On May 24, 2014, the date of the pop-culture wedding of the decade, #KimandKanye—to the surprise of fans—was for much of the day only the number two globally trending topic on Twitter. Above it was #BeautyConNYC, which tagged an avalanche of emoji-laden dispatches primarily from young women and their favorite YouTube stars. “That’s when, like, every single investor on the planet started to follow us, and come talk to us about investments, and that’s when we got involved with companies like Hearst Media and CAA,” says BeautyCon CEO Moj Mahdara, a digital entrepreneur. “Everyone was just like, what is this thing?”
That thing was one of several yearly events for BeautyCon—the flagship gathering is this Saturday in Los Angeles—hosted by the L.A.-based company of the same name. Mahdara took the company over two years ago and transformed it from a B-to-B network of online content creators to a formidable consumer-facing media platform for young women and their YouTube heroes. While attendees will go home with swag bags overflowing with makeup and other products, the name is deceptive. Fashion and beauty are certainly some of the primary interests of the community of users and content creators, but BeautyCon is really a year-round digital media company that creates and aggregates editorial and multimedia content relevant to its audience. Appreciating sites like Refinery29 and POPSUGAR but feeling that they don’t cater to the younger audience, Mahdara originally envisioned it as a “Vice Media for a 16- to 24-year-old girl” (and interestingly, this derisive Vice review of last year’s L.A. BeautyCon demonstrates just how little that site understands the demo).
The celebrity culture around which BeautyCon revolves has less to do with reality TV stars and pop icons than with the new generation of self-made content creators. The stars who contribute to the site, engage with users, and work with brand partners made their names in their living rooms, many earning millions of YouTube, Vine, and Instagram followers for their content on everything from makeup application to comedy sketches. YouTube sensation Bethany Mota, with almost 10 million subscribers, is one of BeautyCon’s biggest investors and participates heavily in the company’s activities, including events and contests. “You could sort of think of her as our Jessica Alba to Honest Company,” says Mahdara. Dozens of these stars including Mota, Grav3yardgirl, and Kandee Johnson will appear at this weekend’s con for panels, meet-and-greets, and demonstrations, and excitement is sure to be Belieber-esque, even if older adults have never heard these names in their lives.
“BeautyCon’s culture is, for these girls, basically beauty as an expression of power and creativity,” says Mahdara. “We find our audience is really multicultural, multi-ethnic because, again, YouTube, Instagram, and Vine have an enormous minority audience. They’re not well represented in traditional media. A lot of our audience and contributors are gay, they’re transgender, they’re Puerto Rican, they’re black, there’s something that makes them feel other, which is why they love Instagram and YouTube.”
And brands are understanding the value of this fast-growing audience—Mahdara cites a stat from Goldman Sachs that allowances, which now come largely from parents handing over their Apple Pay and Amazon Prime accounts to kids, are a $30 billion business annually in the U.S. BeautyCon has worked with close to 300 brands on sponsorships and other activations, including providing products for the company’s “BFF Fan Club” subscription boxes of beauty gear (the quarterly boxes also include notes from the content creators and occasional Willy Wonka-style surprise tickets for events). Content creators also integrate sponsors into some of their videos, though Mahdara says that the brands don’t get editorial control and the creators can refuse anything they don’t like.
“Brands are very aware of the fact that women are frustrated about a lack of beauty products for women who are diverse and ethnic in background,” says Mahdara. “For a company like L’Oreal, or Cover Girl, they’ve had hunches around issues with minority women. They’ve all been hit with this information on social channels, but it’s helpful for them to work with a company like BeautyCon because they can actually see beyond just the criticisms of what they’re not doing well in terms of a minority product. We’re a testing ground for them all year, and they can actually get a sense of what products they should be creating, what tones, and what colors, and what packaging. It’s a good way for a brand like L’Oreal to not just sell products, but also develop products, and that’s what I think they’re really excited about. We’ve had brands like Nasty Gal, American Apparel, Nike Women, and NYX Cosmetics, which only creates products for this demographic, and only uses content creators like YouTubers and Instagrammers to sell this product. Within a year of working with us, they were acquired by L’Oreal.”
At this year’s L.A. BeautyCon, Barbie is also making an appearance via video on a panel about the evolution of fashion and beauty. “Barbie, for the longest time, has been getting the worst PR of the century for being way too skinny, way too white, way too always high heels, you know?” says Mahdara. “Now she’ll be associated with Gigi Gorgeous, who’s a transgender woman, and Kandee Johnson, who’s got purple hair with glitter, and ItsMyRayeRaye, who’s a black beauty queen who specializes in amazing cat eyes and mascara skills. I just think that’s like an awesome story because, I’m like, this is Barbie, and she’s now basically paying six figures and higher to be involved with BeautyCon.”
Mahdara says that the volume of interest from potential brand partners could be unmanageable, but an inner-circle of BeautyCon fans helps decide what’s the best fit for the audience.
“We call them our super BFFs,” says Mahdara. “It’s like 50 girls, and we basically do Google hangouts twice a week.” They get free membership, event tickets, and perks in exchange for feedback.
“If they don’t like it, we don’t do it,” says Mahdara. “The amount of people who have tried to get us to sell diet soda, diet food, Atkins-type stuff—my inbox is filled with companies that want to either to buy us, invest in us, or market with us that are all focused on making a 16- to 24-year-old girl feel like she needs to alter and change her body to feel good about herself. We could be getting paid tons of money to do it, but we don’t.”