Hello from The Goods’ twice-weekly newsletter! On Tuesdays, internet culture reporter Rebecca Jennings uses this space to update you all on what’s been going on in the world of TikTok. Is there something you want to see more of? Less of? Different of? Email email@example.com, and subscribe to The Goods’ newsletter here.
The online skin care community can be alienating, to say the least. Until, like, 2017, I thought taking care of your skin was either for the glamorous women of leisure profiled in sites like Into the Gloss or for the contour-and-cat-eye obsessives who followed the byzantine world of YouTube beauty influencers. I didn’t have the time or money for either of those things, so I sort of just assumed whatever I was doing to my face was fine.
Eventually, during the great skin care boom of the post-election period, I discovered that yes, you need to take your makeup off before bed every night; yes, you need to wear sunscreen every day; and no, retinol isn’t as scary as it sounds. But I wish I’d had someone like Vi Lai to tell me all of these things five years earlier. Lai, the 29-year-old behind TikTok’s best beauty account, @whatsonvisface, has garnered more than 300,000 followers thanks to her excellent and simple skin care advice, but also because she peppers them with extremely dark jokes about mental health and politics.
In one review about the “most shitty overhyped products,” she warns that the only good use of the $49 Caudalie Beauty Elixir is “as a toilet spray when you’re at a new guy’s house and you have to shit real bad.” On sheet masks: “I have nothing going on in my life and I still don’t have time for sheet masks.” On a silicone cleansing device: “Just use your fingers, dude. You already use ‘em every day anyway (wink).”
Lai, who makes her living in real estate in Massachusetts but hopes her social media platform could become a career, has refreshingly simple advice for anyone intimidated by the dizzying number of skin care articles and videos on the internet: All you really need is SPF, moisturizer, and cleanser, and the best brands are at your local drug store. So much of skin care discourse can be snooty or sciencey or boring or all three, but thankfully, we don’t have that excuse anymore. Just wear your damn sunscreen.
How’d you decide that TikTok was your medium?
One day in January I was bored with my boyfriend and I was like, “I’m just gonna download TikTok. I want to hang out with cooler younger people.” IG was getting to a point where it’s hard to grow and get exposure, so I downloaded the app and then I uploaded three older videos that I had on my phone. The second video blew up. It was just me putting on some highlighter, but my skin looked poppin’ in the video. It blew the hell up and I gained thousands of followers and then I was like, “What?” And when you get attention, you kind of get addicted to it.
You had a little bit of a following on IG before that, right?
I wouldn’t consider myself big, but I had maybe over 10k when I started on TikTok and I started IG back in September 2018. I was really going through dark times. I was depressed and I needed something to distract myself, so I started to do skin care as a way to take care of myself. Then everybody started to ask, “What do you use? Because your face looks really great.” I was like, “Wait, why don’t I keep an IG journal of stuff that I use?” Over time, I noticed that’s a huge community on IG and I started to make new friends and I started to get followers, and I felt more comfortable showing myself and just being who I am.
Your stuff is so different from other skin care influencers — you talk about mental health, politics, and you swear and are really funny. Do you think that’s why people wanted to follow you, beyond your very good skin care advice?
There are different types of influencers, and most of them care about aesthetics. They keep their feed looking consistent and following the theme. But for me, I’m never good at following anything. I always start something and then I would get bored or I would get distracted, so I would move on to the next. So for me, it’s about having fun. Skin care is self-care, so part of self-care is just being able to enjoy and have fun.
Where do you think your sense of humor comes from?
I don’t think I’m funny. I’m from Vietnam. If there’s one thing you should know about Vietnamese culture, it’s that they are savage. They are unfiltered. That’s where I get my unfiltered personality from. When I was younger — and this is part of colorism and all that stuff — my sister has pale skin and she’s conventionally pretty. I had darker skin and stronger features and everywhere we went together, people would always say, “Oh, my god, your younger sister is so pretty.” Over time, I developed my personality because I felt like I needed to compensate.
When I was depressed, humor was my only way to really escape. My philosophy with skin care is, there’s so much information out there that you can get from professionals and dermatologists. On TikTok, you have so many great dermatologists that give you free educational information, and on YouTube, on IG, everywhere you turn. So for me, I’m not positioning myself as a professional, but I want people to be able to have fun when they hopefully learn something.
What I really appreciate is how you often debunk super-expensive, culty beauty products and instead just tell everyone they should be buying stuff like the $4 CeraVe lotion at CVS. But now that most people and most experts agree that you don’t actually need the fancy stuff, why do you think people still want to buy it?
I think it’s marketing. I talk to a lot of dermatologists about it, and they say 90-something percent of your skin concerns can be addressed from just buying stuff at a drugstore. Anything other than that, there’s just diminishing returns. But to a lot of people, skin care is more than just putting stuff on your face. It’s an experience. That’s why some people love essential oils, because they want to feel like they have a spa at home. They know there’s a risk associated with essential oils, but the return, what they get for the experience, is greater than the risk. So they’re willing to put up with it because it’s something that makes them look forward to every day.
Influencers like myself get PR products for free, and this is something that I always try to keep my followers in the loop of. When you have to spend $100 on a product, it hurts, so you expect it to work hard for you to make you smile. We’ve gotta keep in mind the average consumer who spends money on this product. Does it offer them something CeraVe can’t? That’s something I always try to keep in mind when I recommend a product.
How much do you make from TikTok sponsorships or affiliate revenue now? Do you hope to make it a career?
I signed to Amazon maybe early May, and I sold maybe $70,000 of product, and I make about 4 percent of that. I also [do affiliate marketing for] Paula’s Choice, which I signed up for around the same time I signed up for Amazon, and so far, I made over $1,100. With Colorescience, I think I’ve been able to make maybe close to $1,000. Three weeks ago, I still wasn’t sure if this was gonna be anything more than a way for me to have fun and connect with people. But over the last three weeks, I have grown so much online and been presented with opportunities that I think if I want to take this to the next level and have this be my career, that’s a solid option. I’m working with TikTok to be an educational content creator, and so far they have been very helpful and open when it comes to helping me grow and giving me feedback. I can’t really tell you where I will be even a month from now, but as far as I can tell, I feel like this could be something that I can work on full time.
TikTok in the news
- Cool news for creators who aren’t raking in the sponsorships: TikTok is launching a $200 million creator fund to pay users to keep making content on the app. No word on whether there’s a limit to the number of creators who will receive funding, how often they’ll be paid, or how much they can earn.
- People like Charli D’Amelio, the most followed person on TikTok, probably won’t need any of that money, though: She and her sister Dixie landed a deal with Morphe to create a Gen Z-focused makeup subbrand, Morphe 2.
- As if social media weren’t already toxic enough for body image and self-esteem, now apparently there are ads for intermittent fasting targeting young women all over TikTok. (I chatted with Rolling Stone’s EJ Dickson about why there’s so much insidious thinspo there and what TikTok can do about it.)
- TikTok has a massive conspiracy theory problem, and along with Twitter, the app is taking steps to crack down on QAnon.
- Is TikTok actually going to be banned? I don’t know, but I did talk to several cybersecurity experts about the cases for and against doing so. It’s more complicated than you might think, and this Kevin Roose op-ed about what to do instead of banning it is super well-argued.
One Last Thing
I’m begging you to watch this middle school orchestra rendition of Hamilton … where the (white) teachers do the rapping parts.