Rae missed Phan’s heyday, but she picked up the generation of YouTubers that came after. From the age of 12, she began to develop a talent for applying her own makeup with a steady hand and a good sense of color. She had her favorite influencers, including glamorous makeup male character James Charles and trans woman Nikkie de Jager. “These influencers let you in on their beauty secrets – it seemed like something they hadn’t shared before, and they conveyed a level of intimacy, or at least supposed intimacy,” said Kathleen Hou, beauty director at The Cut. “Then it’s like being a fan of an indie band and they used to play in your local bar. You keep watching them grow in popularity. “
After building millions of fans, some influencers wielded extraordinary power by positioning themselves as beauty critics. A social media star like Rae who wanted to make it into the beauty industry would normally have had to spend an inordinate amount of time putting it off (gift bags, upbeat DMs, traded mentions, and maybe cash). But Rae’s 73 million followers had somehow fallen from the sky, and it seemed like their clout was equal to or better than hers.
To promote Item, Rae generated TikTok videos of herself looking cute in a new lip gloss while moving to a rap song – basically what she did before she had her own lip gloss to sell. In one photo for Item, she bit a tube of makeup while winking, and in one video, she slept in a bed with her face painted on, then pretended to wake up and immediately spray her face with a solid mist, a liquid, spray You with water and alcohol so the makeup doesn’t wear off.
What I found less in Rae’s feed were videos that showed the undoubtedly arduous work that it took to achieve her look. That was weird because YouTube makeup tutorials are central to beauty culture. You could call them the US magazine of our time, a way of demonstrating, “Stars: They’re just like us.” During the videos, not only do stars seem to take their beauty regimes very seriously, but they will also train you for the reasons that you should. Jessica Alba, the actress who became the head of Honest Company, the organic baby and beauty product giant (and one of many newer beauty stars, Latina), recently made a video walking the viewer through her everyday life – Night beauty routine covered with a smoky eye. “As a woman in the world trying to do things, move around and wear all hats, I think it’s important that we take the time to take care of ourselves,” says Alba, staring seriously into her camera. “It’s important. And don’t let that take away from you.”
For Alba, skincare seemed like a real act of empowerment, a radical way to regain the right to take time for yourself. It’s the same effective rhetoric that emerged from Gwyneth Paltrow’s goop to sell mascara, botox, expensive exercise classes, and other products that are considered the way to “me time” and “live your best life.” But Rae sold her fans another dream: the dream of an ordinary girl who, surprisingly, finds herself in the world of glamor. She didn’t have to make proclamations about how hard it was to find the time to look pretty. When Rae became famous, she had the looks of many young women without makeup. The aim was to cover up irregularities and improve the natural pigment of the lips, but without going wild with glitter and blue eyeshadow. And their ideology about cosmetics, if anything like that could be identified, coincided with this look.
But this winter, as Rae’s TikTok followers went from 70 million to more than 78 million, I noticed that something was different about her videos. She’d started promoting all sorts of things, including Coca-Cola (which she paid to sip from a retro-style bottle while sighing contentedly) and made a Miramax movie (a remake of “She’s All That “In which the roles of the sexes were reversed,” in which she played a character who turns an unpopular boy into a prom king). She released a single, “Obsessed,” a female empowerment anthem about obsession with herself. And more and more, she wore heavy makeup (and possibly used filters) in almost all of her videos. I almost couldn’t see the person underneath and wondered what she wanted to look like. Donning cosmetics is a very mimetic activity: when you look at yourself in the mirror, you think of an idol in your head, just as you create a better version of yourself. You may not be Snow White’s wicked stepmother who wants to know who is more beautiful, but you do some sort of fortune telling and resourceful scouting. You imagine who you will be in the future when you’ve polished up your look and what that suddenly more glorious moment has in store for you.
When I saw Rae make love on camera, the woman that came to mind was the one who influenced so many in Rae’s generation: Kylie Jenner. Each era has its aesthetic hallmarks – the tiny rosebud lips of Clara Bow in the 1920s, the unkempt look of Lauren Hutton in the 1960s, the hooded eyes and straight brows of Cheryl Tiegs in the late 1970s. Kylie was ours.