The First Ladies of Beauty
The oldest of seven sisters, Chaja Rubinstein (as Helena was originally named) was born in Poland in 1872 amid modest circumstances. One of her biographers has written that Helena’s mother would routinely apply cream to her daughters’ faces to protect them from the effects of the cold weather; intending to keep them looking fresh-faced, she was also concerned at the prospect of having to try to marry off eight girls.9
After leaving school at the age of sixteen, Helena began helping her father run his business. But when her parents tried to make her marry a man whom they had chosen for her, she left Poland to live in Vienna with her aunt and uncle.10 In 1896, finding herself once again at an impasse with her parents over a marriage issue, headstrong Helena immigrated to the small town of Coleraine in Australia to live with some family.11
The Automatic Lipstick was launched in 1931, allowing users to seductively open and apply their lipstick with one hand.
Rubinstein’s jewelry collection was well known, and it was rumored she would often pull out a strategically placed piece to hand to journalists as a way of encouraging a reciprocal kindness in the press.
The long journey to Australia (on which she changed her name to Helena) was an eye-opener in many ways, as the ship docked in various glamorous and far-flung cities along the way, giving Helena the chance to see the exotic products available to buy including cosmetics. Her final destination proved to be less exciting. Helena reportedly spoke little English, hated the sun, and had a fear of horses, which somewhat limited her chances of enjoying life in Coleraine. So she spent most of her time working in her uncle’s store. Helena was said to have had wonderfully creamy and soft-looking skin, something the sun-exposed ladies of Australia were quick to notice and keen to emulate. To her uncle’s annoyance, she started to sell the pots of her mother’s face cream that she’d brought over with her and later, when they ran out, had shipped in. But shipping was slow and expensive, so Helena decided to make her own and, realizing that she was on to a good thing, left Coleraine. Moving to Melbourne, she did various jobs, eventually meeting and befriending a pharmacist and managing to persuade him to help her work on re-creating her mother’s cream after hours in the lab. Helena stood less than five feet tall, but what she lacked in stature, she made up for in chutzpah. She was never without her high heels and famous mantra: With the right pair of shoes a woman can conquer the world.
Valaze, as she called it, sold like hot cakes, and its success allowed Helena to raise enough money to open the first of her beauty salons in Melbourne in 1903, with another following shortly afterward in Sydney. By 1907 she had another salon in New Zealand, and a mail order company.12 Australia was a limited market, though, so the ever-entrepreneurial Helena headed to London and opened Salon de Beaute Valaze. During the same period, she launched her first makeup line, persuading her high-class clients to be seen in public in rouge and lipstick! Helena was the first to introduce the concept of problem skin types and promote the pseudo-science of skincare within her salons. She often used images of herself in a lab coat and even claimed to have a medical degree from Vienna (a winning story, although according to biographies written since her death, a total fiction). Helena was also the first person to realize that effective marketing, luxurious packaging, celebrity endorsements, and the all-important perceived value of overpricing translate into big bucks when it comes to women and beauty. Her advertising was harsh but effective she was among the first to really tap into the fear of the effects of aging, and one of her (slightly dubious) motivational mantras was: There are no ugly women, only lazy ones. And she understood the idea of tailoring her products and pitch to her market, offering different products to the United States and United Kingdom at different times.