This week it’s emojis. The happy, kiss-blowing and heart-eyed bright yellow faces are the inspiration for the latest nail art tutorial on CutePolish, a YouTube series that 25-year-old Sandi Ball films at home in Windsor, Ont. Since uploading her first video how-to—a cutesy Hello Kitty mani—in 2010, the Newfoundland native has amassed a following of over 2.1 million subscribers.
“My mom gave me her polish collection when I was about 12, and I got very into it,” says Ball. Today, her stash of about 1,000 bottles provides the only pop of colour in her white-on-white-on-white office, a room on the main floor of her two-storey house. Ball and her husband, Greg, bought the place last year with CutePolish’s earnings, which also covered the cost of their 2013 Hyundai Elantra. Greg recently gave up his job as an engineer to work full-time on the expanding business, now too much for one person to manage. Almost 80 of CutePolish’s tutorials have passed the one-million mark for views—the top post, “Newspaper Nail Art,” is closing in on 14 million. (Check out the exclusive video she made for FLARE here.) All of this makes the channel number one for YouTube nail art, and its founder a member of the new online A-list.
It’s hard to imagine a more contemporary cultural narrative than the rise of YouTube celebrity—a booming industry born of our hunger for round-the-clock content. In the early aughts, reality stars figured out how to make it big simply by being their (often obnoxious) selves. YouTubers have pared down the formula even further, supplanting the Hollywood machine with DIY chutzpah. The hyper-visualness of the hair and makeup world makes it a natural fit for the vlogosphere, which partly explains why beauty is one of the fastest-growing YouTube segments. “As a group, users of beauty products are probably the most passionate consumers out there—they share tips, they talk about the products they love, they have trusted advisors,” says Rob Ciampa, CMO of Pixability, a YouTube software company that helps big brands connect with audiences. A generation ago, that advisor was a magazine, a BFF, a cool older sister. Today she’s a YouTube star, available 24-7 to provide advice on everything from the perfect flatiron curl to eye makeup for girls with glasses.
The rise of beauty vlogging began in 2007 with Michelle Phan, then a cash-strapped arts student in Sarasota, Fla., who uploaded her first video, “Natural Looking Makeup Tutorial,” after getting rejected for a job at a department store Lancôme counter. The Internet proved a more welcoming space. “I developed a very strong relationship with my audience right from that first video,” says Phan, who now has 6.9 million subscribers; her own L’Oréal line, Em, sold stateside; a new book, Make Up: Your Life Guide to Beauty, Style and Success—Online and Off (Harmony, $27); and a reported annual income of $5 million (most of it from various endorsement deals). She has garnered two nominations for the Teen Choice Awards (in the “Web Star” categories), been interviewed by Katie Couric and even scored an invite to President Obama’s star-studded White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner this year.
“Michelle Phan wasn’t the first, but she was particularly savvy. She set the benchmark from a marketing perspective,” says Ciampa. Besides posting content on a regular and consistent basis, crucial to building a rapt audience, Phan intuitively understood the importance of creating an intimate relationship with viewers. Almost every day she devotes a few hours to engaging with fans on YouTube along with Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. It’s as much a part of the gig as the vlog content itself. Phan also paved a career path for thousands of girls and women: in May 2007, when she started posting videos, beauty content on YouTube averaged about 50 million views globally per month. By the time Ball started CutePolish in 2010, that number was 300 million, and today it’s 750 million. To put the numbers in perspective, a new episode of The Big Bang Theory gets about 17.5 million viewers. Michelle Phan’s tutorial on how to look like “the perfect plastic Barbie doll” has been seen over 56 million times.
“These young women are the new celebrities,” says Jessica Thomas Cooke, founder and director of talent at Wanderlust Management, a new Canadian agency devoted to online influencers. Indeed, many top vloggers travel with a Hollywood-calibre entourage (manager, assistant, security) and partner up with big brands for lucrative sponsorship deals. “Previously, marketing firms wanted to work with a Robert Downey Jr., but now they want people who have more of a digital footprint,” says Moj Mahdara, whose strategic consulting agency, Made With Elastic, recently bought BeautyCon, a conference/fan-fest held annually in Los Angeles. This past August, roughly 6,000 people attended in hopes of meeting their e-idols.
Fame and fortune weren’t on Ball’s mind when she started vlogging as an undergrad education student at Memorial University in Saint John’s, N.L. She created CutePolish because friends and strangers were constantly asking about her artful digits. After posting content sporadically for over a year, she got a call from StyleHaul, a YouTube content hub that represents over 4,200 style and beauty channels worldwide. StyleHaul acts like a marketing/production company, and according to Chrystina Woody, the VP of communications, it chooses partners based on potential growth. With CutePolish, there was a fresh niche to be dominated, since nail art had yet to become the ubiquitous trend it is now. Ball signed on and took a semester off school to focus on vlogging (she finished her degree in 2013).
Though Ball’s largest audience is in North America, her channel is also big in the U.K. and beyond. “I don’t know why, but there are a lot of fans in Cairo. It’s amazing to think I’m making these videos being watched on the other side of the world,” she says, batting her long lashes like an innocent emoji come to life. The baby-deer exterior can be deceiving—beneath it lies a thoroughly modern business mogul: in 2013 Ball signed a partnership with Sephora (she features its Formula X polish line in many tutorials); she won’t say what the deal was worth. She has also partnered with the Disney Style channel on nail-art tutorials inspired by hit movies like Tangled and Brave. This past summer she appeared as a celebrity personality at BeautyCon LA, where fans screamed her name and swarmed her as she tried to find a washroom. Notoriety is a mark of success, but it also presents challenges for those marketing themselves as the girl next door. The same goes for six-figure incomes, which is why prominent vloggers downplay their financial achievements and decline to detail corporate strategy. Business, after all, is not the language of BFFs.
Generally, YouTubers earn money based on views, but factors like subscriber numbers and audience engagement contribute to their popularity, which makes companies want to run ads on their channel. Wendy Bairos, a communications manager with Google Canada (Google owns YouTube), notes that ad revenue is split between YouTube and the content creator; the majority goes to the creator. An exceptionally popular video could make thousands of dollars, but this figure can vary widely depending on the business plan. The ability to build large, devoted audiences (especially among the coveted under-25 demo) has given top vloggers a level of digital influence that still eludes many mega-brands. Recent statistics show that for beauty videos, only three percent of the 700 million monthly views belong to brands (most have their own YouTube channels), with the remaining 97 percent going to indie vloggers. “People can tell when they’re being sold to, and they don’t want that,” says Ciampa, noting that the first wave of beauty vloggers were “marketers in the most honest sense—they were real.” It’s this authenticity that brands pay big bucks to piggyback on. Phan was approached by Lancôme in late 2009 after a public relations exec discovered her tutorials online. “They were spending a lot of money filming makeup videos for their own YouTube channel, but they didn’t garner a lot of viewers,” says Phan, who signed on as a Lancôme ambassador in 2010 but maintains creative control over her content.
For Mimi Ikonn, the Canadian co-founder and star of Luxy Hair, a YouTube channel specializing in long hair how-tos, keeping her content honest is more important than raking in dough from product placement. She receives emails every day from brands eager to be featured on her channel, which has nearly two million subscribers. (She and her husband/business partner spent two years travelling the world, bankrolled by Luxy Hair’s profits, before recently relocating to London.) But her business model differs from others: her tutorials are a marketing tool for her main business, hair extensions. She says this makes her particularly mindful in terms of advertising: “If I do mention products, it’s usually something I bought with my own money and really love, and people know that.”
But people also know the opposite is common, which has resulted in a community of online detractors—critics who trash vloggers for getting into bed with major brands. The website Get Off My Internets includes a thread targeting Michelle Phan, deriding the quality of her makeup line, rumoured plastic surgery and frequent product placement. “When there’s money involved, odd things can happen,” says Ciampa, speaking of the cases where a vlogger operates almost as an unofficial employee for a cosmetics company. This can be a quick cash grab, but probably not a lasting online existence.
That said, vlogger staying power itself remains uncertain. For every Sandi Ball, there are tens of thousands of independent beauty vloggers with no hope of quitting their day jobs. Even the successful ones face increasingly stiff competition and an unknown fate. All stats point to video content as the future of the Internet, but the survival of the ecosystem and the sustained influence of vloggers are two different things. The latter will likely come down to whether it’s possible to retain authenticity in what is now a bona fide industry. “When I first started doing this, I would tell people I do nail art tutorials on YouTube, and they would be like, ‘You do what?’” recalls Ball. She never would have predicted her success, whereas the beauty gurus of the future are gunning for it.