Taylor is 14 but a young 14, with the poreless face of an American Girl doll. Her hair is sandy blond and parted down the middle. She is smart but not savvy beyond her years, with the quiet confidence that educators seek when they speak of getting girls into soccer or STEM. She talks like someone who is certain of what she knows but who hasnt yet realized the vastness of what she doesnt. For this reason, I trust Taylor entirely as she lays out the details of the online beauty scene, a teen subculture as sprawling as it is potentially valuable.
Im into singersSelena Gomez, Taylor Swiftbut YouTube is a different category. Its not something you were hired for, its not something you were born intoits something you do for a passion.
Taylors own passion, at least for now, is YouTube star Tana Mongeau. I first came into contact with Taylor on Twitter last summer when I was looking for teens who could help unpack Tanas appeal. Tana is 18, lives in Las Vegas, has produced more than 130 videos about everything from how she does her makeup in the morning to boyfriends to pumpkin spice to racismand has 2.1 million subscribers on YouTube. The only thing Taylor might love more than Tana is God. Her timeline is one half retweets from The Gospel Daily, the other half pleas for Tanas attention:
RT @The_Gospels: May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, & the love of God, & the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all. -2Cor 13:14
#ISupportTanaBecause she supports us. everyday. in everything we do. we are family and always got each others back. <3
When I first talked to Taylor she was preparing to start high school near her home in Washington state, though that was hardly the biggest event in her near future. Her mom had booked a trip to Beautycon LA, an event for the online beauty scene, where Tana would soon appear alongside other beauty-scene YouTube stars. These stars respond to myriad namescreators, influencers, beauty gurus, the talenttitles that convey their indeterminate fame, as well their receptiveness to both marketing and being marketed. Most of them produce extensive and often mesmerizing makeup tutorials on YouTube, plus brand-sponsored posts across other social platforms. Taylor was looking forward to meeting Tana face-to-face after months of following her online.
On the morning of Beautycon, Taylor texts me a photo so I will know who to look for in the sea of other teens. When I find her in line for the official Tana meetup, she looks shell-shocked with joyand wears hardly any makeup.
Im going to put the pictures from today on my wall, she explains. So I want to look more like my actual self. Ive heard similar logic applied to weddings, graduations, and other milestones to be photographed for posterity. For teens like Taylor whove made it to Beautycon, it isnt a stretch to say today feels as momentous.
In the beginning, like 2011, Beautycon was launched as a trade show for YouTube creators, though creators back then were mostly one and the same as fans. As growth and legitimacy began separating the groups, the event caught the eye of investor Moj Mahdara, who took a stake in the company in 2013. A year later she transitioned to the role of CEO and saw potential for something bigger than a trade show. In a 2015 interview with Fast Company, she imagined a far-reaching brandVice Media for a 16- to 24-year-old girl. That target market has since stretched to include boys who can contour, gender-fluid teens, women of a certain age, and, as she puts it, anyone who loves to feel great about themselves.
Beautycon Media today is one part Coachella, one part Sephora, and one part (or more) a consulting firm for brands that are thirsty for access to this slippery generation. The enterprise now includes Beautycon Box (a cosmetics service), Beautycon Digital (a social-first editorial platform), and one-day festivals in LA, London, New York, Dallas, and Dubai.
These festivals boast pop-up shops and live tutorials but advertise the creators as the main event. Few of the YouTubers headlining Beautycon LA lay claim to their own Wikipedia page nor a single piece of coverage in a mainstream publication. The only real way to crack their biographies is by stalking their posts across social media or watching hundreds of hours of YouTube. Despite such inscrutability to even an interested adult, Beautycon LA claimed 15,000 guests this year. Thats 8,000 more than in 2015, and 10,000 more than the year before that.
All across the halls, vendors are running schemes to goad guests into online engagement.
In the morning before Beautycon opens to the public, my ride drops me off at the foot of the LA Convention Center. Through the doors, a blush-colored banner portends the tone for the day: You dont need lipstick, lipstick needs you. This years festival is taking place in West Halls A and Baround 200,000 square feet in all. Admission starts at $19.99 and scales quickly to the VIP Total Packagea $299.99 extravaganza with early-entry brunch and professional hair and makeup.
Already the premium ticketholders are milling. All across the halls vendors are running schemes to goad guests into online engagement. The simplest offers a small bribe, like a lip gloss, in exchange for a like or follow. Other brands have arranged Instagrammable backdrops in the hope that fans might pose and post. The booth for Conscious Period organic tampons is decked with pink toilet tissue, a golden toilet, and pink mock graffiti that reads: Dont go with the flow.
On a long pink carpet at the front of the hall, the talent are arriving and granting interviews to YouTube-only outlets like CelebSecretsTV. If they have anything in common, its flawless contour makeup. Diversity happened naturally at Beautycon from the start. YouTube, as a platform, has low barriers to entry, which benefits groups long shunned by old media. Success on the site doesnt demand a certain look or a vast network of well-connected friends. The day before, at Beautycon headquarters in Hollywood, Mahdara had made it clear: Im not trying to change anything. Im just trying to reflect the time in which we live. The gay daughter of Iranian immigrants, she explained, I can relate to feeling like I dont fit in. Not marketed to, written off for being a certain size, shape, gender preferencea million things.
Beautycon is not an IRL event with an incidental web presence, nor is it the offline extension of an online community; its both.
Soon after the festival opens to the public, the lines on the floor grow so knotted that I eventually lose sight of where each ends. Through periodic polling of queued-up teens, I catch wind of free lotion at QVC, free hand massages at the booth for Yes to Carrots, and a meet-and-greet event with Justin Biebers ex-girlfriend hosted by a cotton-ball brand. Bored and lost moms mill about holding skewers, licked clean of the mock chicken being proffered by Gardein.
I pause for a moment at the edge of the music stage to watch the Vine-famous Nebraskan pop-rap duo Jack & Jack. The pit is packed, but the crowd stands still, shooting steady footage with phones in the air. Beautycon plays out on a digital stage as much as it does inside the convention center. When I spoke to Taylor before the festival, she outlined her social media strategy for the daya cross-platform plan of near-professional caliber. Beautycon is not an IRL event with an incidental web presence, nor is it the offline extension of an online community; its both, though the fans seem unbothered by such distinctions.
Leaving the stage, I spot musician Courtney Love walking casually across the floor, unnoticed. Many Beautycon fans were born not only after Kurt died but after the 2002 break-up of Hole. What eludes them isnt just the context of her fame but possibly her category of celebrity in general.
YouTube creator meetups are scheduled in hour-long blocks throughout the day. Tana is one of the few with two solo meetups, and the line for her first is overflowing its corral. A girl holds a glue-sticked poster: Your superhero wears a cape, mine wears mac honey love lipstick.
Taylor is close to the front, feet from the chair where Tana will sit. As we wait, she shows me a framed poem she wroteentitled An Influencethat includes sweet (if dystopian) couplets like: An environment which provides a positive escape / Through a false world that reality shaped.The poem is signed, God Bless, Taylor.
The online beauty scene, for Taylor, is less about the makeup than following creators as one might General Hospital. Perhaps this is why she loves Tana Mongeau. Tana doesnt claim any beauty expertise (and sometimes she actively rejects it). Her videos take the form of ebullient monologues, looping from silly into serious back to crass. Taylor calls Tana a storytime YouTuber. She communicates with fans like theyre up late at a sleepover, giddy from sugar, swapping racy stories. In I Talk About Drinking and Smoking, for instance, she faces the camera in an oversize T-shirt, mocking the squeaky-clean tone of beauty YouTube, before mocking herself for a former crush on Lil Wayne. She delivers an update on I Dated a Fuckboyan earlier tale of a duplicitous suitor, which unfortunately was shared with the fuckboy himself. She reassures her fans: Im never gonna not tell raw-ass stories from my life. What comes next is an exegesis on the Kylie Jenner Lip Kit, which segues naturally into heartfelt reflection on mass shootings. (Dont you see this pattern?) Over the course of 10 and a half minutes, shes funny and rude and confused and compassionate and the hundred other feelings that tangle the teen brain. She presents herself as wise but still flawed, ever reminding viewers to Like and Subscribe. Together, day by day, theyll untangle adolescence.
Shes created such a positive environment on the internet, Taylor tells me. To the point where the amount of interaction with her following has really made it feel like more of a family.
To keep tabs on the movement of creators around the festival, Ive switched on Twitter alerts, per Taylors advice. My phone flickers constantly, annotating reality. Phone charging stations, scattered about the hall, overflow with Medusas of commonly used cords. I stop to plug in beside two older women, markedly out of place for their lack of a teen. They tell me they work in high-end cosmetics and have come to Beautycon on an espionage mission to solve their own issues reaching Generation Z.
An entry-level full-time influencer with a few million followers can expect to be paid like a low-level teacher—between $20,000 and $40,000 a year.
With a good deal of eye-rolling, they recount their brands failed attempt at a meetup with a YouTube star at a shopping center. Theyd booked the creator for a Friday afternoon, a time when parents were still at work. Without rides or cash, the teens didnt show. According to the pair of industry spies, the lesson to be learned was that creators cant sell.
In the backstage lounge, some brand reps still have hope as they dump free product on whoever will accept. Creators load up on five brands of mascara; hair extensions and blow-dryers overflow from free totes. An overwhelmed bag-check guy struggles to stow it all, wading through what must be a cool million in makeup. The hope of the reps is free exposure, though a likelier outcome is a deal for sponsored contentpaying a creator to film an endorsement. The past half decade has seen a Wild West of spon-con, with brands throwing money at anyone with followers, a desperate plea to reach the youngest consumers. As this strategy has begun to bear middling returns, the metric of choice has shifted to engagementa creators ability to move fans to interact. Whats called family on the main floor is a target market backstage.
According to Tanas manager, Jordan Worona, an entry-level full-time influencer with a few million followers can expect to be paid like a low-level teacherbetween $20,000 and $40,000 a year. Worona lost interest in managing Hollywood talent when he realized the extent to which YouTube was still in flux. The trajectory of the career is still being developed, he says. Everyone is making the rules up as they go. You could work, right now, with the top influencers in the world. If you were an acting agent, you would have to wait 10, 15, 20 years before you would have some of the top talent.
Tana isnt exactly brand-safe. She swears a lot. Her most-viewed videos have titles like Crazy Bitch in Target and I Got Banged With a Toothbrush.
On YouTube, the top is often still fleeting. Creators rise to fame under viral conditions, then fade into obscurity in the span of a year. Creators who stick around are well poised for big payouts, though hard stats are mythic and can often be misleading. Theres a rumor that PewDiePie, who had the highest number of YouTube subscribers last year, made $12million in 2015.
Thats like Tana times 100, Worona says wistfully (though he wont say specifically what she makes). He watched Tana from afar for two months, waiting for the growth of her audience to slow. It hasnt yet. As her manager, his goal is to prolong that growth and assemble a career path thats sustainable, like personalized merchandise and touring. Besides, Tana isnt exactly what he calls brand-safe. She swears a lot. Her most-viewed videos have titles like Crazy Bitch in Target and I Got Banged With a Toothbrush. She goes eagerly on record in support of Black Lives Matter and other touchy issues that make brands run in fear. In a world of vetted and sanitized teen content, she is frank and plainspoken and what fans always call real. Taylor says it isnt the edgy content that keeps her watching, but Tanas openness and willingness to speak whats on her mind. Shes a role model, for sure, but she isnt a Role Model. When Worona solicits new opportunities, he most often compares her to Chelsea Handler or Joan Rivers. When all else fails, he talks in marketing hyperbole: I mean, this is the girl who, on a monthly basis, is getting views that American Idol got.
The fans in Tanas meetup line are peeking through the curtain, hoping to glimpse her backstage. A security guard asks me who everyone is here for, and I struggle to explain how and why she is famous. Taylor smooths and resmooths her hair in anticipation, whispering to nobody, Oh my gosh, oh my gosh. After a few beats Tana emerges, her minidress laced all the way down the front. The effect is somehow more wholesome than it soundsthink cool best friend of your older sister. Its easy to imagine her climbing out a window to go drink light beer at a party. She waves to the crowd with exuberance, and Im extra-journalistically overcome with a desire for her to like me. As the meetup begins, fans approach one by one, presenting their gifts and posing for photos. You might imagine this as stilted or formal, but Tana makes brace-faced middle schoolers seem positively carefree. She sings Happy Birthday to the camera for their friends, promises to follow them back on Twitter, and ends many of the meetups with an outright I love you. It does not sound like promo-speak when Worona tells me she could do this every day.
Taylor directs her mom on how to shoot video. When its her turn, she rushes Tana with a hug, then carefully steps back to present her with the poem. They establish the fast intimacy of two women in a bar bathroom, all drawn-out vowels and overemphatic gestures. Tana takes the framed poem in her hands, studies the text, and seems authentically touched.
Do you want to be in my vlog? she asks.
They squeeze into the frame of the camera, and Tana speaks naturally to an invisible audience.
Hi, Im here with Taylor and she came all the way from Washington.
Taylor, less practiced, compliments Tana in the third person. Shes so amazing!
The two say I love you, and Taylor exits the stall, retrieving her phone from her mom on the way out. Tana greets her next fan with a familiar Yaaaaas!
The cheapest read on Tana Mongeaus success is that shes famous for being famous. She doesnt sing or act or dance or otherwise exhibit any nameable skill we traditionally expect to justify stardom. Shes not even all that focused on makeup. In the case of a Hollywood star, fans accumulate as the byproduct of work; fan relations necessarily come second. You and I wont likely meet Brad Pitt, and even if we do, we cant ever truly meet him. Tabloid reputation, casting, PR spin, and velvet rope all help ensure the relationship stays distant. Such distance is likely to improve Pitts career, driving up interest through scarcity of information.
By offering their lives up for constant consumption, and closing the gap between fandom and stardom, a creator attracts and earns trust from their fans.
But even if Pitt did want to get closer, its unlikely hed be able to actually pull it off. Hes busy shooting movies, getting divorced, whatever else. YouTube stars, by contrast, arent busy with anything. They have little real work outside of fan relations, which isnt to suggest that they are without talent. Famous for being famous is a constellation of soft skills not easily described by a single-word title. By offering their lives up for constant consumption, and closing the gap between fandom and stardom, a creator attracts and earns trust from their fans, who rally around them as a communal touchstone. Tanas talent is cultivating an online sense of closeness and managing the flow of interaction to sustain it. Too much interaction and she floods her market; too little and she risks seeming distant.
Before leaving the festival I visit the main stage to watch Tana appear on the #True2You panel. The YouTube creators strut onstage in a burst of confetti, filming the crowd with their phones as they walk. Taylor is sitting in the very first row, still beaming. The stars discuss everything from ignoring the haters to the importance of love and the best Snapchat filters. The message, in the end, is to always stay positive, live with love, and be true to yourself. Ive forgotten the festival was ever about makeup.
Taylor would later tell me that the best part of Beautycon was during the panel, when Tana mouthed I love you from the stage. In the week after the festival, as she waited to start high school, Taylor would tweet at Tana 570 times. She would also retweet The Gospel Daily:
RT @The_Gospels: Hear my prayer, God. Dont hide from my request. Pay attention to me and respond to me. Psalm 55:1-2
Tana, in the end, would fave two of the tweets.
Jamie Lauren Keiles (@jamiekeiles) is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles.
This article appears in the February issue. Subscribe now.