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Ugly Beauty: The Blemished History of Looking Good


Beauty culture expert and businesswoman Helena Rubinstein

Beauty culture expert and businesswoman Helena Rubinstein

Beauty culture expert and businesswoman Helena Rubinstein

Anyone thinking of starting a business could take a leaf out of this fascinating new book. Ugly Beauty is a tale of the cosmetics industry, but more precisely it tells how two ambitious individuals from poor backgrounds used their wits to attain unimaginable wealth.

How, you might well ask? They spotted -- some would say, created -- gaps in the market and sewed desires in their customers' hearts where none had existed before. In addition, they were ruthless, unscrupulous and worked very, very hard.

Born into a traditional Jewish family in Poland in the late 19th Century, Helena Rubinstein grew up in a Krakow ghetto with seven younger sisters, a mother who was a housewife and a father who made a living selling kerosene and eggs.

She left as soon as she could. After moving to stay with relatives in Australia, she set up a beauty salon in Melbourne, where, unlike in Europe at that time (1901), the concept of career women -- or "bachelor girls" as they were known -- had taken hold. These women had disposable incomes of their own, and Rubinstein quickly showed a genius for marketing her products to them.

She exploited her foreign origins, telling customers that her formula came from Polish brothers, "who had supplied us for our personal use ever since I was a little girl". She noticed that if she raised prices, her creams were even more likely to sell. Until then, skin was just skin, but Rubinstein hit on the brilliant idea of classifying it as oily, combination or dry, and she concocted potions to cater to each type. Within two years, she was rich, and not long after that she was a millionaire.

Around the same time, in France, a young chemist called Eugene Schueller was perfecting non-toxic hair-dyes for a fledgling company that would become L'Oreal. Schueller was the only surviving son of a struggling Parisian baker. Four of his siblings had died in infancy, making him the apple of his parents' eye, and they saved all their money to pay for his education. At school and then in university, Schueller excelled as a scientist. He worked as a chemist for a few years, but left conventional science after a hairdresser invited him to collaborate on a project to create hair-dyes. When he realised that this was where the money was, he set up on his own.

Brandon is a cultural historian, and she skilfully ties her subjects' stories in with wider social change. When the trend for bob hairstyles took off in the Twenties, many men were shocked ("a bobbed woman is a disgraced woman" shrieked one), but where some saw scandal, Schueller saw a business opportunity. The new style required more attention from hairstylists, and his customers spent more money on dyes -- a grey bob didn't look good.

Make-up was also a symbol of increased female freedom. In the 19th Century, it was shrouded in stigma, and women had to sneak into salons to get their hands on it, but Rubinstein changed that. For her, it was something that would make women confident (which, Brandon suggests, is a reason society frowned on it).

Rubinstein lived by her own principles and was an avid fan of retail therapy. When on honeymoon with her first husband, she caught him chatting earnestly with a young girl, and her response was to rush out and buy a set of pearls -- and to catch the next train to Paris, leaving him behind.

The subtext of the story suggests that Brandon is a feminist. She takes us in detail through Schueller's very dubious actions during the Second World War -- an authoritarian who sided with collaborationists during France's occupation, he began to aid both sides as the war's outcome became clear -- but the book's best section is towards the end, where Brandon analyses the state of the beauty industry today. Although she celebrates Rubinstein's success, Brandon is dubious about the role of cosmetics in our lives.

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"Travelling in the New York subway one day," she writes, "I was struck by the unusually beautiful complexion of the young woman opposite -- only to be confounded a few seconds later as she opened her bag, took out a make-up kit, and proceeded to cover her face with pink gloop. When she'd finished, she looked just like everyone else, which, presumably, was the intention."

That's not the only problem, though. Rubinstein's early business was built on old wives' tales and folklore. Her creams were made from ordinary products, injected with the magic of good publicity and a certain flexibility with the truth. Today, science drives the industry, with plastic surgery offering an approximation of eternal youth that make-up cannot supply. L'Oreal part-owns a pharmaceutical company, and two years ago, in a joint venture with Nestle, introduced a botulinum toxin treatment, staking a claim in the Botox market.

Along with these developments, the balance of power has shifted, and at the most lucrative level, cosmetics have become a man's game. Ninety per cent of cosmetic surgeons are men. In 1988, 20 years after Rubinstein's death, L'Oreal took over the company she had founded, and L'Oreal's multinational tentacles now spread far: it owns Maybelline, Garnier, Lancome, Kerastase, Redken, The Body Shop, Kiehl's and, indeed, almost 500 other brands in 150 countries. On L'Oreal's management committee, one out of the 10 members is female.

Brandon delves expertly into a sordid mess of scandals that dogged L'Oreal from the Second World War on into the Nineties; they attach themselves to luminaries, from Francois Mitterrand to Nicolas Sarkozy to Schueller's son-in-law André Bettencourt, who married his daughter Liliane. Rubinstein is the character who comes out best in Ugly Beauty, in all her obsessive bossiness and neurotic chaos.

Although L'Oreal may have won out in the long term, Rubinstein is still a model for today's would-be business folk. Towards the end of her life, a man called Patrick O'Higgins became her assistant. The child of Irish diplomats, he and she were very close, though they were not involved romantically (he may have been gay). Yet in her will, she left him just $5,000 and a $2,000 annuity.

He was somewhat surprised at the paltriness of the sum, but then he recalled a conversation they had before her death. She had asked him: "If I were to leave you $25,000 in cash, what would you do with it?" To which he replied: "Spend it. Have a lovely holiday." She had nodded knowingly and made her decision.

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