Making Split Ends Meet: The Hustle of Being a Beauty Vlogger
The women who make hair and makeup tutorials on YouTube are often criticized as vapid, vain, or sellouts. But from high production costs to a diluted ad pool, the reality of beauty vlogging is an expensive one.
Screengrab via YouTube
The comments demanding more came quickly. Kayley Melissa, a makeup fan and professional hairstylist,had started her own YouTube channel to show other girls her creative ways of getting dressed in the morning; she enjoyed thinking of new methods of putting herself together. Although she switched up her looks daily, she would always grab one eye shadow brush that she loved using.
Her audience wasn't satisfied.
"Why do you always use the same brush?" commenters wrote, not entertained. To keep her audience, the then-21-year-old philosophy student had to buy more brushes; in other words, she had to invest in being more professional. She had to review items she didn't already own. She needed money for that.
It might seem obvious, but as a beauty vlogger, "it's not okay to have the same look that you do every day—you have to post different makeup looks," and this has real financial implications, Melissa told me over the phone.
Melissa's beauty channel, LetsMakeItUp1, has gained more than 900,000 subscribers since she started it five years ago. Now, at 26, Melissa mostly does hair tutorials, which puts less pressure on her than makeup videos: While hair girls can get away with using their high school curling irons—albeit in new, inventive ways—makeup girls are beholden to the market; there's always a hot new eyeliner or mascara, and beauty vloggers want to be first person to get and review it. Sometimes, Melissa said, companies send products, and that's helpful, but beauty vloggers of all kinds invest quite a bit of dough back into their channels. Their audiences—as well as the brands that sponsor the vloggers' work—demand it.
Melissa says the balance is between seeming aspirational and approachable—a mirror of the ideal of feminine beauty—or, if you're cynical, between appealing to brands and to her audience.
"I would look at my videos or other people's videos and think, How aspirational do my appearance and setup need to be?" Melissa continued. "There's this level of perfection because that's what people expect.
"Beauty vloggers are representing beauty products," she said, "and it needs to look like they use them."
Remi Cruz, whose channel MissRemiAshten has more than one million subscribers, isn't a professional makeup artist. In fact, the 20-year-old said she's learned everything she knows from other's videos. Cruz says she was drawn to beauty vlogging because the videos helped her feel beautiful and confident, and although she says her subscriber base is supportive and "amazing," the pace is sometimes daunting to her as well. "Everyday there's some new trend to catch up on, which definitely makes it hard to keep up with," Cruz told me over email.
Cruz tends to use drugstore products, which are more affordable both for her and for viewers. Beauty vloggers promoting and discussing high-end makeup and hair products tend to pair with brands more willing to pay higher prices for branded videos, but these are less attainable to fans.
Cruz is an interesting success story in the beauty vlogging world: Unlike most of her colleagues, she's not a waifish white woman. While this helps her appeal to a different fan base, it comes with a unique set of challenges. There are those you'd expect of a woman putting videos of herself online: One slightly backhanded meme made by a die-hard fan reads, "I love watching missremiashten so much. She might not be the skinniest or prettiest girl you know but she knows how to accept herself and love her body!"
There's something a bit structural about the type of woman you have to be.
Then, there are the funding issues. Cruz, who is Guamanian and Korean, said she believes the beauty fan community is looking for different types of gurus—hijabi makeup artists or natural hair vloggers or dark-skinned girls demonstrating how to make beauty trends, which are modeled by predominantly white women, work for darker skin tones. However, those aren't the ones getting the most brand deals.
Melissa, who is white, worries about what her being deemed automatically beautiful says about who can beauty vlog successfully. "I think our culture has beauty standards pretty firmly cemented, no matter how wrong they are," she said. "I feel conflicted when people post #goals—hair goals, the way I look goals. I don't want people to make [whiteness] a goal."
Rosianna Rojas, who is more of a lifestyle vlogger that posts occasional makeup and fashion videos on her channel, missxrojas, said that though YouTube is lauded as a place where diversity thrives, channels do need to be marketable and brand-friendly in a mainstream way to make money.
"There's a mold you have to fit into," she said, speaking over the phone about how YouTubers can secure sponsorships. "It seems to depend on very traditional ideas of what you should look like or be talking about, for women especially." (And most beauty vloggers are women.)
"You're encouraged to do that stuff because that's where the money is," Rojas said, referring to bubbly, uncontroversial contouring tutorials for pale skin.
"[Potential sponsorships] really narrow the kind of content you're able to make. There's something a bit structural about the type of woman you have to be."
YouTube prides itself on being an egalitarian platform, where anyone can post a video and attract followers, but the economics of high-profile accounts reveal a different reality. The company promotes certain channels by doing things like placing ads on billboards around Los Angeles; campaigns for the comedian and LGBT activist Tyler Oakley and the comedian Lilly Singh are a couple of examples. The site also features videos on its homepage, where they'll get significantly more clicks. Channels need that support to grow, and the more subscribers or views they have, the more likely brands are to sponsor them, or pay a lump sum or a per-purchase fee to promote their products in a video—the vlogger now uses Estée Lauder eyeliner over another brand's, for example. Sometimes companies pay for entire videos or just for one-off product placement. Other times, entire channels are sponsored by one brand—i love makeup is owned by Estee Lauder, for example.
Sponsorships exist because good channels can't survive on ads alone—and because getting seen in a guru's video is a good way to secure paying eyeballs in the women ages 18-24 demographic. However, Melissa says the market is diluted today; beauty channels were making way more money from ads a few years ago. Now, Rojas, who works with vlogging pioneer John Green, says that the number of channels with ads went up by 470 percent this year, which waters down the money pool. Each ad now earns the creators less money and ups competition.
Melissa has supplemented her income with sponsorships for hair products, makeup products, curling irons, and lifestyle apps. She always discloses if a video is sponsored with a badge before the video begins; she also made a separate video for her channel explaining why she does branded deals. "I want to be transparent and have a rapport with my subscribers," she said. "People want everything to feel genuine and authentic on YouTube, which is fair to ask."
Beauty vloggers are representing beauty products, and it needs to look like they use them.
Most beauty vloggers also do "haul videos": After a vlogger goes shopping—either at drugstores or high-end places—she comes home, sits in front of her camera, and shows off what she bought. Some commenters accuse beauty YouTubers of shilling for companies and not disclosing it, hiding sponsored products among the other items they bought, allowing them to avoid being called out for promoting a product they'd never actually buy. Brands want the value of being in the video without the stigma of having paid for an ad.
"Beauty vloggers are a force in the marketplace," Melissa said. At beauty conventions, Melissa has noticed that every brand with a line or a long wait time at their booth has been hyped big-time by beauty YouTubers.
Rachel Whitehurst, an occasional beauty vlogger based in Seattle, said companies often approach her and undervalue her time and under-budget the video; they want what they want in 48 hours or less. They'll ask her to promote her video on other social channels without compensating her for it, and they don't understand that not including that in the contract means she won't tweet it. "They think digital media stars are all idiots without lawyers," she said, "so they expect they can take advantage of us."
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A 2015 article on YouTube marketing in the Observer argued that most brands were missing out by continuing to do one-off brand deals with YouTubers, which "often leaves creators looking to make a living jumping from brand deal to brand deal (and often working with competitive brands in the process)." This in turn leaves fans wondering what products their favorite YouTubers actually use and recommend, breaking the trust between vlogger and audience. Some smarter brand deals are sweeping; L'Oréal is one company that will sponsor entire channels rather than shell out per-video deals.
"But you have to do it a certain way," Whitehurst cautioned. No controversial topics like her bisexual identity, and no cursing. Once you ink a channel sponsorship deal, a brand controls your content."
Melissa expects to be harassed for her appearance—women on the Internet are often targets of abuse, and beauty vlogging calls attention to femininity in a way trolls hate—but she hates when commenters call her "fake" or a "sellout." "It hurts when they attack me personally because I want to have integrity," she said. "I have a personal honor code for my subscribers."
Cruz has done videos for Neutrogena, CVS, RetailMeNot, and Target, among others. If she tweets about a branded piece of content, she hashtags it #ad for transparency. On December 27, she posted a New Year's Eve tutorial, a "Get Ready With Me" sponsored by Neutrogena with the disclaimer: "This video is sponsored by Neutrogena." On other videos, a disclaimer will note the video isn't sponsored to avoid comments accusing her of being disingenuous.
Once you ink a channel sponsorship deal, a brand controls your content.
Resentful fans, Melissa says, believe money comes from "the magic YouTube fairy." When pressed, many fans of my own channel can't explain how YouTubers make money, but they remain convinced YouTube is paying them a lot. Melissa's money, like that of most beauty vloggers, goes back into her channel. Whitehurst eventually stopped making as many beauty videos because she couldn't afford to drop $200 at Sephora to constantly buy new products and stay relevant, though she was able to write her beauty purchases off on her taxes and could get some products for free. Melissa lamented a $50 highlighter she had to "splurge on."
And it isn't only products that put strain on vloggers' wallets. "Beauty videos are the most produced and perfect looking," Melissa said. "You need flawless skin, lights, high production value, and glamour." More so than other kinds of YouTubers—who might be able to get away with grainy cell phone videos or shoddy audio—beauty vloggers need to have perfect production value. Melissa's videos often have a clean white background and bright lighting, both to showcase the products and to create the illusion of an easy, breezy, beautiful life that viewers would want to emulate.
Whitehurst agreed that beauty videos are different than other vlogs: "The casual sit-down in the beauty community does not fly."
Beauty vloggers get a bad rap, both on YouTube and elsewhere. Even I've sassed them in the press, lamenting that I could only be rich if my channel were hawking lipstick instead of jokes. "People think we're vapid and have nothing better to do with our lives," Melissa said after I confessed my less than favorable opinion of my eyeliner-demonstrating counterparts. "[That] it's just fun and silly."
Melissa started her channel as a hobby during her degree—it served as a creative outlet for when she felt her schooling wasn't fulfilling. She didn't have time to paint, but she thought she could "do a really good job getting ready in the morning."
Eventually she took a part-time job at a makeup counter to get more ideas for her videos. What Melissa loves about beauty vlogging is the teaching aspect, but that's something she hopes she can do on whatever platform comes next. "I wanted more job security. None of us know how long YouTube is going to be viable. We never know when it'll Myspace out."
At the same time, that means the time to capitalize on the popularity of beauty tutorials is now. "Salons will always be there, but YouTube is happening now," she said.
Melissa moved to Los Angeles from a small town on the East Coast. "It's been tough," she said. Back home, her YouTube work was just fine financially; in LA, she quickly realized she'd have to take on more sponsored opportunities to keep going. She does deals with click-through links and commission codes, so she can see how many people are buying using her link. The items that sell best are hot tools—curling irons or straighteners.
Most of her fellow hairstylists hustle on Instagram, posting photos of their latest cuts and colors and tagging celebrity clients to gain more work and increase their visibility. While running a YouTube channel, requires a totally different set of skills, Melissa's channel has functioned as a marketing tool in a similar way: It has helped her find jobs and get clients, who are more likely to request her than a no-name stylist. Along with curling and dying skills, hairstylists hoping to make rent as freelancers need to have curated Instagram accounts filled with aspirational photos of their work. My own hairdresser, though not a YouTuber, works on Playboy models simply for the exposure—being tagged in their one-million-follower Instagram posts. In some ways, YouTube beauty experts do the opposite: parlay their online fame into real jobs.
At the same time, too much personality—or what is now often cynically referred to as "personal brand"—can hurt your subscriber numbers. Fans in the comments love Cruz's bubbly personality, which is unfailingly positive in her shiny, colorful videos. On her less popular personal vlog channel RemLife, which has 288,000 subscribers, Cruz doesn't always wear makeup, and the videos are lower video and audio quality. They're also less colorful. The lower subscriber number says it all.
"There's a weird dichotomy," Melissa says. "When you do more raw things like share your struggles or [if your] hair's not done perfectly, sometimes people respond really well, but only if it's occasional. They wouldn't [respond well] if I did that consistently across my videos."