Get Ready with Me: The Veneer of Intimacy
It’s 2013. Your hair is frizzy, and your teeth are adorned with braces and their prerequisite teal elastics. You have just finished watching Bethany Mota’s (formerly known as macbarbie07) ‘Morning Routine: Fall Edition!!’, on the family desktop, a bowl of cereal on your lap. Lorde’s ‘Love Club’ still floating on your frontal lobe, you wonder if you too could acquire Bethany’s effortlessly chipper, girl-next-door demeanour if you just coordinated your lip balm with the seasons.
Adolescence is a time of uncertainty, and it’s only natural to crave guidance from someone who seems to know how to weather the storm. This somewhat aspirational sisterhood is a tale as old as time. Before the dawn of the internet, Teen magazines, the idols of the Mickey Mouse club and Bollywood superstars acted as our airbrushed older siblings, imparting their tips and tricks to anxious adolescents the world over. But, they were all shrouded in impermeable celebrity; they were specimens to look up to, rather than kindred spirits. For a long time, the most fashionable kids in school were not those who achieved their own, well-crafted look, but those who bore the closest resemblance to the heartthrobs of the moment. Girls spent hours in front of the mirror trying to achieve the Farah Fawcett flip, and boys styled themselves to look like James Dean.
The rise of the internet did not abate our fascination with celebrity - far from it - yet with it, a new brand of teen icon emerged. People just like us made the leap from their bedrooms to our computer screens without the help of agents, publicists or brand deals. The beauty gurus of YouTube became beacons of well-adjusted, put-together adolescence, their fishtail braids apparently unruffled by the winds of hormonal change. Millions of young people embarked on their teenage metamorphosis, taming their caterpillar brows, donning butterfly winged liner, and lining their chrysalis with images of an accessible, DIY aesthetic, rather than faraway fame.
However, with great power comes great marketability. Soon, the very same girls who told us that their perfect smile was the product of only baking soda and strawberries were flogging 3-step teeth whitening plans, and their drawer of affordable dupes gathered cobwebs while their luxury favourites took centre stage. In hindsight, it was only a matter of time before beauty brands capitalised on the chance to be earnestly promoted by someone guaranteed to have impressionable teens hanging on their every word. Soon, the style of video changed, becoming more polished and highly produced with every sponsorship. The glimmer in these new ambassadors’ eyes was replaced with the hollow glow of reflected ring lights, the stacks of books propping up their iPhones replaced by commercial camera crews.
Such success sparked backlash, with even the most respected veterans of the medium receiving hate comments from devoted fans. Michelle Phan, arguably the original beauty guru, amassed over a billion views with her signature honey tones and steady hand, before she fell victim to the corporate co-optation of her once beloved persona. Fans lamented her foray into brand ownership and longed for the days of bare-faced transformations and soothingly stripped back voiceovers.
Of course, it is no secret that successful women are the first to be turned on by those who claim to have built them up. However, as beauty gurus dropped like flies, lured into unfair contracts with the promise of expanding their fame beyond YouTube, fans experienced a particular kind of betrayal. Was the adoration of so many young viewers not good enough? Did they need to undergo their own transformation, from friendly face to bona fide celebrity, in order to legitimise their DIY fame? What seems to be at the heart of the fans’ discontent is not their idols’ success, but the loss of intimacy that once existed between them.
On the 28th of September 2018, the CAP (Committee of Advertising Practices) and the CMA (Competition and Markets Authority) released an influencer’s guide, which detailed the UK standards for when and how advertisements and sponsored content should be publicly disclosed. In the following years, this guide, along with cooperation from the ASA (Advertising Standards Authority) has been consistently updated. Essentially, all these acronyms spearheaded a crack-down on the influencer backstreets, putting an end to the days of undisclosed advertisement. Paid content was irreversibly cheapened, branded with a litany of #ad #sponcon #promo, scoring the surface of what was once perfectly covert marketing. Thus, the move from blogging to billing marked a great shift in our relationship with influencers, while a timeless tool was added to pop-capitalism’s arsenal.
The veneer of intimacy created by beauty bloggers made us feel like confidants, trusted peers, as we perched directly above their bathroom mirror like gargoyles let into the tower. When brand deals became involved, we were back on the outside, looking in. That is, until some of the biggest luxury content creators in the world decided to scoop us up and give us a carefully-curated dose of the intimacy we craved. Powerhouses such as Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar - already household names - expanded their empires and took YouTube by storm. Harper’s Bazaar, in particular, tapped into all the hallmarks of internet intimacy that we have come to know and love. Now, we are given beauty tips, skincare routines, and red carpet secrets by celebrities, not in glossy print spreads, but in pleasingly pared-down video packaging. We are beckoned to a familiar seat, on a bathroom shelf, or as part of their entourage. We watch from one camera, the editing is minimal, and the videos appear unscripted. We play an integral part in a calculated production of intimacy. As superstars willingly melt down their cosmetic armour for our enjoyment, we see them in a light we never have before. Harper’s Bazaar have reverse engineered the process that saw the downfall of the beauty bloggers’ attempts at casual capitalism, bringing luxury down to earth, as opposed to elevating the anonymous. After a brief hiatus, adolescent admiration has returned to the celebrity object.
Although they come to us from different ends of the traditional fame trajectory, celebrities and beauty bloggers serve the same purpose in this context: to sell us a lifestyle. Harper’s Bazaar have expertly extracted the ingredients necessary to do this, replicating unpolished earnest without the baggage of birthing a brand. Their videos go straight for the pleasure centre, bringing big hitters into a format crafted by unknowns, resulting in content that is as effortlessly aspirational as it is disarmingly intimate. With this new hybrid of beauty content, sponsorships and brand affiliations are less tricky to navigate. The ‘behind the scenes’ becomes a set, and so intimacy can be carefully managed. Big brands have learned from small content creators’ business mistakes, just as we once learned from their beauty blunders.
The beauty bloggers that I grew up with have become mementos of a bygone era. There is a nostalgia in their naivety, and therefore in mine. Perhaps the pre-teens of today will view independent beauty gurus in the same way we view 80s heart-throbs: dreamy, distant, dated. Of course, some more freshly baked personalities are still carving out a space for themselves. They too owe a great deal to their predecessors for their mistakes. While most new vloggers are learning to maximise profits and minimise scandals, others are busy perfecting the art of the scandal, gaining infamy one hoodie-clad, crocodile-teared apology video at a time. A precious few are even approaching beauty more radically than we have seen before, acknowledging the politics of being a role model, finally holding the industry they hold so dear accountable for its waste and whiteness. What is true for each tendril of the online beauty world though, is that the original beauty gurus are the blueprint - to be learnt from, bastardised and cherished.
The Harper’s Bazaar YouTube channel is thus akin to a Hollywood remake of an indie classic. It may fall into the good graces of most critics, for its undeniably acute understanding of what we crave from the videos it puts out. However, it is still doing what remakes do best: milking money from modest beginnings. For this writer, who so fondly remembers the humble origins of its medium, a familiar phrase looms: ‘I prefer the original.’
Neena Porter is Blister's Social Media queen. She can best be described as an internet gremlin. She loves to dig deeper into the everyday, and the content we consume unknowingly. Although a meme is worth a thousand words, she will do her best to analyse it with the right ones. She spends her spare time grappling with existential feminism, and trying to keep up with the rapidly changing ways in which we communicate.