VOGUE, September 2018 (PDF)
Make-up hauls, front-facing cameras and making that highlight pop: why an entire generation’s obsession with beauty YouTubers like James Charles is not as shallow as it seems. By Noelle Faulkner
Picture this: you’re in an auditorium full of teens and pre-teens bubbling with anticipation. They’re shifting nervously in their seats, which, for those in the front row, have cost $499 each. Some are on the brink of crying. Many are accompanied by a parent, and almost every single larynx will soon quiver to emit a frequency that only dogs and adults born after 1972 can hear. Now, who do you think this audience is here for? A rock star? A hot actor? A teen dream pop sensation? Nope.
A decade ago, sure, the above would probably hit the mark, but in 2018 puppy love thirsts for a different type of celebrity, one who blurs reality with aspiration, speaks brutal truths, uses the word ‘extra’ as a self-description and comes armed with a front-facing camera and a subscribe button. In this particular instance, they’re here for 19-year- old American beauty YouTuber James Charles, who is taking the stage to perform a live make-up tutorial and a Q&A session. Soon, the athletic brunette, with fierce brows and chiselled cheekbones, will emerge, exclaim a big, warm “Hi, sisters!”, his catchphrase that addresses the tribe (every ’tuber has one). Screams, stamping and tears like nothing you’d ever expect, considering the context, will follow. “I’m so excited to be here,” he soon says. “Let’s get glam!”
At the time of writing, Charles has over 6.8 million subscribers on YouTube, 1.32 million Twitter followers, 6.7 million Instagram followers and 125,000 likes on Facebook (which tells you a lot about his demographic’s preferred platforms), and has his own line of merchandise, Sisters Apparel. He has one of the most engaged followings on YouTube, many of whom, as one learns when attending his live show, are not afraid to call him out on, well, anything they see fit. “These kids know me,” he later says. For example, during the Q&A session, one attendee calls him out on his filthy beauty blenders. Savage, but Charles doesn’t flutter. And so he shrugs and says: “Oh, I know! I’m so disgusting!” And someone from the audience tosses a new one onto the stage from their goodie bag. Everyone laughs. It’s hard to imagine being so blunt with a teenage celebrity role model, but this connection is different – it’s personal. I doubt Taylor Hanson or Justin Timberlake would have stayed up all night replying to messages and creating an online fan community nearly as big as Charles’s Sisters ... Alas, them’s the breaks as a YouTuber: you’re held accountable at all times, from the products you peddle to what you say, as Charles (along with many other creators) has learnt the hard way, via with a few miscalculated, racially insensitive comments that have resulted in major call-outs by fans and big apologies by him.
Having had a beauty channel since 2015 (besides an “unfunny comedy channel” prior to that, which we’re not to talk about, he jokes), Charles rose to fame with a meme about being so extra that he brought a ring light (a portable LED light famously used by Instagrammers and Kardashians) to his prom photo shoot specifically to pop his highlight. It later came out that the meme was a joke, but not before he was appointed CoverGirl’s first male face, appeared on The Ellen DeGeneres Show and became a viral sensation. Along with make-up related content and tutorials, he also produces a show, Brother & Sister, with his younger brother Ian Jeffrey, where they talk about growing up, sexuality, relationships and fashion – a casual breakdown of family, youth and brotherhood, with an sensitive undertone of James’s coming out as a 12-year-old. It’s adorable, to say the least.
According to internet statistics portal Statista, Charles’s content is a drop in an ocean of 88 billion beauty videos annually uploaded to YouTube. However, not everyone has the influence that this Los Angeles-based teen does, and certainly few could charge $499 for a front-row seat at a live make-up tutorial, breakfast, selfie and goodie bag. That is a feat in itself. “I could speak all day with reasons why James is so successful,” says Ellana Byers, founder of cosmetics brand Be Coyote, the headline sponsor for Charles’s Australian tour. “He is charismatic, ridiculously talented (and not just in make-up), extremely hardworking and he appreciates his millions of fans.
Watching him backstage, as well as in the meet-and- greets, you could see a genuine love for every single person. That’s what makes a difference. Fans can very quickly see his authenticity, and that, mixed with his unbelievable talent, is what makes him truly influential, and a force to be reckoned with.” But to anyone over the age of 25, the question remains: what is it about YouTubers that appeals to this generation? And aren’t they a little young for make-up? Well, to understand the rise of A-list beauty YouTubers, you need to look beyond skin-deep.
“YouTube as a platform has a particular appeal to teenagers/pre-teens for a couple of reasons, but it is mostly because of the immediacy of the platform and the feeling that it could be them one day,” says Daniela Walker, foresight editor at the Future Laboratory, a trend forecasting agency in London that looks closely at the behaviour of millennials and Generation Z (those born in the late 90s to early 2000s). “All these young YouTube stars fit the mould of being ‘just like them’,” says Walker, “rather than the unreachable heights of celebrities on TV or in the cinema. [This is] despite the fact the likelihood of actually becoming a famous YouTube influencer is just as low as becoming a famous actor.
A large part of Charles’s success is that he runs deeper than your run- of-the-mill beauty blogger. He shares personal stories – his failures, successes, family and his private life – all while engaging with his young audience and talking directly to the camera, creating a sense of eye contact. He also happens to do great make-up.
“I get a lot of fans who deal with poor mental health,” he says, mentioning a girl he took a selfie with at the Sydney live show who hugged him and confessed, through tears, that his channel stopped her from taking her own life. “But that’s the good thing about the internet – that there are so many kids who can confide together and help each other out. I try to be a role model to these kids and so it’s really important for me to explain to them that I love them, that so many people love them and that no matter what, eventually, this will get better.” The star himself admits to his own dark clouds, often leaning on his fans for support. “The fans are the only reason I do this job,” he shrugs. “As much as I love make-up and the creativity behind this, the internet can be a horrible place and sometimes with so much negativity and hate, it’s hard. Sometimes the only thing that keeps me going is knowing I can help inspire young kids to be themselves, that they’re waiting for me to put out awesome content for them. I love make-up, but I’d probably just be doing it in my apartment if it weren’t for this community. So it’s a two-way street.” And this is where another allure of YouTube comes in – the community, something mainstream media rarely provides teens.
“As long as there are teenagers, there will be a ‘find your tribe mentality’,” says Walker. “YouTube and the internet has just made it easier to realise you are not alone. Prior to that accessibility, role models were very mainstream, and for a kid from a small town in the middle of nowhere, they may find that they have no-one. Whereas now, they simply have to turn to their computer to be able to find like-minded people. Social media has given different communities more exposure, and made it easier for people to find a niche where they feel accepted.” Hence Charles’s ‘sisters’. Walker adds that it’s not that mainstream media has done anything to lose this audience, it’s just the nature of YouTube, the intense accessibility and immediacy. “It’s funny, because now most of these influencers have a lot of money, expensive equipment and production and yet there is still a feeling that it is home-made. Plus, they are available after their YouTube video is off. There’s Snapchat, Instagram Stories, Instagram, etc, so the storytelling and the relationship between them and viewer never ends, making it much more intimate than a fictional television show/star.”
The misconception that many beauty content creators are shallow, vain and lazy is a common one. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. “A lot of people just don’t understand what the life of a YouTuber really is,” says Charles. “It’s
not just sitting down in front of a camera, pressing record and uploading it 20 minutes later. It’s a full-on process, and I do three videos a week right now. Two beauty videos, plus our full production show with my little brother. Then, I’m also working on Instagram posts at all times, product launches and projects.” Charles has a team of four people, and a production company that helps out with Brother & Sister. “I really don’t get that much sleep! I love it, but it is a lot of work and so many people don’t understand the pressure that actually comes with it – to perform well, to look good on camera, to put out really great content, to always step your game up. It’s hard.”
Aside from changing how an entire generation consumes media, the community is shaping how that generation thinks about beauty and how the beauty industry is thinking about them. No longer is the industry focused on changing you or making you into someone better, but on how it can slot into the life of you, the creative individual. “I think it has had a major shift in a positive way,” says Charles. “Now it’s about really supporting each other, being inclusive and how this beauty product can make you feel better. It’s long overdue.” Byers echoes this. “It’s the biggest change I’ve ever seen in the beauty industry,” says the cosmetics CEO. “The level of influence that some YouTubers have is unbelievable ... Gone are the days when a product was released, marketed and ultimately consumers tried it out. We now live in a world where entire brands can be made or broken on reviews from YouTube stars. New brands and products appear daily, and these modern-day celebrities get to decide what wins and loses.”
And so the beauty industry has had to rethink its business. The YouTubers with integrity will not stand for sub-par products, because if they gain a big enough audience on trust, the money from views rolls in, which lures the big fish they actually do want to work with, but all it takes is one false review to make it all fall down. And the kids all have noses for frauds. “I’ve built up my integrity so much over time, and it was so hard to earn my fans’ trust, so I have to make sure I’m only recommending good products,” insists Charles. “For me, first and foremost, I have to love the product. I absolutely have to. Obviously, with YouTube, let’s be real, you can make a decent amount of money and it’s a great job to have, but there’s no pay cheque I would ever receive in exchange for sacrificing my trust with my followers.”
“The beauty industry has made massive strides in recent years when it comes to inclusivity and rethinking its campaign models,” says Walker, noting how the representation of people in beauty campaigns is also changing, thanks to this generation. “There are so many facets of this, but if we are talking about YouTube specifically, then I think, yes, they have to work harder on their formulations and products, because now you have popular YouTubers doing things like ‘unboxing’, hauls and reviewing products – breaking it down for the consumer. They trust these people. The internet overall has bred a review culture, and also a space where you can contact brands directly. If a brand does something wrong, never before has it been easier for a consumer to shout about it, whether that be on YouTube, in an Instagram comment or through Twitter and retweets.” That said, YouTube, Instagram and the other image driven apps have been driving change within the beauty industry for some time now. Walk into Sephora or Mecca and really look around. The days of glamorous golden palettes are fading, replaced by a more creative culture of beauty. Almost everything looks like an art supply or is designed to be ‘photo-ready’, optimised for personal photo shoots instead of daily life. Kim Kardashian West’s KKW Beauty line looks like a range of chic pastel crayons, and then there’s Pat McGrath’s cult-status otherworldy sheens, glitters and molten hues, sold in bags, palettes or pots. There is a graphic connection to artistic expression here, not beauty as our mothers knew it. This might seem vapid and narcissistic on the surface, but this movement is rooted in individuality, belonging and a confident sense of self. “It’s the long-lasting impact of everything else we’re talking about that matters the most,” says Charles. “And all this,” he says, motioning to his perfectly contoured, highlighted and baked look. “You can do anything you want, because at the end of the day, it washes right off. It’s just make-up, after all.”