By Peter Carlson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 30, 2008
The Tweezerman saga is a classic American story of a guy with a dream rising from rags to riches, then coming to Washington to change the world, but the truly amazing part is that the whole thing -- the gourmet tweezer empire, the movie producing, the peace mission to Iraq, the run for president -- would never have happened if not for that painful moment when Dal LaMagna, who is Tweezerman, got 32 splinters in his butt during an erotic interlude on a rooftop in Venice Beach, Calif.
Life sure is strange sometimes, isn't it?
Dal LaMagna's life has certainly been strange. It was strange enough before he founded Tweezerman, a business built on plucking, and it got even stranger when he sold the business and took his $30 million windfall and tried to end the war in Iraq. LaMagna's life story could fill a book and, as it happens, he's writing one.
"I'm writing my memoirs," he says. "It's pretty funny. It's called 'Failing to Get Ahead.' Instead of being, like, 'The Seven Steps to Success,' I decided to make it the story of failure. I learned from all my failures."
At 61, LaMagna is trim and handsome with thick salt-and-pepper hair and a face that looks melancholy, even when he's telling a funny story about himself, which is often. Now, he's sitting on the back porch of his $2.1 million home near Dupont Circle. It's an old three-story brick house with creaky floors covered with threadbare carpets and walls decorated with ancient oil paintings of venerable ancestors. They're not LaMagna's ancestors, though. They came with the house.
"I bought this place fully furnished -- everything, the furniture, the pictures, even the plants," he says. "I did a cash deal."
He bought the house in 2007, so he'd have a place to host the Iraqi dissident and the antiwar activists who were helping him try to persuade Congress to get out of Iraq. LaMagna's lobbying failed to end the war, so he went to Iraq and tried to negotiate a cease-fire. That didn't work either, so he was forced to resort to the ultimate tactic.
"I kinda felt, I gotta take this message to the American people," he says. "And that's why I ran for president."Sitting on a 'Genius' Idea
Maybe Dal LaMagna was destined to run for president. After all, he was born on the Fourth of July, and he's a real American go-getter, a can-do guy, an entrepreneur, a hustler, a self-made man, a -- what's the term we're looking for here?
"He's a ball of fire," says his friend Jim McDermott, a Democratic congressman from Washington state. "He's really a wild stallion."
Son of a longshoreman, LaMagna grew up in Queens and attended Catholic schools, then Providence College, where the priests who ran the place were not thrilled, he says, when he used the school computer to start a computer dating business.
He arrived at the mecca of capitalism, the Harvard Business School, in 1968. It was a time of campus protests and riots against the Vietnam War, but LaMagna was more interested in making money, usually with the kind of cockamamie schemes scorned by the Harvard Business School. He opened a waterbed store and a psychedelic lighting store, and he took a year off to try to get rich by turning two drive-in movie theaters into drive-in discos.
"We put on a two-hour light show, and we hooked up big speakers, and kids would get out of their cars and dance," he says. "But not many kids showed up. It was a good idea, but it was ahead of its time. The era of disco was later. I was five years too soon."
After he got his Harvard MBA in 1971, he tried other get-rich-quick schemes. He invented the LaMagna Lasagna Pan -- a square pan the exact length of a lasagna noodle -- but it bombed. So did his idea for a horror movie about the inmates of an insane asylum taking over the local town, imprisoning the residents and doing unspeakable things to them.
"It was a terrific story," he says, but nobody wanted to put up the money to produce it. So he opened an ice cream parlor designed for roller skaters in Venice Beach. "You roller-skated in one door, got your ice cream and roller-skated out the other." But that tanked, too.
By then, it was the late '70s, and LaMagna was a 32-year-old failure, $150,000 in debt. Just when he thought it couldn't get any worse, he found himself on a sunning roof in Venice Beach, sunbathing stark naked and frolicking with a friendly young lady, when suddenly --
"I worked my way off the little towel I was on, and my butt was covered with splinters," he recalls. "And I was trying to get the splinters out with a needle and a tweezer."
What he really needed was some kind of combination needle/tweezer device, but he couldn't find one at any drugstores. "I thought, That would be a really great product," he says. "But at that point, I was really tired of product ideas."
Like the splinters, he'd hit bottom. He moved back to his mom's house in Long Island and got a job in a factory, where he noticed assembly line workers picking up electronic components with -- needle-point tweezers.
Ever the go-getter, LaMagna bought some of the tweezers, packaged them as splinter-removal devices and tried to sell them in lumberyards. It didn't work, but he accidentally found another market.
"A woman who ran a beauty salon said, 'Get me a good eyebrow tweezer, and I'll sell it to my clients.' So I went to the supplier and got a tweezer that was pointed but not so sharp, and I stuck it in a tube and sold it as a . . ." he pauses while a plane roars over his house . . . "as a precision eyebrow tweezer."
It worked. Beauty shops sold dozens, then hundreds, then thousands. In those days, most tweezers were cheap things that didn't pluck very well. His tweezers were expensive, but boy, could they pluck! One day LaMagna walked into a beauty salon and a woman yelled "Tweezerman is here!" and, bingo, he had a name for his company and a nickname for himself.
"Everybody else sold tweezers for $3, I sold tweezers for $15," he says proudly. "So I literally reinvented tweezers."
"He's a genius," says Erwin Gomez, the self-proclaimed "makeup artist/eyebrow guru" who runs a salon in Georgetown and who recently achieved fame as the Bush twins' personal eyebrow plucker. "There are so many tweezers out there, and some don't grasp hairs well. Tweezerman really gets every one out."
By 1996, LaMagna was a millionaire so he decided to run for Congress in his Long Island district.
Why did he decide to run for Congress?
"Because I could," he says. "It had nothing to do with anything; I just wanted to be a congressman. My dream was to be president of the United States so I had to start off as a congressman. And I could afford it. I spent a million bucks on that run in '96."
He ran as a Democrat and got trounced by the incumbent Republican, Peter King. He ran again in 2000 and got trounced again.
By 2004, he was divorced, his kids were grown and he was tired of Tweezerman, so he sold the company and walked away with $30 million.
"I closed the deal on Election Day -- that was the deadline -- because I thought Kerry was going to win, and I would do something for Kerry," he says. "That was my plan."
But John Kerry lost, so LaMagna had to come up with another plan.
And he did. He decided to end the war in Iraq.A War on the War in Iraq
Many Americans oppose the war in Iraq, but few oppose it as obsessively as Dal LaMagna.
"People ask why I didn't get involved in Darfur or Bosnia or Kosovo or any of those other hot spots," he says. "I felt Iraq was the responsibility of the Americans, and I wanted to do something about it."
So he did. He invested money in new antiwar media outlets -- Air America radio and the Huffington Post Web site. He also helped fund three documentary films about the war -- "The Ground Truth" and "The War Tapes" and "Iraq for Sale."
In 2006, LaMagna was living in Poulsbo, Wash., and he decided that his senator, Maria Cantwell, wasn't antiwar enough for his taste. He tried to talk to her about the war, he says, but he couldn't arrange a meeting, which irked him. So he decided to run against her in the 2006 Democratic primary.
"I was gonna do it," he says. "I was going to spend about $2 million on that."
When word of his plans spread, he was granted a meeting with Cantwell. A skillful pol, she quickly convinced him that she shared his views, his hopes, his dreams for the future of our great land.
"We totally agreed on everything," he recalls. "I said, 'If what you're telling me is true, I don't want to run against you.' "
"We talked about policy issues," Cantwell recalls, "and he decided not to run."
She didn't merely persuade LaMagna not to run against her. She also persuaded him to run her campaign Web site -- free, of course. "He was very helpful," she says.
"He joined her campaign," says Rep. McDermott, who is friends with both LaMagna and Cantwell, "and helped her deal with the fact that people were angry with her about the war."
On Election Day 2006, as Cantwell won reelection, McDermott and several other congressmen flew to Amman, Jordan, to meet with Iraqis, and LaMagna tagged along to videotape the talks. When they returned, LaMagna rented an apartment on Capitol Hill, edited his videotapes into a 20-minute PowerPoint presentation and began lobbying Congress to end the war.
"I worked Congress," he says. "I was there every day."
In early 2007, he arranged and paid for a two-hour video conference between members of the Iraqi parliament and members of Congress. "I would have liked the entire Congress to be there," he says, "but only nine people showed up."
In the spring of 2007, LaMagna invited Muhammed al-Daini, a dissident Sunni member of the Iraqi parliament, to Washington, and he bought that $2.1 million home near Dupont Circle so he'd have a place to house al-Daini. Together, the two men lobbied Congress, urging the politicians to withdraw American troops from Iraq.
Obviously, Congress did not take their advice. After three weeks of lobbying, La Magna and al-Daini flew to Baghdad to try to broker a cease-fire. LaMagna met with Iraqi insurgent leaders and with American and British generals, he says, but not surprisingly, he failed to negotiate even a temporary end to the fighting.
"It was all very frustrating," he says.
So he decided to run for president. It would be an antiwar campaign, designed to focus attention on Iraq. Cantwell and McDermott told him he was crazy but he did it anyway.
"It was something that he had to do," says Lee Gurreri, a yoga instructor, breathing coach and astrologer who was then LaMagna's girlfriend. "He said that when he was a kid, he always wanted to be president."
"The reason I decided to run for president was, first of all, it's the American dream," he says. "I've always thought that someday I want to run for president."
In the summer of 2007, LaMagna moved to New Hampshire, opened an office and hired a campaign manager and a media adviser. He produced a TV ad that showed an old Iraqi woman urging Americans to leave her country and let Iraqis solve their own problems.
"What I hoped would happen," he says, "is that I'd run the ads in New Hampshire and they'd get picked up nationally -- here's a presidential candidate running Iraq ads with Iraqis , not himself-- but that didn't happen."
Alex Lee, a New Hampshire activist who served as LaMagna's campaign manager, concocted a publicity stunt: He rented a dark horse for LaMagna to ride past a Hillary Clinton rally to advertise his dark horse candidacy. But LaMagna refused to mount the horse, and Gurreri rode instead while LaMagna walked alongside, looking sheepish.
"It was all so surreal," says Roger Tilton, who was LaMagna's media adviser. "He said he wanted to run for president, but he didn't want to do the day-to-day campaigning."
On Sept. 7, 2007, LaMagna abruptly quit the race and went home. Four months later, when the New Hampshire primary results were tallied, he learned that he'd won . . . eight votes.
"I know why I got those eight votes," he says.
Sitting on his porch in Washington, he tells the story: One day in New Hampshire he saw a little old lady looking forlornly at a pothole outside her house, which was near his apartment. He asked her what was wrong, and she said the city wanted to charge her $3,000 to fill the pothole. LaMagna suggested that she buy a bag of asphalt and get her grandson to fill the hole.
"She said, 'I have a grandson, but he's lazy,' " La Magna continues. "I said, 'I'll tell you what: I'm running for president of the United States. If you come home one day and this pothole is filled, will you vote for me and get your neighbors to vote for me?' And she said, 'Yeah.' "
The day he left New Hampshire, LaMagna says, he bought a bag of asphalt, filled the pothole and left his business card in her mailbox with a message scrawled on the back: "Promise kept."
Never mind Iraq. It was the pothole that won those eight votes.'Forever Cured'
Dal LaMagna spent $200,000 to get eight votes. That's $25,000 a vote, but he figures it was worth it. He didn't win the primary or end the war, but his campaign did accomplish something.
"I am forever cured of ever wanting to run for president or be president, which is terrific," he says. "Before I made that presidential run, I felt somewhat obsessed and compelled to really be active and do things I don't want to do. I don't feel that way anymore. I don't feel I'm obliged to do anything."
His obsessions conquered, he's at peace, he says. Now he can enjoy just being a rich guy who can do whatever he wants.
"And I do do whatever I want," he says, smiling.
Lately, one of the things he has wanted to do was produce the movie "Warchild," a documentary about Emmanuel Jal, a former Sudanese child soldier who became a rap star in England. This spring, "Warchild" won the "audience choice" award at the Tribeca Film Festival. And then LaMagna flew to France to show it at Cannes.
Now, he leaves his back porch and wanders inside. He wants to show off some of the fruits of his strange life. He opens a cabinet and pulls out two Tweezerman tweezers, still in little plastic tubes that say "Guaranteed to Tweeze." He rummages through a bookshelf and pulls out DVDs of the three Iraq documentaries he helped produce.
Then something else catches his eye. "This is my latest toy," he says.
He bought it in the Caribbean. It looks like a tennis racket, but it's more than a tennis racket.
"It's an electrified tennis racket for killing mosquitoes," he says. "If there are mosquitoes in your room and you can't reach them, you can swat them, and they get electrocuted."
It's the kind of goofy gadget that the young Dal LaMagna would have tried to sell to America. But those days are over, and this gadget is just for his own personal mosquito killing.
"I did take it to the hardware store down the street," he says. "They loved it. They got on the computer and tried to find them."
"I like little hardware stores," he says.