34 of 36 people found the following review helpful
This book has either no subject or too many.
Its first chapter is a brief biography of Helena Rubinstein and her company. Ms. Brandon makes the point that she was an untutored but interesting character who made a fortune by marketing useless potions.
The next chapter is a brief biography of Eugene Schueller and his company, L'Oreal. Ms. Brandon makes the point that he was a chemist who made a fortune by developing the first safe, effective hair dye.
But L'Oreal is the villain of the piece, as shown by the middle chapters. They discuss allegedly nefarious connections between L'Oreal, or people connected with L'Oreal, or people connected with people connected with L'Oreal, and French collaborators during the World War II German occupation. This caused L'Oreal terrible, explosive problems later, we're told. But those problems seem to have amounted to occasional public-relations issues that the company dealt with successfully and that didn't hurt it at all. The apparent thrust of this portion of the book, though, is that when, some fifty years after the war, L'Oreal bought Rubinstein's company it did so as an antisemitic gesture. To say that no scrap of evidence supports this is not quite true; there are scraps which, carefully assembled and cemented with liberal amounts of speculation and mind-reading, make an unconvincing case.
Then we're suddenly in the present time and the first person for a chapter briefly and superficially discussing modern cosmetics, Botox, plastic surgery, and Ms. Brandon's experiences with them. The discussion has an overtly feminist slant -- but this is 21st century feminism, not 1970's feminism, so cosmetics are good, not bad; empowering, not enslaving; threatening to men, not useful to them. The chapter says nothing interesting or informative, however, about cosmetics, Rubinstein, Schueller, corporate history, Nazis, collaborators, or anything else.
The final chapter is about Rubinstein and Schueller's daughter, Liliane Bettencourt, as old ladies. The point of it is that Liliane's adult life cannot have been as happy or satisfying as Rubinstein's -- despite much evidence to the contrary -- basically because Liliane was tasteful, reserved, and classy while Rubinstein was very much the opposite. This reflects the school of feminism that honors gracelessness as the only virtue. The chapter also mentions recent allegations that Liliane has been taken advantage of and manipulated in her old age. There is no speck of sympathy for her, however; the implication is that that's her fault, or her father's, or the collaborators', or something.
Those who disagree with my obvious biases might like this book. But I doubt it. The problem is that it isn't really a book; it's three or four magazine articles suitable for different magazines with different audiences. They wouldn't be bad magazine articles; they're decently written, with a degree of intellectual rigor appropriate to that genre. But few will be interested in all of them. Once upon a time, an editor at a major publishing house would have spotted this, politely suggesting to his author that she figure out what her subject is and write a whole book about it. But Ms. Brandon tells us that her agent, not her editor, was "instrumental in shaping this book." That is typical nowadays, the job of "editors" being to find content, most easily from agents, to fill the publishing maw and -- insofar as it actually involves editing at all -- to teach authors how to spell and what a Table of Contents is.
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
The true subject of this book is the beauty industry itself- what we're really trying to buy, and what they're really selling. The author uses Helena Rubinstein and Eugene Schueller, two very different contemporaries to illustrate some of the divergent origins that have led to the paradoxes that are still being played out in the beauty business.
Helena Rubinstein was a determined immigrant who relied on her wits and native but unschooled intelligence to capitalize on the historic moment she found herself in. In the early 1900s, as women were beginning to forcefully assert political independence, many of the old taboos concerning the open usage of makeup were ready to be challenged. Rubinstein's formulations were far from extraordinary, but she recognized that she was selling as much a dream as she was a cream.
Eugene Schueller, while just as hardworking as Rubinstein and from similar humble origins, had the benefit of a hard-won education in science. He also had a keen business sense and recognized quickly that he would be better able to make money in business than academia. However, unlike Rubinstein, he worked for a few years to derive a formula for a dye that would safely color women's hair, something unheard of before his time. Once he discovered, he worked tirelessly to launch his new company and in less than two decades turned it into a national success.
Rubinstein found international success before L'Oreal, but although she was a famously hard worker, she didn't train an heir, in or out of her family, to take over after her death. This left her company open for picking a takeover- at the hands of L'Oreal two decades later.
The reader doesn't get the sense that there was a rivalry between Rubinstein and Schueller a la Dior and Chanel. Indeed, according to this book, it's possible that these two never laid eyes on each other. It's a subtle idea of a rivalry between ideas rather than companies or people, and in that sense it falls a little flat. There's nothing "juicy" between the two of them at all. Further, after teasing us with some of the fascinating beginnings of Rubinstein's life, the reader feels a little cheated that so much of the book focuses on Schueller. But if the reader is looking for juicy, it's all there.
Schueller, as one of the most successful businessmen in France with "Fordist" ideas, threw in with the German-controlled government almost as soon as they invaded. He openly collaborated with the government, providing offices, cash and access to officials and, it seems, some more violent groups. However, when it became clear that the Germans were not going to win the war, he also gave aid to not only the Resistance but also individuals who were seeking escape from the Nazis.
The author takes pains to assert that Schueller was not a racist or an anti-Semite. His motivations were philosophical and economic and, as many of us know, he was in good company in his belief that democracy was anathema to progress. However, she does not let Schueller off the hook for his activities, pointing out that while he did save several Jewish families and provided cash aid to the Resistance, France's Jews were suffering through the horror of the Holocaust, no matter how high up the social ladder they might have been. Could men like Schueller have stopped this? Hard to know, but they weren't in any danger of doing so while they were helping the Vichy government.
Ironically, activities seven decades old continue to resonate because of the wealth and political power Schueller and his company worked so hard to cultivate. Their international ambitions- set off by the acquisition of the Rubinstein company and their attempts to get around the anti-Israel boycott- led to events that shone a light on the anti-Semitic and anti-Republican activities from the 40s. It is, perhaps, part of the ugliness the author refers to her in her title, and up until the summer of 2010 this drama was continuing to play out in France.
The author is not only indicting L'Oreal (and its myriad subsidiaries) for their role in World War II. The beauty industry suffers from the push-pull dynamic around the role of women. Should they, as Rubinstein believed, buy and use cosmetics as a sign of their independence and confidence or, as Schueller might have believed, to help them play the role of the supportive, attractive spouse? Can we get women to buy cosmetics by playing against their self-esteem, or by encouraging it? Certainly, the increasing lask of realism in advertising (the section on PhotoShop and plastic surgery was eye-popping) and our inversely proportionate ability to emulate that ideal isn't doing anything to encourage our self-esteem. (And I use "our" to be fully inclusive- men's products are a growing section of the market.)
I would have liked to have seen more on Rubinstein; she seemed like a fascinating character, and I would have liked to have known more about the nuts and bolts of her business. But this was overall a fascinating read, and one that genuinely disturbed me as I read it. If ever a book should be required for media literacy, this is surely one of them.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
Combining biographies of Helena Rubinstein and Eugene Schueller, Ugly Beauty is subtitled, Helena Rubinstein, L'Oreal, and the Blemished history of looking good.
Starting off, the first chapters about Rubinstein are fascinating. This interesting and ambitious woman who grew up in the Krakow ghetto, moved to Australia where she had family and started her own beauty product line. She was a marketing genius, using techniques that are still actively used in marketing beauty products today. She had no formal education in chemistry, yet she gathered enough information to make her products in her kitchen lab and learned how to make the products women wanted. I found it interesting that in Australia at the turn of the 20th century, the Victorian era was over, women were entering the workforce and were willing to try beauty products still forbidden in Victorian England. Her business quickly expanded and she became a force to be reckoned with.
Eugene Schueller, a French chemist, invented products to dye hair, using his skills to experiment on many products and formulas. He, too, was a marketing expert selling his products to Paris hair salons, and creating a market where none had previously been. He, like Rubinstein was a workaholic, and expected the same of his employees. Schueller was the founder of Cagoule, a controversial French activist organization that held meetings at L'Oreal headquarters. Many of later L'Oreal executives were involved in Schueller's controversial political groups. Eventually Schueller's company, L'Oreal, expanded world wide and produced most types of beauty products.
I found the first part of this book and some of the last part very interesting. There is much interesting information in the part about Rubinstein. The middle part of the book about Schueller and WWII, bogged down into boring stories about business, dirty tricks, Henry Ford, and Schuller's dealings with various people.
One valuable thing about reading this book is that it confirmed my long held belief that beauty products are extremely over priced on purpose and that many of the advertising claims are greatly exaggerated.
Why a 2 star rating:
If a reader is looking for an interesting history of the beauty products industry you might find the first part of the book relatively interesting. However, the book quickly bogs down into plodding, verbose, chapters about Schuller's political activities, and business principles and philosophy. This seems like it could be required reading for first year business students and maybe students of French activism before and during WWII. The end of the book lost my interest completely, as the author recites tedious details about L'Oreal management and practices.
Over all I would say save your money or read a different book on the history of beauty products.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
This sounded like a promising read, an inside peek to my favorite adored world of the makeup giants. Unfortunately, it fell flat. As many have mentioned the beginning chapter that gives us the background about Helen Rubinstein was interesting, and had me keeping the pages turning. After that though the book started to feel thrown together. Too many facts, not enough focus. It was hard to not skip over parts that just felt weighed down and sluggish.
Am I glad I read it? Meh, I could have lived without. But, since I did invest the time, I'm going with the bright side, such as at least I know a little more about the beauty industry that I so like to be a slave to.
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
I had an interest in this book, as I worked for a cosmetic factory for half a decade, and the L'Oreal factory near me has rumors galore that I thought I would find in this Ruth Brandon's book. All the interesting things I heard about L'Oreal were not in this book.
The book starts out very interesting with Helena Rubinstein's beginnings as a young Polish girl from a Jewish ghetto, who ran off to Australia, where her sister lived, to avoid marrying the older man her father chose for her to marry. The stories are really good in this first chapter about how Helena made her own concoction of moisturizers in her kitchen for the Australian women to use to save their sun baked skin from early wrinkles. She opened up her first salon with a simple table of her moisturizers and satin curtains in the windows that were actually made from the same fabrics from evening gowns. Helena is a self made woman in a very male dominated business world, and became the first woman to have millions of dollars that came directly from herself.
The book then takes a turn into the world of Eugene Schueller, an educated chemist who developed hair dyes in Paris in 1909. Schueller called his company L'Aureole, after a hairstyle that was very popular when he began to sell his hair dyes. He later shortened and changed the name to L'Oreal. Schueller was anti cosmetic for women, as like Hitler, he believed women should be tan and naturally healthy looking and stay at home and care for the family. He couldn't be more opposite of Helena Rubinstein if he tried, and that's why it's all the more shocking that a man who hates cosmetics would 80 years later swallow up Helena's company and combine it with his hair dyes.
Both entered the beauty business at the perfect time when the market was ready but still untapped. Both also became rich based on the universal fear of aging. Everyone dreads wrinkles and gray hair, and Schueller and Rubinstein had the treatments to end those fears. Other than these facts, they were totally different in every way. This is where the book turns into a who knew Schueller during WWII, and who were their Nazi contacts. I just kept reading chapter after chapter of who knew this Nazi, who knew Schueller, who knew that Nazi, who knew a brother who knew Schueller, I mean when will these endless Nazi contacts end and the politicians who had Nazi contacts who knew Schuller- it just kept dragging on for chapter after chapter. A good 80% of this book will put you to sleep at night, if you can't sleep.
Finally the who knew all the Nazi's who knew Schueller ended, and the book goes into modern day needles and cosmetic surgeries. What happened to Helena Rubinstein? Then at the very end, the author touches on Helena and Schueller's daughter Liliane, and how Rubinstein's company disappears into L'Oreal. When the author focused on Helena Rubinstein and Eugene Schueller's beginnings it was great, but most of the book is about who knew who in Nazi controlled France. It was hard for me to read through all the Nazi names and Nazi connected political organizations for most of the book, and so I didn't enjoy the bulk of it. For the 20% I did enjoy, it's not worth the time or trouble and certainly not the money to enjoy 20% of a book. I'm very unhappy that I kept reading it thinking that the book will get back on track, which it finally did, only way too late.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on January 8, 2011
Okay, but filled with so much detail sometimes that I found myself skipping though it. I think it would have probably been a better book if had been only 2/3rds as long. Also, while I learned about the people involved, I didn't really get to know them. In the book they are not really people who come alive, but just people who lived long ago and now they are dead. And the book kind of jumped from one thing to another also, like it was several subjects not quite jelled together.
Anyway, it is an interesting book, it just isn't a extremely well written book.
8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
I was looking forward to reading this book and thought it would be both enjoyable to read and an informative overview of two cosmetic powerhouses that have been in existence for decades.
Enjoyable - No! Interesting? Up to a point. For starters, I would have liked to have seen a photo of Helena Rubinstein, whom the author describes in physically unflattering terms often throughout the book. A photo of Eugene Schueller would have also been a good addition. That said, I found many aspects of Helena Rubinstein rather interesting, although chopy in parts; a woman with little choice but to follow the family tradition of getting married at a young age and spitting out babies like popcorn, kneeling in reference to a husband she didn't love, and locked for life in despair. That Helena Rubinstein chose to defy her family and take a flying leap of faith in another direction is admirable indeed, especially in those days where women were subservient to men and much denied power of any sort. She apparently loved what she was doing, far more than her husband and children, and suffered a lack of emotional connection to life other than her business. That she was a work alcoholic was obvious. The story continues on with Eugene Schueller, who was obviously a brilliant chemist, also a work alcoholic, and who created L'Oreal of Paris. His life was also interesting, but again, chopy with too many insignificiant life details that you simply didn't care about. That there was so much greed between them both is not surprising. Somehow we've arrived in present time and in comes the scandal of current Liliane Bettencourt and Francois-Marie Banier, who charmed away his life with elderly wealthy women, and this becomes very interesting.
What this book needed was a good edit, and all of this and more could have been entertaining to read, but somehow the author is detached from her subjects to the point where the writing is one dimensional, and you end up reading page after page of more and more facts, going off in too many directions, without the meat and potatoes of a really good juicy story which, to my mind, is still there for a better author to write.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
Now that I've finished this book, I have to make a confession: I realize I am not the target audience. So why did I pick this book? For the mere fact that I'm interested in the beauty industry and saw a documentary about the rivalry between Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden a while back and thought this book would be a nice complement to that program. It's not.
Focusing on the history of the Helena Rubinstein and L'Oréal beauty companies and the two wildly different founders of each, we are treated to a dissertation not only on the rise in fortunes of the two influential names in beauty but also tangents on Henry Ford, capitalism, communism and fascism, the Nazi party, and how wealthy old ladies attract the attentions of young impecunious playboys. What do all these subjects have to do with the beauty industry? Honestly, I'm not sure, other than to illustrate the dark side of the business and the questionable motives behind some of the twentieth century's most powerful and influential business magnates.
The biggest point I take away from Brandon's work is the dichotomy between Helena Rubinstein, who used the female-based and female-powered beauty industry to break free from her traditional (read: patriarchal) Jewish upbringing to become an empowered and vocal businesswoman; and Eugène Schueller, who promoted the ideals of feminine beauty and power through his company, L'Oréal, yet believed women belonged in the home and out of the workplace, a doctrine he advocated so firmly his only child, a daughter, was worthwhile to him and to L'Oréal only as the wife of a potential company man and certainly not as a potential heir to the business.
Other than that, I don't quite understand what picture Brandon is trying to weave together with the disparate threads in her book, other than the dichotomy I just pointed out. If that's the case, I think it could've been done in a less convoluted, vague and ultimately stultifying manner. Perhaps, were I a business major, I'd understand the book's purpose; as I'm not, I'm left feeling disappointed and dissatisfied and wishing I could get back the hours I've spent reading Brandon's work.
7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
I have, probably since the age of 11 or so, been fascinated by cosmetics and skincare and, when I finally reached young womanhood, I became similarly fascinated by some of the women who were considered luminaries in the field. With the exception of Elizabeth Arden (and, in a small way, Polly Bergen of "Oil of the Turtle" fame), were of Jewish and of Eastern- or Central-European descent; these included Rose Reti, Georgette Klinger (my own guru), and Estée Lauder. The first and most successful of all, however, was Helena Rubinstein--an extremely recognizable name while I was growing up. I was under the impression that I might learn more about her as a person than I did in Ruth Brandon's Ugly Beauty: Helena Rubinstein, L'Oréal, and the Blemished History of Looking Good, but in the end, it really didn't matter because I learned all I needed to know.
Ms. Brandon's book covers the lives and careers of two relentlessly motivated individuals from very different backgrounds--Helena Rubinstein, a Polish Jew, and Eugene Schueller, the Alsation founder of L'Oréal--and weaves a fascinating account of two impoverished individuals who bootstrapped their way to the top and how their paths intersect in old age. Those backgrounds are the basis for Ms. Brandon's account because it seems that M. Schueller--a research chemist whose career was jump-started by a challenge to create a safe hair dye--who perhaps didn't qualify as an anti-Semite by Bertrand Russell's criterion (to his credit, Schueller went to bat for a number of Jewish colleagues during WWII), was very much in bed with a number of truly murderous anti-Republican terrorists who, admiring Hitler's methods if not the man himself, were committed to an authoritarian regime ethnically cleansed of all "undesirables" (read: Jews), and to this end were willing to collaborate with the invaders. Ms. Brandon details how the two firms eventually intersected, culminating in the acquisition by L'Oréal of Helena Rubinstein in 1988 (after the deaths of both founders).
There's plenty of ugliness to tar both principals, although Madame's sins are much less heinous than those of M. Schueller. Helena Rubinstein very cannily realized at a young age that women would pay to improve their looks and pretty much began her career as a snake oil salesman--making claims for her products that not only couldn't be substantiated but had no basis in fact whatsoever. To her credit, she realized the necessity of gaining at least a modicum of knowledge about skincare and made it a point to get herself formally educated but her bottom line was always about getting that last nickel out of the customer's coin purse (I can't help but contrast her attitude with that of Georgette Klinger, who discouraged women--including myself--from wearing foundation and who actually refused to sell me products that she didn't consider essential). On the other hand, M. Schueller, a would-be social engineer who actually had a science background and was committed to producing products that lived up to their claims, was an extreme authoritarian who truly believed that a benevolent dictatorship was the only way that France would recover from the trauma of WWI (I found it odd that the author made no reference to Plato), and, as L'Oréal prospered, that he had developed the working model (as someone working on a business plan myself, I can at last sympathize first-hand with such thinking). Unfortunately, M. Schueller not only associated with nefarious characters, he hired them as well: L'Oréal's history is stained by collaboration with Germany, documented anti-Jewish rants by its executives, knuckling under to the Arab boycotts of the 1970s, and refusal to pay reparations to a Survivor whose title to her home had been coerced from her husband in his quest to relocate his family, and had ultimately ended up owned by a L'Oréal subsidiary (reparations from a company as profitable as L'Oréal would have been a pittance). It was horrifying reading but I almost swallowed the book whole.
Ugly Beauty is very well written and truly a mesmerizing read but I knocked off a star because I felt that Chapter Six, despite being informative, had a tendency to meander quite a bit and threw out a lot of information that I personally felt was extraneous, not to mention somewhat tedious. However, it was in that chapter that I realized the extent of L'Oréal's tentacles and why perhaps I should think in terms of giving up my beloved Lancôme Definicils and Kerastase hair products because frankly, I now know that L'Oréal is not the kind of company I want to have my money. The sad thing is that despite its tainted past, L'Oréal, one of the most profitable concerns on the planet, isn't going anywhere because no one really cares. I'm glad that Ms. Brandon cared enough to not only author such a compelling read but possessed the imagination to discover the parallels that exist between the subjects, and would unhesitatingly recommend Ugly Beauty to just about anyone (I intend to loan my copy to my hair stylist).
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
I had a very tough time with this book. A good History book just can't be put down, but this one had me want to pitch it against the wall. Quite frankly the lives of Helena Rubenstein & Eugene Schuller, a couple of workaholics and how they raised fortunes and built companies in the beauty industry should be interesting from several angles. Instead what I got was yet another example of lazy and extremely slanted scholarship designed to frame yet another author's political agenda. In this particular case a treatise on anti-capitalism with a side of anti-semitism for a politicaly correct dose of social awareness.
I am astonished Ruth Brandon could get such a badly done waste of time published. I spent more time online looking up the two protagonists to fill in her many blanks and achieve any kind of satisfaction from a Historical perspective.
Best to leave this one alone.