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Laura Lee, Jeffree Star, and the racism scandal upending the YouTube beauty community, explained

Beauty gurus turn authenticity into hugely lucrative businesses. That can backfire.

Laura Lee crying in her apology video
Laura Lee crying in her apology video.
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

Today, an internet connection makes it possible for anyone to sit just a few inches away from their favorite makeup artists and beauty personalities and feel like they’re learning everything they wanted to know about them. This connection is a profitable one, as brands and gurus have parlayed their number of loyal subscribers into hundreds of thousands of dollars in sponsorships and multimillion-dollar cosmetics lines. It’s also a tenuous one, as a handful of the online beauty community’s brightest stars have recently learned.

The beauty community was recently rocked by a fight that has nothing to do with makeup and everything to do with racist tweets, backstabbing, and apologies. What began as an insular, churlish fight among former associates/friends has now blossomed into business-threatening drama after a series of racist tweets were dug up from what were thought to be social media graveyards, followed by a series of apologies of varying degrees of perceived sincerity.

I get it: The online squabbling of professional pretty people might seem like inconsequential, self-perpetuating insider drama. But if you peel back its perfectly primed, bronzed, and highlighted skin, it reveals the inner workings of a highly lucrative and powerful industry, how a devoted community helps enable that industry, and how internet celebrity functions today.

Jeffree Star and his ex-friends, explained

The locus of this drama is an ongoing conflict between beauty guru and business exec Jeffree Star and some of his former friends: Laura Lee, Manny MUA (MUA is an acronym for makeup artist), a.k.a. Manny Gutierrez, Nikita Dragun, and their friend Gabby (Gabriel) Zamora. Star is considered one of the most influential beauty gurus in the industry right now, with a controversial past that’s seemingly inextricable from his current success.

Star’s origin story begins with MySpace, where he amassed a cult following (and accusations of racism — more on that in a bit), which he parlayed into a music career that eventually stalled and led him to cosmetics. The 32-year-old now has his own highly lucrative makeup line and more than 10 million subscribers on YouTube. His videos — which range from reviews of new products to stunts like him applying a full face of luxury makeup on a speeding raft to him showing off his various luxury automobiles — regularly grab millions of views, making him one of the most important influencers in the cosmetics and beauty community.

“Community” is a helpful way to understand how beauty gurus position themselves in relation to the rest of the beauty industry. Gurus sell themselves as faces and voices who purport to speak for their fans and who keep the industry on its toes, whether by praising great products or speaking up when brands fail customers.

Community is also a way to think about how beauty gurus interact with one another. There’s a certain give and take: A lot of gurus’ videos are inspired by other gurus, and some gurus will review or hype others’ brands on YouTube or social media. And when it comes to certain beauty gurus — Star being one of them — there are also very public-facing friendships and inevitable breakups within that community.

This last aspect in particular can sometimes make following beauty gurus feel like following a soap opera or reality television show — one where Star is a recurring character.

Previously, Star was known for his deep friendship and ugly feud with reality television star, tattoo artist, and makeup maven Kat Von D. After their falling-out, Star developed very public friendships with fellow gurus Lee, Gutierrez, and Dragun: They featured on one another’s channels, and Star and Gutierrez collaborated on a collection for Star’s makeup line.

But like Star’s relationship with Kat Von D, something soured behind the scenes, with Star and the rest leaving their followers a trail of social media breadcrumbs to decipher what happened.

It started around November 2017 when Star, in a deleted tweet, said that Lee’s soul was “pure evil”; that was accompanied by more subtle falling-outs with Gutierrez and Dragun, who had disappeared from Star’s feeds and vice versa. And in recent months Lee, Gutierrez, Dragun, and Zamora began appearing more on one another’s channels and showcasing their clique in crossover videos:

“With my ex-friends, people still don’t really know what went on,” Star said recently in a four-part, hugely popular YouTube documentary in which he was profiled by YouTuber Shane Dawson. The first part of the series, “The Secret World of Jeffree Star,” has more than 20 million views.

The popularity of Dawson’s series, combined with Star’s acknowledgment of his “ex-friends,” seems to have struck a chord with those very ex-friends. This being the age of YouTube and social media, people were expecting a rapid response, and it wasn’t long before one appeared.

Gabby Zamora and his friends came for Jeffree Star and they missed

The simmering drama came to a boil when Zamora tweeted a photo of himself with Lee, Gutierrez, and Dragun mugging and raising middle fingers with the caption “Bitch is bitter because without him we’re doing better.”

Fans quickly deciphered whom the tweet was referring to, which was confirmed when Zamora sent another tweet dredging up Star’s past, stating: “Imagine stanning a racist? I could never,” adding, “Honey, every time I was around him he would constantly say racist things about black people.”

Zamora is referring to Star’s past as a MySpace scenester, when he, among other things, threw around the n-word and derogatorily referred to Mexicans as poor. During their falling-out, Kat Von D made similar accusations that Star was racist. In 2017, Star posted a 15-minute video addressing those accusations and apologizing for his past.

“Stanning” means being a huge fan of someone, so in Zamora’s tweet about “stanning a racist,” he’s referring, with disgust, to the huge number of views the Dawson documentary has hauled in. (Dawson has also had to apologize for past racism after appearing in blackface in a selection of his early YouTube videos, a shared past he a Star discuss briefly in the documentary.)

Zamora’s tweet backfired, though. Lee and Gutierrez initially favorited Zamora’s tweet, but then retreated after they began receiving backlash, claiming they hadn’t read the caption accompanying the photo. In the days following, people then proceeded to dig up old, offensive tweets from Zamora as well as Dragun and Gutierrez: Zamora had dropped the n-word in a tweet from 2012, Dragun wrote in 2012 that she “could never” imagine being black, and Gutierrez recently posted a Snapchat of him side-eyeing an Uber driver for not speaking English. Also in 2012, in the months following the death of Trayvon Martin, Lee reportedly tweeted, “Tip for all black people if you pull ur pants up you can run from the police faster.” (Lee deactivated her account briefly in the fallout.)

This since-deleted Lee tweet, among others, had resurfaced before the Zamora photo, but the combination of the fallout from the Star documentary and the photo sent Lee, Zamora, and Gutierrez scrambling to film similar tear-filled apology videos.

But despite the efforts at damage control, Lee, Dragun, and Gutierrez have seen their subscribers — and their potential income — drop. Lee, a burgeoning star in the community known for such hits as doing her makeup with products from Ross, Marshalls, and the Dollar Tree, has had it the worst.

Since the drama with Zamora’s photo, Lee has gone from more than 5 million subscribers to a current 4.5 million, hemorrhaging around 500,000 subscribers in the past 30 days, according to Social Blade. As Polygon explained, losing around 200,000 subscribers cost Lee an estimated $25,000 per year — based on those projections Lee’s subscriber hemorrhage (at its current rate) is costing around $65,000 per year. And makeup brands and stores like Ulta, Boxycharm, Morphe, and ColourPop have reportedly stopped selling her makeup.

For those outside the beauty community, it may be hard to reconcile how this talk of racism, ex-friends, and bitches doing better somehow equates to tens of thousands of dollars in lost business opportunities. But if you step back and look at how the beauty industry operates nowadays, it begins to come into focus.

Beauty gurus themselves have become a product — a potentially lucrative one

Back in the day, fashion and beauty magazines like Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Allure, Glamour, and Cosmopolitan used to be the way the public learned what was in fashion, what was good to put on our faces, and what we needed to buy to look fabulous. But after the 2008 financial collapse took its effect on consumers as well as advertisers, the growth in democratized platforms like YouTube, Snapchat, and Instagram began to rapidly disrupt the beauty industry.

Suddenly, consumers didn’t need a magazine to tell them what to purchase, what was good and what was skippable. Conversely, no one needed to be printed in a magazine to be considered an authority on the newest foundations, blushes, and bronzers. Beauty gurus, or beauty influencers, as they came to be known, delivered a promise: that they’d give honest opinions on products, that they wouldn’t be swayed by advertiser dollars (though this would eventually change), and that they were more like you and me and all the other people watching than some high-paid beauty editor in a glass tower.

Today, beauty recommendations take the form of Desi Perkins’s (3.1. million subscribers) everlasting fidelity to MAC Strobe Cream and NARS Radiant Longwear foundation in the shade Barcelona; Jackie Aina’s (2.6 million subscribers) mission to find eye shadows that look good on dark skin; Tati’s (4.5 million subscribers) holy grail of mixing Guerlain’s hydrating and firming gold primer and Tarte’s pore-filling Clean Slate potion on her face; and NikkieTutorials’ (10.7 million subscribers) deep-seated disdain for “no makeup” makeup looks and desire for cheekbones that shine like a glazed doughnut.

But the sell doesn’t stop at beauty products: Beauty gurus themselves have become products.

Beautubers’ authority is born out of a perception of authenticity, and many gurus underline this authenticity by opening up about their personal lives onscreen. Gurus reveal their darkest secrets and talk about miscarriages, or their plastic surgery. They constantly reassure their subscribers that they wouldn’t have gotten this far without them. They ask their subscribers to pick their makeup looks. Some even ask their followers to appear on their channels. Lee is no stranger to this approach:

What gurus are chasing with these appeals to authenticity are the little digits underneath their names on their YouTube channels: their subscriber numbers. Subscriber numbers show not only how well a guru has built her fan base, but also that these millions of subscribers trust what this guru has to say enough to follow every video she makes. Having more subscribers means brands will take notice, and the more brands take notice, the bigger the opportunity there is for a sponsored video or a collaboration, and maybe eventually the opportunity to launch their own makeup lines, as Lee and Star did.

To grasp the enormity of the potential fortune available to a successful guru, just take a look at Star’s absolutely bonkers estate from the aforementioned Dawson documentary (it begins around the 6-minute mark):

This is why Zamora, Lee, and their cohorts’ tweets pose such a threat to their income. Because so much of their (and really all gurus’) personal identity is wrapped up in their product, and so much effort is spent assuring us every Snapchat, Instagram story, and YouTube video is truly them, it’s difficult for them to then distance themselves from offensive statements they’ve made in the past, even long-deleted ones that predate their beauty guru fame.

The personal connection between subscriber and guru also explains why the beauty community reacted to Zamora’s tweets the way it did. Because they break down the barrier between fan and friend, gurus have developed subscriber bases that operate more like fervent fandoms, following their faves’ every move and defending them against those who might insult them. That’s why Zamora’s direct attack on Star and his massive fan base lit a match, inviting an explosive reaction from Star fans defending their friend.

Jeffree Star wants to be your friend

As beauty gurus become more successful, some of that grassroots trust on which they build their brands can fade away. Some gurus are considered shills for giving positive reviews to stay in the good graces of beauty companies. Some of them have been called scammers for selling questionable products. And it’s easy to see how someone who’s driving a Ferrari and buying houses with YouTube money might not be seen as the same person they were before the advertising money and sponsorships and brand collaborations rolled in.

Star’s case is particularly illustrative in how he’s slowly and surely crafted a narrative that transitions from being an upstart underdog into a massive success story into the community’s best friend, despite his controversial past.

His racist and misogynistic episodes and feuds of the past have been well-documented, but he has, in recent years, been very open about learning from his mistakes. How much you believe Star depends on how cynical you are, but he’s addressed the hurt he’s caused and the hate he’s spread in videos where he explains himself, compellingly, directly to his followers.

“I don’t know who that person was,” he said in a video posted last year, explaining his anger, depression, and racist behavior of the past. “I know who I am today, but I do not know who that person was.”

Star has also become more vocal in championing diversity (he lauded the shade range for Fenty Beauty) and criticizing makeup companies that fail to cater to darker skin tones. For example, in a video posted earlier this year, he took Tarte Cosmetics to task for not having multiple shades in its foundations for nonwhite women.

“Are women of color an afterthought to Tarte?” he asks in the video, which has more than 4.8 million views. “When you have a huge platform … you do have a choice to talk about something and bring it full forward”:

I’m not going to claim that Star’s motivations are completely altruistic, nor do I condone what he’s said in the past. But companies see videos like this and notice the millions of views he’s responsible for — Tarte has since expanded its shade range to 25 after Star and other gurus’ criticism of the foundation.

Star has rehabilitated his image by playing up the idea that we can learn from our mistakes, no matter how awful they are. And considering the obscene wealth and aspirational lifestyle he’s amassed since atoning for those mistakes, who wouldn’t want to believe in that? Even if you aren’t fully convinced, it’s hard to deny he’s a hell of a pitch person.

Compared to Lee, who has been dragged for not being genuine in her apology video, Star is fluent in how to speak to his fans and subscribers in a way that feels authentic. Perhaps Lee’s apology, on the heels of a subscriber exodus, can’t help but feel more like someone being sorry she got caught and is bleeding subscribers than someone genuinely distraught by her own racism. (In her video, Lee blames her tweets on myriad things, including being raised in Alabama.) Or perhaps it’s as simple as feeling that if we’re friends with Jeffree, it’s now impossible to be friends with Lee.

At this point in Star’s career, attacking him, as Zamora did with the photo, was an act self-immolation. And it seems that Zamora has realized that — or at least learned from it.

On August 21, Zamora uploaded a 48-minute apology to his fans and Star. Wearing no makeup, he talks about cutting ties with Gutierrez and Lee and removing toxicity from his life. It has 3.7 million views, making it his most-viewed video by a wide margin.

On August 22, Zamora gained 204,112 new subscribers and is still gaining more. And, perhaps even more crucially given what we’ve learned, it’s the only apology from that clique that Jeffree Star has accepted and approved.

Correction: due to a mathematical error, the original version of this piece estimated that Lee’s subscriber loss could cost her an estimated $75,000 per year, instead of estimated $65,000. Vox regrets the error.

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