Quantcast

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

14

My Imaginary Friends: The Beauty YouTuber Economy

The MottoI quit my job at the end of this February to participate in a writing residency at my apartment funded by myself. After being mentally and physically numbed by my service sector job almost every day for five months, I found myself abruptly, uneasily alone and well rested. It is often these moments of emptiness in my life when unexpected manias and fetishes overtake me, some new stupid interest I can devote all my free time to. This time, it was YouTube videos of women recommending beauty products. Obviously.

My own relationship to the world of cosmetics is conflicted and idiosyncratic. I refuse to do anything to myself that I find boring or unnecessary—my body hair is usually au naturale, and I don’t own a blow dryer. I can’t think of a time when I wore a full face of makeup in the past four years. But I also spent most of the first 20 years of my life lying around reading fashion magazines, and I devote significant time once a week to painting a new design on my fingernails. I can get down with a beauty regime that is about creativity, delight, self-invention, and self-care—not one that’s about obligation.

In a way that philosophy is embodied by these YouTube “beauty junkies,” who seem genuinely interested in products for products’ sake. Beauty YouTube is a huge and powerful corner of the site—there are a legion of these self-made beauty gurus, and the top dogs like Bethany Mota and Zoella have millions of subscribers. Theirs is a highly developed YouTube genre, with their videos falling in a number of predictable categories.

Many do tutorials of different makeup looks, often with an abashed caveat that they are not trained professionals. They do haul videos, in which they show what they bought on recent shopping trips. Most do a monthly, gushy roundup of their favorite products. There are “empties” videos, in which they talk about products they’ve used up; “what’s in my bag” videos; skin care routine videos; lookbooks showing that season’s outfits; and product reviews.

If these do not sound like they could possibly be interesting, trust me—they’re not. Many of the videos are long, pushing the fifteen-minute mark, extended spiels on thirty dollar cleansing waters or forty-five dollar Christian Dior lip balm. Beauty YouTube is less traditionally entertaining than it is narcotic, something you can tune in and out. Each video is made up of long, precise descriptions the women provide of the color, texture, consistency, feel, and smell of each product they discuss. “It smells like hot chocolate,” popular beauty vlogger Tati said of a lip gloss on a recent haul of new drugstore products, “but not hot chocolate that’s already made. It smells like a packet of hot chocolate.”

The descriptions are so exact that they are hypnotizing, but this minute attention is also countered by the hyperactive energy that is a prerequisite for beauty YouTube personalities. Hyperbole is the currency in these videos—beauty vloggers are obsessed with everything. “Kenra Platinum Finishing Spray is life-changing,” Ingrid of the two million-subscriber channel MissGlamorazzi said recently, with a fervor no one who watches many product videos would bat an eye at. “There’s something indescribable about this deodorant,” London YouTuber essiebutton said in a favorites video. “It’s an absolute joy to use.” In a video about her favorite eyeshadow palettes, she said, “I genuinely feel like I could die if I don’t get the Lorac Pro Palette.” 

missglamorazziOver-the-top enthusiasm is how these vloggers form relationships with their subscribers—there’s no way they would have such massive audiences if their viewers didn’t feel a connection with them. Many of them have humble, self-deprecating personas, calling themselves “weirdos” and “dorks”; MissGlamorazzi often puts “#INGRIDISWEIRD” on the screen after a goofy moment.

But these women are not weird. They’re not or nerdy or awkward. They’re pretty, generic girls next door, wholesome basic bitches who are grossed out by feet and the word “moist.” Many of them are covertly Christian, slipping Bible verses into the “About” sections of their channels. They’re the quintessential Nice Girls Who Like Stuff, as a famous advertisement for Juicy Couture once put it. Their approachability is carefully engineered and purposeful; the chatty gal pal stock character is obviously a marketing ploy.

It is not groundbreaking to suggest that channels devoted to products and shopping are trying to—gasp—sell something. Beauty YouTube has become big business, and these women monetize their channels in many ways. YouTube runs on ad sales, and it incentivizes the uploading of new content by sharing a cut of that ad money with its users, who are usually called “creators.” A creator’s income is determined by their individual CPI (Cost Per Impression), a rate YouTube pays per one thousand views that is more or less based on the creator’s popularity and consistency. YouTube is cagey about the actual dollar amounts, but popular vloggers easily make five figures a year just from YouTube ad sales.

And many of the most successful beauty YouTubers belong to the megalith multi-channel network StyleHaul, an agency that acts as an intermediary between vloggers and YouTube. StyleHaul negotiates a flat-rate CPI for each of their 4,000-plus channels, so, in theory, creators aren’t swaying with the whims of YouTube. They can also provide legal and marketing support and facilitate product endorsements, another big source of income for beauty vloggers.

Multi-channel networks, and the homespun charm of the creators they represent, are hugely appealing to a corporate world that still doesn’t really get YouTube. In March 2014, Disney bought another multi-channel network, Maker Studios, for $500 million. StyleHaul recently hired Paramount Studios’ vice president of business development to help create original series for its home channel, but its strength is still in the every-girl credibility of its legion of semi-independent contractors. Its channels’ 138 million collective subscribers dwarf the followings of YouTube channels run by the traditional fashion and lifestyle media.

This means that for StyleHaul’s model to be successful, its corporate power has to remain more or less invisible. It is obvious that beauty vloggers receive samples and do sponsored videos—it’s very common to see two or more tutorials in one week on different channels featuring the same newly released product line. Sometimes an entire channel will be sponsored. Netflix-sponsored videos on NikkiPhillippi, a channel with six hundred thousand subscribers. (“I watch Netflix literally everyday of my life,” Nikki says when she mentions their sponsorship.) Many YouTubers also maintain online stores that sell some of the things they recommend, so they actually get a direct cut from the products they’re shilling for. But the insane monetary value these channels have achieved because of ad sales goes unspoken.

It is safe to assume that beauty vloggers and bloggers borrow a lot of their expert vocabulary from women’s magazines, talking about products being “highly pigmented” or “having good color payoff” or “buildable” or “wearable.” But without meaning to, beauty YouTube has gone beyond emulating magazines, perfecting the rhetorical voice that the lifestyle media has been chasing for years, that of the sage best friend offering advice. When I read product blurbs in most magazines now, they sound fake and bizarre, like they’re trying so hard. I was shaking my damn head at an article in Women’s Health that described a portable sunscreen as, “like that short guy you call when you need a wedding date, this is cute and convenient.”

essiebuttonThis is why I am endlessly and insidiously more motivated to buy BB creams and gel eyeliners that vloggers recommend than ones magazines do. Despite how calculated beauty YouTubers likeability is, I can’t help it—I like them. My favorite is essiebutton, a Canadian living in the UK, who is the funnier and less prudish than most beauty vloggers. “Let’s talk about feet, bay-bee” she sang to the tune of “Let’s Talk About Sex” before discussing a foot cream. She did a non-beauty favorites video in which one of her favorites was Canadian milk-in-a-bag. I love the unconventional haul video she and her boyfriend did about a flea market they went to. “We have a problem,” her boyfriend said into the camera: “We love junk.”

And the women of beauty YouTube seem to genuinely like one another. They mention videos they enjoyed and recommend channels in their favorites videos. They often make guest appearances on one another’s channels. The two largest contingents of beauty vloggers are in Los Angeles and London, and it is not uncommon for them to travel across the world to meet up. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that once I starting spending all day alone in my apartment, I was drawn to a group of nice virtual girls who just want to talk to me about tinted lip balm.

It’s the imaginary friend phenomenon that is common to all social media—as the most famous generic click-bait headline formula, “Is Facebook making us lonely?”, unsubtly stabs at. Social media sells companionship at the expense of marketing data. It turns out the pretend company of approachable, beautiful women is all that is necessary to sell to the most valuable of all demographics, women ages fourteen to thirty-four. No wonder vloggers’ friendship is worth millions.

 

Alice Bolin is a writer living in Los Angeles. You can find her on twitter @alicebolin.



14 Comments / Post A Comment

melmuu

This is such a fun, unique read, and you're a great writer! I'm sad that Hairpin readers don't comment nearly as much as in the past (myself included). Stories like this deserve lots of Pin praise!!

stavros

is amazingly beautiful. so good...@m

NuckingFux Nix

I too am addicted to the YouTube beauty bloggers, even as I sit there and think about how I am watching one giant advertisement. Why do I do this?

Additionally, these types of videos tend to be a sure fire way to cure any insomnia I might be having. About 3 minutes in and I am dead asleep.

gtrachel

This is depressing. The amount of time and energy that women spend, are supposed to spend, are collectively imagined to spend, in the pursuit of beauty perfection makes me want to barf. I suppose I can at least be relieved that I shall soon age out of that coveted demographic of 14-to-34-year-olds, and none of these "nice girls who like stuff" will be talking to me anymore.

bonymaroni

@gtrachel Some of us actually like watching beauty bloggers! Women shouldn't be pressured to constantly work on their looks, but there's nothing wrong with wanting to check out new beauty products.

And of course, once you get older, you'll be harassed by a whole new crowd of beauty-pushers...except they'll be pushing eye cream and Retin-A on you instead of lipstick and nail polish.

Rebecca Daniells@facebook

I enjoyed reading this but I have to object to the use of the phrase "covert Christians". Does the writer object to their religious beliefs or the fact that these women don't identify themselves as a member of that religious group at all times? It infers that Christians are some sort of menace, lurking in the shadows. Perhaps if people like the writer didn't associate being a Christian with being a "basic bitch" these women would feel more able to freely express their religious beliefs, as is their right.

catsjimjams

@Rebecca Daniells@facebook I think she meant 'covert Christian' more as like ... as opposed to Christians who are anything but covert (you know the kind, drop Jesus into every topic, suggest prayer as advice for each and every personal problem). I also didn't think their christianity was explicitly linked to being a 'basic bitch' - I felt that was connected to being pretty, being coy and liking products. I think the overall tone of the article was of being endeared to these ladies in any case, not trying to oppress their beliefs.

Rebecca Daniells@facebook

I am sure the writer's language was more thoughtless than oppressive. The use of the term 'covert Christian' is in the context of a paragraph that is a litany of negative observations leading to the conclusion that the women are disingenuous and artificial. If the writer had used the word coy or subtle, which you are suggesting was her actual meaning, rather than covert I wouldn't really have a problem. So maybe I am getting caught up in semantics. But as Cher said "words are like weapons they wound sometimes" so you gotta choose your words with care.

Boopsy

@Rebecca Daniells@facebook Even nestled in these other borderline insulting adjectives (especially for hairpin readers!) I think the "covert Christian" thing isn't so much a jab at Christians but an example of another way that the successful beauty blogging ladies must remain inoffensive. A girl outspoken on any religious view, from fundamentalist to atheist, could not fall into the category of a Nice Girl Who Likes Things. Whereas a covert Christian has the power to appeal to both those religious and not.

2307552276@twitter

"MissGlamorazzi often puts “#INGRIDISWEIRD” on the screen after a goofy moment."

Yes, this! It seems like every beauty vlogger talks about how weird she is, when every single one of them is conventionally pretty and perfectly normal.

dora_leigh

I have a total fascination with these videos, too. I am not sure why -- it's a strange guilty pleasure. Jerry Seinfeld, in an interview somewhere, talks about Timberland "unboxing" videos -- videos of people unwrapping new Timberland shoes/boots -- and said there was something "pornographic" about it. I totally get this. Anyhoo, just logging on to say I enjoyed the article, with a caveat: why is "creative" nail polishing OK, but otherwise makeup application (or hair care) somehow uncool? I am no beauty YouTuber, but I like cosmetics (I do!) and other beauty products. This doesn't make me an idiot or less cool. I realize it's the author's perspective, but it was a little off-putting.

sufirose

Yes, this! It seems like every beauty
Soy wax candle

561428875@twitter

I love EssieButton! She and Sprinkle of Glitter seem like the least-manufactured (for now) to me. I respect Ingrid's marketing/business/production skills, but she grates on my nerves with her cutesy/innocent schtick.

Post a Comment

You must be logged-in to post a comment.

Login To Your Account