'Ugly Beauty: Helena Rubenstein, L'Oreal, and the Blemished History of Looking Good'
Author: Ruth Brandon
Published: Harper; Feb. 2011
Genre: Non-fiction; History; Beauty
Synopsis: With wonderful attention to detail and real affection for her subjects, Brandon tells the story of Helena Rubinstein (1870–1965), a Polish Jew from a poor family with a small salon in Australia, who became the first woman tycoon and self-made millionaire. Her timing was excellent: she struck at the moment when decent women, for the first time, were allowing themselves makeup and were willing to shop for it publicly. At the same time, a young French chemist named Eugène Schueller (1881–1957) was making his name in hair dyes (and later collaborating with the Nazis); it was his company, L'Oreal, that swallowed Rubinstein's business. The descriptions of Schueller's political scandals are fascinating, but the story shines when Brandon returns to Rubinstein, a stubborn, spirited woman who responded to a luxury Park Avenue apartment's "No Jews" policy by buying the entire building, and who calmly thwarted robbers in her home at the age of 91. A clearheaded discussion of current beauty standards, vanity, and the gender politics of the modern cosmetic industry rounds out this lively history of the founding of the beauty business as we know it.
My Take: This was a book that from the title alone I was intrigued. L'Oreal is definitely a company whose products I know. I see them in the drugstore, in my magazines and on TV non-stop. Rubenstein's however not so much, yet she was a name that I am familiar with. I am someone who loves to play with my makeup and always have so if there is some sort of mystery to unearth behind some of these products than yes, sign me up!
I was instantly engrossed in the story held within these pages, which believe me, when it comes to pure non-fiction is not always an easy task. Ugly Beauty starts with a chapter on Rubenstein and how, from nothing, she started her business with a little magic and a lot of gumption in Australia and became one of the first female self-made millionaires. This woman is fascinating. She had a passion for her business unlike any other. She was innovative and came up with ideas for the beauty business people still use today. Even at the extreme height of her success she maintained a family business sense, helping her seven sisters get jobs running her empire in the different locations, leaving her husbands and two sons sometimes lonely. While Rubenstein as a woman may be a little shrouded in mystery since she always enjoyed spinning tales, what is known about her and what Brandon shared about her is utterly fascinating.
We then flip to what may be deemed a competitor, or at least a rising star at the same time in the beauty business. Where Rubenstein was a Jewish female with beauty creams in her kitchen, Eugene Schuller studied the sciences and started a hair dye company known as L'Oreal in France. He also quickly rose to fame in Europe with safe hair dyes at a time when many dyes would make your hair fall out, make your skin break out in a rash, etc. Where Runenstein believed in sharing the business with your family, Schuller believed in empowering your employees. They basically could not have more different business styles and it was this dichotomy that was interesting to read and you could tell was also thoroughly researched.
When WWII broke out, Rubenstein was in the US and her business rode through the war successfully. Schueller being in France needed to protect himself and his assets throughout the occupation. It appeared he wanted to do so by playing both sides. Doing so would cost him for the rest of his life and the company's well into the next century. This shocked me. How had I never heard of it? Without ruining too many details so you can read all about it in the book, it appeared that when L'Oreal went to buy out Rubenstein's company in the 80s and 90s the news was everywhere of a Nazi scandal within L'Oreal. Granted, I was a kid but I would have thought this would still haunt them. Nice media campaigns L'Oreal is all I can say.
For me, the only downfall is that since this was so well researched there were, especially during WWII, so many players in all of the events of Schuller's life and business dealings, because honestly when is anything simple, that it got incredibly tedious to read. It was almost like reading a report. However, the rest of the story with the intrigue and the information about the impact on their lives and their rise to power and wealth made this book well worth the read!
Cover Lust: I'll be honest, while it is dark to suggest the sinister contents, it leaves something to be desired. It doesn't grab me!