By Mary Sollosi
June 28, 2019 at 06:36 PM EDT
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Patrick McMullan/Getty Images; St. Martin's Press

You think the Democratic primary has been brutal? That contest is nothing next to the early days of the cutthroat cosmetics industry.

Rouge, the debut novel from writer and ad executive Richard Kirshenbaum, chronicles a decades-long feud between two fictional makeup mavens of the early 20th century, loosely inspired by the legendary rivalry between industry pioneers Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden.

Kirshenbaum’s pair of social-climbing competitors are Josephine Herz, a Polish émigré who creates a business model of high-end beauty salons, and Constance Gardiner, a WASPy Canadian who builds a small army of Gardiner Girls to sell her products door-to-door. But while Josephine’s story closely resembles Rubinstein’s and Constance is more in the mold of Arden, “the book is a compilation book; it’s not based on only two women,” Kirshenbaum tells EW. “The Gardiner Girls [are] based on the Avon model. I did some research on Madam C.J. Walker, who was the first African-American female millionaire at the turn of the century. I looked at everyone, from Charles Revson to Estée Lauder.”

With his background in advertising, including extensive experience working on some of the most well-known accounts in the cosmetics category, Kirshenbaum is uniquely qualified to dramatize a historical beauty battle (particularly when it comes to the original, era-appropriate marketing slogans and product names). Furthermore, “I’m the first generation of men to have worked for the first generation of female entrepreneurs,” the author says. “And that’s sort of the first pillar of this book — it’s really an homage to many of the great women entrepreneurs that I’ve worked for.”

The personalities at the center of Rouge are too big — and too glamorous! — not to make the trip to Hollywood. Sony snapped up the rights to the novel before it was even released, with Wendy Finerman (who previously brought a glitzy novel to the screen with 2006’s beloved The Devil Wears Prada) attached to produce. So now the big question is: Who would play the gorgeous, brilliant heroines?

“There are so many [actresses] who are strong and beautiful and amazing,” Kirshenbaum says. “They all just need to be strong, intelligent women. I think the beauty needs to be on the inside and the outside, not just the outside.” While the author is reluctant to narrow down a dream cast, he’s fortunate to have Finerman on his side. “I mean, the casting of Meryl Streep in the Anna Wintour character [in Devil Wears Prada] — that was just so brilliant, and I don’t know how many people would have thought of it,” he says. “For me, it’s just a joy that I have somebody that is so amazing with that.”

For Kirshenbaum, the story was cinematic from the start: He received some early inspiration while on vacation at GoldenEye Resort in Jamaica, where he stayed in Ian Fleming’s villa. “I really wrote the prologue of the book, the funeral scene, at GoldenEye,” Kirshenbaum says. “I was renting the villa at the time, a couple of years ago, and his old typewriter was there. And because Fleming wrote all the Bond novels and they were made into movies, I just loved the idea of doing a cinematic opening.”

Despite the classic inspiration and the novel’s historical setting, though, it was important to Kirshenbaum to address more modern concerns, with issues of sexism, racism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, and classism woven through the narrative. “These women created the first multibillion-dollar category at a time when women couldn’t get loans. I feel like that’s extraordinary,” he says. “I wanted to show what these women had to face. I wanted to bring that to the audience, because I wanted it to be a juicy beach read, but I also wanted it to be something that would have some heft to it.”

Rouge is available now.

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