Author of “Helena Rubinstein: The Woman Who Invented Beauty”
Michèle talks to us about the fascinating life and work of Helena Rubinstein — a woman who revolutionized the beauty industry. She was the first to use science in the development of cosmetics and self-built a global empire that would endure for 120 years… and counting!
How did you first become interested in Helena Rubinstein?
It was completely by chance. I knew nothing of her, apart from seeing her name on the beauty products that my mother used. But the beginning of her story was enough to spark my interest.
Born in 1872 in Kazimierz, the Jewish quarter of Krakow, she was the oldest of 8 sisters. Aged 24 and uninclined to marry, she set off to Australia to work for her uncles, armed with a parasol (to defend against the hot sun) and 12 jars of her mother Gitel’s homemade creams.
As I dug deeper, I uncovered that beyond the anecdotes there was a fascinating woman who was astonishingly Romanesque and had an adventurous life for nearly a century [she died in 1965 aged 93].
How long did it take you to write “The Woman Who Invented Beauty?”
The whole process took two years, including one year of solid research. I was very fortunate to be allowed access to the Brand Archives department at L’Oréal where I left with 14 boxes of books, photos, notebooks… since then, the archives have been digitized!
I traveled to Australia, Poland and the United States to interview people, including some of her family members. I wanted to make sure everything in the book was rigorously accurate, despite the fact that Helena notoriously lied about everything — including her own age! She felt this was the best way to stay young and was more effective than any anti-wrinkle cream!
Tell us about Helena’s “family secret” face cream.
It was a common Polish tradition to concoct homemade pomades to protect the skin from the harsh winters. Helena kept the recipe for the cream — a closely guarded “family secret” developed with her Hungarian “uncle” Jacob Lykusky (a pharmacist, friend of the family) — and took it with her to Australia.
While she was working at her uncle’s shop in Coleraine she sought to change her situation and turned to her mother’s cream. She realized that she could market this formula as the “first beauty cream” and promote it using her “porcelain” complexion as proof of its efficacy — a contrast to the many Australian women with sun-damaged skin.
She worked hard at reformulating the cream to the original recipe, recreating the same texture so it could be applied with a massaging gesture as her mother would do.
The cream was a success and she eventually saved enough money to leave Coleraine for Melbourne where she opened her first beauty salon in 1902 and started selling the Valaze cream. Meaning “Gift from heaven” in Hungarian, “Valaze” had instant appeal. Helena kept the composition of that first cream a secret forever!
Tell us more about Helena’s vision and personality.
Helena Rubinstein had a specific vision, she saw her brand before it actually existed. She was an avant-gardist who seized opportunities throughout her life. She was extremely smart, courageous and driven — someone who never gave up. Above all, Helena had a lot of nerve (in Yiddish: chutzpah!).
The nerve to pretend to have studied medicine when she didn’t even pass her senior school exams; the nerve to position herself as a great scientist; the nerve to constantly rewrite her own life, transforming it to suit her best.
Helena’s panache, intuition and several guardian angels she met along the way resulted in a very successful series of firsts in beauty.
What role did science play in beauty for Helena Rubinstein?
Helena quickly understood that without science, there is no beauty. She knew that the scientific advances of the time would help her make women more beautiful, so she regularly worked with scientists to get access to the latest research.
She crossed Europe to meet with surgeons, dermatologists and chemists… Among them Dr. Emmie List, a famous peeling expert from Vienna; and Dr. Marcelin Berthelot from Paris who gave her insights on the importance of skin health.
She consulted dermatologists who taught her the principles of skin regeneration and how to delay the appearance of wrinkles, and she learned how new electrical techniques were being applied to skincare.
After everything she learned through these teachings, she defined principles that would form the basis of her approach. To increase the efficacy of her products and maintain a glowing complexion, it was vital to lead a healthy lifestyle, involving physical exercise, proper breathing and eating a low-fat diet.
She wanted her future customers to realize that it was not enough just to buy a cream; they also had to apply her principles.
Why did she call herself “Madame?”
When Helena became more successful she went by the moniker “Madame”. Her employees, her customers, the press and even her family called her by that name.
Throughout her life, Helena relied on many men to enhance her success but unlike other famous women of the time, she made her own fortune and always helped the men in return. It was her first husband Edward, a brilliant journalist who connected her with many people and significantly contributed to her legend by coining her “Madame.”
What can you tell us about the famous quote: “There are no ugly women, just lazy women.”
I think that she was speaking about herself. Helena was not particularly beautiful but knew how to highlight her best features. She defined her style and did not waver from it: high heels, fine jewelry, a wardrobe from the great Parisian couturiers, and an elegant bun paired with red lipstick.
Although Helena was a gourmet with a tendency to gain weight, she insisted on the importance of sports and gymnastic movements to stay healthy and in shape.
Convinced that body care and beauty were linked, she took a keen interest in massage techniques using rollers and electric currents to massage more efficiently than by hand. She even installed a gym in one of her beauty salons as early as 1910! She definitely a trailblazer when it came to holistic beauty.
Was Helena Rubinstein a feminist?
I don’t think we’d define her as a feminist for her time, but I think that she genuinely loved and wanted to help women.
She certainly contributed — consciously or unconsciously — to the women’s emancipation movement by giving women permission to wear make-up, which until the early 1920s was only worn by prostitutes and actresses.
As a matter of fact, she opened her first beauty institute in Melbourne in 1902, the same year Australian women were among the first in the world to obtain the right to vote.
For Helena, beauty was a “new power,” a means through which women could assert their independence. She believed that women should use the tools they had if they wanted to conquer the world, or at least to make their place in it.
How would you describe her leadership style?
She needed to be in control, for sure. She was a strong, authoritative woman — someone, who could not stand being contraried. She built her business step by step from Australia, across Europe and then took it to the United States and Latin America. To build such an empire, she needed to be and stay in control.
And she was also very charming. She understood early on that seduction is a powerful tool and that women often needed to seduce in order to take their power.
Above all, her recipe for success was hard work. This was her mantra. She worked tirelessly and claimed all her life that work was the best beauty treatment.
What did she really pioneer in skincare?
She invented modern cosmetics and ways to make them accessible to everyone. For her, a product had to have a fair price for women to find it both rewarding and valuable.
It was her innate sense of marketing that led her not only to successfully promote her products but also to constantly invent sales techniques at her beauty institutes and retail outlets, to set professional standards for beauticians, and to utilize advertising as early as 1904.
She was a visionary who created modern beauty: scientific, rigorous and demanding, with an emphasis on hydration, sun protection, massage, electricity, diet, physical exercise and surgery. She made beauty accessible with the creation of Beauty Salons and the training of Beauty Advisors in Department stores.
She was innovative in the way she scaled the business from her initial “kitchen sink” approach to opening factories in France and across the USA.
Her skin insights led to a series of firsts: the first cream infused with hormones, suncare products, skincare with vitamin C, waterproof mascara, automatic mascara and the first classification of skin types.
To date, The Woman Who Invented Beauty has been translated into 10 languages and it has been sold in many countries around the world. In 2019, I was commissioned to work on an exhibition on Helena Rubinstein at the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire du JudaÏsme in Paris. This exhibition was supposed to tour the world when COVID-19 hit…
I have a very exciting collaboration coming up with the future production of a TV series. Stay tuned…!
It is wonderful to see how Helena Rubinstein’s story is a never-ending saga that continues to fascinate people. It contains all the ingredients to remain contemporary and inspiring!