Ugly Beauty: Helena Rubinstein, L'Oreal, and the Blemished History of Looking Good

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Overview

The gripping story of Helena Rubinstein, Eugène Schueller, and the dark side of the beauty business they helped to create

Helena Rubinstein and L'Oréal's Eugène Schueller both started out in the beauty business during the first years of the twentieth century, and, by the time World War II broke out, had come to dominate it. However, their motivations could not have been more different. Rubinstein, a Polish Jew, claimed the world of paid work for women, and working women's ...

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Ugly Beauty: The Ugly Face of the Beauty Business

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Overview

The gripping story of Helena Rubinstein, Eugène Schueller, and the dark side of the beauty business they helped to create

Helena Rubinstein and L'Oréal's Eugène Schueller both started out in the beauty business during the first years of the twentieth century, and, by the time World War II broke out, had come to dominate it. However, their motivations could not have been more different. Rubinstein, a Polish Jew, claimed the world of paid work for women, and working women's enthusiasm for her products made her the first self-made female millionaire. Schueller, a French conservative in the Henry Ford mold, thought women belonged in the home, and during the Nazi Occupation he used his company as a source of cash to buy economic and political influence.

Schueller eventually won the long fight for supremacy: in 1988 his company swallowed Rubinstein's. But the victory cost him his reputation when, in the wake of the takeover, he was exposed as a Nazi collaborator. Deepening the scandal, his wartime activities were shown to have been abetted and condoned by a cadre of young men who, by the time the news broke, had scaled the peaks of wealth and power in postwar France.

By then Schueller and Rubinstein were both long dead. But cultural historian and biographer Ruth Brandon argues that the battle they began continues to this day. She examines their conflict to ask important contemporary questions about beauty standards and the often murky intersection of individual political aims and the role of business. Filled with remarkable twists, turns, and larger-than-life characters, Ugly Beauty is a riveting true story about what lies beneath the flawless exterior of the cosmetics industry.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
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. (Feb.)
Library Journal
Beauty became a huge business in the last century, largely through the pioneering efforts of Helena Rubinstein and L'Oréal creator Eugène Schueller. Brandon (Governess: The Lives and Times of the Real Jane Eyres) provides a deep, probing account of how their companies grew to dominate the market and how their merger combined not only products but the founders' opposing philosophies. Rubinstein never quite left behind her humble origins in the Kraków ghetto of late 19th-century Poland during her incredible evolution into the world's first-ever, self-made woman tycoon. Her competitor and ultimate purchaser of her empire Schueller was himself of "humble" origins but through formal science study followed a very different path. Brandon skillfully proceeds from individual histories to explore the improbable phenomenon of bringing together the life's work of these business giants, whose goals, ethics, and backgrounds could hardly have been more incompatible. The final result was an enormously lucrative global enterprise. VERDICT This engaging book should appeal not only to beauty enthusiasts but also to students of corporate histories, who will relish the compelling aspects of the unlikely crossing of paths of two hugely successful entrepreneurs.—Richard Drezen, Brooklyn, NY
Kirkus Reviews

A sprawling exposé on how the blending of two cosmetics behemoths reopened a shameful era in French history.

After charting the life of self-made beauty entrepreneur Helena Rubinstein (1865–1970), cultural historian and novelist Brandon (Caravaggio's Angel, 2008, etc.) examines the enormous ramifications of hair-dye industrialist Eugène Schueller's collaboration with the Nazi occupation's economy and the insidious reaches of today's beauty industry—e.g., plastic surgery, of which the author herself inquired. The life of Rubinstein is an astounding tale of self-invention and sheer drive. The eldest of eight sisters born to a kerosene dealer in Krakow's Jewish ghetto, Helena, then Chaja, refused to marry the suitor chosen for her and expelled herself from home for good, staying with relatives in Vienna then Australia, where she finally settled on Melbourne as the place from which to launch her own beauty-cream business in 1901. Cooking up her facial creams from her kitchen and marketing them for single working girls in pots labeled "Valaze by Dr. Lykuski," she learned fast the seductive powers of advertising ("rare herbs which only grow in the Carpathian Mountains" was "pure snake oil," the author assures us). By staffing her growing shops over the world with her family members, convincing women of all the different products they needed and employing huge markups, she made herself a wealthy woman in a few short years. Meanwhile, Schueller, a baker's son turned research chemist, invented a safe hair dye that propelled his own business, L'Oréal, which became so popular during the 1920s and '30s that he established his own magazine and theories of management and social responsibility. While not enamored of Hitler, Schueller was pragmatic, and believed that Europe needed a new "economic order." The extent of his financial backing of the French fascist movement La Cagoule would emerge only in 1991, several years after L'Oréal's buyout of Helena Rubinstein Inc.

A wildly convoluted tale as bizarre as it is intriguing.

BookPage
“Equal parts cultural history and journalistic exposé, Ugly Beauty is compulsively readable and intentionally disturbing. Pretty on the outside, as Brandon shows us, does not necessarily mean pretty on the inside.”
Wall Street Journal
“Ugly Beauty includes moments of engrossing liveliness.”
New York magazine
“The book is loaded with juicy details about Schueller and Rubenstein...But Brandon’s bigger argument is that the modern beauty industry can be explained by the politics and practices of these two originally divergent companies. And she’s convincing.”
New York Post
“Required Reading”
New York Times Book Review
“Ugly Beauty is a cut above...Brandon offers sharp, certain and concise writing, with few wasted words or tangents.”
Dallas Morning News
“[Ugly Beauty] is a fascinating read…a richly rewarding social and cultural history.”
Sunday Times (London)
“Brandon’s book is most successful when she writes about the yin and yang of her two protagonists...definitely worth reading.”
Washington Post
“Ruth Brandon is one of our most wide-ranging and accomplished cultural historians.”
Bloomberg News
“An incisive history of cosmetics tycoon Helena Rubinstein and Eugene Schueller, the founder of L’Oreal.”
Forbes
“[Ugly Beauty] is a fantastic account of the scandalous history behind L’Oreal, the world’s largest beauty company. Brandon uses the conflict to question the standards of beauty and the role politics and business play in that arena. A good read.”
Boston Globe
“A rich chronicle of two entrepreneurs working in what was then a startling new industry, as well as a sharp examination of the interplay between individual, business, and political morality.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780061740404
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 2/1/2011
  • Pages: 290
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Ruth Brandon is a cultural historian and biographer. She has also written five detective stories and two literary novels. Brandon lives in London with her husband, art historian Philip Steadman.

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