In today’s world of MAC and Sephora, it’s doubtful many people regularly think about Helena Rubinstein and her impact on the makeup industry. From putting lipstick into bullet casings from WWI to becoming Australia’s first self-made millionairess, there’s no denying that she shaped the makeup world. Her trickery in the marketing of her makeup played directly to women’s insecurities and led to women feeling slaves to makeup, something that has arguably only become more obvious with time.
Lip Service is a play based on the life and career of Helena Rubinstein. Legendary actor of more than 40 years, Amanda Muggleton takes on the role of Rubinstein and candidly calls her “the world’s number one makeup queen”.
“She was a woman born in the Belle Époque. She knew people like (Sergei) Diaghilev and (Vaslav) Nijinsky and (Pablo) Picasso, and then ended up knowing rock stars who were using her makeup when she died,” Muggleton said.
“She was a very formidable woman, very strong, in a male-dominated world.”
After seasons in London and Sydney, Lip Service is due to open to Melbourne audiences, something Muggleton is excited about.
“Well, she’s a Melbourne girl and she started her empire here in Melbourne,” Muggleton said.
“Her first laboratory was above this very famous tea shop in The Block Arcade and from there she moved into Elizabeth Street. From there, she moved up to the top end of Collins Street, where she had a very glamorous studio and laboratory.
“She put a very formidable team around her which included scientists and marketers.”
Helena Rubinstein revolutionised the makeup world, helping to remove the negative stigma. At the same time, the well-known Elizabeth Arden was also on her way up. Lip Service draws on this relationship for much of its story.
“There’s only three of us in the play, Elizabeth Arden (Linden Wilkinson), me, and Patrick O’Higgins (Septimus Caton), who she employed as her bodyguard and her right-hand man,” Muggleton said.
“Her relationship with Elizabeth Arden was hysterical because they were arch-enemies but underneath it all they were rubbing their hands together because the more bad publicity they got, the better.
“If they were nasty to each other in the press or said ill things about each other, it went all over the newspapers and that in turn sold all their product, it was very clever.”
Born in Poland in 1872, Rubinstein came to Australia in 1902 following her parents’ concerns for her safety. Muggleton explained they “sent her out to avoid the war because they were frightened that she’d be killed, and her sisters too”. When she moved here, she arrived in Coleraine, to the west of Melbourne, and started selling her mother’s face cream to the farmer’s wives.
“When she ran out of the cream her mother had given her, she asked her mother what was in it and started making it herself, but not with pine sap, with eucalyptus sap,” Muggleton said.
“She made it for tuppence and sold it for 7/6. And this is how she became Australia’s first millionairess.
“And she employed 30,000 people all over the world – New York, Paris, London and of course Collins Street here in Melbourne.”
Rubinstein was creative and a formidable force in business.
“From making face cream, she then created the lipstick cases out of WWI bullet shells. That is where today’s shape comes from. Up until her, lipstick and rouge came in pots that you used to dab the same colour rouge on your cheeks as you used on your lips,” Muggleton explained.
“We are slaves to the makeup industry, more than ever. Today we’ve got Mecca, Sephora, MAC, Makeup Forever, whichever way we turn as women, there is makeup in our face and it all started with Helena Rubinstein.”
But Lip Service isn’t all comedy and fierce business competitions. There were many saddening events in Rubinstein’s life that she pushed aside to remain the mogul she was.
“In the play, one of her sons is killed and that’s terrible,” Muggleton explained.
“She tells you the story of what happened to her in Coleraine when she was a young woman and her uncles – who she went out to – treated her very badly.
“All she ever wanted was her parent’s love and support. When she went back offering them fur coats and wanted to buy them a house, they wouldn’t touch her with a barge-pole because to them, makeup was a huge no-no. And so she never saw her mum and dad again.”
When reflecting on what audiences will be drawn to in Lip Service, Muggleton thinks the conflict is a highlight.
“Well I think it is the fights between her and Elizabeth Arden, it also covers the death of her son, and the relationship between her and Charles Revson, who is Revlon, she hated him. I think the relationship that she had with Revlon is fascinating,” Muggleton said.
“The best part of this story is that she was so strong and had so much belief in herself. She had the most wonderful sense of humour but was always putting her foot in her mouth.”
Directed by Jennifer Hagan, John Misto’s Lip Service opens at the Lawler Theatre – within the Southbank Theatre complex – at Southbank, Melbourne on July 11 for a limited season.
Dates: 11 July – 28 July 2018
Venue: Lawler Theatre, within Southbank Theatre, 140 Southbank Boulevard, Southbank, Melbourne
Tickets: Tickets on sale now from Southbank Theatre Box Office, www.southbanktheatre.com.au or 8688 0800
Price: Prices: from $50 plus booking fee