NikkieTutorials: Guiding the Next Generation

NikkieTutorials: Guiding the Next Generation

Story by Rose Dommu / Photography by Bryan Huynh

I was working in my office in early January when my phone started to frantically buzz. My best girlfriend had texted, "OMFG NIKKIE," which was weird, because we don't (personally) know her. I wondered if she might be talking about Nicki Minaj, but when I opened Twitter I saw that NikkieTutorials, the Dutch beauty YouTuber who reigned among the platform's biggest influencers, was trending. What happened? I texted back, and my girlfriend responded, "She just CAME OUT."

OK, this wasn't that shocking. Even though I remembered watching a video in which Nikkie had done her boyfriend's makeup, I could see her as a lesbian. But the furor I saw online seemed much bigger than I would have expected for a simple announcement of Nikkie's preference for women, so I opened YouTube and played her "I'm Coming Out" video, which has 35 million views six months later. I skipped around a bit to figure out what was going on... and then my brain broke. I, like almost everyone else who was aware of Nikkie, had never questioned that she was cisgender. Now she was coming out as a trans woman who had been hiding her identity as a public figure for over a decade.

Reader, I was gooped.

Related | Munroe Bergdorf on the Power of Speaking Out

Nikkie has opened up about her life in small ways through her YouTube channel, all while gaining national attention for her story. In late January she appeared on Ellen and explained the circumstances behind her reveal: she'd been blackmailed by someone who knew her tea and was threatening to "expose" her, and so the makeup artist decided to expose herself. She also spoke about how supportive her family — especially her mother — had been, and how she'd found love with her fiancé Dylan.

Dress: Moschino, Jewelry: Panconesi

The influencer's fans have been seeing a whole new side of NikkieTutorials during the pandemic — one unburdened by keeping such a huge secret. But it's also given her fans a way to recontextualize her older videos, her longtime support of the LGBTQ+ community and her place in the permanently dramatic "beauty community." With Nikkie's revelation, almost all of the top beauty YouTubers — James Charles, Jeffree Star, Patrick Starr, Manny Mua — are queer. The impact this could have on the platform's young audience is immeasurable. Queer kids will grow up seeing successful, embodied queer people on their computer or phone every day, and those who might otherwise never have met a queer person will have direct access to them on social media. As the new Netflix documentary, Disclosure, articulates so well, representation in media is incredibly powerful because it both mirrors the world we live in and imagines a better one. Will that help to build a kinder, more tolerant generation?

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Nikkie is now part of a long history of trans folks who have gone stealth, passing through a cisgender society without being clocked. Would she have attained the kind of success she has now if she'd come out as trans back in 2008? We'll never know. What we do know is that, after breaking the internet, Nikkie is hoping to make something beautiful from the pieces.

Below, I join NikkieTutorials in conversation with XOXOETHAN, the host of PAPER's first-ever beauty YouTube series, SNATCHURAL (Watch the first episode, here).

XOXOETHAN: You've been in the beauty space for a very long time, so tell me about your growth on YouTube and why you first started filming.

NikkieTutorials: I started in 2008, so this year is my 12th anniversary. I was 14 years old and a very insecure, bullied girl. Now, of course, we all know where that bullying came from. Before, I could never say that but now I can [laughs]. I saw all these gorgeous girls around me. I was watching The Hills, and I saw Lauren and Heidi and Audrina! They just looked so pretty and I was like, I want to look like that, so I looked up The Hills makeup on YouTube and I found a makeup artist called Sandy Gold. She did "Wake Up and Makeup," [where] she filmed herself getting out of bed and doing a Lauren Conrad makeup tutorial. I was like, You can do that with makeup? I never even knew what eyeliner was. I was so intrigued that I took my bike and went to the nearest drugstore and I bought some eyeliner, lipstick and all that stuff to try it out and locked myself up in the bathroom. I was trying it out, taking selfies, and I was like, This is amazing! It felt like this high. Every day I started practicing and then after a couple of months I was like, I want to make my own type of video, not that I knew what I was doing [laughs].

XOXOETHAN: My favorite video of yours ever is when you go back and recreate old looks.

Nikkie: It's so bad! So that's where it all started and every weekend I stole my mom's camera, put it on a couple of boxes, played with makeup, just living my best life and out of nowhere it started becoming this thing.

Rose Dommu: Yeah, I mean you are one of the OG beauty bloggers!

Nikkie: Yep, we did it early!

Rose: How has it been to see this platform grow as one of the pioneers?

Nikkie: It's been interesting because I've seen all of the trends come and go. We had that phase of the haul girls, where they were like, Look at what I bought, then we had lookbooks, we had reviewers, we had drama channels, we've had it all. It's been funny seeing all of the waves and me just coasting through it [laughs]. I'm like okay, I'll just focus on makeup and do my own thing. It's been like that for pretty much my entire career so it's been interesting to say the least. You learn something every single time, with every phase. "Interesting" would be the word.

XOXOETHAN: Where do you look for inspiration in creating your looks?

Nikkie: It usually starts with a little bit of panic [laughs]. I'm like, I don't know what to do after 12 years! Then it usually follows through with me asking my fiancé, my manager, my mom and my neighbor on what I should be doing like, "Hey do you have an idea on what I should be doing?" They're like, "No girl," then I'm like, "Okay!" So usually I browse, look for what's trending, look for what people are talking about or just find new products to review, but usually it takes about a day to find something that really clicks for me. Sometimes, it doesn't, which means I have a full, long panic attack because I'm like, [fake gasps]I have no more ideas my career is over[laughs]. It takes a village to come up with them!

Dress: Moschino, Jewelry: Panconesi

Rose: One of the things that I have really liked about your videos, especially in the past year, is that you've become a lot more open about the financial realities of influencer culture. I know you have a whole system on your videos of what products are sponsored, so why was that important for you to implement, and do you think more influencers need to be talking about that part of it?

Nikkie: I can't make up rules for other people, it's just that in some way I have this entire cloud of doubt surrounding me, they're like, We don't know if we trust you on this, and I got so tired from it. I was like, I know that I'm speaking the truth, yet so many people are like, Well I don't buy it. So with every product that's in-frame and I speak out its name, you need to know if it's PR, if it's self-bought, if it's an ad, if it's affiliated. Ever since I implemented that system, a lot of people are like, Ah, clarity, now we get it! It's giving viewers that extra step of security like, Please trust my word, I would never lie to you.

Rose: Right, because it seems like your relationship with your viewers is totally built on trust. What is your platform going to be if people don't trust you?

Nikkie: Yeah, I hate drama. I learned this year— I'm all water signs [laughs]. I'm all emotions, so I cannot handle drama. Whenever there's the slightest bit of drama I'm like, Oh my god, no! Please, no!

Rose: Wait so if you're all water signs, what is your chart?

Nikkie: I learned that I'm a Pisces sun, Scorpio moon and a Cancer... what's that other one?

Rose: Rising

Nikkie: Rising, yes.

Rose: Love that for you.

Nikkie: I don't think I love that for myself, if I'm being honest.

Rose: I'm a double Cancer, so I get you on the moody, emotional scenario.

Nikkie: Everything gets to me and then people are like, "Don't let it bother you," and I'm like, "But it does!"

XOXOETHAN: I'm a Libra with a rising Leo, so I guess I'm just a bitch.

[All three laugh]

XOXOETHAN: I'll roll with it I guess.

Nikkie: I love it, I love it!

"I always wanted it to be about what I did, not who I was, and I hate labels, like why do they even exist?" —NikkieTutorials

XOXOETHAN: Earlier this year, you came out publicly on your channels. Do you feel a sense of relief?

Nikkie: Oh definitely, I always wanted to come out with it, it was just that timing. I will say that I've never felt as bad in my life as that week leading up to it because it was very dark. I remember the day of posting I was like, This is the end, this is the final blow [laughs]. It went up, and I remember reading the first comments and everyone was like, "Wait what? We love it!" They were like, "Girl it's always been about makeup with you, it's never been about, you know—"

XOXOETHAN: Anything else, yeah.

Nikkie: Anything else, and when I got that confirmation, I've never been happier in my life. I feel so free and supported. So many doors have opened that I could never even dream of. It's a little bit dark and sad because this week was the anniversary of the shooting in Orlando, and I remember four years ago doing a tribute, like I'm doing now with the Black Lives Matter movement, where I would donate all my assets and I remember in that video being like, "I'm an ally, I'm here to help you," but I knew what was happening on my side. People were like, "Girl this is not your scene right now, stop it!" I'm like, One day, it'll make sense, trust me.

XOXOETHAN: Yeah, the reaction was so positive from everyone. Do you see yourself sharing more about your transition with your fans or is that something that you—

Nikkie: Definitely in the future, not now. It's so fresh for me still, I mean it's only been like half a year, which already feels like it's been so long, but at one point definitely. I'm still trying to find my spot in the rainbow family, where I sit and where I do my part, and slowly but surely I'm starting to find out what my role is in this family. I'm really proud of where I'm sitting and what I'm doing.

Jewelry: Panconesi

Rose: As someone who has been on YouTube for so long and seen the way it has grown, how do you think your career might have been different had you been out as a trans woman this whole time?

Nikkie: It would have been harder because automatically people put you in a box. I feel like everything I've done was always about my art, about what I could do with a brush and I think that's why it took so long for me to open up. I always wanted it to be about what I did, not who I was, and I hate labels, fucking hate labels, like why do they even exist? I was like, I don't want to be a label, I want to be me. I definitely think if I was out from the start it would have been difficult, but it shouldn't be like that.

Rose: Which is interesting because now we look at the industry and the top beauty influencers on YouTube are all queer! You coming out really just solidified that fact. I think of you, Jeffree, Patrick, James Charles, so what kind of impact do you think that's going to have on YouTube's really young audience?

Nikkie: If anything I hope and believe that it's going to make all those young kids who feel misunderstood or unsafe in their environments at least feel like someone is there who understands. When I was growing up, here in The Netherlands we didn't really have a lot of trans icons. The fact that youth nowadays has people of all flavors to look up to is exactly what we need, I think it's a great thing.

Rose: Do you think it might be helping to build a more tolerant next generation?

Nikkie: I think so because it's mainly the older generation that is like, "What is wrong with this? Stop this!" Even when we look at the new generation, they're so free and open already. I love that. People need to find out for themselves what they love and what they feel most comfortable in, and I think we're doing a great job.

XOXOETHAN: If you could go back in time, does part of you wish you could have shared more so that it could have contributed to that earlier?

Nikkie: Looking back now, yeah, but that's easy — looking back. I think for me personally, the way my life went, I'm okay with the journey because I feel like there's still so much left to go. But looking back, definitely. I'm like, Why didn't I do this sooner?

XOXOETHAN: Do you feel a sense of responsibility now that you are becoming a trans icon yourself?

Nikkie: Absolutely, especially because I hate it when people go, "We didn't even see you as trans, you don't even look trans," What is that supposed to mean? "You're not clockable." I'm like, "That's not the point sweetheart, it doesn't matter if you are clockable, we need to accept all of us." Luckily, I had a very supportive mom who supported me all throughout my youth and I had the benefit of transitioning early. Not everybody has that luck or has made that decision for themselves, so the acceptability needs to be for all of us, not just the unclockable ones. Definitely, there needs to be more awareness and I do feel responsible for that because I'm like, They see me as unclockable, then me as an unclockable trans woman, let me educate them.

Rose: Do you think you might use your platform to bring other trans artists on your channel and share more of a spectrum of what specifically trans women look like?

Nikkie: Absolutely. I know backstage we're working on stuff right now, but at the end of the day I do want to let my channel's focus be makeup, it will always be makeup. But now there's so much more surrounding it that I definitely want to incorporate.

Dress: Moschino, Jewelry: Panconesi

Rose: This is your first Pride. How does that feel?

Nikkie: Oh my god, yeah! Well I had Pride, what was it two years ago? That was my first Pride in Amsterdam on the canals and I was looking at people being so cheerful and bright and happy. I was like, I'm part of this, but nobody knows and I don't know what to do. So I was like, "Ally, ally," so that already was such an amazing experience. I can't wait for Ms. Rona to pack her bags and we can actually celebrate some Pride the way it should be celebrated.

I definitely still try to use this month as a celebration, so there are more collabs coming with queer people this month, more content stuff related to the LGBTQ+ family this month. But it's also new to me, so I'm trying to find my way and see what works best and feel what's right for me. I think next year's June would be even better because then I'd have my first year, my trial and errors and now I'd know how to slay.

Rose: You just did a video where you used all Black-owned beauty brands, so I'm wondering how else do you want to be using your platform to demand more diversity and inclusion? How are you supporting Black trans women specifically?

Nikkie: I think the most important thing is education and I don't know everything, I wish I did and I don't. If you see someone not knowing what to do, educate them, help them. I myself have become a Dutch Ambassador for the United Nations just this past week.

Rose: Wow, congrats!

Nikkie: And I really want to take this moment to let them educate me because they've been doing this for years. So behind the scenes, I'm having meetings, they're talking me through what's happening in the world, and ways I can help. Step one was raising awareness, so whether that be your Instagram, your stories, your Twitter, your YouTube, how little or small your platform, you need to use it for the good and for Black people, but especially Black trans people and queer people because lord have mercy, we need all the help we can get. I'm just trying to do my part. I did that video and all postings are donated to the Black Lives Matter movement. We're doing really good so far, it's been up for four days now and already raised $10,000.

"When I was growing up, here in The Netherlands we didn't really have a lot of trans icons. The fact that youth nowadays has people of all flavors to look up to is exactly what we need." —NikkieTutorials

Rose: That's amazing. Every interview I've been doing lately I've been asking this and it's even more relevant with you, because you did Lady Gaga's makeup: what's your favorite track on Chromatica?

Nikkie: [Sings "Alice" by Lady Gaga] "My name isn't Alice..."

XOXOETHAN: Oh my gosh, me too, I think that's my favorite one too!

Rose: It's a very trans song.

Nikkie: And it's so old-school Gaga with that [sings "ma-ma-ma, oh ma-ma-ma"] It's so good! I love that one, but also "Replay." The entire album is a smash, but also "Sour Candy" and "Sine From Above."

Rose: We love, yes! What was it like doing her makeup?

Nikkie: Jesus, it was nerve-wracking, but it was everything! She walked in and I was like, She's here! She didn't cancel, she's here, she's excited, she's wearing heels this big. She is even nicer in real life than online and I'm like, How can you be so successful and still be a good person, like how? So that was truly in my top three favorite videos ever.

Rose: What are the other two?

Nikkie: I did a video with a Dutch singer here, Davina Michelle, where she sang my makeup routine and I had to follow along and I didn't know what she was going to sing upfront. It was so much fun. That is one, the other one would probably be where I do my fiancé's makeup because I was living for every single moment [laughs].

For our 2020 Pride cover series, PAPER tapped photographer Bryan Huynh — and his team of digital art pros led by Rodolfo Hernandez and Willem Stapel — to reimagine our subjects, sculpt their bodies and transport them into otherworldly environments.

The experimental production began with a Zoom — connecting with each talent over video and talking them through the process of a face/ head scan iPhone app. Once the rough scans were exported, Huynh went back in to fine-tune facial details, humanizing the rudimentary imagery. Alongside subjects' features, Huynh's team sculpted digital bodies posing talent into positions that would match their unique environments, which were also digitally made by hand.

When it came to the fashion, stylist Matthew Josephs worked closely with our cover stars, as if they were on set, to ensure their individual aesthetics translated in pictures. Josephs sent the final looks to Huynh's team, who then built the clothing into their 3-D spaces.

Three months of dedicated hard work later under COVID-19 restrictions, PAPER is proud to present this year's Pride portfolio.

Photography: Bryan Huynh
Fashion editing: Matthew Josephs
3D art lead: Willem Stapel
Art direction: Jonathan Conrad
3D Clothing Designer: David Willems
3D Face Artist: Patrick Blankenzee
Retoucher: Ruud van Doorn