"Find your talent. Everyone has a talent," Michelle Phan says as she sits at a desk in her bedroom, staring straight into the camera at her seven-million-plus subscribers. Since uploading her first tutorial beauty video seven years ago, the 27-year-old self-taught YouTube guru has become a standout within the online beauty and fashion community not only for her ability to recreate makeup looks from pop music's biggest stars (Lady Gaga) to TV's buzziest shows (Game of Thrones), but for her ever-expanding entrepreneurial reach as well. Phan's burgeoning empire includes a makeup line with L'Oreal called em cosmetics, a recently published book (Make Up: Your Life Guide To Beauty, Style And Success – Online And Off), an online lifestyle network (the For All Women Network, or FAWN) and even a record label (Shift Music Group). She also recently became the first woman on YouTube to attract one billion hits.
Remarkably, though, Phan's success isn't unique. In November, Condé Nast Entertainment inked a groundbreaking deal with makeup-artist-turned-YouTube-star Kandee Johnson, naming her lead beauty contributor at the publishing giant, home of Vogue, GQ and Glamour. The hope, of course, is that Johnson will bring her more than 2.6 million subscribers with her to CNE's online properties.
Just as Justin Bieber went from unknown to superstar after singing his heart out on YouTube, personalities such as Phan and Johnson have parlayed their self-help sermons on the video-sharing site to the first ranks of the beauty and media worlds, becoming indispensable marketing tools for major brands trying to reach millennials. "Mainstream media still see online media as the Wild, Wild West and not as important as TV, magazines and radio," Phan says in an e-mail interview. "However, things are changing. Numbers don't lie."
Michael Klein, executive vice-president of program and content strategy at CNE, couldn't agree more. "The ecosystem of the YouTube celebrity," he says in relation to Johnson, "is large and powerful and not to be ignored." So mainstream media aren't. To them, in fact, it is becoming apparent that these online superstars have more sway than traditional celebrities, their legions of subscribers measurable proof.
Condé Nast's partnership with Johnson came on the heels of Glamour's enormously successful Beauty Recovered video series, wherein she recreated some of the magazine's most memorable cover looks (Jean Shrimpton circa 1965, Madonna in the nineties). In her new role, Johnson will work on digital series across CNE's various brands and channels.
"This is my dream come true," she says over the phone from New York. "I'm excited about the content I will get to create with Condé Nast behind it. Because they're so big, the production values, the quality and the scope of what we can do are things I could never do on my own."
Armed only with a video camera in her home, Johnson says that, from the beginning of her You– Tube foray, she developed a close relationship with her viewers, asking them what beauty tutorials and transformations they wanted to see next. This resulted in get-the-look makeup demonstrations ranging from Angelina Jolie's Maleficent and Barbie to Kylie Jenner and Madonna. (Clearly, she is speaking to a range of age groups.) "Once you lose touch and it's not a relationship, that's when people disengage," she says. This kind of direct interaction is a big difference between YouTube celebrities and traditional stars. YouTube personalities feel relatable and the audience can have a dialogue with them, Johnson says.
"I've never seen a harder-working group of talent in my life. They've done it all from scratch and the commitment required is enormous," says Kit Redmond, chief executive officer and executive producer of RTR Media Inc., the Toronto-based production company behind Get Ready with Rachel, a new, eight-episode digital series for Corus Entertainment's W Network starring YouTuber Rachel Cooper (a.k.a. Rachhloves).
Cooper, who also works with Unilever on its All Things Hair channel on YouTube, has attracted 400,000-plus subscribers by showing them how she gets ready for major milestones, from tying the knot to having a baby. On the new show, she will help others prep for big events. "When we were in discussions for the series, it was really important to me to get involved beyond just a hosting role," Cooper says from her home just outside Toronto. "I really wanted to help structure the content."
One of the episodes features Chelsea Harding, a subscriber to Cooper's YouTube channel who is embarking on a six-month academic exchange in Singapore and is in need of some packing, fashion and beauty tips. "She's relatable and her videos interest me," Harding says of Cooper's draw. "Rachel is such a sweet person; it's really nice to know that who she is online is who she is in real life."
Many beauty and fashion YouTubers are part of the StyleHaul network, created by former Saks Fifth Avenue director of marketing Stephanie Horbaczewski. With more than 4,600 content creators, including the It girl Zoella (see sidebar below), bringing in 900-million views a month, StyleHaul was recently acquired by RTL Group, a European entertainment company, in a deal worth up to $200-million.
"When I first started working here a year and a half ago," says Vanessa Del Muro, senior vice-president and head of global talent for StyleHaul, "brands required a lot of educating about why YouTube influencers should be an important part of their marketing mixes. Now we're seeing that YouTube has become a part of most brand mixes as they try to reach millennials." Del Muro works closely with the top YouTube creators within the network on marquee branded campaigns. Not long ago, for instance, Maybelline enlisted eight of StyleHaul's YouTube stars to make how-to videos showcasing both their products and current makeup trends.
At the same time, the online world is constantly evolving and brands are still trying to figure out how to leverage these influencers' ever-increasing pull. "Just yesterday," Condé Nast's Klein says, "we had six different YouTube personalities in the office just talking about ideas."
On the surface, such collaborations seem mutually beneficial – the brands gain access and a massive built-in audience, while the YouTube talents acquire a glossy cachet, mainstream recognition and a healthy boost in income. But there's a danger, too. As Harding, Cooper's fan, points out, some online personalities have become too commercialized. "Basically they're sponsored by companies that have taken over the channel," she says. "So it's not as authentic to me any more."
The executives, for their part, aren't naive about such perils. "We always tell brands to remember that YouTube isn't a polished commercial and that is part of the charm and fans go there because they feel it's authentic," Del Muro of StyleHaul says. "We tell brands we want to stick to that voice and want to make sure it feels real. Because that's what works best on YouTube."