What can you tell us about the new book Helena Rubinstein?
I really enjoyed writing this story because Helena Rubinstein was a fascinating woman. She was a self-made woman, which was unusual in the 19th and 20th century, and she remains an inspiration and role model for not only businesswomen, but for all women. She was ingenious in her understanding that beauty could be a new source of power for women, and that it had to be accessible to everyone. She was interested in every field of beauty, including art and became a great collector. Research for this book took me to many different parts of the world, and different parts of society. Not Australia, alas, but I did visit England, Poland and New York.
When Helena arrived in Australia, she was unprepared, can you expand on this for us?
She was born in Poland in 1872 and was the eldest of eight daughters in a Jewish Orthodox family, all waiting to be married off. To escape the future her parents wanted for her, she embarked alone for Melbourne with, as a parting gift from her mother, several pots of skin cream. She was only 24 and she travelled by herself. She had hoped to stay in Melbourne but instead found herself in Coleraine, a little town far away from the big city, settled by sheep farmers where her uncles lived. She was expected to work at her uncles’ emporium, though she desperately wanted a way to earn her own living.
When she saw how the heat ravaged Australian ladies' faces, she came up with the idea of selling the cream her mother gave her. Once the local women tried it, Helena Rubinstein became a hit. She opened her first beauty salon in Melbourne in 1902, the year that women won the right to vote in Australia. She offered beauty treatments and sold her "Valaze" cream, which was a runaway success. That is how she invented the cosmetic industry and made it available to all women.
What was it about Helena that was so appealing?
She was a tiny woman ( 4'8") but she was very clever, strong and courageous, and she was full of passion and energy. She was driven to succeed, and she denied herself any other option. She had refused to marry the man her parents wanted for her, so she had to survive by herself. But she did more than just survive: she built a beauty empire. She was passionate about beauty, fashion, jewellery, finance, business, marketing, art, painting, literature, architecture, design, photography and travel in equal measures. She was larger than life. When she died in 1965, at the age of 93, her brand had spread all over the world, to more than thirty countries.
How did working in a chemist make her so interested in beauty?
From the start, she believed that science was key to beauty. And she was right. Her whole life, she was interested in chemistry and dermatology. Her first cream, “Valaze”, which she sold in Australia, came from two Hungarian chemists, friends of the family.
Why were her products so revolutionary?
She was one of the first women to come in to the beauty market, and she was very careful about how her creams were made. She was aware of all the medical research into skin and health. She was the first to classify the skin into 3 categories, as well as the first to adapt her products for different women. She was the first to tell women to protect their faces against sun and the first to invent a hormonal cream to fight aging. She also pioneered make-up, which until the early 20s was only worn by actresses and prostitutes.
You are a novelist and writer for Elle magazine France, so tell us about how you came into this role?
From a young age, I wanted to be a journalist and a writer. I attended Sciences Po Paris, because politics was my main interest. After this, I began work at Elle magazine as an intern and I was hired in 1981. My mother, my aunts and my grandmother used to read the magazine, so I knew it well.
At ELLE I wrote about women's rights, as well as interviewing many prominent people, including JK Rowling, and I was an editorialist. ELLE France is a weekly magazine, created in 1945, and is involved in women's rights around the world, publishing investigations and interviews.
I wrote my first novel in 1985, when I was expecting my second child Hugo (Lea, my first, was two years old). It was not a very good book, and had little success.
After that, I wrote “Superwoman’s had enough”, which was a huge bestseller. I wrote 10 books, both fiction and non-fiction. Most of them were successful. One of my novels, "Victor" was made into a movie. I wrote screenplays for TV, adapted some French plays (by Israel Horovitz, Eve Ensler) and created a women’s playwright theatre festival in Paris two years ago: Le Paris Des Femmes. Last November, I decided to leave ELLE after 33 years, to focus on books, screenplays and plays.
When did your fascination with Helena begin?
Four years ago, when I read a book about her life; not a huge biography, merely a few pages about the brand. First of all, I was fascinated by the family of 8 sisters: Chaja (Helena's real name), Paulina, Regina, Ceska, Manka, Stella, Rosa, Erna. They sounded like a nursery rhyme. I didn't know Helena Rubinstein at all, other than the brand. Then I began to discover her amazing life. I was, and remain, fascinated by her enthusiasm, her curiosity, her bravery. She was afraid of nothing and had endless energy, passion, and intelligence to spare. She was a real heroine and, as she used to say, everything she experienced in her life would easily fill half a dozen lives.
Your two previous books The Prisoner and Superwoman's Had Enough have been hugely successful; can you tell us a little bit about these books?
I wrote Superwoman in 1987. I was 33 years old, I was married, my kids were 3 and 5, I was working hard as a journalist, and wanted to be a good mother and good housekeeper, and perfect spouse, etc. And I was sooooooo tired.
I had never expected such a life when I was a student at Sciences Po Paris.
So I decided to write this book to show how difficult life is for working mothers and why I didn't expect these difficulties when my friends and I were fighting for women’s rights as young students in the seventies.
It was a humorous pamphlet about women trapped between work, family and perfectionism and was a huge success. 25 years later, things haven’t changed a lot, although men are better fathers and young men are more involved in housekeeping.
As for La Prisonniere ( "Stolen" Life, in US) I met Malika Oufkir in Paris. She was the eldest girl of General Oufkir who tried to kill the King of Morocco Hassan II and was killed himself.
Malika, who was raised in the royal palace with Hassan II’s young sister, Princess Lalla Mina, her five siblings, her mother and two servants, were sent to jail and spent 20 years as hidden prisoners in Morocco.
It was an amazing story, which captivated a million people around the world and was chosen by Oprah Winfrey to be an Oprah Book. Both of us went to Chicago to attend Oprah's programme. After the show, Malika said to me: “I'm happy now because the whole world knows my story". When the Oufkir family was sent to jail, she was 18 years old, and her youngest brother was only 3.
What would your response be to Helena Rubinstein’s famous quote, 'there are no ugly women, only lazy ones'?
True! Although it's easier to stay young and pretty when you have time and money. But Helena taught all women, from upper to lower classes, how to improve their beauty and allure.
What is next for you?
A book about a friend of mine who died during the Mumbai bombings in 2008. She was born in Madagascar, of Indian descent and had great success as a businesswoman in lingerie in France. She sold the brand in 2006, and decided to “go back to her roots” in India for a while, with her husband and their three kids. Her husband was killed with her. Her story became a destiny. I'm working hard on it.