awakening and when you realise that this isn’t just a fad, it is a way to live, then it becomes really easy to make those changes.
“Now I’ve been 12 years without a relapse and two years without disease progression so whatever I’m doing, it’s working.”
Gemma’s family and career also took a turn following her diagnosis. She gave birth to a son in 2010, had a marriage break-up in 2012 and soon after quit her job to become a full-time stay-at-home mum.
“You think by 26 you know what trajectory you’re on, which seems quite innocent and naïve in a way,” she says.
“I’m 37 now and I think, I really didn’t know who I was or what I wanted necessarily when I was that age. I was just doing what I thought I was supposed to be doing.”
“There have been lots of really pivotal changes in my adult life that have forced me to reboot.”
That reboot was brought on by a passion for vintage hair and make-up styling, which quickly spiralled from a hobby to a profitable skill.
Gemma began to be approached on a regular basis by photographers who were working with models wanting a “pin-up” look in their portfolio. From there started the Gemma Vendetta pseudonym – a name Gemma proudly says is famous within Adelaide’s vintage modelling community.
But the newly-minted stylist soon found her passion clashed with her “organic and stripped back” lifestyle.
“Working in the industry, seeing all the chemicals, seeing what is normal to be used, I just didn’t agree with it at all,” she says.
“To get a red pigment in a mainstream lipstick, for example, they use crushed-up beetles. On a label, it will say ‘carmine’ but the scientific name is cochineal because it’s the cochineal beetle.”
“I thought, I want safe, natural, mineral cosmetics in my kit. I want it to be certified vegan and I want it to be Australian-made.
“I couldn’t find it, so I decided to make it myself.”
It took several years of business training and product research and development before Gemma eventually launched her makeup business – aptly called Gemma Vendetta – in September 2016.
Gemma started sampling different cosmetics brands’ products at her northern suburbs home to determine which ingredients, textures and looks she wanted for her own label.
“My kit exploded exponentially as I did all the research and development into what it was that I actually wanted to create,” she says.
“It grew very quickly and I eventually was working in collaboration with a cosmetics maker because it was too large for just my kitchen.”
The end result is a vintage-inspired range of make-up products made in collaboration with an Australian manufacturer and sold online and via a growing list of stockists.
“There are five different shades of skin tones and I am doing research into expanding that just because there is a growing need as we diversify,” she says.
“I have BB/CC cream, which is similar to a tinted moisturiser or a light foundation, which you can also use as a primer.
“Then there’s pressed mineral foundation, which matches the BB/CC cream. The darker colours you can use for bronzing or contouring and the lighter colours you can use for highlighting.
“That’s a key part of my range – it’s simple, easy to use, the beginner can use it but also a pro.”
Added to the range are a set of three different blushes, eight vintage reproduction lip colours, a mineral highlighter, a kabuki brush, a dual end brush and two eyeshadow palettes.
Gemma promotes her business as providing “high quality, high definition, safe, gender-neutral, 100 per cent vegan and cruelty-free mineral cosmetics to those who care about themselves, our animals, and the planet,” but she has also gained a following among people who are impacted by autoimmune or other diseases.
“Maybe they have an autoimmune disease, maybe they’ve had cancer treatment, maybe they have lost someone to a disease of some description so they’re personally heightened in their awareness of toxic chemicals,” she says.
“One of my stockists is a day spa and they work with post breast cancer patients and the owner was looking for safe makeup that they could use with their clients
“I’ve also noticed a lot of people buy my products just because they can see my face attached to it and because they know it’s South Australian. They know that this is not a celebrity-endorsed product, this comes from a real place.”
In her first year in business, Gemma secured 26 stockists across Australia and New Zealand, with that figure now sitting at 29.
Her stockists include a range of gift and clothing shops, pharmacies and health food stores, with big names including Terry White Chemmart, The Green Dispensary and Norwood café and homewares store Brick + Mortar.
“People’s usual reaction when I tell them that I own a cosmetics line is, ‘how do you do that?’ and to be honest I wonder that myself too because I reflect on the growth that I’ve had with it and I somehow managed to break the mould.
“Globally there are three major parent companies that own every brand that is available everywhere in cosmetics. They’ve got a massive hold of the industry and somehow I have found a crack to operate from.
“Maybe I am a little bit crazy because the fact they’re so powerful never deterred me. I just thought, why not me? Why not create this myself?”
“When I first started someone said to me, ‘if you can make it in Adelaide you can make it anywhere’ and I guess it turned out to be true.”
Looking to the future, Gemma plans to introduce new products including lip pencils and more professional brushes to her range. She is also considering expanding to European and American markets.
“Wellness is definitely a growing industry and on a global scale, I think it’s got to be one of the biggest growing industries next to wine.
“But for me, the business is more about a soul-searching process and I still want to stay true to that.
“It wasn’t just something to help me find the products I wanted, it gave me focus, a purpose, and something to give back.”
This story is part of a new InDaily series profiling independent South Australian makers, including designers, artists and craftspeople.