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Ugly Beauty: Helena Rubinstein, L'Oreal and the Blemished History of Looking Good [Hardcover]

Ruth Brandon

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Book Description

Feb. 1 2011
Thanks to a combination of business savvy, breathtaking chutzpah, and lucky timing, Helena Rubinstein managed to transform herself from a poor Polish emigrant to the world's first self-made female tycoon. She went from selling homemade "Crème Valaze" out of her house in Australia to becoming an international cosmetics magnate. Tiny and plump, wearing extravagant jewels and spiked heels, she was a fixture of upper-crust New York for many years. She was larger than life, and never took no for an answer: when she was refused from a New York City apartment on the grounds that she was Jewish, she went ahead and bought the whole building and promptly moved in.

The story of Eugène Schueller and L'Oréal begins in 1907, in a dingy working-class part of Paris, where a young Schueller sat at his family's kitchen table trying to develop the first harmless artificial hair dye. The tale of how L'Oréal went from that point to the world's largest cosmetics company is fascinating and full of intrigue, with a little of everything: fascist assassins, bitter unmaskings, political scandals. In 1988, although Schueller and Rubinstein had long since passed away, their worlds collided when L'Oréal bought Rubinstein's company — leading to a series of scandals that threw a new and sinister light on L'Oréal. For starters, Rubinstein was Jewish, but Schueller and many other top L'Oréal executives had been active Nazi collaborators. What came to light threatened the reputations of some of France's most powerful men - up to and including its president.

This is a powerful, dramatic, and largely untold story about the ugly truth behind a beauty empire.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: McClelland & Stewart (Feb. 1 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0771017308
  • ISBN-13: 978-0771017308
  • Product Dimensions: 23.1 x 15.2 x 3.6 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 499 g
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #206,223 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description


"Ruth Brandon is that rarest of historians who make a sophisticated and surprising argument and tell a great yarn at the same time."
—Malcolm Gladwell, The New Yorker
"Ugly Beauty is a cut above . . . Brandon offers sharp, certain and concise writing, with few wasted words or tangents." —The New York Times

About the Author

RUTH BRANDON is a prominent historian, biographer, and novelist. Her widely acclaimed books include Other People's Daughters: The Lives and Times of the Governess; The Life and Many Deaths of Harry Houdini; Surreal Lives: The Surrealists 1917-1945; and Being Divine: A Biography of Sarah Bernhardt.

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3.0 out of 5 stars Covers Too Many Topics - April 4 2011
By Loyd E. Eskildson - Published on
"Ugly Beauty" brings readers the stories of how Helena Rubinstein and L'Oreal grew, including L'Oreal's eventual takeover of Rubinstein's firm after her death. However, author Brandon also drags too much extraneous material into the story, especially how L'Oreal's founder Eugene Shueller, had become a Nazi collaborator.

Helena Rubinstein early in life established her independence by refusing her father's proposed mate - a widower, and left home. She moved to Australia to live with her uncle and his wife. Sun-baked Australians were impressed by Helena's fair and smooth skin, and within three years she was selling face cream as 'her secret,' supposedly derived from a scientists with special herbs, etc. She borrowed about $250,000 to start, a sum she quickly recovered and repaid. The intriguing aspect of Ms. Rubinstein is her intuitive grasp of marketing - finding and taking advantage of the fact that her offerings were received better in the market at higher prices and with limited, high-service availability. She also learned the value of free press coverage, and encouraged this through gifts and knowledge of the various beauty editors' preferences. Further, she initiated an early practice of market segmentation, with distinct offerings to those with oily or dry skin. After leaving Australia, Helena used one of her sisters to manage operations while she returned to Europe.

Helena further realized that her 'science' background wasn't even 'skin deep,' that most products had little advantage over each other, and that success depended on marketing and playing on women's' hopes. Setting up mini-salons in leading department stores became her mechanism of keeping costs down while maintaining a sense of quality and exclusivity; company spas provided additional outlets.

Eventually Ms. Rubinstein sold her U.S. assets to Lehman Brothers (1928) for $7.3 million (about $84 million today). Lehman Bros., however, tainted the brand by trying to mass-market the products; the Great Depression didn't help either. Eventually the Lehman Bros. portion's stock price fell from the original $60 to $3, at which point Helena bought it back.

Meanwhile, chemist Eugene Schueller was busy in the early 1900s working on the world's first safe, artificial hair dye. Success came in 1907. He also successfully ran soap, paint, and a magazine enterprise. A 'Fordist,' Schueller was staunchly anti-union, but also introduced profit-sharing to boost worker wages and incentive. Like Ford, Schueller at least temporarily admired Nazi efficiency, and then went a bit further and tried to take advantage for his businesses.

After Rubinstein's death in 1965 (age 92), her heirs eventually decided to sell to Colgate-Palmolive. That company repeated Lehman's mistake of trying to commoditize the products, using similar sales tactics as for soap and toothpaste. Eventually the firm was put back on the market and acquired by L'Oreal.

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