Guest Essay: The Power of Beauty Gurus and Representation by Kimberly Lew

My first introduction to make-up was when my mom did a big clean-out of her collection when I was in middle school. From her hand-me-downs, I gained a few eye shadow duos from Clinique gift-with-purchases, as well as a few thick-tubed lipsticks, all in shades a little too dark and mature for someone who was still learning sex ed from gym teachers. Still, my mom gave me these things not necessarily to get me started in wearing make-up, but more as a means to start experimenting and learning how to apply it.

Ten years later, I still wouldn’t necessarily have figured it out.

Since the early days of experimenting with make-up, applying it had always been more of a fake-it-til-you-make-it kind of thing for me. I stuck to relatively neutral colors that I liked– browns, taupes, greys, and shimmers that weren’t terribly bright or offensive. I would apply them with my finger, often not even thinking about blending but just trying to cast a shadow of color that gave my eyes any kind of look of depth. I used eyeliners, usually pencils or gel because liquid just seemed so terribly fussy, but often ended up with raccoon eyes a few hours after application. The only thing I really did take time to observe how to apply was concealer, having relied on it heavily through acne-prone high school days to give the illusion of smooth skin.

The truth of the matter was that I just didn’t have a lot of guidance when it came to make-up. Moving to Georgia from Hawaii at 11 years old made me feel a little like an alien culture-wise, as I learned about southern style. Things there were more conservative– a lot of my friends didn’t wear make-up. I loved going to Ulta and perusing the rows of colorful products, but I rarely knew what to get or what was good. My friends and I never really had sleepovers where we made each other over or did each other’s hair. One time a friend and I got our make-up done at a department store beauty counter, but I remember catching myself in the reflection off a car and seeing how garish and over-blushed I looked, making me wonder if the whole thing had been a mistake.

On trips back home to Hawaii, however, I feel like I was surrounded by make-up. My best friend back home in high school loved make-up and we would troll the aisles of Sephora, swatching our hands until they were striped in colors. Serena would take hours sometimes to get ready to go out, a ridiculous routine that once allowed me to read a whole Nicholas Sparks novel on her bed while she tried to find the perfect outfit, but that would also give me an opportunity to play with my look. I would go through her make-up bag and try stuff on, listening intently as she recommended products or talked about thing she liked. I still didn’t really know what I was doing when I applied it, but I appreciated her suggestions.

Given our history, perhaps it’s not surprising that a few years ago, now well into my 20s, I was back visiting Hawaii when I happened to see an article about Michelle Phan in a magazine. I’d never heard about her before– but Serena had.

“She’s amazing,” Serena had said. “She made like a million dollars from her YouTube videos.”

When I returned home to New York, I looked Michelle Phan up and was immediately impressed. First, I was impressed to see that someone so young had basically built an empire off of her beauty videos. But even more than her entrepreneurial prowess, once I started watching her videos, I was amazed at how accessible she was, how accessible she made make-up seem, and how much I related to her videos.

Though some of her videos were way out-there looks like Lady Gaga-inspired looks or other big transformations, there were a lot chock-full of tips and tricks. Mascara getting all over your eyelid? Try putting a business card behind your lashes as a shield. Having trouble applying a smooth line with your eyeliner? Try making small dashes along the lash line first and then connecting the dots. I was also learning some really basic things, like how to apply colors in layers and the importance of blending. I started using brushes I had long dismissed and even started investing in new ones to round out my collection.

Given the nature of the internet, it wasn’t surprisingly that watching Michelle’s videos led me to a bunch of other beauty YouTubers. Another person I quickly latched onto was Heart Defensor of ThatsHeart, whose bubbly personality paired with practical beauty advice really drew me in.

What I started to realize was that, along with the practical general make-up tips, I really appreciated seeing Asian women similar to myself having a platform in the beauty world. Growing up, I didn’t have Asian beauty icons that I looked to for style or beauty guidance. I loved seeing looks they did on their channels because it taught me about what could work on my face. Colors like pinks and reds were not things I thought I could pull off, but I learned that they could work if I knew how to blend and find the right tones. I didn’t even think about how a cat-eye could enhance the shape of my eyes, but these beauty gurus not only taught me how sexy it could look, but they also taught me how to have a steady hand and draw the right shape. These women were bright and clearly knowledgeable about their industry, but they also had a sense of humor and goofiness that reminded of nights with my childhood friends in Hawaii.

These YouTubers were also savvy business women. Lots of them were able to do YouTube as a full-time career, getting ad revenue and doing sponsored videos. Their success providing for themselves doing YouTube is also what inevitably drew me in to some of their vlog channels, which gave little insights into their lives behind their channels, going to brand events and scouting products for videos. Lots of Beauty YouTubers also helped develop beauty products themselves. Around when I started watching her videos, Michelle Phan had just launched her make-up line, EM Cosmetics. She also is the mind behind Ipsy, the make-up sample subscription service whose hallmark is packaging their samples in really cute make-up bags.

Outside of just Asian beauty gurus, I also really enjoyed how YouTubers in the beauty space were so open to international products. When I started watching, Korean beauty product videos were being posted all the time, and I loved seeing the innovative stuff coming out of Asian countries. Living in Hawaii, Japanese culture and products played a big part in everyday life, and it was comforting to see people not only embracing Asian products but also genuinely getting excited about them. “Snail cream” and sheet masks made to look like cartoon animals are things that Western culture would easily categorize as “weird,” but it was great to see people getting hyped to try something new, even going through irregular channels to get their hands on new products.

I have since slowed my consumption of both YouTube beauty videos and new beauty products, just for the sake of my wallet and because I feel empowered enough by the basic skills I’ve learned to start developing my own style. However, I have definitely noticed a difference in how my make-up looks now when I apply it and the types of looks I even envision for myself. I’ve received many compliments from people on how I’ve applied my make-up since learning more for my favorite beauty gurus, and I am always happy to credit them. Also, if I ever need a refresher, I can always reference back. It’s like revisiting an old friend.

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Kimberly Lew is a published playwright and writer living in Brooklyn. Her work has been published on WashingtonPost.com, The Billfold, HelloGiggles, and The Toast. www.kimberlylew.com

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