At school I was called Smelly Melly – now I’m the founder of a deodorant company

A desire to escape the childhood nickname and find her true career path led the mother of three to start her own innovative business.

Necessity, they say, is the mother of invention. For Mel Lewis, nothing could be closer to the truth.

She is the founder and owner of Kiriwai, a natural deodorant company making chemical-free products to encourage everyone to love their pits. Mel admits she’s been on quite the journey to reach this phase in her life, where deodorant is both her passion and her living.

An awkward teenager − “I looked like a boy until I was at least 14,” she laughs – she was nicknamed Smelly Melly at school.

“Somehow, it stuck,” she tells. “Even now people call me Smelly, or Smelanie.”

The nickname meant Mel was constantly checking to see if she was emitting any offensive body odours.

“It made me paranoid,” she says. “As a teen, you go through a long phase of being totally self-conscious – and for me, that was amplified by my nickname, even though I’m sure there was no malice intended!”

A couple of decades, a family and a dog later, Mel had enjoyed a successful career in the banking industry, plus a number of years at home caring for her gorgeous tribe Gracie (9), Robbie (6) and Alex (4), when she started thinking about what she might do next.

“I always felt like a square peg in a round hole with banking,” she confides. “I was good at it, but it didn’t thrill me. Someone told me, ‘You have 30 more years of work left, so do what you love’ and I totally agreed! But I wasn’t sure what that would be.”

Still questioning what she might do next and with a 40th birthday looming, Mel entered the Oxfam Trailwalker in 2017 − a massive 100km, 36-hour walk for charity she tackled as a team alongside three friends.

“That was huge for me,” says Mel (41). “When you’ve been out of work for a while and found it’s really hard to get back in, you lose a bit of confidence. The walk was an amazing way to build that back up again – a mind-blowing personal, physical and mental challenge.”

It was also a perspiration challenge − Mel knew she needed to remain as inoffensive to her teammates as possible.

“By this time, I’d used a lot of different natural deodorants but couldn’t find one that worked for me,” she tells. “If I used a product containing baking soda, it burned my skin. The ones without baking soda didn’t last. So that’s when playing around with different formulas began.”

With a grandmother who’d battled breast cancer, Mel describes herself as “acutely aware of anything to do with the region around your breasts, underarms and lymph node area.

”I’m not a fan of anti-perspirants because they contain aluminium, which temporarily blocks your sweat glands and stops sweating.”

So Mel got to work creating something she could wear for 36 hours without being in the least bit smelly. Formulas were created, ditched and recreated. Family and friends became her guinea pigs, with husband Mike and the kids quickly growing used to “Mum’s jars” lining any spare spot she could find.

Finally, she nailed it and things suddenly got “a bit serious” when she found herself ordering a 20kg sack of magnesium to create her final formula − “magnesium hydroxide, which naturally resists sweating off,” she tells. “Also activated charcoal, which is absorbent and great for combating odour. At that point, I realised what I needed to do was create a business out of this.”

These days, Kiriwai – which is Maori for the layers of dermis under our skin – is created in a commercial kitchen, where Mel carefully measures and blends her deodorant balms.

“During my years of banking, the most physical I got was moving money between spreadsheets,” she says. “Now, I love having a tangible product at the end of a session in the kitchen.”

Kiriwai sells online through her website and Mel says the feedback has been wonderful.

“I’ve been approached countless times by the parents of kids aged from seven, who are already battling BO,” she tells. “I’ve even had one woman who is using it on her feet!”

Working flexible hours, just a few minutes’ drive (in her hybrid car, of course) from home, Kiriwai is the perfect career for Mel as she juggles the demands of family life.

“I’ve learned to do what I can during the day, then flip the phone to silent mode between 3pm and 5pm. Our house is pretty chaotic, but Mike and the kids are great and very proud,” she says.

So does the advent of Kiriwai mean Mel can finally bin the nasty nickname?

“If people want to call me Smelly, I can live with it,” she laughs. “It’s been the genesis of something I truly love. The words ‘passion project’ are a little bit clichéd these days,but in my case, it’s true – this is certainly my passion!”

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