Which explains the emotional reaction Torrid sparked after opening its doors. "Some people thought we had staged customers," McLaughlin says, "because when they went into a store, they saw a mom or daughter screaming with joy or crying." Plus-size model Mia Tyler is among the converted. Once resigned to surfing the Internet for "the rock stuff" she wore growing up, the 24-year-old daughter of Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler is now a die-hard Torrid fan. "I'm like, 'I'll model for you for free clothes!' " she says. "There's just nowhere else in the world to get this stuff."

Even http://www.goldengoosesneakers.com/ when selling less unusual items, McLaughlin has displayed a golden touch. The older of two daughters raised mostly in Costa Mesa by Karin, 78, a homemaker, and Bob, 74, a salesman, McLaughlin took her first retail job in 1978 while attending the University of California at Irvine. As a menswear sales clerk at a local department store, her father says, "she'd get one guy in and sell to him, and then he'd come back with his whole football team!"

In 1982, after graduating with an economics degree, McLaughlin started working her way up through the retail business Golden Goose Sneakers Sale ranks, landing at Hot Topic in 1993. Seven years later she was named CEO and soon after decided to test the idea of hip fashions for large teens by stocking Hot Topic shelves with a pair of size 15 vinyl pants. "Customers started writing in, saying, 'I see you have this one item; why can't you have more?' " says McLaughlin, who translated that demand into Torrid. "We realized this customer didn't have anywhere to go."


These days it's McLaughlin who's heading in a different direction. She was once reluctant to leave business matters behind at the company's City of Industry, Calif., headquarters鈥攊n 2001, for example, "we were at a wedding, toasting the bride," her father says, "and there's Betsy in the corner with her BlackBerry reading e-mails." McLaughlin is now trying to create "a balanced life" that includes more time cooking at home for friends ("I love the entire process of planning and preparing a meal," she says) and tending to the garden at her two-bedroom Manhattan Beach, Calif., bungalow.