Nine years ago, I stumbled across my first makeup video: “Michelle Phan’s Lady Gaga Poker Face” tutorial. Phan smiled at the camera occasionally, fitting on a blonde wig and gluing a lightning bolt to her cheek. She sweetly described what she was doing through a soft voice-over, and, at the time, it all felt extremely put-together. Watching the video today in a YouTube community swarming with affiliate links and discount codes, I realized how genuine and innocent online beauty videos used to be.
In 2018, the job title “beauty influencer” is extremely coveted, and it’s not hard to see why. Beauty influencers get paid to talk about products, get sent pounds of free makeup, fly out on fancy trips paid for by brands, and amass loving, dedicated fans. The allure behind making thousands of dollars by filming yourself continues to grow daily.
However, any avid follower of the YouTube beauty community knows how bitterly controversial the past months have been. The tumultuous feud between Jeffree Star, Manny Gutierrez (known as Manny MUA), Laura Lee, Gabriel Zamora, and Nikita Dragun began as a racism scandal and later exploded into a full-on exploitation of the online beauty industry.
The scandal began with a photo Zamora posted on Twitter captioned, “Bitch is bitter because without him we’re doing better.” The photo, pointed at Jeffree Star, shows Zamora, Gutierrez, Lee, and Dragun flipping off the camera. In response, Star’s angry fans dug up the group’s old racist tweets, which, of course, went viral.
Lee was a direct hit of the Twitter racism scandal and badly mishandled the situation, posting an overdue apology video which many viewers dismissed as laughable and ingenuine. She has since lost more than 600,000 subscribers and is on shaky ground with brands with which she collaborates.
Lee was not the only beauty YouTuber to suffer heavy subscriber losses. Gutierrez lost upwards of 400,000 subscribers throughout September. Alongside Gutierrez’s resurfaced tweets, now former-friend Zamora posted an apology video calling out how manipulative and ingenuine Gutierrez is. Zamora also talked about Gutierrez’s “track record” for going through friends and how toxic he felt their friendship really was.
The controversy extended past this influencer feud when influencers’ rates for collaboration were brought to the public’s attention. In her YouTube video titled “My Truth Regarding the Beauty Community,” beauty influencer and Makeup Geek founder Marlena Stell claims influencers have been charging upwards of $60,000 to do a single promotional video.
“It’s difficult to be an influencer and to put yourself out there publicly,” she says in the video. “However, there’s a difference between making a good living for yourself and charging so much there comes a sense of entitlement.”
Beauty influencer Jaclyn Hill responded to Stell’s video saying that $60,000 is a normal price for influencers to charge. She also briefly mentions an influencer who said they got paid $70,000 for talking about a product for 30 seconds.
The surge of information about what goes on offline is shocking. Emily Jones, a junior Theatre and Pre-Medical major at American University, believes influencers are credible sources of information nonetheless. “I’ve bought most of my beauty products based on many of the influencers’ recommendations and have loved them,” she says. “Influencers can very easily lose face if they lie about their opinions on a product, and they know that.”
As someone who posts beauty videos, Jones welcomes sponsored content and hopes to see audiences do the same. “I think people need to understand that YouTube is not just for fun for these influencers—it’s their career,” she says. “We don’t get angry when a big company sponsors an event for a growing business or company, so we shouldn’t get mad when a company sponsors a YouTuber’s video.”
Beauty influencers today are the near-equivalent of celebrities. We anticipate and get excited about new content, buy their merchandise, and attend meet-and-greets.
Celya Kaufer, a Saipan-based makeup artist, says makeup gurus hold monumental influence over their following. Unlike Jones, Kaufer thinks more people should be skeptical. “People know that some influencers are basically trying to hustle them—giving fake reviews just for money or bad mouthing one brand for another,” she said in an online interview with me.
The fancy backdrops, expensive lighting, and public relations packages feel distant from Michelle Phan’s early videos innocently shot in her bathroom. Beauty influencers today are undoubtedly cutthroat business people, but it’s disheartening when they become solely that.