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Teen beauty entrepreneur, Millie Bobby Brown.
Chris Delmas/AFP/Getty Images

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The rise of the celebrity beauty brand

Lady Gaga, Rihanna, and Millie Bobby Brown all have makeup lines. Here’s why.

In early September, Stranger Things’ breakout teen star Millie Bobby Brown posted a video to Instagram in which she demonstrates how to use products from her new beauty brand, Florence by Mills. Except she didn’t really use the products. Instead, she performed a facsimile of scrubbing and rinsing her face, minus the suds, water, and visible results.

She was called out for the stunt across social media, and outlets like Fox News and Page Six reported on the incident. She published an apology on Instagram a few days later, writing: “I’m still learning the best way to share my routines as I get to know this space better — I’m not an expert. I thought doing a quick video replicating my personal process for that night was okay, but that’s not what was conveyed. I understand, I appreciate all of your feedback on this journey, please keep sharing your thoughts and I will too!” Comments were disabled on the post.

Brown is just the latest in a growing cohort of A-list celebrities to launch a beauty line. Lady Gaga’s Haus Laboratories makeup brand went live in mid-September, after a pre-sale on Amazon Prime Day in July. Tracee Ellis Ross recently revealed a hair care line called Pattern for curly hair. Michelle Pfeiffer has a “clean” fragrance brand called Henry Rose.

Victoria Beckham, a.k.a. Posh Spice-turned-high-end-fashion designer, just dropped a makeup brand in mid-September. (Her husband has a line of men’s grooming products called House 99.) Gwen Stefani, Hailey Bieber, Serena Williams, and Cardi B are rumored to have lines in the works. They all join Rihanna, who arguably has one of the most successful celebrity makeup brands ever. Her Fenty Beauty brand (launched in 2017) sold almost $600 million worth of products in its first 15 months and profoundly changed the conversation about inclusivity in makeup shade ranges.

But the Brown incident is a good encapsulation of what’s going on in the beauty industry lately. (It also raises questions about whether the actress, who is only 15 years old, is maybe not being well-served by her team, who are presumably adults and could have helped prevent this gaffe. But that’s another story.) As tons of celebrities launch makeup and skin care brands, authenticity is just as important as the products they’re selling. In fact, it’s a big part of the value proposition of celebrity beauty lines.

“Authenticity in marketing is really key, because it’s a precursor of trust. And trust is what gets people to buy into the story and it’s the only thing that influences our purchase behaviors,” says Pamela Rutledge, a psychologist who studies media issues.

People are looking to celebrities more than ever for foundation and lotions. Now that so many celebrities make themselves available on social media, fans have fewer barriers to them. They can literally buy into the look of the celebrities they most relate to.

“Consumers are tired of being marketed to. They don’t trust the big companies. That’s a total shift that’s happening,” says Michael Yanover, the head of business development at CAA, the powerhouse LA talent and branding agency. CAA is an investor in Haus Laboratories and “architected” the idea with Gaga. Her “Little Monsters,” as her fandom calls itself, are a built-in customer base that trusts her. She has over 37 million followers on Instagram. “It’s easier for Gaga or Gwyneth to come along and say, ‘Hey, you know me. I’m not going to do anything to screw you,” he says.

“A lot of our clients want to have other avenues of revenue and other opportunities. The ones with big social media realize that they’re a brand and they can create their own opportunities. They don’t need to wait for the record company to call them,” says Yanover.

And they’re now selling at Ulta and Sephora and Amazon, thanks to this changing power dynamic in the industry. There is now an entire ecosystem to support these upstart brands that sprung up outside the traditional beauty companies like Estée Lauder and L’Oreal. While celebrities are still being paid to shill other companies’ brands, there are now more lucrative and personal avenues available to them to speak to — and sell to — fans directly.

Kylie Jenner, who is a celebrity whether you like it or not, proved that she can sell boatloads of lip kits using the power of social media alone. But these celebs are not standing around in their kitchens mixing products up, despite what cute Instagrams of them wearing hair nets and white lab coats would have you believe.

How involved are celebrities in their brands, really?

Celebs have been intimately associated with the beauty industry for a long time, and legacy brands from Chanel to Covergirl still pay big bucks for celebrity spokespeople. Elizabeth Taylor kicked off the lucrative celebrity fragrance industry in the 1980s with White Diamonds; J.Lo and her Glow franchise picked up her mantle in the early 2000s — and she’s still at it, just launching her 25th fragrance, called Promise. Several models, like Iman, Cindy Crawford, and Miranda Kerr, have had beauty brands for years. And who can forget Jessica Simpson’s edible beauty line? But there are many more full brands now, and they’re structured differently.

There is a continuum of ownership and involvement that celebrities have in their brands. At one end of the spectrum, celebrities are merely paid to promote a brand, which is the traditional model, with very little creative input into products and campaigns.

Viola Davis was just named as a new face of L’Oreal Paris and Margot Robbie fronts for Chanel. They’ll show up in ads and talk about the products in magazine interviews and on the red carpet. Sometimes they get collections within a larger brand, like Victoria Beckham had at Estée Lauder last year. At the other end of the spectrum are brands that are independent entities that have their own teams and funding sources. Lady Gaga’s Haus Labs, Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop empire, and Jessica Alba’s Honest Company fall into this category. Most other deals fall right in the gray area middle and often the business model is very opaque.

There are traditional licensing deals, which is how many fragrances work. For example, cosmetic company Revlon owns the licenses for several celebrities’ fragrances, including Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Elizabeth Taylor, and Jennifer Aniston. Celebrities are contracted to do a certain amount of promotion for these products. Sometimes they’re involved creatively and sometimes they’re not.

Kardashian Beauty, first known as Khroma and launched in 2012, is a disastrous example of licensing gone bad. There were multiple lawsuits in which other companies sued Khroma for copyright infringement and then the new owner of the brand accused the three eldest sisters of not promoting the products. It went out of business ignominiously. Before that, they had a licensed self tanning brand called Kardashian Glow, produced by New Sunshine, the same company that made Melania Trump’s now defunct skin care line.

Then there are situations in which a celebrity is a part or majority owner in a beauty business, but it’s not necessarily marketed as theirs. Jennifer Aniston had a stake in Living Proof, Katie Holmes had one in Alterna hair care, and Olivia Wilde currently is part-owner of natural skin care range True Botanicals.

Now, though, there are an increasing number of beauty brand incubators pumping out lines for famous people like Drew Barrymore and influencers like Kardashian hair dresser Jen Atkin, which I reported on recently for Business of Fashion. Until all the new rumored celebrity brands launch, we won’t know how they’ll be run, but they’ll probably fall into this category.

It’s sometimes very murky how a celebrity’s ownership of a brand is structured, but it’s often in the form of some sort of equity, and the celeb may be involved more authentically than they are with a spokesperson or licensing gig. They probably aren’t sitting up late poring over spreadsheets or product formulations, but they have a lot of creative input and promote the brand extensively. But the parent company worries about finding ingredient suppliers and manufacturers and figures out how where they’re going to sell the brand.

For example, Kendo is the incubator behind Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty. It’s owned by luxury conglomerate LVMH, which also owns brands like Christian Dior and Sephora, where Fenty is sold exclusively, except in countries where there are no Sephora stores. It’s never been revealed what stake Rihanna holds in the brand, but it’s likely that LVMH owns more. LVMH also just gave Rihanna her own high end fashion line, where a jacket goes for $1,200. Her Savage x Fenty lingerie line is owned by a different company altogether. Rihanna is very good at selling things.

There is also a network of smaller behind-the-scenes companies producing brands for famous people and stores. Maesa developed Flower, which Drew Barrymore launched at Walmart in 2013, as well as Eva Mendes’s short-lived Circa beauty, sold at Walgreens. Salma Hayek had a brand at CVS called Nuance, which was discontinued in 2017; a branding company called Hatchbeauty developed it. Florence by Mills and Tracee Ellis Ross’ Pattern were both developed by Beach House Group, which did not respond to requests for an interview. Beach House also makes Kendall Jenner’s oral care line Moon. (Yes, Kendall Jenner has an oral care line.)

Since the Khroma mess, Kylie and Kim have launched their own beauty businesses. They’re produced by the same company, Seed Beauty, that manufactures the popular Colourpop makeup line. According to a 2017 report in trade paper WWD, Seed does not own any equity in Kylie’s business. There were rumors at one point that Coty, a large conglomerate, had its eye on buying Kylie Cosmetics.

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The model that requires the most work and financial risk for a celebrity is the one that Jessica Alba and Lady Gaga took on. They hired a management team, have boards, and sought out funding, just like any number of beauty brand founders who have not been on magazine covers. In fact, one venture capital firm, Lightspeed Ventures, seems to believe in the celebrity founder model. It has invested in Haus, Goop, and the Honest Company. Alba has likely learned a ton about the pitfalls of the beauty and personal care business. The company has had its share of problems, including product recalls and losing a potentially lucrative sale to Unilever.

It’s too early to say whether or not Lady Gaga’s brand will stand the test of time. But according to her team, at least, she’s personally all-in. “She is involved every day in the formulation, in the packaging, in the marketing. She has boards up on easels all around her kitchen,” says Yanover. “She’s contributed more in this one year than I’ve seen people contribute in 5 years at startups.”

Who will succeed and who will fail?

The downward trajectory of celebrity fragrances shows us what happens when shoppers get sick of a category. The once-hot celebrity fragrance category started tanking around the 2008 recession, according to a 2017 BBC report. Yes, a new generation of artists like Ariana Grande are still pumping them out, but they’re not the go-tos they once were. Only three celebrities currently appear on market research company Euromonitor’s ranking of global fragrance sales: Britney Spears (102), Liz Taylor (92), and surprise winner Antonio Banderas (54).

“The catalyst for [celebrity fragrance’s decline] was social media. As it proliferated, there was less need for this entrance to the celebrity world, which is what celebrity fragrance used to be,” says Hannah Symons, the head of beauty and personal care at Euromonitor. “The idea that a fragrance would let you live like them, be like them, was less necessary.”

You’ll maybe recall that Rihanna and Lady Gaga once had fragrances, too. Symons explains that fragrances weren’t necessarily representative of a celebrity’s lifestyle, whereas a full beauty line, if done correctly, can be. Rihanna championing people of all skin tones is in line with her personal ethos. Lady Gaga wearing elaborate curlicue face stickers is also highly on-brand. Tracee Ellis Ross selling hair care for curly hair makes a lot of sense.

But as Salma Hayek and Eva Mendes demonstrated, success is not guaranteed. Perhaps they were before their time, or maybe people didn’t buy their drugstore positioning. Tyra Banks also had a makeup brand called Tyra Beauty, sold via multi-level marketing, which shuttered in 2017 after less than 3 years, as MLMs have become more scrutinized and criticized. Gabrielle Union had a hair care brand called Flawless that seems to be in limbo.

Lady Gaga at Harrods in London in 2012 for the launch of her fragrance, Fame.
Ian Gavan/Getty Images for Coty Beauty UK

It ultimately comes down to whether or not customers buy the message, both literally and figuratively. Will they believe that Michelle Pfeiffer has always cared deeply about fragrances without potentially toxic chemicals in them? (The actress wasn’t on Instagram until right before her fragrance range debuted.) Will they see Kendall Jenner as an icon of white teeth? (It didn’t work when she tried to shill Proactiv.) Is Millie Bobby Brown qualified to demonstrate face washing? (She probably is just learning herself.)

Rutledge, the media psychologist, thinks Brown should have gone the traditional route and fronted a brand like Clinique for a while to establish her skin care credibility before launching her own line.

“This pretend face washing was a huge mistake. People put up with a lot with celebs that they love, but no one likes to be manipulated. That triggers an innate defensive action,” she says. So far Brown seems to have enough fan goodwill, though it is too early to tell how long the line, which is sold at Gen Z favorite Ulta, will last.

Symons thinks the Kardashian-Jenner empire will topple. “They are just very good at jumping on all trends. I don’t see that any of them will have any longevity, to be honest. We’ve already seen results of Kylie’s empire slow,” she says.

Meanwhile, CAA’s Yanover expects to see more entrants, along with more flubs. “I see more of it happening, but a lot of people are going to do it without knowing what they’re doing and they’re going to mess it up.”

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