On 21 September 2009, a 27-year-old single mother from a coastal town in the north east of England became the first beauty YouTuber to launch their own make-up range in Sephora. "By Lauren Luke" was a collection of five skin, lip, and eye palettes by the eponymous creator, a former taxi driver who boasted just over 300,000 subscribers at the time. Luke rose to fame by posting easy-to-follow tutorials on her channel Panacea81, mimicking celebrity looks with popular videos such as "Rihanna & Angelina Jolie cat eyeliner eye make up tutorial," "TAYLOR SWIFT 'Love story' Soft bridal make up tutorial," and even "AVRIL LAVIGNE punk goth emo make up tutorial lesson inspired look."
To modern eyes, these videos are alarmingly amateur. There are no contouring brushes in sight, Vaseline is recommended as an eyeshadow base, the camera shakes and often refuses to focus. Perhaps the biggest proof that the past is a foreign country comes in a 2009 Forbes interview with Luke. When the journalist writes that her videos "create the perception that anyone can really look like Kylie or take a piece of her look," they are referring to Minogue, not Jenner.
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A decade later and it's a beauty influencer's world — we just live in it. Luke recently admitted she earned just £5,000 ($6,550) total from her deal with Sephora. This November, when the second most-subscribed beauty YouTuber in the world, Jeffree Star, launched the Conspiracy Collection with YouTuber Shane Dawson, it sold out in less than 24 hours and earned an estimated $35 million ($10 million of which went directly to Dawson).
In the last decade, we have gone from everywoman beauty YouTubers applying foundation with their hands and smudging their eyeshadow with an index finger, to billionaire beauty gurus creating cut creases with their own range of eyeshadow brushes (link in the description!). How exactly did we get here, and what was the highly pigmented fallout along the way?
Big beauty brands began paying attention to YouTubers after the relative success of Luke's Sephora launch. In spring 2010, 22-year-old guru Michelle Phan was hired as Lancôme's "official video make-up artist", a role which involved showcasing its products in one video a month. She was the first online make-up artist to be hired by a big brand, even though she had just over half a million subscribers, a number that would be considered paltry today.
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A host of now-famous fashion and beauty gurus had first joined YouTube about a year earlier, from Bethany Mota to Kandee Johnson to Zoe Sugg to Tanya Burr. In 2011 – without so much as a whisper from the press – Burr's then-boyfriend's sisters, Samantha and Nicola Chapman, launched their Real Techniques make-up brush range. While make-up brushes have existed for centuries, the Chapmans' affordable line revolutionised make-up application for the general public.
"The majority [of women] have grown up using triangle wedges, eye applicators, powder puffs, and even their fingers to apply makeup," reads the official Real Technique's website. Recalling how the brand was born, it goes on: "Now that YouTube was coming alive as a way to learn the pro secrets, brushes seemed like the perfect fit."
The early 2010s were an era when YouTubers stopped parroting trends and started creating them. Celebrity tutorials slowly became less popular, and "how tos" paved the way for "hauls." Suddenly make-up videos were less about what you could do with the products in your local drugstore, and more about conspicuous consumption. In Michelle Phan's first ever make-up tutorial, she doesn't even name the brands she's using – it's all about application, and she simply instructs viewers to "find your favourite lip gloss". In a "My Summer Favorites" video uploaded six years later in 2013, Phan links to 54 different makeup, fashion, and accessory products. The make-up alone (not including skincare) has a combined value of well over $400.
While regulatory bodies now ensure that online influencers use the hashtags #ad or #spon when they have been paid to promote a product (and declare when their links are affiliated), no such rules existed in the early years of vlogging. Low production values meant many young viewers believed YouTubers were their friends, trusting their recommendations – after all, they were practically there with them, in their bedrooms, learning how to look like Lady Gaga. Yet a lack of disclosure slowly created a sense of distrust – on gossip forums, viewers began questioning why vloggers suddenly praised a brand of make-up wipes they previously slated, or why a mascara they "loooooved" was still sealed.
In hindsight it is fascinating that this distrust didn't pave the way for greater authenticity, instead leading to our current era of polished and professional beauty YouTubers flaunting unobtainable lifestyles under the hazy white glow of a ring light. As #ad and #spon became more commonplace, viewers weren't turned off by the rampant profiteering, but instead saw purchasing products as an opportunity to support their favourite personalities. "My wallet: crying. Me: Shut up this is Shane's moment," is a comment with 3,600 likes on Dawson's YouTube video revealing his new Conspiracy Collection. "I'll never wear these but I had to buy one to support the effort that went into this," reads a tweet with over 11,000 likes.
If Lauren Luke represents the early, amateur days of beauty vlogging, 20-year-old James Charles represents what it has become now. Charles created his YouTube channel in 2015 and rose to popularity in 2016 when he shared a highlighter-heavy yearbook photo (that was later revealed to be photoshopped). Charles' career has been dominated by controversy, from ill-advised tweets about Ebola to his recent falling out with fellow guru Tati Westbrook. But nowadays drama doesn't damage profits, and is instead a route to further success. Though Charles lost one million subscribers after Westbrook condemned him on her channel, he has gone on to regain all of them while simultaneously earning coverage across the international press.
In 2019, beauty vloggers are firmly involved in the tea trade. Money is no longer made just by launching lipsticks, but also by selling secrets. A whole new genre of channels has emerged that profits from spreading gossip and spilling tea about YouTube gurus. AdSense money accumulates quickly under videos exposing stars, and later, videos of those same stars apologising.
We no longer watch make-up tutorials to learn how to do our make-up — we watch them to be entertained. Tutorials have fallen prey to the same algorithms as the rest of YouTube, meaning clickbait ("Puppy Picks My Makeup!") prospers. Perhaps this was inevitable – perhaps we all mastered our winged eyeliner in 2011, and no longer needed online teachers. Regardless, over the last decade, beauty gurus have transformed the very concept of a normal make-up look, a normal make-up collection, and the normal tools you should use.
Over the last decade, YouTubers have gone from showcasing five products on their face to creating tour videos of their overflowing make-up cabinets, opening drawer after drawer of lipstick. The effect on young fans can be confusing and upsetting – anti-haul YouTuber Lucia Tepper has spoken out about how following beauty gurus as a teen left her buying make-up every time she left the house and exacerbated her anxiety. Beauty gurus themselves have also been emotionally affected. In a video entitled "Why I Left" in June 2017, Michelle Phan explains why she logged off a year earlier. "Once, I was a girl with dreams, who eventually became a product, smiling, selling, selling," she said.
Lauren Luke still uploads to YouTube, but her most recent video has just 4,000 views. In a video posted in early December, she answers questions from fans, one of which is how she feels about the YouTube beauty community now. "I know it's not the same as it used to be," she says. "I do believe when I first started it was innocent, there was no money involved, it was pure, it was innocent, it was creative, it was having fun… It still is that now, but I think for a lot of people it's very money-driven."