Merrimon Book Reviews

Helena Rubinstein

Eugene Schueller

From Merrimon Book Reviews
Ugly Beauty:
Helena Rubenstein, L'Oreal, and The Blemished History of Looking Good
Ugly Beauty: Helena Rubenstein, L'Oreal, and The Blemished History of Looking Good by Ruth Brandon
by Ruth Brandon


UGLY BEAUTY, Ruth Brandon explores the beginnings of the cosmetics industry by first contrasting the lives of Helena Rubenstein and Eugene Schueller, the founder of L'Oreal.  Rubenstein, a Polish Jew, found freedom and independence through her work.  Brandon uses Rubenstein's life to exemplify the changes in women's roles as working women found new roles in society.  Schueller, a conservative who believed women should stay at home, used his business to climb up the political and economic ladder.  From the contrast of the these two cosmetics leaders, Brandon moves on towards a closer examination of the Nazi connections of Schueller from the scandals that came to light as L'Oreal sought to take over Rubenstein's company.  Brandon examines and contrasts the older Rubenstein and Liliane Bettencourt, Schueller's daughter and the life models of women's role as held by Rubenstein and Schueller on both women in their later years.  Once again another scandal emerges concerning Schueller's family.

UGLY BEAUTY is part history, part feminist social analysis.  As a work of history or cultural critique, the connections between the sections are more intuitive than spelled out with facts and analysis.  UGLY BEAUTY is not a complete history of the beginnings of the cosmetics industry but rather a work that focuses on two individuals whose businesses later became connected as models of the different roles of women and business.  As a scholarly work, UGLY BEAUTY would needs more to make the connections between the history of the individuals and some of the fascinating questions the author poses towards the end of the book.  The small reference to photography/photoshopping poses intriguing questions of beauty standards, a topic which could have been another chapter in and of itself.  The same holds for as the questions about business conglomerates and their role in politics.  The focus and force of the book centers on Schueller.  More attention to the life of Rubenstein, particularly since the author often places her as the more powerful role model, would have made this book more powerful both as a scholarly work and for the more casual reader.  More attention to Schueller does, however, allow the author to examine more of the subtleties of his Nazi connections which seem all the more important because of the less direct perfectly definable way power and financial power were and are amassed.

As a scholarly work, UGLY BEAUTY needs much more, although what it needs is exactly the kind of writing that makes a reader not chose the book to explore over a weekend or as an introduction into a new topic.  One need not know the cosmetics industry to enjoy this book.  One does not even need to wear make-up at all to find this book quite compelling in its mix of history and social critique.  As a more casual relaxed but still intellectually provocative read, UGLY BEAUTY fascinates. I simply could not put it down and read it cover to cover with only necessary interruptions.  The examination of the beginnings of the cosmetics industry presents a fascinating look into a topic not often discussed in WWII history and historical fiction while the modern section hints at the importance of history as part of the underpinnings of today's world.  As feminist analysis, a topic this reader enjoys as well, the analysis was just too weak or unscholarly to excite me perhaps because of my extensive reading in academic feminist literary theory.  UGLY BEAUTY would probably be of more interest for those whose interest in feminism is less academic.  The author posits several side questions which lead a reader to ask more in depth questions.  As such, UGLY BEAUTY might make a good choice for book clubs.  The more intuitive leaps and the author's ability to leave some questions unanswered certainly sparked my intellectual interest.

Despite my criticisms of this book, I highly recommend UGLY BEAUTY as a great choice for the reader who wants to explore something totally new or who might have interest in one part (business or history or feminism) and want to explore another shade of that topic.  UGLY BEAUTY does not bog a reader down with extensive footnotes (Notes and Bibliography at the end) or compel a reader to read with pen or pencil to underline -- which can be a blessing if a reader really just wants to explore a topic rather than read a huge definitive tome.   UGLY BEAUTY is a book to enjoy --- and enjoy it I did!  I read the book from cover to cover unable to tear myself away from it.  It has been a long time since a book pulled me so much that I stopped everything until I read the last page. 

Publisher: Harper (February 1, 2011)

Reviewed by Merrimon, Merrimon Book Reviews
Merrimon Book Reviews

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