How social media stars like Addison Rae gave the cosmetics industry a makeover.
A little over a year ago, Addison Rae Easterling rode down the boulevards of Beverly Hills in an Uber to meet with Marcelo Camberos, the chief executive officer of Ipsy, the largest beauty subscription service in the United States. Ipsy, named after an intensive pronoun in Latin, ipse, sells small “glam bags” of beauty companies’ products like, say, cheek highlighter in a shade of tiramisù. For $12 and up a month, the company mails those bags to millions of subscribers, many of whom listen to advice from Ipsy’s vast network of vloggers, influencers and stylists. Now, in a new venture called Madeby Collective, the company hoped to manufacture and develop entirely new lines of makeup on its own. What Ipsy needed was a face to help them sell it.
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Easterling, 20, professionally known by only her first two names, seemed like an ideal candidate. In 2019, she was a college freshman dejected over not making the Louisiana State University pep squad and had been filming videos of herself doing slithery hip-hop dances that call to mind Max Headroom as a belly dancer. In a surreal turn of events appropriate for our times, cheerleader-ish girls dancing just this way to rap music was the height of entertainment during the pandemic, whether enjoyed genuinely or for laughs. Soon Easterling, or Rae, became the second-most-popular human being on TikTok, Gen-Z’s social media platform of choice. (The most popular, Charli D’Amelio, was also a slithery dancer, this time from Connecticut.) Rae estimated that she had about three million followers on TikTok when she met Camberos, but within a year she amassed 73 million — a population larger than that of the United Kingdom.
Now Rae found herself in a strange and modern predicament: She had become very famous and needed to get paid for it. Rae would start selling merch, making T-shirts with the phrase “I’m a Bad Bleep,” a reference to a viral song by Australian rapper The Kid Laroi (“I need a bad bitch/Addison Rae”), but continuing down that road, the typical influencer-hawking-vitamins-for-your-hair route, may have seemed too small. So Rae followed a new path, recently forged by many social media stars and A-list celebrities (two quantities that seem as if they will eventually merge) like Rihanna, Kim Kardashian, Kylie Jenner, Jennifer Lopez, Lady Gaga and others who come to mind when you imagine a mistress of the universe beaming her wants and desires at Earth like lasers. She wanted to start her own beauty brand.
At her meeting in Beverly Hills, which took place at Rae’s agent’s office, Camberos pulled out some makeup testers he had brought along: lip gloss, rouge, powder. She turned them over in her palms, considered their colors. Afterward, Rae agreed not to the usual sponsored-content deal of posting thrilled accolades about the products on her social media feeds, nor the 1990s perfume deals in which celebrities branded fragrances with their own names, but rather to putting out her first makeup and skin-care line with Madeby Collective as a co-founder. They called the line Item Beauty, a reference to the way that two people who are in a state of romantic swoon are an “item,” which you would assume meant Rae herself, the icon, and a fan, who would seek to align herself with Rae. But when we spoke, she offered a different meaning. “Me and my makeup are a pair,” she told me. “We’re working together, and we’re together.” In other words, the commercial relationship was the primary one.
Rae’s deal with Ipsy was but a small part of a major shift in the beauty industry, which is nowhere more complex, and profitable, than the United States. People with clout, from celebrities to social media stars to lifestyle influencers, are changing the way the sell works, exploiting the intimate relationships they have with their fans in a way that wasn’t possible before in the industry. And while most of their profits aren’t close to comparable to established brands, at the moment, beauty is big business: Americans have long spent more in aggregate on beauty and personal care than any country in the world, about $92.8 billion in 2019, according to Euromonitor, a consumer-research company. Though revenues dipped during quarantine, over all, global consumers have close to doubled their spending in the past 15 years, as prices of products have risen and beauty has entered a phase of total pop-culture domination, on par with hip-hop and gaming.
Fenty pushed the concept of creating foundations that actually matched the color of your skin.
As with gaming, it’s the interactivity of the web, particularly YouTube (the fun of following along with tutorials about how to contour eyes to make them appear larger, for example) and Instagram (where you boastfully show off your face’s final look) that has made beauty’s pop-culture gambit such a success. TikTok, rapidly becoming a dominant force in media, was equally fertile ground. “Makeup does well in any type of video format where you see transformation, a before and after,” says Michelle Lee, editor in chief of Allure. Trends bubble up on TikTok now, and then we’re talking about them in the real world, on TV, on websites. “When I was growing up, I would watch Nickelodeon and think, I need this slime, and now TikTok is taking that place, where kids look to see ‘What are these cool people doing, what are they wearing,’” Chloe Hall, the digital beauty director of Elle, says. “Some of the best beauty personalities on TikTok right now are 14-year-olds in their basement. It’s wild.”
As beauty has become a pop phenomenon, a radical change in the perception of the cosmetics business has also taken place. When Naomi Wolf wrote “The Beauty Myth” more than three decades ago, she chastened the industry for pushing an unrealistic standard of beauty that prevented women from reaching their full potential, much as ideals of domesticity, motherhood and chastity once did. She compared the process of making yourself conventionally attractive to a work shift, or the “third shift” (the other shifts being your professional life and care of the household). But in our new virtual society, the same beauty industry that was once maligned has been embraced as a universal good. Beauty companies are lauded for providing us with tools of self-expression and celebrating the human desire to adorn the face using something other than the tricks of social media (filters, lighting, Facetune). And many individuals and companies within the industry have capitalized on this impression. Applying cosmetics is a worthy lifestyle choice characterized as self-love, self-care and wellness — all positive, healthful qualities, even if you have the sneaking suspicion that “wellness” is mostly a coded word for the pursuit of being skinny and pretty, or tamping down anxiety about not being skinny and pretty.
Though I am the type of person who spends as much time trying to avoid myself in the mirror as I do looking in it, I should admit that before hopping on a video call with Rae this fall, I spent quite a bit of time prepping my own face. I’ve worn makeup nearly every time I’ve appeared in public since about her age, though my regimen was never terribly time-consuming. You could have reasonably expected that Covid-era sequestration would dampen the attention that we pay to our looks, but Zoom meetings, FaceTime family chats and awkward video cocktail hours have brought many of us closer to the sight of our own faces, and I’ve found myself confronted by pores and blemishes that I would have preferred weren’t viewed by others in high definition. We seem to be among the first people in history to be both in the midst of a global pandemic and also obliged to project an attractive image of ourselves to the outside world.
On the day of our call, smoke from nearby fires in Los Angeles, where Rae lives, was obscuring the blue sky. Despite the environmental chaos taking place outside her window, Rae, who was sitting in a bedroom with blindingly white walls at her parents’ house, was poised and spunky. She wiggled a little in her seat, just enough for me to spy a neatly made bed behind her decorated with a pillow that read Team Addison. Despite the cumbersome technology, her deep brown, saucer-size eyes seemed to draw me right into her soul, a prerequisite for success when trying to make it in the transactional world of beauty, where such intimacy is the currency of the day.
Rae’s voice was soft and breathy. Her gold hoop earrings bounced a little as she gestured with her hands. It’s very 21st century to dream of coming to Hollywood and making it as a beauty mogul. Did Rae always imagine this? “Yeah,” she said. “I feel like for every girl, it’s a dream.”
Paola Kudacki for The New York Times
Until the late 19th century, according to Geoffrey Jones’s 2010 book, “Beauty Imagined,” the beauty business was a mostly local enterprise where pamphleteers sold advice and pots of rouge. But then factories began spitting out tubes of lipstick en masse, and the availability of portrait photography became widespread, which inspired some to change their appearance. Some beauty brands that began in the 1920s are still around in some form, often under the names adopted by their eccentric founders. Many didn’t use their birth names or real stories. Estée Lauder was born Josephine Esther Mentzer in Corona, Queens. Helena Rubinstein was born Chaja Rubinstein in Poland in 1872; after refusing an arranged marriage, she emigrated to Australia and began selling a cream that she claimed had been formulated from herbs in the Carpathian Mountains. Max Factor was born Maksymilian Faktorowicz in Lodz, then part of Russia, and became the cosmetician for the Imperial Russian Grand Opera before leaving for America. Elizabeth Arden, born Florence Nightingale Graham outside Toronto, opened salons across the world; married a man who had a doubtful royal title; and famously had her horses’ legs rubbed down with her Eight Hour Cream.
For about a hundred years, some of the companies started by these founders earned many millions. Legacy brands are doing well globally, especially in China, where people are now addicted to American beauty brands. According to the NPD Group, a market-research company, sales volume in China of prestige beauty products, a category that includes brands like MAC and Nars, now exceeds that in the U.S. But this entrenched structure of large corporations is now far from the only way to create beauty products. And those who have worked in big beauty for decades are trying their hand at independence. (Bobbi Brown, the face of corporate beauty takeovers when Estée Lauder bought her brand in the 1990s, said that she wore a necklace bearing the date that her noncompete clause expired before beginning a beauty line of her own, Jones Road.) “Some big brands aren’t innovating and they aren’t growing,” says Linda Bolton Weiser, an industry analyst at D.A. Davidson. “Have you looked at CoverGirl packaging recently? It looks like it’s from the 1970s.”
As the business becomes atomized and we spend more time at home scrolling skin-care ads on Instagram, the role of retail has a murkier future. Brands have traditionally drawn business from customers browsing in actual stores. If you’ve ever been to a Sephora on a pre-pandemic Friday night, you know it can be a party in there, with 9-to-5-ers blowing off steam by sticking their fingers in fomites of lip-gloss jars, then hitting happy hour nearby. The bulk of sales, pre-Covid, was still coming from retail. But in 2020, according to the NPD Group, prestige beauty brands declined 19 percent, while direct retailers of consumer cosmetics fell only 4 percent. “What Covid did, in my view, is speed up the whole process by three to five years of retailers that were frail and now are collapsing,” Jeffrey Ten, a beauty-brand consultant, said. The beneficiaries, he said, were e-commerce companies, big-box retailers and Amazon.
A skin care routine seemed to be a genuine act of empowerment, a radical way of reclaiming the right to take time for yourself.
In many ways, the business today resembles the original beauty business of a century ago, when showy salespeople with innovations — or at least what they claimed were innovations — dominated. “Fashion’s always been where the romance is and where the glamour is,” says Sarah Brown, a brand adviser and a former beauty director of Vogue. “But now for people who want to be stars, who want to be C.E.O.s, who want to be wealthy, start a business, sell a business — they want to be in beauty.” (There may currently be too many of these people. Lee, of Allure, told me that she regarded the current proliferation of entrepreneurs as a bubble.)
The primary innovations, now, are less technological than cultural. And many of these changes are far overdue. The beauty industry has long exhibited devotion in its advertisements to what was once seen as the blond, blue-eyed American ideal, with the occasional woman of color thrown in (Eva Longoria). Fracturing this hegemony required someone extraordinary from outside the system to exert pressure on gatekeepers, and by that I mean Rihanna.
In 2017, when Rihanna and LVMH started the makeup line Fenty (Rihanna’s surname), she pushed the concept of creating foundations that actually matched the color of your skin. This was something beauty conglomerates had the practical capacity to do for decades but often didn’t, choosing instead to make women like me, with dark olive skin, paint from the same palette as Caucasians from Northern Europe. And if you were Black? Conglomerates did not make a line expressly for Black women until 2006, when CoverGirl introduced Queen, with Queen Latifah. “‘You could walk into a drugstore and get products that were quote unquote tailored for you,” says Amanda Johnson, co-founder of Mented, an indie lipstick brand that focuses on women of color. “But without proper focus and investment, you ended up with products that were somewhat subpar.”
Today many companies are celebrating the true spectrum of American skin tones, and many new beauty stars don’t have a traditional blonde, blue-eyed look. Those who don’t hew to the former ideal are increasingly highlighted, like Pat McGrath, the 51-year-old British Black makeup star who developed Giorgio Armani’s beauty line in the 1990s before introducing her own, Pat McGrath Labs. (This year, she became the first makeup artist to be appointed a dame of the British Empire.) We are being fed different images in advertisements than we were only a few years ago: We see some plus-size models, trans models and a supermodel with vitiligo, Winnie Harlow. Ipsy has even incorporated this change into its nomenclature; after I interviewed Rae, it acquired another company and formed a larger entity, BFA Industries, short for Beauty for All.
Consumers have been behind some of these changes; when they don’t see their identities included in brands, they demand representation or will spend their money elsewhere. Powerful voices, too, are trying to maintain momentum toward more diversity. “I’m fearful it’s a trend, or a moment, and so I think we need to hold their feet to the fire and make sure we change the composition of the executive boards,” Hall, Elle’s digital beauty director, says.
Though a majority of influencers paid to represent brands these days resemble Rae — and tend to command higher fees than their Black counterparts, according to Bloomberg Businessweek — their primary occupation is speaking a fan’s language and drawing them close, becoming both friend and muse. They are the beauty industry’s de facto mouthpieces now. They, too, speak the language of wellness and seem to share the same elevated morals (or the elevated morals we project on them). The relationship a celebrity can have with a fan is far more elaborate than the one between a brand and a customer, even though, at its core, those relationships are the same.
Paola Kudacki for The New York Times
Though Rae dreamed of becoming a beauty mogul when she was younger, it was hard to imagine how this was going to happen. Rae’s mother was 21 when Rae was born and split with Rae’s father shortly thereafter. Mother and daughter lived in towns including Lafayette, La., while her mother tried to make a go of consignment boutiques named Déjà Vu and Cha Cha Charms. Her father was in and out of the picture, though both parents now appear in the background of Rae’s 15-second TikTok videos as a happy family.
Rae made sure to build her unvarnished cheer into her beauty line, collaborating on piquant names for her products, like Cheek Money for bronzer, Lip Quip for lip gloss and Lash Snack for mascara. “My team and I do tons of calls, almost every other week,” she told me. “It’s brainstorming the entire time, which is so fun. And I have the craziest ideas so randomly. So it consists very much of me randomly having an outburst of an idea and then the team making it come to life, which is really, really cool.” One thing Rae was adamant about was that she wanted Item’s products to fit into a small bag, because she likes her makeup to be easy to carry. The first time she flew with her mother to Los Angeles, when she was 16, long before she became a famous TikToker — before TikTok even existed — the first thing they did at the car-rental agency was rush to the bathroom to put on makeup (lip liner, for Rae, was key) in case they saw anyone famous or anyone famous saw them or they were somehow otherwise discovered to be the stars that they were fated to be.
Rae seemed genuinely excited about Item’s line, but she didn’t seem able to get into specifics about producing it and did not comment on her financial arrangement with Ipsy, which might be far smaller than her title of co-founder implies. In fact, most stars who were now saying they “have” new beauty brands were benefiting from a fine semantic distinction: They weren’t actually making the formulas or managing production, meaning dealing with research and development and manufacturers and shipping. Manufacturers like Seed, in Oxnard, Calif., were doing most of the work, and partnering with stars to put their names on products. Although these “white label” manufacturers have come into the light a bit, they have traditionally been averse to publicity, says Linda Wells, who was the editor in chief of Allure for 25 years. When I reached out to Seed, their press contact was so difficult to find that I was passed among various people, including one whose email signature said she was a dog mom obsessed with crème eye shadow. They declined to be interviewed.
These manufacturers, according to Raina Penchansky, head of the influencer marketing company Digital Brand Architects, are playing an increasingly important role in the new beauty ecosystem, particularly where influencers are concerned. “There used to be straight licensing deals, where a company gets to use someone’s name for a combination of a design fee, a percentage of sales, a royalty and sometimes a minimum guarantee — that was the traditional, old-school way,” Penchansky said. “But now a lot of manufacturers, especially in California, are going to an influencer and saying: ‘We’re going to launch this brand together. We’re the back-end manufacturer, and we own, say, between 80 and 50 percent of the brand, and you own the other piece of it. And when it sells, we get an exit.’”
For Item, what was perhaps more important than Rae’s actually making the line was her relationship with other social media stars and influencers. Networking has been a key part of the business for at least a decade. In 2011, Michelle Phan, considered the first beauty influencer, co-founded Ipsy, then called MyGlam. Phan pioneered the YouTube beauty tutorial — a blockbuster feat. A calm Floridian, she made dreamy videos about the importance of using your ring finger to apply under-eye concealer, sometimes with cameos from her cat, or shared her beauty rules in a soft voice over spalike piano music, like the fact that you must fill in eyebrows with a color three shades lighter than your hair color.
Instagram face is not one that exists among humanity. It may not even exist among Kardashians.
Rae missed Phan’s heyday, but she absorbed the generation of YouTubers that came afterward. From age 12, she began developing a talent for applying her own makeup with a steady hand and good sense of color. She had her favorite influencers, including the glamorous male makeup figure James Charles and the trans woman Nikkie de Jager. “These influencers let you in on their beauty secrets — it seemed like something they hadn’t shared before, and they provided a level of intimacy, or at least alleged intimacy,” Kathleen Hou, beauty director of The Cut, says. “Then it’s like being a fan of an indie band, and they used to play at your local bar. You keep watching as they become more and more popular.”
Having developed fan bases in the millions, some influencers exerted extraordinary power by positioning themselves as beauty critics. A social media star like Rae, hoping to make it in the beauty business, would normally have had to spend an inordinate amount of time deferring to them (sending gift bags, upbeat D.M.s, bartered mentions and perhaps cash). But Rae’s 73 million followers had sort of fallen out of the sky, and it seemed her clout was equal to or exceeded theirs.
So to promote Item, Rae generated TikTok videos of herself looking cute in a new lip gloss while sashaying around to a rap song — basically what she was doing before she had her own lip gloss to sell. In one photo for Item, she bit on a tube of makeup while winking, and in a video, she faux-slept in a bed with a made up face, then pretended to wake up and immediately spray her face with setting mist, a liquid spray with water and alcohol that stops makeup from wearing off.
What I found less of in Rae’s feed were videos demonstrating the doubtlessly painstaking labor that went into achieving her look. This was curious, because YouTube makeup tutorials have become central to beauty culture. You could call them the Us magazine of our era, a way of demonstrating “Stars: They’re just like us.” During the videos, stars not only seem to be taking their beauty regimens extremely seriously, but they’ll school you in the reasons you should, too. Jessica Alba, the actor turned head of the Honest Company, the organic baby-and-beauty-product behemoth (and one of many newer beauty stars who is Latina), recently made a video in which she walked the viewer through her day-to-night beauty routine, capped with a smoky eye. “As a woman in the world, trying to do the things, get your hustle on, wearing all the hats, I think it’s important that we take the time to take care of ourselves,” Alba says, staring earnestly into her camera. “It’s important. And don’t let anyone take that away from you.”
For Alba, a skin-care routine seemed to be a genuine act of empowerment, a radical way of reclaiming the right to take time for yourself. It’s the same effective rhetoric that has fanned out from Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop to sell mascara, Botox, expensive exercise classes and other products that are considered a path to “me time” and “living your best life.” But Rae was selling her fans a different dream: the dream of an ordinary girl who finds herself, quite surprisingly, swept up in the world of glamour. She didn’t need to issue proclamations about how hard it was to find the time to make herself look pretty. When Rae started becoming famous, she had the “no-makeup makeup” look of a lot of young women, where the objective is to cover up any irregularities and enhance the natural pigment of lips but not go wild with glitter and blue eye shadow. And her ideology about cosmetics, if you could identify such a thing, was in line with this look.
But this winter, as Rae’s TikTok followers grew to more than 78 million from 70 million, I noticed that something was different about her videos. She had started promoting all manner of stuff, including Coca-Cola (which paid her to sip from a retro-style bottle while emitting a satisfied sigh), and shot a Miramax film (a gender-role-reversed remake of “She’s All That,” in which she played a character who turns an unpopular boy into a prom king). She released a single, “Obsessed,” a female empowerment anthem about becoming obsessed with yourself. And more and more, she was wearing heavy makeup (and possibly using filters) in nearly all her videos. I almost couldn’t see the person beneath it, and I wondered whom she was trying to look like. Putting on cosmetics is a highly mimetic activity: In your mind’s eye, when you’re looking at yourself in the mirror, you’re keeping in mind an idol as much as you’re creating a better version of yourself. You may not be Snow White’s evil stepmother demanding to know who is more beautiful, but you are engaging in a sort of fortunetelling and imaginative scrying. You’re envisioning who you will be in the future when you have polished your look and what that suddenly more glorious moment may hold.
As I watched Rae make love to the camera, the woman who popped into my mind was the one whom so many in Rae’s generation were influenced by: Kylie Jenner. Every era has its aesthetic signifiers — the tiny rosebud lips of Clara Bow in the 1920s, the gaptoothed look of Lauren Hutton in the 1960s, the hooded eyes and straight brows of Cheryl Tiegs in the late 1970s. Kylie was ours.
Paola Kudacki for The New York Times
A year ago, Rae went on a YouTube mukbang (a type of video popularized in Korea featuring people eating food but now typically referring to videos in which social media stars eat, talk and promote). After the makeup artist James Charles tended to her face, Rae said she wanted to do a “collab” with Kylie. “Hit me up, Kylie,” she purred. There is no evidence that Kylie took the hint; instead, Rae became tight with Kourtney Kardashian, the sister who tends to get less screen time. Kourtney connected with Rae last year after Kourtney’s preteen son asked if he could meet her: For kids that age, who don’t intersect with the world of cosmetics, Rae was just a tween pop idol. The women apparently hit it off. Kourtney, 41, and Rae, 20, have spent time being videotaped for the internet. They work out, lie by the pool in their bikinis and eat-slash-promote healthful snacks from Kourtney’s wellness site, Poosh.
Still, Kylie was the one that many beauty entrepreneurs aspired to be. She has a wildly popular brand. She sold hundreds of products, including Kyshadow, Kylie Skin, plus a $95 pink minifridge to keep all the products in. And in 2020, after she was featured on the cover of Forbes magazine as the “youngest self-made billionaire” in American history for the success of her beauty line, she sold 51 percent of the company, at a valuation of $1.2 billion, to the publicly traded beauty giant Coty, a legacy beauty conglomerate that was founded by the early-20th-century perfume entrepreneur François Coty and was now trying to stay relevant.
Coty needed a splashy purchase like Kylie’s company. According to Forbes, Kris Jenner had shown a Forbes reporter tax returns that the magazine came to believe may have been doctored. Forbes said Kylie was not, in fact, a billionaire. (Kylie and Kris Jenner have denied falsifying any tax returns.) The chief executive of Coty stepped down, and Coty and Kylie’s company were sued by Seed, the third-party manufacturer for her line, which argued that Kylie’s company stole trade secrets when she sold the stake to Coty. (Coty says that it will vigorously defend the lawsuit, which it considers meritless. Kylie declined to comment.)
In her social media posts, Kylie was often clad in brightly colored unitards or neon string bikinis no larger than children’s headbands. But it was her face that was the extraordinary part of her — the tiny tapered chin, the skin that appeared to be several shades darker than her natural color, the oversize lips (she first received lip fillers at 16). This face has become so widespread that it’s actually not called “Kylie face.” It’s called Instagram face.
It’s bit chilling to think about linking these two quantities, a beauty brand and mental health.
You’ve seen Instagram face before, whether you use Instagram or not. In addition to Kylie, her sister Kendall Jenner and supermodels Bella and Gigi Hadid have it. It’s rarely accomplished via biology, but through a process of dermatologic procedures involving lifting foreheads with threads or injecting lips with filler every three months. (I am not claiming these women have had these procedures, though I will admit to visiting social media accounts suggesting this is the case).
Jonquille Chantrey, a cosmetic surgeon in London, describes Instagram face as having a sort of heritage pastiche: smooth forehead and wider eyes, or, if the eye hikes up at the end, “fox eye”; fuller lips, with the height of the top lip equal to the bottom; tapered nose and chin; and a very, very high cheekbone. These may be characteristics of different ethnicities, but they are rarely seen together in one real face. Instagram face — an averaging of many possible inputs — is not one that exists among humanity. It may not even exist among Kardashians.
So while the range of skin tones celebrated by the beauty industry and the news media has expanded considerably, under the democratizing forces of social media, something unusual has also happened: The constant global pageant of Instagram — a two-sided marketplace of faces and eyeballs — has landed on this surprisingly homogeneous set of beauty standards. Little about Kylie seemed to be real, and yet, when Rae was growing up, many people wanted to look like her. “Everyone is image-literate these days to some extent, and our teenagers more than the rest of us, so they’re very aware that images are doctored, but that doesn’t actually change the way it enters their self-perception,” says Heather Widdows, a British philosopher and the author of “Perfect Me,” a 2018 study of contemporary beauty norms.
On closer examination, our definition of beauty has not expanded as much as we may imagine, Widdows says. She believes that we define beauty today in four ways: smoothness (lack of pores, blemishes or body hair), thinness (with some curves), firmness and youth. Generally, our beauty influencers and advertisements shift only one of these categories — for example, a plus-size influencer will meet the ideal in all ways other than weight. Widdows thinks that these images are not challenging overall beauty norms but rather embedding them.
Paola Kudacki for The New York Times
Like Rae in her initial conversation with Camberos, I spent a lot of time turning over Item’s products in my palms, trying to understand what they were communicating. I peered at Item’s ingredient list. Her concealer included Carica papaya extract, and the Lip Quip had camellia japonica seed oil. There were words in those phrases that I didn’t recognize.
“Consumers always get dissatisfied with beauty products and want something new, but the reality is technology in cosmetics hasn’t substantially changed in 30 or 40 years,” Perry Romanowski, a cosmetic chemist, said. These oils and extracts likely add little to nothing, he said, like a vast majority of press-release-friendly ingredients in other beauty products (CBD, noni fruit). But people perk up when they read them on a label.
Romanowski has the weary air of someone who has spent his life in a fun house pointing out the warps. He said that innovation has largely stalled, partly because many companies no longer test products on animals. “Cosmetic products are regulated, and color cosmetics are the most regulated of all, and that environment leads to a lot of limitations on how you can differentiate your product,” he said.
I asked him what the difference was between the stick of lipstick that is inside a tube of Chanel and the one inside a tube of CoverGirl. “There’s not really a difference,” he answered. “It’s a packaging and marketing story. There might be some aesthetic differences, but the Chanel product can be made at the same price level that the CoverGirl can be made. The amount of money that you have to spend for it has little to do with how much it costs to make it.” Romanowski also talked about skin care, the magical goop that fills so many pretty jars and tubes. He didn’t think high-end moisturizers worked beyond moisturizing and called many products mostly marketing fluff backed up by dubious science.
I wondered if Romanowski found this maddening — an America so deeply bought into the illusion that beauty can be found in just the right product, but very little “right product” to be found. “No, it makes people happy, and how can that be maddening?” he said. “Yes, you’re being duped a bit. You’re being told a story. But it’s like reading a novel.” Reflecting on the information that he shared with me, he added, “Do people really want to know this?”
Over Zoom, I had asked Rae what makeup was for, why so many of us wear it. “I guess makeup is something you do when you want to help the way you feel about yourself. I mean, I literally have a breakout right here, and I’m using foundation to cover it up,” she told me, pointing to a cheek. “It’s another form of painting, and you’re doing it on your skin. I think you should for sure work on enhancing your own features and embracing that if there’s a flaw in you, it’s something that sets you apart from other people. Maybe it’s not even a flaw, it’s just something you think is a flaw, but it’s really part of who you are and makes you different.”
This is the party line of contemporary beauty culture: cosmetics are tools of free expression and self-enhancement, rather than self-erasure. But the more time that I spent studying Rae’s accounts, the more I felt this was only part of the story. Unlike models of the past, who rarely revealed their innermost issues when they were in their heyday — lest they be shamed for being too beautiful to have problems — Rae had forged a direct relationship with her fans, and she wanted to talk to them about emotional and personal issues.
TikTok videos are too abbreviated to communicate much about our deepest feelings, but I found that Rae was open about her insecurities everywhere she could be, like her Twitter account, which was peppered with some shockingly vulnerable statements such as, in August, “why am i crying,” and, “hi whoever needs to hear this. … YOUR BODY IS PERFECT. YOU are perfect. I love you.” We might imagine Rae spent her days with a boyfriend splashing in a pool or opening elaborate gifts from companies that hoped she would post pictures of their presents. And from her social feeds, that seemed to be true, but at night, sometimes, other things happened. In confessional mode, she often dropped the bubbly cheerleader act, explaining in a tweet last April, “I’m not asking for everyone to like me or love who I am/what I look like ... but I am asking that everyone be positive or not say anything at all.” In her mentions, she was called a whale; someone else said that he saw “hotter girls everyday.” “Things like this can tear someone’s self-esteem up if they’re already having negative thoughts in their own head,” she wrote.
I asked Rae how she could believe what she had just told me — that makeup is just about enhancing your inherent beauty — while also at times feeling terrible about her own looks. Rae tapes a weekly, roughly 20-minute Spotify podcast with her mother, “Mama Knows Best,” and on one episode she said that she was sometimes so down about her appearance that she wouldn’t eat before filming TikTok videos. “How do you square self-love and self-hate?” I asked.
“I think it’s something that I’m figuring out for myself,” Rae answered, a bit hesitant. “And I’m not 100 percent sure how to handle it yet, but I’m working on it.” She paused. “I think at the end of the day, it’s just realizing that I am who I am for a reason, and this is what I was given — this is the body I was given. So I might as well love it, because it’s the only one I have.”
This was a lovely answer, if a mix of genuine belief and proverb. Yet what was becoming clear was that social media has demystified and deglamorized beauty just as it has made it a more constant pressure. All of us, including Rae, can really envy the gorgeous influencers on our feeds in a way we might not have envied past models like Christy Turlington, who was made of different stuff, untouchable. What’s more, we never had to put photographs of ourselves out there for public consumption. There’s a tremendous amount of anxiety generated by the fact that we do all this now in proximity with people who do it much better and whose lives seem, albeit artificially, within reach.
This is not news to those who are prominent in beauty culture. After all, they’re often famous because of social media, and when they choose to make a beauty line, it’s not just about cashing in — most of the time they feel insecure, and they use cosmetics to help themselves feel better and want to share those to make others feel better too. But this becomes a vicious cycle, and it’s hard to step back.
Michelle Phan, an early influencer and Ipsy co-founder, confused the beauty community when she stopped posting online in 2015. Two years later, she restarted her makeup line, Em Cosmetics, which she bought back from L’Oréal, and sold her stake in Ipsy. “Once, I was a girl with dreams, who eventually became a product, smiling, selling and selling,” she said in a 2017 video explaining her departure. “Who I was on camera and who I was in real life began to feel like strangers.” She added: “My insecurities got the worse of me. I became imprisoned by my own vanity and was never satisfied with how I looked. The life I led online was picture perfect. But in reality, I was carefully curating the image of a life I wanted, not had.”
Working within the system, Rae was trying to address the way that she was also torn apart by a lot of the same concern over her looks that other people had. She even built vulnerability into the branding of her makeup line. Last year, Rae and Item sold a round, orange-colored compact, and when you opened it, it had a mirror with the words “I love you say it back.” This was a riff on a popular meme, a standard-issue message of girlboss empowerment but also an acknowledgment of widespread insecurity that Rae, and the person buying the compact, might feel.
I thought that was sweet, but an intimate relationship with the idol was also what the consumer was demanding. A display of insecurity from Rae, or at least an acknowledgment that Rae might look in the same mirror and need a jolt of confidence the same way the consumer does, may be part of that. “Relatability is the No. 1 thing that makes people click ‘check out,’” Sarah Brown told me.
It was hard to tell whether Rae was truly insecure or simply using a marketing tactic to gain fans. “Everybody is insecure about their bodies, and the more our culture gets visual, the more insecure we’ll all get, and it doesn’t matter how you look objectively one bit,” Widdows, the philosopher, told me. “So it’s not implausible to think even the most beautiful celebrities might also be insecure. In fact, it’s very plausible to think they are. But to say that they suddenly stopped being insecure because they put their own lipstick on, I find much less plausible.”
Still, the psychological flytrap in this kind of rhetoric — “I want you to know your body is perfect even though you’re buying this product to look like me, and I am insecure about my looks” — was powerful, and stars other than Rae were gesturing to it as well. When I asked Camberos, the beauty executive, where he saw beauty culture today and where it was going, he said it was connected to the issue of mental health. Rae told British Glamour that she felt she was in a good place regarding her appearance lately and quoted the saying “Comparison is the thief of joy.” When asked about what she was proudest of, though, Rae said, “Just staying mentally healthy has been a really big accomplishment for me.”
It was a bit chilling to think about linking these two things, a beauty brand and mental health, especially as our era of global pandemic comes to a close and we emerge in the light, blinking, looking to create new idols. In September, Selena Gomez, who has been open about her bipolar disorder, introduced her own line, Rare Beauty. In marketing efforts, the company, which offers soft concealers, foundations and blushers, vowed that “we will use makeup to shape positive conversations around beauty, self-acceptance and mental health.” And shortly before the musician Halsey began promoting her new makeup line in early 2021, she chose to post an old photo of her emaciated body on Instagram, explaining that she suffered from an eating disorder. Kylie, too, recently put a saying from a self-help author on her Instagram — “may the dark thoughts, overthinking, and doubt exit your mind right now,” it read in part — along with a photo of a bathtub and naked legs, slightly covered in suds, against which rested a clear pink bottle from her skin-care line.
Normalizing mental-health issues was a worthy goal. “Think of the way it used to be in the past, when beauty messaging was hugely chauvinistic and about how a product would help you attract a man or about your acne being so shameful,” Kathleen Hou of The Cut says. “I think beauty is more aware today of how to talk about these issues than, say, fashion. They might not have the ultimate solution, but it’s better than not addressing it at all.”
Yet it was hard to shake the feeling that the industry seems to be counting on everyone’s agreeing that beauty culture is solely empowering, obscuring a dialectic of confidence-building and -destroying, kept afloat by hyperreal images on our phones. This was Rae’s true innovation: Rather than making a lipstick with the perfect gloss, she was making clear that she had problems with beauty culture, but you might as well join her and experience it all alongside her, the highs of achieving a beautiful look, the lows of feeling that you never measure up.
The degree to which social media and its effect on Rae and others was the source of this insecurity was hard to ascertain, but it seemed very likely that Rae had become famous by being relatable and somewhat insecure, and then that the fame itself had opened her up to criticism, which made her even more insecure but also even more monetizable. I imagined a similar chain reaction was happening with her fans: The more they relied on her products to make them beautiful, the more they felt they needed these products to feel good. They were stuck in that compact’s mirror, telling one another to feel better about themselves, but never quite reaching their goal.
Photo illustrations by Tracy Ma/The New York Times. Photographs of Rae by Paola Kudacki for The New York Times. Product photographs by Jens Mortensen for The New York Times. Products shown in opening photo illustration may not have been used, and product ratings may not be up-to-date.
Vanessa Grigoriadis is a contributing writer for the magazine. Her last article examined the influence of Madonna over the past 40 years. Her profile of Karl Lagerfeld won a National Magazine Award and she’s also the author of a book about sexual assault, “Blurred Lines: Rethinking Sex, Power and Consent on Campus.” Paola Kudacki is a photographer and director known for her portraiture. Her work has appeared on the covers of Time magazine, GQ and Rolling Stone, and she recently directed two music videos for the Foo Fighters. She last photographed two new Democratic congresswomen for the cover of the magazine.