Beauty brands are to 2021 what reality TV shows and flip phones were to 2006 – are you really a celebrity if you don’t have one? The beauty market is being flooded by the famous. Everyone from Harry Styles to Naomi Osaka to Scarlett Johansson – all of whom are naturally gorgeous but never before considered a fount of knowledge on the subject of beauty – is entering their capitalist era. And it is they who now pose the biggest threat to traditional beauty giants like Lancôme and L’Oréal.
Only 10 years ago, the nature of celebrity beauty was transactional – a brand would use a celeb’s name and likeness to push product in exchange for a fee. Then, hustle culture and Elon Musk normalised founder worship, and celebrities like Kylie Jenner and Rihanna started their own brands, slinking into the boardroom with a vision for its direction. Today, there are more celebrity-backed beauty ventures than you can bat a false eyelash at.
Fans can stream Styles’ album Fine Line while getting rid of any fine lines or wrinkles with the Pleasing dual lip oil and eye gel, £23, guaranteed to freshen one’s epidermis. Taking stock of what’s on offer is like lining up a celebrity identity parade: Ariana Grande’s r.e.m. beauty, Harry Styles’ Pleasing, Naomi Osaka’s KINLÒ, Lady Gaga’s Haus Labs, Pharrell William’s Humanrace, Tracee Ellis Ross’ Pattern Beauty.
Why is this? The simple answer is money. “That beauty is a high margin business isn’t a secret,” Benjamin Lord, CMO of beauty marketplace Mira Beauty, told Retail Brew in 2020. The cost of producing a makeup product or a fragrance is essentially nil.
Factor in many of these celebrities’ ability to hawk anything, and whatever markup you add will almost always seem worth it in the eyes of a huge fan – even when the product’s benefits are questionably tantamount to the drugstore version, as highlighted by beauty fanatics on TikTok.
Some even cut out the profit-grubbing middleman. Whereas you can purchase Selena Gomez’s Rare Beauty at Sephora or Pharrell William’s Humanrace at SSENSE, Styles’ Pleasing and Eilish by Billie Eilish are direct-to-consumer only, and available in limited quantities to drum up artificial scarcity.
Pleasing offers a suite of nail polishes complete with alphabet stickers, the Pleasing pen, and an illuminating primer serum. Its modus operandi is to “dispel the myth of a binary existence”. Whether you’d like to believe that Styles’ orb-like products are the antidote to an oppressive gender binary or that it’s simply a marketing tactic aimed to appeal to Gen Z’s collective shirking of gendered pronouns is a decision that is unlikely to affect any real purchase. That said, in its own compact way, makeup can be powerful.
Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty revolutionised the industry by virtue of expanding the number of shades of foundation available to all skin types. (Maybe Pleasing could do some good in France, where the introduction of a gender neutral pronoun has caused a national cataclysme.)
However you think of them, “celebeauty” is fracturing the beauty market, which is predicted to hit 96.4 million in the US alone by 2025. And the more time we spend experimenting with new ways of purchasing – Shopify on Pinterest, Instagram, DTC via TikTok – the less we care about any kind of brand loyalty (which already seems like a Boomer relic). “One way that our lives online have rewired our brains is that we’re more comfortable buying from an unfamiliar brand. And those same changing habits may also be making us less loyal to anything that we buy,” Shira Ovide wrote recently in the New York Times.
The lingering question then becomes, how invested are these celebrities in what they’re bringing to the market? Is it a case of slapping your famous name on something for a quick buck à la Jessica Simpson Dessert Beauty, or are these VIPs holding court in some kind of Logan Roy advisory position?
Let’s take a look at Ariana Grande’s Cloud scent. It’s well-liked by the fragrance community and was put together by perfumer Clement Gavarry. It is often compared to Maison Francis Kurkdijan’s Baccarat Rouge 540, a scent so popular as to warrant a mention in a recent episode of Gossip Girl. Cloud won Fragrance of the Year at the 2019 Fragrance Foundation Awards.
“Celebrity fragrances often reveal who’s still connected to the zeitgeist and not just hiding behind their marketing team,” says Marissa Zappas, a perfumer who created Paradise for poet Rachel Rabbit White. “Ariana is really in tune with her fans and knows what people are wearing. Some people say Cloud is a dupe for Baccarat Rouge and they do smell similar, but all art is inspired by other art and hers is more accessible. I applaud her for making a fragrance that sincerely smells good and isn’t just stuck in cotton candy land.”
On bad guy, Eilish sings: “I don’t see what she sees /But maybe it’s ‘cause I’m wearing your cologne,” at least in part confirming that she’s had a longstanding fascination with fragrance. I can’t seem to confirm this, but in an interview with one of the founders of niche Brooklyn fragrance brand DS & Durga, it was offhandedly mentioned that Eilish approached them to create a fragrance together. The husband and wife duo said no, citing they had no idea who she was.
The singer shared her fragrance collection in an Instagram story earlier this year, prompting many fragheads to praise her taste for brands that weren’t available at every duty free. Her collection featured Le Labo’s Another 13, along with several musky scents from État Libre d’Orange.
“I have synesthesia, so my favourite smells are these like, amber-coloured smells, to me, in my brain,” she told Vogue. So when she announced she’d be releasing a fragrance to increase her merchandise footprint, it wasn’t initially met with skepticism.
Billie Eilish’s fragrance, Eilish, comes in a £51 bottle fashioned in a vaguely erotic 3D-map of her figure. According to Fragrantica, an online perfume directory, it’s an amber vanilla fragrance with tonka bean, rose, and woody notes. To get a good idea for comparables it smells like a richer cocoa powder, read Fragrantica’s “This perfume reminds me of” section. Eilish reminds many of Warm Vanilla Sugar by Bath and Body Works. The reviews are even more disappointing.
With Pharrell, his skincare routine has been a point of fascination since 2013, when he did an interview with Into the Gloss. It has subsequently come up in multiple interviews, bucking that Instagram influencer trend of answering “so many of you asked” questions that weren’t actually asked. The public was genuinely desperate to know the secret to his eternal youth. His dermatologist, Dr. Elena Jones, consulted on the brand. “I was a part of the very early process of setting the goals for the formulas,” Dr. Jones explained to Byrdie. However, the price point is rather high for formulas that are comparable to The Ordinary. The green packaging sure looks cool in the bathroom, though.
Celebrities have long been a source of fascination for beauty tricks. Their full-time job entails looking perfect thanks to a cottage industry of professionals paid to assemble their finished look. As we contemplate our faces in reflective iPhone screens, and our identity is used as a way to market us products, and we spend more money on brands we have never tried before, and we do anything to assert our fandoms, it only makes sense that the gold rush of celebrity beauty will continue unchecked. These brands will make money, but will they be around long after their founders’ careers have dried up? It’s difficult to say.
But before opening your wallet, read any review of any celebrity beauty product and the response to any “Is it worth it?” question is, for the most part, “No, not for the money.”