Rae missed Phan’s heyday, but she absorbed the generation of YouTubers that came afterward. From age 12, she began developing a talent for applying her own makeup with a steady hand and good sense of color. She had her favorite influencers, including the glamorous male makeup figure James Charles and the trans woman Nikkie de Jager. “These influencers let you in on their beauty secrets — it seemed like something they hadn’t shared before, and they provided a level of intimacy, or at least alleged intimacy,” Kathleen Hou, beauty director of The Cut, says. “Then it’s like being a fan of an indie band, and they used to play at your local bar. You keep watching as they become more and more popular.”
Having developed fan bases in the millions, some influencers exerted extraordinary power by positioning themselves as beauty critics. A social media star like Rae, hoping to make it in the beauty business, would normally have had to spend an inordinate amount of time deferring to them (sending gift bags, upbeat D.M.s, bartered mentions and perhaps cash). But Rae’s 73 million followers had sort of fallen out of the sky, and it seemed her clout was equal to or exceeded theirs.
So to promote Item, Rae generated TikTok videos of herself looking cute in a new lip gloss while sashaying around to a rap song — basically what she was doing before she had her own lip gloss to sell. In one photo for Item, she bit on a tube of makeup while winking, and in a video, she faux-slept in a bed with a made up face, then pretended to wake up and immediately spray her face with setting mist, a liquid spray with water and alcohol that stops makeup from wearing off.
What I found less of in Rae’s feed were videos demonstrating the doubtlessly painstaking labor that went into achieving her look. This was curious, because YouTube makeup tutorials have become central to beauty culture. You could call them the Us magazine of our era, a way of demonstrating “Stars: They’re just like us.” During the videos, stars not only seem to be taking their beauty regimens extremely seriously, but they’ll school you in the reasons you should, too. Jessica Alba, the actor turned head of the Honest Company, the organic baby-and-beauty-product behemoth (and one of many newer beauty stars who is Latina), recently made a video in which she walked the viewer through her day-to-night beauty routine, capped with a smoky eye. “As a woman in the world, trying to do the things, get your hustle on, wearing all the hats, I think it’s important that we take the time to take care of ourselves,” Alba says, staring earnestly into her camera. “It’s important. And don’t let anyone take that away from you.”
For Alba, a skin-care routine seemed to be a genuine act of empowerment, a radical way of reclaiming the right to take time for yourself. It’s the same effective rhetoric that has fanned out from Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop to sell mascara, Botox, expensive exercise classes and other products that are considered a path to “me time” and “living your best life.” But Rae was selling her fans a different dream: the dream of an ordinary girl who finds herself, quite surprisingly, swept up in the world of glamour. She didn’t need to issue proclamations about how hard it was to find the time to make herself look pretty. When Rae started becoming famous, she had the “no-makeup makeup” look of a lot of young women, where the objective is to cover up any irregularities and enhance the natural pigment of lips but not go wild with glitter and blue eye shadow. And her ideology about cosmetics, if you could identify such a thing, was in line with this look.
But this winter, as Rae’s TikTok followers grew to more than 78 million from 70 million, I noticed that something was different about her videos. She had started promoting all manner of stuff, including Coca-Cola (which paid her to sip from a retro-style bottle while emitting a satisfied sigh), and shot a Miramax film (a gender-role-reversed remake of “She’s All That,” in which she played a character who turns an unpopular boy into a prom king). She released a single, “Obsessed,” a female empowerment anthem about becoming obsessed with yourself. And more and more, she was wearing heavy makeup (and possibly using filters) in nearly all her videos. I almost couldn’t see the person beneath it, and I wondered whom she was trying to look like. Putting on cosmetics is a highly mimetic activity: In your mind’s eye, when you’re looking at yourself in the mirror, you’re keeping in mind an idol as much as you’re creating a better version of yourself. You may not be Snow White’s evil stepmother demanding to know who is more beautiful, but you are engaging in a sort of fortunetelling and imaginative scrying. You’re envisioning who you will be in the future when you have polished your look and what that suddenly more glorious moment may hold.
As I watched Rae make love to the camera, the woman who popped into my mind was the one whom so many in Rae’s generation were influenced by: Kylie Jenner. Every era has its aesthetic signifiers — the tiny rosebud lips of Clara Bow in the 1920s, the gaptoothed look of Lauren Hutton in the 1960s, the hooded eyes and straight brows of Cheryl Tiegs in the late 1970s. Kylie was ours.