“I wish that all women paid greater attention to their natural radiance, resulting from, above all, inner serenity. All the eye makeup on the market cannot illuminate eyes that have lost their interest in the world, and a woman in love with life has the best basic foundation to be found anywhere.” —Helena Rubinstein
“At the end of the day, women must understand how they look is important, but not all-important; that there are different ideas of beauty. It is in the eye of the beholder and it comes from within.” —Poppy King
Born 100 years apart, entrepreneurs Helena Rubinstein and Poppy King built business empires based on glamor—but also based on their instinctive understanding that women’s inner beauty and confidence is more powerful and alluring than the most expensive cosmetics.
Helena Rubinstein was no great beauty. At 4’10”, with decidedly unfashionable Jewish features, she was an unlikely titan of the cosmetics industry, whose genius for marketing made her one of the most successful businesswomen of all time.
Born in 1872 in Krakow, Poland, Helena Rubinstein moved to Melbourne, Australia in 1902 to avoid an arranged marriage cooked up by her father. When the too-tanned women of Australia marveled over her milky complexion, young Helena trumpeted her mother’s face cream as the source, then quickly began working to reproduce the product. Helena soon opened her first shop in Melbourne and began marketing her own Crème de Valaze, containing lanolin from Australian sheep and perfumed with scents like lavender and pine. Building on the success of the Crème de Valaze, she opened stores in Sydney, London, and Paris. After World War I broke out Rubinstein moved with her husband and two sons to New York.
Until the early twentieth century, cosmetics were considered the domain of stage actresses and sex workers—tools used by duplicitous women to fool men. Upon arriving in America, Rubinstein recognized that this was changing: with the boom of the film industry, women wanted to appear more glamorous, and as more women entered the workforce, they had the means to spend more on themselves. Though Rubinstein began by marketing her products to immigrants and working-class women, as her empire grew she promoted her brand by publishing books about beauty and by working with stars Josephine Baker and the original “vamp,” Theda Bara. Soon, Rubinstein’s innovative beauty products, including waterproof mascara, sunless tanner, and lip-shaped lipstick, were appearing on the faces of all kinds of women.
As Rubinstein’s fortune grew, so did her great passion for art and interior design: she collected African sculpture, supported avant-garde artists like Joan Miro, and befriended Frida Kahlo. Salvador Dali was commissioned to paint murals in her Park Avenue apartment, and she used her many homes in Europe and America as lavish settings for fashion shoots and advertisements for her own company.
Helena Rubinstein made herself into a brand before the concept really existed, achieving incredible success as a businesswoman at a time when every field was dominated by men. She set the stage for generations of women to dominate the beauty industry.
Remarkably, Helena Rubinstein isn’t the only Jewish beauty impressario to come out of Australia. Poppy King, the founder of the brand Lipstick Queen, started her first company, Poppy, when she was 18. Unsatisfied with the limited range of lipstick colors available in Australia, she created a set of seven matte lipsticks in deep burgundies and reds, beginning what would become a career devoted to the expressive possibilities of lipstick.
After her first lipstick line fizzled, King moved to New York to work for Est´ee Lauder’s Prescriptives line. Realizing that the corporate world wasn’t for her, she returned to the life of an entrepreneur and began her beloved line Lipstick Queen in 2006. Like Helena Rubinstein in the early twentieth century, King faced a marketing challenge when promoting her lipsticks: in 2006, lipgloss was all the rage, and she worked to make lipstick seem modern and wearable. She did this by connecting lipstick to glamor, rather than beauty: “Beauty,” says King, “is strict, but glamor is much more open and democratic.” She opines that while only certain women are born with conventional beauty, every woman can be glamorous. This is an idea that stems from her Jewish heritage: noting that she’s the only one in the beauty industry with “such a Semitic profile,” King also feels that “as a Jewish woman, there is a real flair for glamor, and my approach is very spirited.”
Poppy King’s brand of accessible glamor has earned her a cult following and made her a successful businesswoman. She’s also something of a feminist icon, a real rarity in the beauty industry. Case in point: rather than use models on her products or in advertisements for Lipstick Queen, she only uses graphic art, refusing to promote a standardized ideal of beauty to women.
King’s belief that lipstick is empowering resonates with young women who are uninterested in corrective makeup, but want to experiment with color and have fun with cosmetics. As Helena Rubinstein convinced all women that they could wear makeup, Poppy King’s mission is to convince all women that they can pull off that ultimate symbol of glamor, red lipstick—whether it’s warm, cool, or sheer. She herself wears a variation of red lipstick nearly every day, acting as her own best advertisement for modern, unconventional, empowering beauty.
How to cite this page
Jewish Women's Archive. "Cosmetics Entrepreneurs." (Viewed on December 2, 2021) <https://jwa.org/powercouples/rubinstein-king>.