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Ugly Beauty – Review

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Ugly Beauty: Helena Rubinstein, L’oreal, and the Blemished History of Looking Good by Ruth Brandon

Age: Adult

A dual biography of the legendary founders of the cosmetics industry — Helena Rubinstein and L’Oreal’s Eugene Shueller — and a gripping and disturbing story of gender, power, and politics that stretches back to the evils of World War II and beyond.

I opted to use the back page synposis for this book rather than writing my own summary. There is so much going on in this book I had no way to summarize it in my own words in 3-4 short sentences.

At first glace, one would think this was a book about the cosmetics industry and its scams and shames over fooling women into spending hard-earned money on cosmetics that don’t deliver on their promises. Although Brandon does cover some of those topics, the main focus of this book is on Eugene Shueller and his involvement in the Nazi movement in Germany before, during and after World War II. The first chapter is dedicated soley to Helena Rubinstein, and her rags to riches story of success. The rest of the book is devoted to Shueller, the founding of L’Oreal, and Shueller’s political, and economic views towards business and life. Although there is some compare and contrast between Rubinstein and Shueller, the main emphasis of the book is on the founder of L’Oreal.

I found this book to take a really incredible look at an aspect of World War II that we don’t learn much about in history class. The effects of the war on local businesses, their involvement, and the aftermath of the war. Shueller was associated with the Nazi movement, in a very negative way, although his main line of defense was that it was mainly for economic reasons. Rubinstein, being a Polish Jew, was pretty much the exact opposite of Shueller in every way possible. While both had a keen eye for finances, and financial decisions, Rubinstein’s business was run by family members in charge of the headquarters in almost every continent. Rubinstein was best friends with Coco Chanel, and Chanel’s influence on Rubinstein is evident. Both share many similarities in their personalities and how they run their business based on ingenuity, creativity and a desperate desire to abandon their poverty-ridden past and enjoy the riches of their present.

I think this is a great book for history buffs, for fans of L’Oreal and Helena Rubinstein and the fashion/cosmetics industry. There is a lot in this story, it was well written, and well paced. My only problem is that Brandon offers up a lot of information without really giving the reader time to process everything. She goes into tangents, particularly about Helena Rubinstein, with stories that don’t really connect to the rest of the paragraph. I sometimes had to wonder what one story had to do with the other. Despite the rocky start, the book was very enlightening.

Read the first 100 pages HERE

Similar Books: The Gospel According to Coco Chanel

Book 6 of 2011

Ugly Beauty: Helena Rubinstein, L’oreal, and the Blemished History of Looking Good 
by Ruth Brandon
Harper Collins, Feb 1st, 2011
253 pages
ARC copy – sent for review by publisher


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Ugly Beauty by Ruth Brandon: Book Cover