It’s been barely a month since the Tati Westbrook/James Charles Dramageddon 2.0 rocked the YouTube world. Charles became the first YouTuber in history to lose nearly three million subscribers when Westbrook – his former friend – posted a video in which she criticised his “problematic behaviour”. Now, another top-tier “beauty guru” has found herself in the firing line.
I’m referring to Jaclyn Hill, one of the biggest influencers on the video-sharing platform with almost six million subscribers, whose make-up tutorials have made her one of the most recognisable names on YouTube.
Hill has been no stranger to controversy in her eight years as a YouTuber, but things reached new heights in the past couple of weeks following her first brand release – which has been so disastrous that people are taking microscopes to her products and there’s now a Change.org petition calling for the FDA to investigate.
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It’s no exaggeration to say it’s gone as badly as a lipstick release could go. Yesterday the influencer was forced to apologise for the numerous issues customers have had with the products, including finding clusters of black holes, sweat spots and even hairs in the beauty products (the latter, Hill claims, came from the cotton gloves used in the manufacturing lab).
Hill has been the face of a number of failed brand collaborations. Hot off the heels of her hugely successful collaboration with make-up brand Becca on their Champaigne Pop highlighter, Hill released an eyeshadow palette with them in 2016. However, so many users reported poor quality and formulations that the brand had to discontinue the product and publicly apologise.
A similar controversy broke last year, when Hill released a bundle of eyeshadow palettes with Morphe. Fans immediately criticised the formula for being completely different from that of her original Morphe palette, rendering them essentially unusable. Hill apologised and promised to recall the product and replace it with a new version, but the quick turnaround led consumers to question whether they were had actually been reformulated at all.
Notorious for throwing brands under the bus, claiming she “didn’t know about the issues” and promising to “do better next time”, Hill left fans with high expectations for the launch of her own eponymous make-up collection.
Amid a tidal wave of videos “exposing” the issues, complaints from customers across social media and even accusations from fellow influencers that the products are “expired” or “contaminated”, Hill managed to remain relatively poised throughout her apology video, even offering “receipts” to back up her main point – that she didn’t go into mass production until a month before her launch and the products are new and absolutely safe to use.
Unfortunately, it seems that for many, Hill has cried wolf one too many times. The reaction to her video has been lukewarm to say the least, with viewers clearly sceptical about her explanations.
For any make-up brand, this would be a disaster, but for a new company launched off the back of one individual’s fame, it could be industry changing. The YouTube beauty community has been riddled with controversies, namely accusations of racism which were hugely damaging to the reputations of some of the most popular YouTubers, including Manny MUA and Laura Lee.
As a result, the idea of creating a brand based on one influencer’s face and personality is seeming like an increasingly bad business choice. But a make-up brand used to be considered a career peak for these so-called “beauty gurus”, so where does this leave the industry?
Hill has been teasing her own collection since around 2014-15, when she ostensibly decided to release her own line. But in the intervening years, a lot has happened.
In 2015 drama channels were in their infancy, make-up tutorials were YouTube gold and brands were pouring money into influencer sponsorships before there was any industry standard around disclosure, meaning huge YouTubers were getting paid tens of thousands of pounds to talk about how much they loved a product, without their millions of viewers being any the wiser.
Brands were also discovering that slapping a YouTuber’s name and branding onto an eye-shadow palette of limited edition lipstick could almost guarantee enormous sales, and so began the age of the “brand collab”, with influencers such as NikkiTutorials, Shayla Mitchell, Chloe Morello, James Charles, Kathleen Lights and many more working with huge mainstream brands to create ranges that sold out within minutes.
Initially, the mark of success in the beauty YouTube world was sponsorships, then collabs. Now though, influencers want one thing: their own make-up line.
But such an endeavour is not without its risks. Hill is not the only influencer-turned-brand-owner who has been burned by an industry she entered perhaps naively and somewhat arrogantly.
Marlena Stell was one of the original “beauty gurus” on Youtube – she’s been posting videos since 2007. Stell founded her brand Make-Up Geek the following year and launched to much social media acclaim. She is one of the original YouTubers who largely created the blueprint for what a beauty influencer career would look like. She has also managed to stay out of the drama – until now, that is. Snell, alongside other hugely respected industry figures such as Kevin James Bennet and Jen Luvs, have loudly called bulls**t on Hill’s story, using their insider knowledge of the make-up industry to debunk a number of her points – namely the “fluffy gloves” theory.
It’s hard to see how Hill’s brand can recover from this, especially considering her previous product misfires and the fact that she very rarely posts videos anymore unless she has products to promote. But it may also be a sign of the tide changing when it comes to influencer brand deals.
The world of YouTube has morphed drastically since Hill entered it – something she seems unable and unwilling to accept. Thanks to increasing transparency regulations, consumers are becoming ever more savvy about the problematic ways some influencers choose to make money, and every product with a YouTuber’s name is going to be scrutinised more than any other.
Even if Hill’s products had been objectively flawless, she still would have been subject to endless criticism. Before anyone had received the product there were commentary channels making videos about why she was only releasing lipsticks, whether the colours chosen were diverse enough, whether she was shading other influencers who didn’t receive PR… the speculation has been endless.
If Hill had launched her brand four years ago she may have been able to get away with the first-time production hiccups, but not today. Where once a YouTuber’s name was a fool-proof way to sell millions, it’s now a sure-fire way to face the kind of scrutiny and criticism few brands could endure. As a result, it will be no surprise if fellow influencers think twice before following in her footsteps – this could spell the end of the make-up-guru-launches-brand era and the birth of a brand new business model for beauty brands.