The A-List of Beauty YouTube
In establishing a representative list of the creme de la creme of beauty YouTubers, I focused on the key question: “Who’s on top in terms of influence, most likely to be sponsored for beauty marketing, and likely to influence their viewers’ consumption practices?”
I looked to two key lists of YouTube beauty heavyweights for their influence beyond their raw subscriber count:
- The Forbes 2017 Top Beauty Influencers list, which considers total reach across Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube; and
- The Elle 2018 ranking of highest paid beauty influencers, which takes into consideration YouTubers who have become brand owners, and earnings from the platform, including advertising revenue.
These produced the following list of 15 top beauty YouTubers in terms of influence and highest paid, which was a more accurate representation of market influence and economic interest to brands looking to advertise their products than pure subscriber count.*
The Shade(s) of It All: Shade Ranges
For a global audience, how best could one measure inclusivity?
To establish a “global shade range”, I used data from Pudding.cool’s ground-breaking article on foundation shade diversity between various international and regional brands – a range which included a representative sampling of brands from India, Japan, and Nigeria – Beauty Brawl (data available on Github). who did the comparative study on foundation shade ranges.
To compare the YouTubers in question to the shade ranges, I used a combination of data scraped from their YouTube videos and Instagram posts reviewing the Fenty Beauty foundation. For YouTubers who did not review the Fenty product, I compared their other foundation shade matches to two online foundation shade-matching databases, Findation and beauty blogger Temptalia’s foundation shade matrix. For Huda Kattan, influencer and brand owner of the eponymous Huda Beauty line, I used her brand’s foundation comparison list to isolate Kattan’s foundation shade from her match in her own product line.
Market leaders in the “broad shade range/ prestige brand” category, Fenty Beauty and Make Up For Ever, both have 40 shades: they are equally diverse, purely from a numerical standpoint. The shade ranges differ, however, in how inclusive they are: Fenty’s range spreads further at both ends of the dark-to-light spectrum, and is thus more inclusive of a wider range of skin tones.
While most US-based brands covered in the study cumulatively present a very broad range of options available in the United States for a diverse consumer base, the three other countries considered in the study present relatively lower ethnic diversity compared to the United States. The two Asian countries – India and Japan – have comparatively more limited (and less representative) shade ranges. This may be attributed to some extent to ethnic homogeneity, where profitability from sales could be relatively lower should a brand cater to The Indian brands studied in particular stand out, where its spread across the lightness spectrum seems visibly similar to Japan, despite the demographic differences between the two countries: the Japanese population is on average fairer than the Indian population, so what explains the countries’ mostly similar shade range?
Colourism, as a global phenomenon indicating a preference for lighter skin and implicit bias against darker skin, is particularly prevalent in beauty standards in Asia, and India and Japan are not immune to this. More significantly in India is colourism’s relationship with classism and the caste system, where dark skin has historically been associated with the lower classes and the Southern Indian population of Dravidian heritage. This has influenced representation in the South Asian media sphere, where celebrities represented in film and advertising tend to be lighter-skinned, and often promote skin-lightening products, a beauty industry segment worth approximately USD450 million and growing at an annual rate of 15–20%. Other influences which could explain the entrenched colourism in India which do not impact Japan (as much) include its period of British colonialism, although most consider caste and the contemporary South Asian media to be the biggest influences in perpetuating the “ Fair and Lovely” beauty ideal.
Japan, in contrast, is one of the world’s most ethnically homogeneous countries, with low immigration and 98% of its population being Yamato Japanese, and a majority of its largest minority populations being East Asian (Korean, Chinese, and Taiwanese). Its preference for lighter skin and fairness has been influenced by historical beauty standards, and similarly perpetuated like India’s through its beauty industry, which heavily promotes sunscreen use and lightening products, and the dominance of lighter-skinned models and actresses in its media.
The top influencers are largely from the lightest shades across the spread (above the mid point, with the darkest-skinned, Huda Kattan, clocking in at 60 on the lightness scale).
This is probably unsurprising to most, given the dominance of social media by the Anglosphere: with most popular YouTube channels being in English, most are American and British, countries with significant Caucasian populations. Outliers in the top fifteen by demographic are Manny Gutierrez and Desi Perkins, who have Hispanic heritage; Christen Dominique of Guyanese-Portuguese, Mexican, and Arabic descent. Huda Kattan is of Iraqi heritage, but was raised in the United States, and is presently based in Dubai.
Not included in the chart are two influencers, Michelle Phan and Wayne Goss. Phan, who is not represented in the chart as she neither reviews nor uses foundation products, is Vietnamese American; Goss, while Caucasian (British), does not personally use complexion products, and as such neither have product shade matches available for comparison. Nonetheless, both are relatively light-skinned, and are likely to be represented at the lighter end of the Pudding.cool lightness scale.
The viewing preferences of YouTube beauty enthusiasts could be skewed either by the aforementioned preference for English-medium channels, or by the close association of beauty standards with preferences for who they take beauty product recommendations from. Beauty influencers, who by the nature of their work, are generally conventionally attractive, and represent such conventional beauty ideals. It is thus unsurprising that colourism, as a long-standing aspect of global beauty standards, influences the success and popularity of beauty influencers, and thus the likelihood of beauty brands selecting them for marketing work and product endorsements.
The Industry: The Fenty Effect
Fenty Beauty’s effect on the market after its widely-publicised launch and successes have led to greater inclusivity in new product launches and expanded shade ranges, both of which have been seen to adhere to the magic number of 40. Existing product ranges expand or tout a similar number, including the Maybelline Fit Me! product analysed in the pudding.cool study.
While not all brands have met the “Magic 40” shade range number, a broad shade range spread has been evidenced to be a priority and a goal met by other brands, even without reaching 40 shades. Shiseido-owned brand NARS Cosmetics launched the Natural Radiant Longwear foundation with 33 shades, but across a broader range of lightness and darkness than previous launches. The product line notably features a darkest shade equivalent to Fenty Beauty’s darkest shade (490), as seen on YouTuber Nyma Tang. NARS also expanded shade ranges of its existing products, including the cult favourite Radiant Creamy Concealer (from 22 shades in 2018, to 30 in 2019).
Another notable launch is Dior’s 2019 foundation launch from its new product line, Dior Backstage. Beauty offerings from luxury brands such as Chanel, Gucci, Chantecaille, and Guerlain have infamously remained impervious (some might say resistant) to the Fenty 40 effect. While no collective official reasoning has emerged from the fashion houses, speculation attributes it to a motivation to maintain brand exclusivity and limit accessibility to the brand image to a particular demographic, two reasons which supersede the imperative to widen shade ranges, whether it be for profit or inclusivity.
Dior Backstage, the more accessible sister brand to Dior Makeup, boasts a far wider shade range than traditional Dior, at a lower price point (the Dior Airflash Foundation is USD62, the new Backstage one is USD40). With 40 shades in 3 undertones, they range from shade number 0 in cool/rosy, neutral, and warm to a 9 neutral — the “deepest” foundation shade Dior has ever created. While not a widespread practice for now, it nonetheless marks progress for the particular segment of the market.
The Viewer-Consumer: They’re Woke
The Fenty effect and the development of influencer “stan” culture has led to the two trends intersecting in the phenomenon of “callout culture”: viewers, who have grown accustomed to the relatability of YouTubers, are at times affronted by the star’s endorsement of a particular brand or product, and proceed to decry them on social media. Such controversial products in the beauty space most often tend to be brands which fail to meet expectations of inclusivity, sometimes by a long shot.
Brands such as Tarte, Beauty Blender, and It Cosmetics have faced public call-outs for launching complexion products in very limited shade ranges, apologised, and promised to do better (in most cases). In most such instances, they have gone on to launch wider shade ranges.
Beyond the “Fenty 40” effect and increasing awareness of the importance of inclusivity (to social justice, brand reputation, and profit margins alike), there remains room for further progress towards representation of diverse demographics in online beauty and fashion, and for the beauty industry for consumers. Below are three practical areas in which the beauty industry could move towards greater inclusivity beyond representation:
- Product availability — While brands are launching commendably wide foundation shade ranges, the actual availability of the range to consumers varies a lot. In Singapore, affordable brands like Revlon and Maybelline do not launch their full US range of products here, despite Singapore’s ethnically diverse population. The range of Maybelline Fit Me! shades available in Singapore-based drugstores tends to be limited to 10 shades in store displays, limited to the light to medium end of the spectrum, which effectively limits the available shade range to consumers as though the brand did not produce the remaining 30 shades at all.
- Product accessibility — Most brands with expansive shade ranges tend to be expensive. NARS foundations, a brand known for inclusivity in its product undertones – a second factor beyond shade depth that determines a match – and its broad shade range, cost USD49 (SGD76) an ounce or bottle. These costs can be prohibitively high for the average consumer, who may not be able to access a proper shade match outside of the drugstore. There remains room in the market for accessible, affordable products with the diverse shade ranges and undertones which higher-end brands offer.
- Inclusivity matters and is good for firms and influencers, beyond finding shade matches — Increasing representation of POC in the media – mass and social – is important for allowing a greater diversity of voices and representation of views and experiences in the beauty community for audiences around the world. Representation of content creators of colour on YouTube, for instance, and their involvement with brands on the platform has paved the way to mutually beneficial collaborations between content creators and brands in the interests of furthering inclusivity. African-American YouTuber Alissa Ashley, who worked with L’Oreal-owner NYX Cosmetics to expand its Can’t Stop Won’t Stop foundation’s shade range to 45 shades. The inclusion of content creators of colour and prominent partnerships with heavyweight brands could induce greater recognition of their work, and push for greater equality and fairer compensation in the influencer market, which has been found to under-compensate and under-represent creators of colour compared to their lighter-skinned counterparts.