5.5 — Beauty: More Than Skin Deep

Host Walter Isaacson and guests study the changing face of beauty, as cosmetics and their application becomes both easier and more accessible throughout the years.
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In this episode:

  • NYC's Queen of Beauty (0:00)
  • A cosmetics rivalry for the ages (4:34)
  • The invention of "makeup" (8:56)
  • Expanding the color palette (11:48)
  • Do-it-yourself beauty (14:40)
  • Your genetic makeup (20:17)
  • Mirror mirror on the wall (24:36)
  • Picking up where pioneers left off (28:26)

Cosmetics and beauty treatments have always evolved alongside history. In this episode, we trace the evolution of makeup and other skincare products we use to change what we see in the mirror.

What was covered in this episode only makes up a small portion of what is happening in the beauty space.

“It was about allowing realness in. It was about uncovering it all and letting us shine through.”

— Lauren Luke, one of the first beauty tutorial artists on YouTube

Guest List

  • Gabriela Hernandez is the CEO and Founder of Bésame Cosmetics and author of “Classic Beauty: The History of Makeup”. Bésame Cosmetics gained a cult following with her meticulously designed, historically inspired, and highly pigmented cosmetics that surpass expectations.
  • Lindy Woodhead is the author of the book “War Paint, Madame Helena Rubinstein and Miss Elizabeth Arden: Their Lives, Their Times, Their Rivalry.” The book is a dual biography of the duelling cosmetics queens Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein which became the inspiration for the Broadway musical of the same name.
  • Linda Johnson Rice is the CEO of Johnson Publishing company and the daughter of Eunice W. Johnson. Eunice Johnson is the founder of Fashion Fair Cosmetics, the first makeup company for African-American women and it remains the largest Black-owned beauty brand in America.
  • Lauren Luke is a makeup artist and one of YouTube’s first makeup influencers. Lauren posted her first video in the summer of 2007 and today, she has over 500,000 subscribers and nearly 140-million views.
  • Anne Wetter is a board certified specialist in Dermatology from the Karolinska University Hospital, and one of the founders of ALLÉL. ALLÉL provides a journey within to find the key drivers to your individual aging, by providing our own developed DNA test and scientific products to match your profile.
  • Parham Aarabi is a professor of applied AI at the University of Toronto and the CEO and Founder of ModiFace. Acquired by L'Oreal, ModiFace a leading global AR company allowing users to perform beauty try-on simulations on live video and track the face and facial features in precise detail.

Walter Isaacson:

Elizabeth Arden is not a woman who backs down from a challenge. It’s the spring of 1915 and Arden is undeniably New York City’s queen of beauty. When women walk into her luxurious salon at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street, they enter the brave new world of beauty care. The service is first class. They receive massages, manicures and skincare treatment using Miss Arden’s own special recipe, which she creates in a laboratory attached to her salon. Customers find new beauty products designed and package with hand printed gold lettering and the now famous red door logo. Arden is an audacious entrepreneur in an era when American women don’t even have the right to vote so naturally her salon is also a place where women come to discuss the issues of the time like universal suffrage and labor rights.

Walter Isaacson:

But a challenger has recently arrived on the scene. On 49th Street in Midtown Manhattan, a new salon opens to great fanfare. Its owner is a petite Hungarian woman named Helena Rubinstein who calls herself a beauty scientist and she’s no novice. Rubinstein has made her own fortune inventing skin creams and treating women in opulent salons in Europe and Australia and now she’s set her sights on New York. It’s a shot across the bow to Elizabeth Arden and the start of a rivalry that would go on to give birth to the beauty and cosmetics industry that we know today.

Walter Isaacson:

I’m Walter Isaacson and you’re listening to Trailblazers, an original podcast from Dell Technologies.

Speaker 2:

Sue goes back to a room for some finishing touches, her makeup.

Speaker 3:

Let’s go to beauty headquarters.

Speaker 4:

You all know that a good appearance is a must.

Speaker 5:

And here’s something else for your appearance.

Speaker 2:

Choose a shade that goes with your own coloring and sets off your clothes to advantage.

Speaker 3:

There. Much better. In fact, perfect.

Speaker 4:

And make the most of what nature has given you.

Walter Isaacson:

Elizabeth Arden, might’ve been the reigning queen of beauty in New York City at the turn of the 20th century but you could argue that the original queen of beauty was Egypt’s Cleopatra. Her signature look was famous throughout the ancient world. She employed some of history’s first makeup artists to produce her cosmetics, such as eyeliner, face powders and rouge. From ancient times up until the 19th century, cosmetics were primarily worn by nobility and the affluent upper class. After the industrial revolution, they became more affordable and accessible but during the Victorian era wearing makeup was considered immoral. But many women still adorned themselves in their homes with lip color, eyeshadow, face powders and perfumes. There was a demand for cosmetics, but the market had yet to be built.

Walter Isaacson:

The tipping point for the modern beauty industry took place in the early 20th century, when the American women’s suffrage movement began to make headway in the fight for female liberation and the woman’s right to vote.

Lindy Woodhead:

Women were taking a place outside.

Walter Isaacson:

Lindy Woodhead is the author of War Paint: Madame Helena Rubinstein, and Miss Elizabeth Arden: Their Lives, Their Times, Their Rivalry.

Lindy Woodhead:

They weren’t just confined to the home so much. There were entertainments. They were going out, but didn’t necessarily have to be chaperoned all the time.

Walter Isaacson:

Women were taking a place in public life. They we’re more visible than ever before. This increased visibility resulted in a heightened awareness about their physical appearance and created demand for women’s spaces, such as salons.

Walter Isaacson:

Growing up on a farm in Canada, Elizabeth Arden dreamed of becoming a nurse, but when she arrived in New York in her mid twenties, the only job she could find was as a cashier in a small salon, serving the wealthy women of the city. After a few years, she took the knowledge she gained from that work and started her own business.

Lindy Woodhead:

She had healing hands. She had the ability to really get to grips with a problem if you had a skin problem and let’s think about how horrible skin problems can be for people, whether you’re blushing, whether you’ve got eczema or acne, all sorts of things and she had a cream or a lotion or a potion for all of them.

Walter Isaacson:

Arden was already a wealthy woman, selling her products wholesale to some of the biggest department stores in New York. She was on top and that’s where she wanted to stay.

Lindy Woodhead:

She was very rarely challenged. She was a controlling woman. She felt that she was on her way and here was Helena Rubinstein arriving in town and this is not a challenge that Miss Arden took happily to. She was very jealous. She was very angry and she knew who Rubinstein was.

Walter Isaacson:

Arden had traveled to Europe in 1912 and visited Rubinstein’s salons in London and Paris. Arden was familiar with her products and recognized her entrepreneurial prowess.

Lindy Woodhead:

There was a businessman who made a remark to an early Forbes Magazine and he said, “Madame Rubinstein, she would have been good at anything whether she was selling widgets, machine tools, whatever she was doing, she was an amazing saleswoman.”

Walter Isaacson:

But Arden never thought Rubinstein would come to New York and when she did, the rivalry grew fierce almost immediately. They marketed their competing skin creams aggressively, playing on the fears women had about blemishes and wrinkles. They also competed when it came to adopting new cosmetics technologies.

Walter Isaacson:

In the early 20th century, rapid advances in science and technology were having a positive effect on American society. From cars and airplanes, to frozen food and penicillin, consumers saw how technology gave them more freedom and a better quality of life. Rubinstein recognized this growing faith in new technology and used it to her advantage. It was no accident that Rubinstein called herself a beauty scientist. In advertising pages she was sometimes depicted wearing a white lab coat, conveying a mastery of her own cosmetics creations. Arden soon caught on to and so when either woman came out with a new line of eyebrow pencils, mascara, applicators or lipsticks in retractable tubes, the other was sure to answer with the release of her own line of new products as well. And while this competition defined their careers, it turns out that it’s the things they had in common that truly defined them as entrepreneurs.

Lindy Woodhead:

They desperately had to support themselves and their extended families. They were both the daughters of failed fathers. They became the provider of everything.

Walter Isaacson:

Over the course of a 50 year business rivalry, Rubinstein and Arden built enormously successful cosmetic empires. Today, the industry is a global marketplace worth more than $500 billion and that’s partially thanks to Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein.

Lindy Woodhead:

They were incredibly ambitious. They were totally professional in the sense of their dedication and these two women were truly, truly pioneers and they started something which is now a global force.

Walter Isaacson:

But it wasn’t only Arden and Rubinstein who helped assemble the beauty industry. The 1920s were a turning point in the history of cosmetics. It was a decade when a growing culture of liberation met the march of technological progress. It’s hard to imagine anything as tiny as a tube of lipstick changing the world but that’s what happened when in 1915, Maurice Levy invented the small swiveling applicator.

Walter Isaacson:

Previously, lip color was expensive. It was tedious to put on. It had to be applied at home. Now it was portable. For as little as five cents, a woman could conceal a tube in her pocket or handbag and stride confidently into the modern age.

Gabriela Hernandez:

When you had women kind of go more into a workforce and be more independent, especially in the 1920s when women got the right to vote, the wearing of the lipstick became a sign of an independent woman.

Walter Isaacson:

This is Gabriela Hernandez. She is the co-founder of Besame Cosmetics and the author of Classic Beauty: The History of Makeup.

Gabriela Hernandez:

It meant that she didn’t have to be married. She could be self sufficient and have a job and take care of herself, which was a very novel concept.

Walter Isaacson:

Even the word makeup did not exist until 1920. That’s the year a humble Hollywood wig maker named Max Factor coined the term. Factor was a pioneer of foundation, inventing various recipes for actresses, whom he would make up to look stunning on black and white film. The allure of Hollywood actresses on film played a major role in the demand for cosmetics among women across America. Indeed, the entire modern history of America runs parallel to the shifting concept and expressions of beauty in popular culture.

Gabriela Hernandez:

It’s interesting. When you look at every decade, you can see how the makeup and how women were wearing this, kind of mirror what’s going on either socially or economically of the period. The fifties, for example, because it was after the war and obviously the idea was to marry and have kids and have families so there was a huge idea of women as ultra feminine so the sex appeal had to be really up there so you had overdrawn lips and very defined brows.

Walter Isaacson:

But up until this point, African American women found themselves largely ignored by the beauty industry. That is until one significant pioneer broke the color barrier. Her name was Eunice W. Johnson with her husband, John Johnson, she founded Ebony Magazine, America’s first periodical aimed at an African American readership. And in 1958, they launched the Ebony Fashion Fair to raise money for charity.

Linda Johnson-Rice:

My mother really wanted to showcase the best of fashion across the world for an African American audience.

Walter Isaacson:

Linda Johnson-Rice is the chairman and CEO of Johnson Publishing Company and Eunice Johnson’s daughter.

Linda Johnson-Rice:

And what she wanted to show was that you could be inspired by these looks and inspired to express yourself and that you deserved to look and to be the very best.

Walter Isaacson:

The annual Ebony Fashion Fair was the first fashion show to feature African American models. And as groundbreaking as it was to see Black women on the runway in couture, the real innovation was happening backstage in the makeup room.

Linda Johnson-Rice:

Fashion Fair cosmetics came from the Ebony Fashion Fair show. And it really came because my mother started seeing the models that we had hired mixing and matching different cosmetic products backstage, trying to find the right hue that would match their complexion. And so when you’re trying to mix and match these shades, my mother just kept saying “There’s got to be something that we can do.”

Walter Isaacson:

At that time, none of the prominent cosmetics companies made products for African American women. Beauty brands figured that all women, regardless of color, would wear the same makeup. Eunice W. Johnson was the first to realize how wrong they were. After failing to convince the big brands to adapt to a changing marketplace, Eunice assembled a team of chemists and began to make her own makeup. And in 1973, she launched Fashion Fair Cosmetics. Fashion Fair was the first makeup company for African American women and it remains the largest Black owned beauty brand in America.

Linda Johnson-Rice:

Every time you see a Black model on the runways, every time you see a Black model in an ad, a Black brand in the beauty space and in the cosmetic space, you have to thank Eunice Johnson.

Walter Isaacson:

Over the next 30 years, the world of cosmetics continued to appeal to various trends, from disco culture to punk rock everything in between. But something happened in the early 2000s that transformed the makeup world, a powerful but simple piece of technology was introduced that disrupted the beauty industry more than any other innovation in the last century. That technology was a little online video sharing platform called YouTube. On July 22nd, 2007, a young woman in England helped create a new multi-billion dollar arm of the cosmetics industry. Lauren Luke was a regular 20 something who had fallen in love with makeup as a young girl while watching her grandmother perform her beauty rituals. She enrolled in beauty college and discovered she had a real talent for cosmetics. Then one day she decided to make a video of herself applying eyeshadow and she uploaded it to YouTube.

Lauren Luke:

It was just me in my bedroom. The video was very grainy. I think you could hear the computer fan in the background though I didn’t speak because I was so nervous, but I did this court or colored look and I could not believe the amount of comments that I got asking, “Could I do more?” And that’s how it all started.

Walter Isaacson:

The original video eventually received almost a 100,000 views so Luke began to post videos trying out new looks and practicing, what she had learned in college. Her audience grew by leaps and bounds in just a short time.

Lauren Luke:

I had people requesting things like celebrity looks, things that they’d seen on the telly, on the music channels with the vibrant makeup looks and they all said, “Can you do this?” And I said, “Well, I’ll give it a turn, but I’m not a professional and I’m not really sure what I’m doing, but I had fun anyway.”

Walter Isaacson:

She may not have been a professional makeup artist, but Luke was at the forefront of the greatest transformation in the beauty industry since the birth of the salon, the rise of the influencer. At the core of Luke’s extraordinary success was something very basic, authenticity. Viewers flock to her YouTube channel because she was open and honest about beauty products, techniques and about herself. It was the kind of intimate connection that big cosmetics companies could only dream of achieving. The YouTube beauty revolution had begun.

Lauren Luke:

Then you had other makeup brands thinking, oh, what’s this? I’m going to have to get in on this and they’d say, “Right, we’re going to send you a lot of product. We’d love it if you did a video and show everyone the products and give your honest opinion.”

Walter Isaacson:

One day a major beauty brand offered Luke contract to promote her own line of their products. She eventually accepted because she believed that her presence was important to millions of other ordinary women who felt that the beauty industry wasn’t speaking to them.

Lauren Luke:

I was on the front cover of New York Times magazine and it was the everyday woman and it was amazing. It was that point when I realized what I had done and that was create a bit of a stir and allow us in and when I say us, I mean the everyday girl, not just your models and not just airbrushed, it was about allowing realness in. It was about uncovering it all and letting all us shine through and that was such an amazing time in the beauty industry.

Walter Isaacson:

Although she was excited by her new fame, Luke began to experience some tension between promoting the products of a global beauty brand while still remaining her genuine self and being real with her fans. The toll eventually became too much for Luke to bear and after her contract finished, she stopped posting videos for a few years but her fans never forgot about her. She had touched countless people with her grainy, do it yourself videos about eyeshadow and the importance of staying true to yourself. And eventually they helped her regain the same inspiration she’d felt when she posted that very first video.

Lauren Luke:

I do believe I had a positive impact. People who have emailed and they’ve said because I inspired them when they were a teenager, they’re now in their twenties or the thirties and they’ve gone on to cosmetology school, they now own their own salon, they’re makeup artists. It’s not just about what’s going on on YouTube, it’s about people in everyday life who have took advantage of the inspiration I’ve given them about just going out and doing what they want.

Walter Isaacson:

Today, beauty YouTubers are some of the most followed creators on the site with the most popular having more than 20 million subscribers each. And it’s an industry that now spans across gender lines as well with some of the most popular influencers marketing products directly to men. Even Lauren Luke has begun posting videos again and what she continues to share, her makeup tutorials, beauty tips and the wisdom of her life.

Walter Isaacson:

The YouTube era has fundamentally changed the relationship between beauty brands and consumers. It gave consumers more power to demand accountability, quality, as well as personalized service. And in one sector of the industry, that demand for personalized care is leading some innovators to look inward for new ideas, all the way into our DNA.

Walter Isaacson:

Around the time that Lauren Luke realized the pitfalls of being a YouTube influencer, a Swedish dermatologist named Anne Wetter noticed something else. Wetter had spent the past 20 years diagnosing skin diseases and advising patients on using creams to treat everything from eczema to premature aging, but in her otherwise cheerful Stockholm office, there’s always been one constant source of never ending frustration.

Anne Wetter:

I’m used to having patients who are stacking up all their products on my table, on my desk. They come and they’re quite frustrated because was nothing really works.

Walter Isaacson:

Since the time of Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein, skin creams have had an almost mystical appeal. It’s no coincidence that the two great pioneers of modern beauty care got their start making and marketing skin creams. Their clients constantly worried about dryness, blemishes, wrinkles and the effects of exposure to ultraviolet sunlight, realizing that the same old approach to personalize skincare just wasn’t working. Wetter wondered if there was somewhere else she could look and that’s when she hit upon the idea of looking inside our genes.

Anne Wetter:

The med school, I was actually taught that only 20% mattered, your genetic setup. It was all external factors, how you lived, if you smoked, if you sunbathed, pollution. But these last years we have learned that it’s as much as 60% determined by your genetics.

Walter Isaacson:

Four years ago, Wetter and her partner launched a company called Allel. They began to investigate genetic factors of skin problems and then create bespoke solutions for each individual patient. It all starts with a DNA test, just for your skin. Allel’s researchers have identified 16 markers inside human DNA that all relate to how skin ages. Things like pigmentation, collagen quality, elasticity and water retention are all determined by our genes. Taken together, these markers tell a story about the natural fitness of our skin and how it responds to environmental factors, such as pollution, radiation, allergens, and stress. Once you’ve learned the story of your skin, the chemists get to work. Each skincare profile is matched with specific products and ingredients so the cream you put on your face is tailor made for your specific skin. Analysts estimate that’s a market for DNA based skincare will top $11.7 billion by 2025. It feels like the dawn of a new era of beauty science. And although modern beauty care embraces scientific innovation like never before, Wetter and her partner still faced the familiar challenges of disrupting an industry from the outside.

Anne Wetter:

I do believe from a perspective as a doctor, a medical doctor and a scientist that we have good products, it’s just hard to show the market how good they are. Even if you’re best in the class, how to get out there. That’s a really big challenge.

Walter Isaacson:

Wearing a white lab coat and a reassuring smile on her face, Wetter cuts of figure, not unlike Madame Rubinstein in some of her advertising a century ago. There’s still no such thing as a miracle cream, but you can experience the magic of a product made just for you.

Walter Isaacson:

A 100 years ago, as consumers peruse Helena Rubinstein’s cosmetics at a Fifth Avenue department store or sat for a makeover at one of Elizabeth Arden’s luxurious salons, they began to experience personal beauty in a whole new way and they started to see it too. And that’s because a simple piece of technology suddenly became a staple figure in most American homes and businesses, the mirror. For the first time, we began to look at our own reflection as part of our daily routine. Ever since, the mirror has been a product that until recently, nobody really expected to change much.

Parham Aarabi:

My name is Parham Aarabi and I’m the founder and CEO of ModiFace.

Walter Isaacson:

If you’ve ever used your smartphone camera as a mirror to touch up your makeup or check your hair, you’ve likely thought, what is this mirror could show me a different look for cosmetics? That’s what Aarabi thought too when he invented ModiFace.

Parham Aarabi:

The underlying idea of our technology is that we humans always look in mirrors. Looking at our faces and near is something we do on a routine basis and all we do is we take that same mirror experience that we have every day, but add the virtual component that you could get a sense of what different products, be it skin changes or hair changes or color changes on your face could look like giving a shopper a sense of what product might be best for them.

Walter Isaacson:

Back in 2007 Aarabi was an engineer at the University of Toronto. He was developing artificial intelligence to improve speech recognition, which required precise real time projections of facial features on a computer screen. The technology had the power to make speech recognition hyper-accurate, but it also had another hidden potential.

Parham Aarabi:

My co-founder had the idea that we should also add a facelift option, essentially a filter that would apply to the face that would get rid of blemishes and would perfect the skin and remove pores and things like that. Something that’s very common today, but back then it was quite revolutionary. And that’s how ModiFace was started as that facelift was the key to getting us into this precision face filter effects that we started to make.

Walter Isaacson:

ModiFace is an augmented reality technology that simulates changes to your face in potentially limitless ways. Do you want to try a new hair color or shade of lipstick or see how your skin might look after using a particular cream? ModiFace can take almost any cosmetic product in the world and let you try it on virtually. It’s technology has been adopted by over a 100 brands. And in 2018, L’Oreal acquired Aarabi’s startup, where its team of scientists and engineers continues to explore the possibility of AR beauty care.

Parham Aarabi:

As we’ve deployed this technology in more places, the realization is that not only is it useful, but it actually does help consumers make a better decision, the more confident about the product or color they’re choosing and be more likely to actually end up buying a product.

Walter Isaacson:

As the technology of smartphones and cameras gets better, ModiFace’s augmented reality comes closer and closer to mirroring, well mirrors. And by using technology to merge product design with personalized care, to enhance or transform your appearance ModiFace is picking up where the early pioneers left off. In many ways, that remains the legacy of Elizabeth Arden, Helena Rubinstein and other early cosmetic moguls even as the years have passed and many people have forgotten their story. True innovation in the beauty industry, doesn’t just come from a clever sales pitch or a trendy new product nor even a massive upheaval, such as YouTube. It takes looking into the mirror and seeing something that no one else can see.

Walter Isaacson:

I’m Walter Isaacson and you’ve been listening to Trailblazers, an original podcast from Dell Technologies. For more information about any of the guests on today’s show, please visit delltechnologies.com/trailblazers. Thanks for listening.