(WOMENSENEWS)–People often ask me why I became interested in Helena Rubinstein. There is something mysterious about first encounters. So while we can never say exactly how things happen – most of the time, it is a question of chance – we do know the ways in which a person’s story has marked us.
In this case, I knew nothing about her other than her name on beauty products that I didn’t use, but the opening lines of her life story were enough: she was born in 1872 in Kazimierz, the Jewish quarter of Kraków, Poland; she had seven younger sisters – Pauline, Rosa, Regina, Stella, Ceska, Manka and Erna; and at the age of 24 she set off on a journey to Australia, armed with a parasol, 12 jars of cream and an inexhaustible supply of chutzpah.
My imagination immediately began to run away with me. I saw her taking the train, her forehead pressed thoughtfully against the window, reciting her sisters’ names like a mantra. I saw her 4-foot-10 frame walking up the gangplank to board the ship that would sail halfway round the globe, taking two months to reach Australia. I saw this tiny pioneer disembarking in Melbourne, in this foreign land; I saw how she struggled, how she nearly gave up, then triumphed.
Even though I didn’t know a great deal about her, Rubinstein became for me a romantic heroine, a sort of Polish Scarlett O’Hara, a conqueror with a character forged of steel. As she stood there in her high heels, her motto – for she was someone who despised the past – could have been “Onwards!” As the saying goes, “Give a girl the right shoes, and she can conquer the world.”
A Tumultuous Life
A quick look at her tumultuous life confirmed my suspicions. She was little known and has been virtually forgotten, but her extraordinary life spanned nearly a century (she died in 1965 at the age of 93) and four continents.
Driven by courage, intelligence and a will to succeed that would make her neglect her husbands, children and family, she built an empire that was both industrial and financial. More impressive still, she as good as invented modern cosmetics and ways to make them accessible to all. This was no easy task for a woman in those days – and it still isn’t, whatever one might think; a woman who was poor, foreign and Jewish, to boot. But she loftily disregarded all four of these disadvantages – and it’s anyone’s guess which one was the greatest – and often turned them into strengths. 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. Rubinstein would always be a firm supporter of women in their movement for equality, which throughout the 20th century, meant not only fighting for their most basic rights, but also for the liberation of their bodies – first by freeing them from the shackles of the corset, then from the taboo of wearing makeup (until the early 1920s cosmetics were only worn by prostitutes and actresses).
As Rubinstein would like to say, beauty is anything but frivolous. For her it was a “new power,” a means through which women could assert their independence. To want to charm or look your best are not signs of subservience if you know how to use them to your advantage. Rubinstein believed that women must use the assets placed at their disposal if they are to conquer the world, or at least to make their place in it.
Modern Beauty Creator
Cosmetics existed before Rubinstein – they have existed since antiquity! – but she was the visionary who created modern beauty: scientific, rigorous and demanding, with an emphasis on moisturizing, protecting against the harmful rays of the sun, massage, electricity, hydrotherapy, hygiene, diet, nutrition, physical exercise and surgery.
Her passion for art and aesthetics of every kind – painting, sculpture, architecture, furniture, decoration, haute couture, jewelery – drove her to become an obsessive collector (she was nicknamed “a female Hearst”) and inspired the colors of her makeup collections. It was her innate sense of marketing that led her not only to promote her products successfully, but also to constantly invent sales techniques at her salons and retail outlets, to set professional standards for beauticians and to use advertising as early as 1904.
She worked tirelessly and claimed that work was the best beauty treatment: “Work has been indeed my best beauty treatment. I believe in hard work. It keeps the wrinkles out of the mind and the spirit. It helps to keep a woman young.” She amassed a fortune almost single-handedly. She was known to be one of the richest women in the world: only a handful of peers had succeeded as well as her in the domain of beauty and fashion. Coco Chanel, Elizabeth Arden and Estée Lauder were the few women who shared Rubinstein’s gift for putting themselves on stage and promoting their image.
Michèle Fitoussi was born in Tunisia to French parents, and has lived in Paris since the age of 5. She worked as a journalist at Elle magazine for 25 years, interviewing world leaders in areas as varied as politics, human sciences, sports, literature and the media. She is also the author of screenplays, fiction and nonfiction, including the international bestsellers “Superwoman’s had Enough” and “The Prisoner.”
For More Information:
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