Ugly Beauty: Helena Rubinstein, L’Oreal and the Blemished History of Looking Good
Everyone has heard of Helena Rubinstein, international queen of cosmetics. Tiny, plump, spike-heeled, bowler hatted and extravagantly jeweled, she was for many years one of the fixtures of the New York scene as she hurried between her vast apartment on Park Avenue and her salon at 8 East 57th Street, in one hand an enormous leather bag stuffed with dollar bills, business notes, old tissues and spare earrings, in the other a paper sack containing a copious lunch. Instantly recognizable to all from the advertisements that carried her photograph, she was energy personified, at once comic and awe-inspiring.
Few, by contrast, have heard of Eugène Schueller – though everyone is familiar with L’Oréal, the firm he founded in Paris in 1909. Like Rubinstein he was born poor; like her, he rode to riches on the back of women’s compulsion to beautify themselves. Unlike her, however, neither his name nor his face were familiar to those who bought his hairdyes. Immured within his empire, travelling between factories in a Rolls equipped as an office on wheels, he shunned personal publicity. As for entertaining, he quite simply had no time for it – was indeed so removed from society that when his wife died and he wished to remarry, the only woman he could find – even though he was by then one of the richest men in France – was his daughter’s governess.
In 1988, Schueller’s business swallowed Rubinstein’s. In the normal way of things the takeover would have gone unnoticed except in the business press. But Rubinstein had been a Jew, and Schueller, during the German occupation, a leading fascist collaborator. And although they had never met during their lifetimes, and were both, by then, long dead, the consequences of this potentially lethal opposition outlived them both, exploding in a series of scandals that ricocheted around the world.
It may seem odd – certainly unexpected – that a history of the beauty business should include an excursion into fascist politics. But cosmetics, unlike clothes, have always been a political hot potato. Rubinstein’s and Schueller’s stories show why this has been so – and why it continues to be so today.