To wrap up our month of entertaining-themed posts here on L&C, we figured who better to feature as today’s Woman We Love than the queen of the Chicago event-planning scene, Debi Lilly, owner of A Perfect Event. In addition to being a sought-after consultant for private weddings and events, Debi has planned parties for brands like Dom Perignon, Bentley, Lamborghini, Cartier, and Harry Winston. Oh, and she also served as the on-air event consultant for The Oprah Winfrey Show, executing concepts like The World’s Largest Baby Shower, Million Dollar Wedding, and Oprah’s Favorite Things.
Here, we talk to Debi about how she built her business, the keys to “A Perfect Event,” meeting Oprah’s standards, and more.
TELL US A LITTLE ABOUT YOUR COMPANY.
A Perfect Event – dreaming up daily inspired and elegant parties, weddings, florals, celebrity gifts, gorgeous invitations and stationery – just to name a few.
HOW DID YOU START IT? WHAT WAS IT LIKE IN THE BEGINNING?
I’ve been planning parties since I was a child – and all through college – and literally started the company the minute I graduated. In the beginning it was me, working 24/7, practically breaking myself to make it happen, and turn my passion and excitement for custom celebrations into a thriving business.
WHAT WAS THE FIRST BIG EVENT YOU PLANNED ON YOUR OWN? HOW DID IT GO?
The first big BIG one was for Oprah Winfrey. How crazy is that? I didn’t sleep for a few days, running on pure adrenaline to blow out this mecca baby shower for her dear friend and producer. She walked into the shower, looked around, and asked “Who did these beautiful flowers?” I said, “I did”. She asked “Well who did these darling favors?” I laughed and said, “I did.” Next, to my sheer delight, she said “Get a camera crew over here, we need to shoot this and turn it into a baby shower show!”
So, let’s say it went like a dream. It was my first Oprah Show, a few weeks later.
WHAT’S THE BEST PART ABOUT BEING AN ENTREPRENEUR?
So many things – but tops is choosing your team. Hand picking whom you spend each day sitting next to. The incredible feeling of employing, working alongside, and taking care of like minded people. Providing health insurance to people. Next would be setting my schedule to flex with my kids: walking them to school, picking them up from school, working our “homework” side by side together at the kitchen table as I do my work, and they do theirs. I could go on and on.
YOU WORKED ON THE OPRAH WINFREY SHOW FOR 10 YEARS AS HER “FAVORITE PRO,” PLANNING EVENTS LIKE OPRAH’S 50TH BIRTHDAY CELEBRATION, AND THE WORLD’S LARGEST BABY SHOWER. WHAT WAS THAT LIKE?
Unbelievable. I loved every minute of it. It was honestly like a dream – because I love the behind the scenes of production, stage, television. It is maximum energy and talent and quick solving dozens of last minute issues and challenges – something I truly thrive in.
Miss Winfrey’s parties are like no other. I think I love a good party – but she could trump my passion for celebrating life, cherishing each accomplishment and milestone around us, sharing happiness with friends and family,
I wish I could bottle that magic.
There are so many moments that took my breath away – the Oprah’s Favorite Things shows were always weeks and weeks of holiday elf work, and just when you were spent from lack of sleep and exhaustion from set decor the audience arrived, and was all teachers who deserved a huge, incredible surprise standing ovation of holiday gifting gold..and every drop of sweat was beyond worth it.
IS THERE A DIFFERENCE WHEN CREATING EVENTS FOR TV?
Yes. I learned quickly that everything has to be B-I-G for camera. And bright – no dark colors in decor – they go black on tv.
WHAT ARE OPRAH’S ENTERTAINING MUST-HAVES?
Elegance, warmth, laughter, personal, thoughtful details, delicious food, fabulous fun flowers, GREAT gift favors.
IN GENERAL, WHAT MAKES AN EVENT SUCCESSFUL?
A fun, happy host makes the party. If it’s big or small, simple or lavish – great hosts set the tone.
Next, a fun fresh take on cocktails and menu – as guests love to see and taste something new and different.
NO TWO OF YOUR EVENTS EVER LOOK ALIKE. WHAT INSPIRES YOUR CREATIVITY?
Travel! I spend six weeks in Paris every summer – researching, sourcing, buying, and building an inventory for new designs for the year.
WHAT’S YOUR DESIGN PROCESS LIKE?
Working with the client to define their celebration, style, personality and then bring it to life for the event through unique, interesting decor and details.
WHAT’S THE CRAZIEST OR MOST ELABORATE THING A CLIENT HAS EVER ASKED YOU TO DO FOR THEIR EVENT?
Easy. Designing 300 giant red car bows in a matter of days – or was it hours – with coordinating gift wrapped car keys in silver boxes with red silk ribbons.
The next day our work was the front page of USA Today.
WHAT ARE SOME EVENTS THAT STICK OUT IN YOUR MIND AT THE MOST BEAUTIFUL YOU’VE WORKED ON? (AND DO YOU HAVE IMAGES YOU CAN SHARE?)
So many – An NFL wedding at the stunning resort Palmetto Bluffs in South Carolina, Pebble Beach ceremony on the 18th Hole at Pebble Beach as the sunset over the Pacific, anything and everything at Miss Winfrey’s home in Chicago, Montecito, Indiana.
IN ADDITION TO PLANNING EVENTS, YOU HAVE A PRODUCT LINE, A BOOK, AND A MAGAZINE. WHAT IS THE SECRET TO YOUR SUCCESS? ANY TIPS FOR MANAGING YOUR TIME?
Write it down on lists.
I prefer paper lists.
My lists have lists.
My 12 year old is color coding her lists, which is a bit of a fright.
WHAT PERSONALITY TRAITS DO YOU NEED TO HAVE AS AN EVENT PLANNER?
Quick thinker. Confident. Kind. Personable. Passionate.
WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR WOMEN WHO WANT TO FOLLOW IN YOUR CAREER FOOTSTEPS?
It’s hard work. And then more hard work. Seven days a week. It’s wonderful, but it’s not always so glamorous, so get ready.