Book Review: Ugly Beauty

Ruth Brandon. Ugly Beauty: Helena Rubinstein, L’Oreal, and the Blemished History of Looking Good. New York: Harper, 2011. 304 pages.

Ugly Beauty looks at two historic icons of the beauty industry and, through them, the underside of the selling of glamor. Helena Rubinstein became a brand name in the early 20th century thanks to her line of skin-care products; Eugene Schueller isn’t so well known, but the company he founded and guided to success, L’Oreal, is today a hair and cosmetics giant.

It’s tough to dislike a book that borrows its title from a Thelonious Monk song. That doesn’t have much bearing on the content of the book itself, but I thought it bore mentioning.

Author Ruth Brandon follows two strands in Ugly Beauty: the sexual and the political. Often intertwined, together they tell the story of the rise of the cosmetics industry–catering to women but often controlled by men–in the 20th century. Rubinstein, the first self-made woman millionaire, created her cosmetics empire by appealing to–many would say exploiting–other women’s insecurities about their appearance. Selling creams that, in the end, had little positive effect on skin, Rubinstein nonetheless promoted herself as a disciple of science and an agent of female empowerment. Schueller, on the other hand, was a Alstacian chemist who perfected a hair dye that made him a millionaire and his company an industrial powerhouse.

While Rubinstein remained more or less apolitical for most of her life, Schueller was something of an economic, social, and political utopian, who tirelessly advocated a system blending social responsibility with authoritarian elements in the 1930s. With the Nazi occupation, and L’Oreal’s cooperation with the occupiers, as well as Schueller’s personal ties to French pro-Nazi organizations (which formed the basis of two post-war trials), Schueller’s political dalliances seem a bit ominous.

Neither of the two people Brandon profiles are exemplary, but together their life stories give her the canvas to write an interesting historical look at a variety of topics–French collaboration, women in business, and corporate succession–all through the lens of beauty. It’s a compelling, thought-provoking read.