The makeup of success

An exposé on the personalities behind two of the world’s most successful peddlers of cosmetics, L’Oréal and Helena Rubinstein, whose story is not a pretty one.

Helena Rubinstein 520 (photo credit: Helena Rubinstein Foundation)
Helena Rubinstein 520
(photo credit: Helena Rubinstein Foundation)
‘Are you ready to be moved?’ intones pop star Beyoncé in her latest smoldering commercial spot for L’Oréal hair coloring.
One could ask the same question of readers delving into Ruth Brandon’s eye-opening opus about the nasty underpinnings of the beauty biz.
Brandon, a cultural historian, offers a not-very-pretty picture of the personalities and political machinations behind two of the world’s largest cosmetics empires, L’Oréal and Helena Rubinstein.
In 1988, the former bought out the latter, stimulating Brandon’s keen nose for the story within the story. Part biography, part investigative journalism and part commentary on the cosmetics industry’s influence on society, the book hinges on the origins of both powerhouse brands. Each has a strong Jewish angle: Rubinstein was Jewish, of course, and L’Oréal founder Eugène Schueller, a Henry Ford admirer, had fascist and Nazi dealings that continue to taint the company. Aside from their self-made success in the cosmetics industry, however, these two fabulously wealthy European workaholics had little in common. The companies they established became consanguineous only after their deaths.
Rubinstein, whose first name was really Chaja, was the highly ambitious eldest of eight daughters of a poor Krakow family. Her kerosene dealer father attempted to wed his firstborn to a widower. Upon rejecting this match, Rubinstein left home forever, but the beauty empire she handily built always remained a family affair involving most of her sisters and assorted cousins.
(Schueller, on the other hand, strongly discouraged mixing family and business.) The young Rubinstein fled to Melbourne, where she opened a beauty salon and began selling “Valaze” allpurpose face cream. Despite her dubious, hyperbolized claims regarding its capabilities and components (it actually contained “such common raw materials as ceresine wax, mineral oil and sesame”), Rubinstein rode it to riches.
“Lots of factors made Helena Rubinstein rich – intelligence, astuteness, hard work, lucky timing,” writes Brandon.
“But what made her (and her competitors) so very rich, so fast, was the markup: the difference between the cheap raw ingredients and the astounding prices charged for the finished product.”
In fact, Rubinstein soon learned a marketing truth no less valid today: The more a beauty product costs, the more customers clamor for it. This truth underscores L’Oréal’s wellknown advertising slogan, “Because I’m worth it.”
But whereas Rubinstein’s success was fueled by the force of her personality, Schueller’s had an entirely different sort of engine: “[H]e was educated, where she was not. The foundation of her business was folk wisdom; Schueller’s business rested on science.”
Schueller was deeply involved in the media and politics of his time, activities that would lead him to be tried after World War II for industrial collaboration and again as a leader of MSR, an ultranationalist yet collaborationist French party. He was narrowly acquitted both times, having done “his best to emphasize his Resistance-friendly activities and draw a veil over the others.”
In New York during the war, Rubinstein was forced to face her Jewishness despite her best efforts. When she married her second husband in 1938 (a supposed Georgian prince), her offer to buy a 26-room Park Avenue triplex was turned down because of the building’s no-Jews policy.
She urged her relatives to get out of Krakow, promising them jobs wherever they might flee, but one sister stayed put and was murdered in the camps.
Rubinstein subsequently “became a keen supporter of the new State of Israel (which she always called Palestine),” and told foreign minister Golda Meir of her plan to build a factory there – after commenting disparagingly about Meir’s lack of makeup.
L’Oréal, too, maintained a subsidiary in Israel even before statehood. And eight months before L’Oréal’s planned purchase of Helena Rubinstein in 1988, the company Schueller started discovered that it was blacklisted by the Arab League’s anti-Israeli boycott committee.
Thus began a tangled and tortured tale of revealed wartime secrets involving Schueller’s compatriots and successors – reaching the highest echelons of the Vichy and postwar French governments.
Brandon points out several ironies in the course of laying out the sordid details. For one thing, “Had it not been for the vicious anti-Semitism of Schueller and his friends, [Rubinstein] would never have rediscovered her Jewish identity and established the Israeli presence that gave rise to the boycott problems.”
In an attempt to deflect attention from a $100 million lawsuit related to the boycott, Brandon relates, in 1994 L’Oréal purchased a 30-percent stake in Helena Rubinstein’s Israeli subsidiary (which had been renamed the more neutral Interbeauty) and opened a factory in Migdal Ha’emek, which produced several lines including one using Dead Sea minerals.
That activity led to another irony: L’Oréal received the Orthodox Union’s 1997 International Leadership Award.
But old skeletons refused to remain closeted. In 2001, “the Nazi past returned to haunt L’Oréal once more” in the form of a property dispute with a displaced German Jewish family. The company never officially acknowledged its guilt, and the case is now before the European Court of Human Rights.
The book also explores more universal areas of commercialized beauty, but it is at its best when focusing on the personalities behind two of the world’s most successful peddlers of cosmetics.