In Jennie Livingston’s 1990 documentary Paris is Burning, Dorian Corey, a legendary trans figure in New York City’s ballroom scene, unpacks the definitions of ‘voguing’ and ‘reading’ while applying her makeup in a vanity mirror. The footage is 30 years old, but it solidifies a fact that has, throughout history, always rung true: the subtexts of queerness and beauty are intertwined.
Throughout history, makeup has been a pivotal tool of expression for many LGBTQ+ people. But, from drag queens to ostracised queer kids, most queer makeup artists would previously manifest their true selves behind closed doors, creating beautiful looks they were too scared to put out into the world for fear of judgement. Today, however, the beauty industry is awash with their presence. No longer an industry fronted solely by cisgender heterosexual women and run by white men in suits behind the scenes—think Coty’s Pierre Laubies or L’Oréal’s Jean Paul Agon—the Gen Z beauty boom has been spearheaded by a hugely diverse group of LGBTQ+ youth.
Paris is Burning, 1990. Pepper Labeija, Octavia Saint Laurent, Kim Pendavis, Freddie Pendavis, Dorian Corey, Willi Ninja, Angie Xtravaganza and David Xtravaganza. Photo by Off White Prod/Kobal/Shutterstock
© Off White Prod/Kobal/ShutterstockThe rise of LGBTQ+ influence
Queer people have significant real estate in beauty influencer spaces, and thanks to the internet, they’ve claimed it, slowly, over the past decade. At first, it was a place they could flaunt their skills through YouTube tutorials, gaining them a loyal, enraptured audience of fellow queers and cishet girls who marvelled at their artistry. That loyalty transformed into measurable followings, which transformed into revenue. Collaboration videos with fellow makeup artists (MUAs) would help bolster that; soon, these kids who’d never worn makeup outside of their bedroom were not only becoming the faces of mainstream beauty brands, but were also dominating the market with their own highly lucrative makeup lines, edging those mainstream beauty brands out in their wake.
In a 2020 beauty influencer rich list by Cosmetify, half of social media’s most financially successful names in makeup were members of the LGBTQ+ community. There’s the likes of James Charles, a mainstay in the world of online beauty culture for the past four years, who went from being a viral online news story for retaking his yearbook photo to include his killer highlight to becoming the posterboy for the whole industry—cemented by a deal with Covergirl. Today, he has his own branded makeup palettes and has hosted a YouTube original series designed to create the beauty scene’s next big influencer. His net worth is estimated to between £9m and £18m.
Belgium’s Nikita Dragun, a close friend of James Charles who now lives in Los Angeles, is another bankable beauty star. She came out as trans in 2015. Her channel, which has over 3 million subscribers, frankly chronicles her journey as a trans immigrant in America, while still focusing on the struggles specific to trans women when it comes to beauty and how she remedies them. That audience has led to the launch of her own cosmetics line, Dragun Beauty.
Born in Texas, trans beauty influencer Antonio Garza earns tens of thousands of dollars for product placement on her Instagram and YouTube feeds, where she has a combined following of more than 5 million. Another successful trans woman in the industry is Nikkie de Jager, or @nikkietutorials. The Dutch beauty influencer has posted videos online since 2008, but blew up in 2015 thanks to a video entitled The Power of Makeup. To date, she’s racked up over 1.3 billion views and has released palettes and eyeshadows with Too Faced. She came out as trans earlier this year.
This success is so significant because it’s rarely been afforded to queer people in the past. Even those with huge amounts of drive, who’ve worked twice as hard as their straight or cisgender peers, have traditionally been shut out by the hierarchy. But when the keys are handed to the public—young queer and trans individuals amongst that—there is a levelling of power, Clare Varga, trend forecaster WGSN’s head of beauty believes. “The monopoly traditional beauty influencers have had on the beauty narrative has been broken and there are now many voices and stories,” says Varga. “This new gen of beauty influencers—including LGBTQ+ [people]—have shaken up the industry with more diverse and wide-ranging representation. They challenge mainstream norms and conventional beauty standards and move everything away from the ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach.” But it’s not, Clare believes, throwing into question how relevant the traditional cookie-cutter influencers are today: “It’s just that they are not the sole voice anymore.”Relatability and authenticity
There are several key factors that contribute to any influencer’s success, but it can be boiled down most potently to two: their aspirational and relatable qualities. While the success of some beauty influencers is based on their good looks and the luxurious lifestyles they post about on Instagram, most queer beauty influencers would probably attest to having a stronger connection to their audience thanks to their relatability.
Beauty vlogger Manny Gutierrez, AKA Manny MUA, is one of them. “I do feel like queer influencers have a close and strong relationship with their audience, because a lot of the time we are more vulnerable and open, sharing who we are with the world — our stories and what we’ve been through as people,” he says. In 2020, authenticity and relatability are a must, and brands that don’t embody this are falling short.
Today, Manny’s frankness about his identity, alongside his makeup tutorials and challenges, have helped him rack up over 4.8 million subscribers on YouTube alone, and have led to a contract with Maybelline. He’s an example of what a regular person, like his viewers, can do, when armed with ambition, talent and a desire to become something better. Perhaps his makeup skills are more audacious and exciting because, like most other LGBTQ+ youth, he has spent most of his life fighting for space that’s offered to others without question. “Queer people had to push very hard [for] acceptance in makeup,” he says. “Six years ago when I started, there were no very popular beauty boys online.” The only peers he had in the predominantly female space, he says, were Patrick Starrr and celebrity MUA Angel Merino, known as @mac_daddy.
As fame via YouTube and Instagram continues to become the most viable route for success, the face of the industry is changing. Major beauty brands, like Fenty Beauty, are launching TikTok ‘houses’, designed to create viral content for social media around their brands. Of course, the queer kids of the internet know how to do this anyway. They’ve built the new blueprint for the establishment—not the other way around. But it’s important to point out that these brands can only try to replicate the authenticity of influencers whose lived experiences always win out. Even showing allyship with the community, however well intentioned, can at best feel like tokenism; at worst, flat-out exploitation of a worthy cause.
Nowadays, we are turning away from the strait-laced, conventional faces of beauty brands who dominated campaigns and the covers of magazines for decades before the internet existed, and engaging with more niche beauty brands beyond the ones we can pick up in our local pharmacy. But there’s still a more interesting chapter to come. The queer beauty fans of today—not yet known online—harbour the power to be the most fascinating generation yet, as they toy with and dominate the realm of beauty. After all, the successful figures they look up to, for the first time, look like them. Nikita, James, Nikkie, Manny and their contemporaries have helped build an industry for the next generation of queer beauty influencers that’s both lucrative and open minded.Also read:
8 Instagram posts that went viral in January 2020
7 beauty influencers you should be following on TikTok
This is how the LGBTQ+ world is inspiring designers