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Ugly Beauty: Helena Rubinstein, L'Oréal, and the Blemished History of Looking Good Hardcover – February 1, 2011

3.2 out of 5 stars 53 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. 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.)
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From Booklist

Exposés of the beauty industry and its relatives, such as cosmetic surgery, are common these days, whether the chosen medium is film or print. In this particular instance, the link between L’Oréal (the acquirers of Helena Rubenstein’s brand) and Fascist collaborators, to mention just one scandal, is old news. Yet for undisclosed reasons, prolific London-based author Brandon (Being Divine, a biography of Sarah Bernhardt, 1991) deliberately selects the known, Helena Rubenstein, and unknown, Eugene Schueller, as appropriate counter-characters to profile. In a way, the two could not be more opposite. Flamboyant Polish Jew Rubenstein promoted everlasting female beauty through the mysterious workings of her creams and cosmetics, whereas chemist Schueller proudly publicized his invention of the first safe artificial hair dye. Brandon details their divergent philosophies (Eugene, for instance, was convinced that every woman belonged at home), their politics, their friendships, family, and passions—and the inextricable business and personal links to Nazi Germany and corporate lack of restitution for WWII wrongs. The story meanders, jumping back and forth chronologically, leaving some difficulty in following. --Barbara Jacobs

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Harper; 1St Edition edition (February 1, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0061740403
  • ISBN-13: 978-0061740404
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (53 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,625,198 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Steve Harrison VINE VOICE on January 5, 2011
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
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.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
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.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
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.
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