As anyone who has ever dropped a bundle on Crème de la Mer skin cream can tell you, its high price is a positive selling point. Luxury in a jar is more attainable than a Central Park West penthouse; it’s a sign of social mobility you can stash in your purse. Helena Rubinstein’s genius as a cosmetics entrepreneur was to recognize that a woman’s ability to buy a lotion or lipstick was also a part of her personal empowerment, as when American suffrage activists wore red lipstick as a “badge of independence.”
Ugly Beauty, Ruth Brandon’s fascinating dual biography of Helena Rubinstein and Eugène Schueller (founder of L’Oréal), charts the rise of the cosmetics industry over the course of the 20th century through the lives of these two very different beauty tycoons. Where Rubinstein offered cosmetics as a proto-feminist tool, and staffed her salons with her sisters and nieces, Schueller developed an authoritarian business model and believed firmly in the subjection of women. Long after their founders’ deaths, the two companies merged in 1988 when L’Oréal acquired Helena Rubinstein.
Two narratives animate Brandon’s cultural history of the cosmetics industry. One is how the fairy-tale aspect of selling “hope in a jar” intersects with beauty standards and women’s evolving identities. Brandon’s book would be amply compelling even if it had focused on this theme alone. The second narrative, however, provides an unsettling glimpse into the political forces undergirding the beauty industry: After L’Oréal’s buyout of Helena Rubinstein, long-buried scandals concerning Schueller’s wartime collaboration with the Nazis, as well as his involvement with a brutal French fascist political party, began to emerge, forcing L’Oréal into a public relations retrenchment in the early 1990s.
Brandon’s scrupulous research into Schueller’s wartime activities and his right-wing political affiliations becomes the true focus of her book, and may give pause to anyone who buys products from L’Oréal companies. 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.