Leyla Safai, 28, sat in the driver’s seat of her pink ice cream truck on 10th Avenue, looking for a Sour Apple Tart in the pile of organic lollipops she’d just emptied into her lap.
“I’m such a little kid,” she sighed. “Wait, look! There’s a watermelon! It didn’t say watermelon … Oh, it did: ‘Wet-Face Watermelon.’”
Ms. Safai’s hands burrowed through the candy. She was wearing pink leather moccasins, hand-cut denim shorts and a lacey black blouse. A pink pen held up her black hair that matched a thick line of makeup traced over the lids of her bulging brown eyes.
“I think I never fully grew up. And I think because I grew up really fast that—‘Orange Squeeze’! Oh, my God!—I think because I grew up so fast, that this is like my midlife crisis. It’s kind of like a man getting a red sports car. I got a pink ice cream truck.”
That truck is the Heartschallenger, a Mary Kay crusader of cute that’s arrived in New York this summer from Los Angeles. Traveling around the city, from art galleries to private kids’ parties to dance parties and nightclubs, the Heartschallenger dispenses everything from vintage toy parasols and zines on L.A. low-rider culture to green tea and red bean Japanese ice cream sandwiches. Two bucking silver unicorns flank a heart on the truck’s hood, and at night, a pink light emits an embryonic glow from the inside.
“There were more people outside at the ice cream truck than there were inside the club,” said Reni Laine, a model-thin blond Columbia undergrad whose first Heartschallenger encounter at a recent Misshapes event ended in two orange creamsicles, a Pink Panther ice cream bar and Pixy Stix.
On a recent Saturday the truck was outside a T-shirt festival at the Printed Matter Inc. art gallery in Chelsea. Manning the window was Ben Pollock, 28, Ms. Safai’s shy and smiley boyfriend/business partner, who likes to broadcast Serge Gainsbourg and David Bowie over the truck’s megaphone speaker. A few children stop their parents for popsicles, but most customers who poke their heads in are perplexed-looking grown-ups.
“So many adults come up and they are jumping up and down like 7-years-olds,” Ms. Safai explained. “‘And I want one of those! And one of those! And I want a finger puppet and a finger trap and a whistle and a glow stick!’”
The truck does possess a bizarre sugar-coated siren’s call over grown-up New Yorkers. Later that evening, as the Heartschallenger rattled to a hip-hop show in Brooklyn, nearly every adult in its wake—taxi drivers, policemen, an entire outdoor cafe—turned to grin and wave. Parents halted their children and drivers ignored the road as the truck’s gentle electro-pop soundtrack, written and recorded by Pollock, emitted its bells and chimes.
Too adorable? Maybe. But Ms. Safai doesn’t pretend that her personality and product are one in the same. “People think, like, unicorns and hearts, that that somehow translates into, like, optimistic, and I’m like the fucking most hard-core L.A. bitch you’ll meet in your life,” Ms. Safai said as she lapped up a Fudgesicle.
She wasn’t kidding. Ms. Safai had a hardscrabble upbringing in L.A. She lived with her single mother, and in middle school she joined a gang, the Toonerville Trece, who nicknamed her Flaca. She brought wholesale candy to school instead of her books, and pulled up to $100 a day. Most of it was spent at the Hello Kitty Store, the rest slipped into her mother’s purse. She dropped out of school at 14 and had a daughter—Tiger—by 19. (Tiger, for the record, chose to stay with family in Los Angeles for the summer.)
“I don’t come from smiles and sunshine. This whole project has been to, like, redeem myself and have enough self-control to pull me back from the dark side. Because I should be a crack prostitute, you know what I mean? I should be on drugs, I should be addicted to drugs. I should be on death row somewhere.”
But after dropping out of school, Ms. Safai found herself drawn to aesthetics, studying textiles and fabrics in the Salvation Army, browsing vintage literature in used-book stores and exploring new neighborhoods like Hollywood and Little Tokyo by bus. After attending community college at just 16, she enrolled in the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in 1999, and later landed a position designing hotel interiors for André Balazs. She met Mr. Pollock, an L.A. musician, in 2004. Before long, he left his band to help her realize the “lifestyle brand” of candy, clothing and music she’d been concocting for years.
Now, two years after they started, the couple has arrived in New York, leaving a pistachio Heartschallenger operating in L.A. In October the pink truck heads to London, Paris and Tokyo on tour with Heartsrevolution—that’s the name of Ms. Safai and Mr. Pollock’s techno dance band—and will be replaced with a tangerine one. A violet Heartschallenger is headed to Miami. A lemon one is in the works.
There’s currently a huge waiting list to rent the Heartschallenger for private parties. Ms. Safai charges $350 to $3,5000 an hour, and though she’s hush-hush on clients’ names, her trucks have become a staple at celebrity children’s birthdays in Hollywood. Ms. Safai is also juggling invites to collaborate with magazines, clothing lines and cellphone companies, and with 10 full-time employees, Heartschallenger will be featured in October’s Entrepreneur magazine.
“People would have said, ‘Oh, it’s too late for you, you’ve already defined who you are as a person.’” Ms. Safai said about the recent success. “To be like, ‘No, I’m not that person, I’m going to be the person I decide to be, and I am what I love, not what loves me.’”
She added later, unprompted, “If I don’t do this, then I’ll probably end up dead.”
A schedule of the Heartschallenger’s daily locations will soon be available at http://www.myspace.com/heartschallenger.