Friday, September 15, 2023

Q&A with Gill Paul



Gill Paul is the author of the new novel A Beautiful Rival: A Novel of Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden. Paul's other books include The Manhattan Girls. She is based in London.


Q: Why did you decide to write this novel based on the lives of Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden, and how would you describe the dynamic between them?


A: Hi Deborah, thank you very much for inviting me back to your site! The most interesting part of Helena and Elizabeth’s story for me was that these two formidable self-made women engaged in a fierce five-decades-long feud with each other.


When Helena launched her business in Manhattan in 1915, she proclaimed herself “the world’s top scientist of skincare” and “advisor to royalty and aristocracy in Europe.” For Elizabeth, who considered herself the premier beauty business owner in the US, it felt like a personal attack. Swords were drawn and battle commenced.


Soon the enmity grew so fierce that they would not even refer to each other by name, saying instead “that woman” or “the other one.”


Q: The writer Renée Rosen said of the book, “Exposing the raw, ugly side of the beauty industry, Paul delivers two headstrong, passionate women, willing to do whatever it takes to hold their empires.” What do you think of that description?


A: Renée is right: the battle between the two women got ugly, because both were utterly determined to be the biggest brand in the beauty world. They didn’t hesitate to plant negative stories about each other in the press, to poach the other’s staff, to sabotage advertising campaigns, to plant spies, and to copy new products.


The feud took on a darker tone in the 1930s when Helena’s Berlin salon was being daubed with antisemitic graffiti, while Elizabeth dined out with Nazis. I suspect that a letter in Elizabeth’s FBI file accusing her of being “pro-Nazi” could have been penned by Helena.


By the end of the war, new competitors were appearing on the beauty scene, including the indomitable Estée Lauder. I highly recommend Fifth Avenue Glamour Girl, Renée Rosen’s novel about her. I love her portrayal of a woman who marches up to strangers in the street to tell them they’re wearing the wrong shade of lipstick for their skin tone!

Q: How did you research the book, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?


A: I knew little about Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden before I started researching this book so there were a lot of surprises. How far they would go to attack each other was a huge surprise!


But both had a softer side too. Helena was an art collector, on first-name terms with the avant-garde artists of the day, such as Picasso, Braque and Dalí, and a generous supporter of young artists whose work she admired.


Elizabeth collected racehorses, whom she treated like the babies she never had, cosseting them with her own expensive creams and lotions and refusing to let trainers use a whip on them.


They were multi-faceted women: fierce in business, workaholic, lonely, frequently unhappy, but also capable of warmth and kindness.


Q: What do you see as the legacy of these two women today?


A: They were responsible for the beauty industry adopting an anti-ageing message, with advertisements that instructed women it was their duty to stay youthful-looking – and, of course, the way to do that was to buy their products. Over a century later, creams and serums are still claiming to “reverse the signs of ageing” and “revitalize the skin,” citing pseudoscientific evidence, just as they did.


However, I think Helena and Elizabeth had a far more important legacy as self-made women who created multi-million-dollar global empires from scratch, in an era when the odds were firmly stacked against women. They shattered glass ceilings by refusing to accept there was anything they couldn’t do, and that’s what I admire most about them.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: The publishing industry tends to have long lead times, so I’ve already written a novel for 2024 and am researching the subject of one for 2025. I’m not announcing the next books yet, but I’m leaping forwards in time to the 1960s.


The ‘20s and the ‘60s are my two favorite decades because society was changing so fast, particularly for the young. In the ‘20s there were rising hemlines, daring dances, and bold makeup; in the ‘60s there was the Pill, the miniskirt, and “free love.” I like to choose subjects that are fun to write, and both decades have subjects aplenty.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I’m excited that A Beautiful Rival is reaching a younger audience through Tiktok, and love the very creative videos they’re producing. I’ve been making some myself, which you can check out at It’s giving me a whole new respect for the amount of work influencers put into their videos. It’s certainly not as easy as it looks!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Gill Paul.

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