Nice ladies didn’t do it.
Then Helena Rubinstein ‘invented’ the beauty industry, giving women stuff we didn’t realise we needed.
Rubinstein, who famously said there are no ugly women, only lazy ones, became a billionaire and revolutionised the culture around women’s attitudes to their appearance.
A new book, Helena Rubinstein: The Woman Who Invented Beauty, by French journalist Michele Fitoussi, examines Rubinstein’s life, which she said “contained enough events, great and small, to fill half a dozen normal lives”.
From poverty in Poland to marrying a Russian prince via living in an Australian sheep town, opening salons in Mayfair and Paris, and conquering the mighty American market, Rubinstein’s ascent began with 12 small pots of skin cream.
Like Coco Chanel, Estee Lauder and Elizabeth Arden, Rubinstein began life as a ‘nobody’.
Born Chaja Rubinstein on Christmas Day, 1872, in the Jewish quarter of Krakow, she was the eldest of eight sisters, and didn’t want to be married off to an older, richer man, which was her impoverished family’s best hope for her and her siblings.
So she left, which was an extraordinary move in an age when the only thing a woman did was marry and have babies. “They didn’t know what to do with her,” Fitoussi told a BBC interview.
Knocking a few years off her age and changing her name to Helena, Rubinstein went to live with her uncle’s family in Coleraine, an Australian backwater, when she was 24. Australian women, tanned and weather-beaten, admired the pale smoothness of her skin — Rubinstein said it was thanks to her mother’s special face cream, of which she had 12 pots in her luggage. She had a light-bulb moment.
With her instinctive understanding of marketing, an industry still in its infancy, Rubinstein realised that women would believe in a product that was good quality, relatively expensive, and that promised youthful beauty.
She got to work, training with a well-known chemist, Marcellin Berthelot, and learning how to transform her mother’s face cream into a product she could manufacture in Australia, and for which women would pay.
Within six years, Rubinstein had relocated to Melbourne. By 1905, when she was 33, and she had made £100,000.
Her business acumen, drive and intelligence, along with the elusive idea of beauty in a jar, led to her enormous success. Her focus was absolute, her ambition unwavering.
She ‘invented’ mascara, including the world’s first waterproof variety, in 1939, as well as the first tinted face powder, and blusher. And lots and lots of face creams.
Growing world domination did not leave much time for a personal life, but in her mid-30s Rubinstein fell wildly in love for the first time, with an American journalist called Edward Titus.
They married in 1908, when she was 36, which made her something of a geriatric bride, but by then she was so successful that she was no longer constrained by the social norms of the time.
This success, however, did not protect her from her new husband’s dreadful philandering — even on their honeymoon, she repeatedly witnessed him flirting with other women.
Helena’s husband did, however, have his uses. He called her ‘Madame’, which stuck, adding to her regal mystique — in later years, even members of her own family called her Madame — plus he introduced her to the artists of the day; writers and painters like Proust, Colette and Picasso.
Rubinstein was painted by Dali, and was the first to realise the power of celebrity endorsement when her products were feted by screen goddess, Isadora Duncan.
Rubinstein had two sons with Titus: Roy, born in 1909 when Rubinstein was 37, and Horace, born three years later, when Rubinstein was 40.
Motherhood did not much interest her, however, and she employed a fleet of nannies so that she could get on with the business of beautifying women and making heaps of money.
Now living in London, Rubinstein opened a salon in Mayfair, where one of her most important clients was Margot Asquith, wife of the prime minister.
The salon — Maison de Beaute Valaze (Hungarian for ‘gift from God’) — even had a telephone line, Mayfair 4611. Having established salons in London and Paris, she then left for America in 1914.
As well as her salons and products, she wrote books — the first entitled The Art of Feminine Beauty. “Women have a duty to keep young,” she said. “We should live adventurous lives, travel, work hard, earn money, spend it, love someone deeply, have children.”
Life was fabulous, a whirl of social and business success between Paris and New York, where Rubinstein was the toast of both cities.
The only disappointment was the tricky husband who kept having affairs — so she got rid of him, paying him off in a generous settlement, when he became involved with writer, Anais Nin.
Rubinstein suspected an affair, but for once may have been wrong — however, by then the relationship was already in tatters.
They divorced in 1938.
There are great anecdotes in Fitoussi’s book.
Like the time Rubinstein wanted to buy a huge, fancy apartment on Park Avenue, in New York, but the other residents blocked her because she was Jewish. So she bought the entire building. She was, apparently, a raging fibber who knew the power of her own, growing legend, and would tell journalists “I have no interest in money”, even though she was the Bill Gates of her era.
In 1928, Lehman’s bank — the one that went bust recently — gave her $7.3m (about €70m in current terms) for 75% of her company.
Rubinstein couldn’t resist such a sum, but realised, to her horror, that they planned on using her name to sell inferior products; with the Wall Street Crash, she bought her company back, kept its reputation intact, and made $6m profit.
By 1938, she was a billionaire. Plus she infuriated Elizabeth Arden, her business rival, when she employed Arden’s ex-husband on a massive salary — just for the joy of winding her competitor up.
Rubinstein’s private life perked-up when she met a Russian prince, whom she married in 1938, when she was 66 and he was 43.
“Besides Helena, every other woman is uninteresting,” he said. (And poor, you’d imagine).
They were genuinely in love, however, until his sudden death in 1955 from a heart attack, which left her devastated. Three years later, her son Horace died in a car crash.
It was a double loss from which she struggled to recover, despite episodes of heroic chutzpah, such as when her New York apartment was burgled.
As two men ransacked her bedroom, she managed to slip the keys of her safe — which contained a million dollars worth of jewellery — down her cleavage, along with a pair of diamond earrings. She invited the burglars to shoot her, but they lost courage and fled, empty-handed. She was 92 at the time.
Madame Rubinstein died the following year, in 1965, having made her indelible mark on the 20th century.
Eight years later, her surviving son sold the company to Colgate Palmolive, and today the Helena Rubinstein brand is owned by L’Oreal.
And all from 12 small pots of face cream.