YouTube’s beauty community has a reputation for being one of the most dramatic corners of the internet, and with good reason. This year alone, James Charles and Tati Westbrook’s shocking and emotional feud — which began over vitamins — spread far beyond the platform’s thousands of drama channels and infiltrated mainstream publications from People to Forbes. Soon after, the launch of Jaclyn Hill’s lipstick collection was shrouded in controversy after consumers noticed hair-like fibers and other chunky particles in her products. Months later, Shane Dawson’s subscribers flocked to his channel by the millions to watch his series on the making of his Conspiracy eyeshadow palette with makeup mogul Jeffree Star, which promised to explore the shady underbelly of the industry.
But despite all the tea in 2019, many in the beauty community believe it’s still a positive space where creators feel empowered and often inspired by their peers.
“There are thousands of people out there making makeup tutorials, having a good time, being helpful, and giving great product reviews that are being overshadowed,” Kristi of RawBeautyKristi told MTV News. Kristi started her beauty channel in 2012 after a five-year fertility struggle, which she documented on a separate account entirely. Though she didn’t have prior makeup knowledge, she saw what Michelle Phan and Kandee Johnson — veritable YouTube pioneers — were doing and felt compelled to offer people something a little different. “I was an ‘NYC liquid liner for a $1.50’ type of person, so I wanted to give people affordable makeup tutorials,” she explained. And it worked. To date, Kristi has amassed 819K subscribers.
As Kristi’s following grew, so did the sheer volume of users creating and seeking out product reviews, inspirational how-tos, and other beauty-centric videos on YouTube. “There really was no beauty community when I started,” she said. But on the platform today, some of the biggest creators are makeup artists, including Star with 16.8 million subscribers, Charles with 16.4 million, NikkieTutorials with 12.4 million, and Westbrook with 9.7 million. The downside? The community extends far beyond those top influencers, and when drama hits, it tends to give the entire circle a bad rap. “That’s when people say that the beauty community is so dramatic,” Kristi said. “But if you really zoom out, that isn’t even remotely true.”
Aliyah Bowers, a 20-year-old micro-influencer (someone whose follower range is somewhere between 2,000 and 50,000) with over 3,500 followers on Instagram, has long admired makeup artists Jackie Aina, Jaclyn Hill, Carli Bybel, and yes, Charles. She recently uploaded an audition video to her account in hopes of being cast in Charles’s new YouTube Original competition series, which has the working title James Charles Instant Influencer. Bowers, who launched her channel around three years ago, feels “it’s such a big opportunity,” she told MTV News. “Being a small influencer, you just never have a lot of opportunities, so you want to try as much as you can to get as far as you can go. You never know what can come of it.”
For many new creators, that’s the most thrilling part; anything can happen once you share a video online — including viral fame. 20-year-old beauty guru Cohl of Cohlsworld, for example, amassed 30K Instagram followers in July 2016 after just one month on the platform. But it wasn’t until 2019 that the former national cheerleading champion began taking social media seriously as a career. Now managed by fellow YouTuber and industry giant Patrick Starrr, Cohl boasts 386K followers on Instagram, 144K subscribers on YouTube, collabs with major brands like Buxom and Colourpop, and was honored with the Emerging Artist of the Year Award at the American Influencer Awards. His most-viewed video ever is his no-holds-barred review of a lip gloss from Jeffree Star’s eponymous cosmetics line with nearly one million views.
Despite befriending some of the most well-known beauty gurus on YouTube, Cohl is still very much aware of the community’s current ecosystem. “The beauty community is literally high school,” he said. “Everyone wants a piece of the pie, everyone wants to be popular, everyone wants to be teacher’s pet.” To ensure he doesn’t get caught up in drama, he tries to keep to himself. “I keep my circle very close,” he said. “There can be so much drama and so much competition that I try to stay away from it all.” As for Kristi, her main tip for avoiding conflict is to simply not participate in it — something she recommends to young makeup artists who want to make it in the industry. “I get that comment on my social media all the time: ‘Is it too late to start? Is it too dramatic?’ I hate that because it may inhibit people from doing something that they love because they’re afraid of drama,” she said. “You don’t need to be afraid of it. Just don’t engage.”
Fortunately, the highly publicized feuds within the community — such as Charles and Westbrook’s public spat, or the messiness that ensued in 2018 when Gabriel Zamora, Manny MUA, Laura Lee, and Nikita Dragun flipped off Star — aren’t keeping people from exploring YouTube as a possible avenue to success, with over 1.9 billion logged-in users per month. “I don’t let it scare me or stop me from doing what I want to do,” Bowers said. “[People] like to latch onto the newest drama and engage and attack people, but I like to focus on myself because, at the end of the day, I’m the only one who’s going to get me where I want to go.”
But in the current climate, it’s not always easy to avoid conflict. For some creators, deciding when to comment on controversial topics and when to stay quiet gets particularly tricky, especially when it comes to makeup reviews, which is a huge part of the job. Cohl’s “Unbiased Review” series, for example, gets him “into drama all the time,” he said. “I just review influencer or beauty community launches because I feel like those are the ones that are the most biased. I step away from my friendships and just give my honest opinion about packaging, formula, the launch, everything.” Kristi also takes honest product reviews very seriously, saying, “Our job is to help other people know what’s good and what’s not. We’re trying it so they don’t have to spend their money.”
To date, Kristi’s highest-performing video is a detailed 52-minute-long evaluation of Jaclyn Hill’s hotly contested lipsticks, in which she displays the fuzzy, hole-ridden products under a microscope before trying them out; the review has been viewed over 4.4 million times. But choosing to assess the creation of an industry peer is not easy. “There are so many things to take into consideration,” she said. “You need to know the history of the brand, the brand owners, and whether or not you feel comfortable supporting them.” Although her comments about the cosmetics were — like most everyone else’s — negative, she insists it’s not personal. “I really make sure that I’m dead honest no matter what, even if it’s against one of my peers,” she explained.
Not to mention, there’s a whole lot of money at stake. Per a July 2019 report shared by Business Insider from retail analytics firm Edited, the beauty industry is valued at a whopping $532 billion, which can largely be attributed to the “growth of direct-to-consumer beauty brands, enabled by social channels, email marketing, and shoppable apps.” The earning power of top influencers is similarly staggering; a simple Google search will reveal Star’s net worth to be at least $50 million. And according to Forbes, Huda Kattan of Huda Beauty, whose 2010 blog grew into a beauty empire of over 140 products, has a net worth even more astonishing at a massive $610 million.
And while it may appear glamorous to viewers, the journey to success is not easy. “It’s a 24-hour job. There’s no sleeping, no days off,” Cohl said, and this pressure is exacerbated when drama erupts online, noting that “you can definitely feel it.” Kristi agrees, calling these scandals “uncomfortable” for those who make their living on YouTube. “There’s just this sick-to-your-stomach feeling,” she explained. “It’s almost like if something bad were to happen at your workplace. You’re just like, ‘Oh, God. I work here. This is awkward.’ It’s definitely a tense feeling, and you just don’t want to be dragged into it at all.”
That’s why many beauty influencers feel the public image of the YouTube beauty community isn’t 100 percent accurate. “[It] is really being painted as something that I feel like it’s not,” Kristi said, explaining that the drama often has nothing to do with makeup and everything to do with “personal relationships, friendships, egos, numbers, and subscribers.” Still, the negative attention makes her fear for the future of the space as a whole. “I just don’t want it to be discredited by brands or media for something that’s such a small part of it,” she said. “And yes, that small part is the most viewed, the most talked about, but…it really invalidates the rest of the people who are just interested in makeup and having a good time and sharing their artistry.”
But Cohl isn’t so concerned. After all, as long as consumers have access to products, there will be a community. “Beauty will never go out of trend,” he said, sharing that even his grandma watches Jaclyn Hill. “This is not a fidget spinner. This is people’s everyday lives.” And in the “changing, developing, and constantly growing” ecosystem that exists today — one that’s helped make it OK for “men to wear foundation, contour, and color correctives” — Cohl says it’s “just never going to go away.”
While it’s too soon to tell what the future has in store for YouTube’s most buzzed-about circle, one thing’s for sure: Influencers big and small are optimistic that it will evolve into a constructive and drama-free space. “I just hope for more love, more understanding, and more empathy,” Bowers said. “We have to work on being more of a unit.” For Kristi, it’s about getting back to the community’s roots. “I hope that it [becomes] a place where people can set the negativity and drama aside and just get back to what it is, which is beauty, and having a good time with makeup and realizing it’s not that deep.” Similarly, Cohl sees all of the new talent in the community — namely ZackaryVang, LaviedunPrince, Samual.Rayy, and Japanslayz — and is hopeful that, someday, relevance won’t be determined by news headlines, but by artistry.
“It’s up to us,” Bowers said, to create positive change. “We don’t have to engage in drama. We don’t have to criticize and cancel people.” And although Cohl is still a bit skeptical about whether or not the community will ever quite get to where they want it to go, both he and Kristi are committed to maintaining the same morals and ambitions as when they first started. “My main goal is to be able to help my family and spread kindness and love,” he said. “Integrity over money, views, all of it,” Kristi added. “If you don’t have that, you don’t have anything.”