It may feel silly to survey the history of a website that’s only around fourteen years old. However, the beauty genre of YouTube has now reached bat mitzvah age. Some aspects of this genre are not digital inventions. In fact, companies have produced tutorial films for their products for decades. However, YouTube offers something different.

Check out Mala Rubinstein teaching stylish housewives how best to apply toner, for example. Many of us have watched our mothers and friends get ready, in intimate settings like bedrooms and bathrooms. To open the mirrors of normal people — not celebrities giving a house tour, or actors on a soundstage — to the world is perhaps the defining momentum of social media. At the nexus of gender and capitalism, the beauty genre has maintained incredible forward motion in the last decade. 

YouTube’s first beauty guru

Take a look at Michelle Phan. She became the first person to produce makeup tutorials for a living on YouTube, just a year after she began her channel in 2006. Her first video is shot on a webcam, with the top of her head cut out of the frame. In the casual living room where she films, none of the light sources quite reach her face. In fact, they pull the eye away from the focus of the video.

Her title, “Natural Looking Makeup Tutorial”, is plain and descriptive. Ten years later, in the last official tutorial for her channel, Phan punches up the simple title language just a bit with “Mastering The Art of Hair Removal.”

Aside from her sweet personality, everything else on the page has changed. Now, she’s in a stylish outfit under direct lighting, in front of a clean studio background. Plus, the camera and audio quality have greatly improved.

While her first video stayed on her, this one cuts away to supplemental shots of the products she describes. The video is more polished as a whole, and that leap in production value can be seen on channels all throughout the genre, regardless of if they began in 2006 or last year. 

Michelle Phan, the original YouTube beauty guru, in her first makeup video
Michelle Phan in he final beauty tutorial

Making videos that look as good as the makeup

As YouTube changes from a hobby to a job, creators are increasingly investing in camera equipment, and even full production teams. This was made possible when YouTube implemented AdSense shortly after being bought by Google. This shift allowed creators to generate revenue from their work. Today, AdSense holds less financial heft than it once did (partially from Google lowering benefits) but also from the rise of other revenue streams like Patreon and affiliate links. 

Nonetheless, the nicer the videos look, the more likely someone will watch them. This leads to more revenue, and so on. Companies quickly noticed that products would sell out after getting name-dropped by a YouTuber.

Brands began earmarking parts of their advertising budgets for digital influencers instead of magazine spreads and TV ads. Free PR packages became free vacations, and the Federal Trade Commission in the US created new regulations. After 2017, influencers had to clarify within their post if they’d been paid by a brand to create it. With this, the influencers’ break into traditional advertising was codified. 

Creator, influencer — celebrity?

The membrane of true celebrity has become increasingly porous. Some beauty vloggers have used their channels as resumes to become fully-fledged makeup artists or business owners. Others focus wholly on their brand of choice. Previously reserved for those attached to a larger project, the red carpet is now open to people who’ve amassed fanbases without an agency or film career, and are also just really good at smokey eyes.

An example of a true breach was this year when 19-year-old beauty creator James Charles joined actors, models, and musicians at the Met Gala. His inclusion at this extremely exclusive event harkened a new definition of “elite”, and who gets to define it. 

Meanwhile, celebrity social media seems more like early YouTube every day, albeit with a higher immediate production value. YouTubers, beauty gurus and otherwise, are moving into studios and working with talent agencies. At the same time, more established public figures really want to show you what’s in their bag. A young woman speaks straight to camera while applying makeup in her bathroom: is it 2008, or a Condé Nast interview? Celebrities are just like us, modeling themselves after the freshest faces on the timeline.

The fame of the YouTube beauty genre comes complete with a cottage industry of gossip channels, dedicated to tracking controversy among the creators à la TMZ. There have been many discussions within the community about “cancel culture” in the last year.

As a result, it will be interesting to see how creators and fans handle these issues in the future. The possibility of becoming rich and famous simply by doing what you love from your bedroom is certainly a pull to American kids who want to be YouTubers when they grow up

Growing up in the ring light

A flux of creators will make competition for ad revenue and sponsorships much fiercer, leading undoubtedly to more attention-grabbing antics. But crises waits in the personal history of any YouTuber, no matter the subscriber count. Phan herself discusses the unhealthy correlation between “success and happiness” as part of why she left YouTube. The high cost of fame and its possible negative implications are still very real.

Michelle Phan began making videos when she was 20. Yet, the next micro-generation of creators gets younger every year. Curating your personality for an unknown public before you fully know what your personality is? It’s a bizarre high-wire for a developing mind.

That said, I predict that some truly innovative vertically-oriented videos will continue to emerge, especially given the popularity of TikTok. These editing and framing techniques contrast nicely with the horizontal video of YouTube, and it will be interesting to see where these platform practices merge. 

The bigger picture

Weirdly enough, climate change will be the most defining factor of the future. The zero-waste lifestyle is stylish now and will be necessary soon. Brands are beginning to face backlash from influencers for excessive PR packaging, the same fluff used to woo them a few years ago. From animal testing to glitter disposability and companies using children to mine mica– a growing awareness of environmental consequences for beauty will hopefully make everyone question their consumption. YouTube beauty influencers may have a particularly important role to play in guiding their audiences. What’s the value of vanity on a dying planet? Perhaps, that’s the biggest question of all.  

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