Phan’s videos follow a soothing formula: she greets her viewers with her famously soft, American-accented voiceover (“Hello cuties”; “Hi, gorgeous”). She appears with a full face of themed make-up – the Spanish Rose, maybe, or a red-lipped Chinese New Year look – explains what she’s about to do (“I have here a beautiful look for you to try out to ring in the lunar new year”), and then the video snap-cuts to Phan bare-faced and staring down the barrel of the camera, starting with skincare and going through a routine, step by step, until her transformation is complete.
Phan has been around long enough to become an often-referenced source of inspiration for the thousands like her, who collectively embody every possible variation on the same theme: women doing their make-up for an audience. They have a wealth of secrets to share, a never-ending series of beauty memes and tags (“Put your make-up on without a mirror!” “Kylie Jenner lips!”), and they don’t demand anything from their viewers except that they like and subscribe. Beauty vloggers tend not to talk politics.
But they are still, without even trying, political. The more beauty tutorials I watched, the more I came to believe that I was witnessing something extraordinary: the creation of a realm that could not exist in such an unfettered form anywhere but digitally – a space just for women. Somewhere for us to nut out the often difficult business of being women, to discuss the trappings of performed femininity that would be uncomfortable to raise in the company of men – covering acne blemishes, contouring one’s face to appear slimmer, enjoying the art of disguise.
By that I mean that I have had bad skin since I was 10 years old – acne, oil slicks, giant pores, scars, hyperpigmentation, the lot. I felt ashamed of the way I looked without make-up because I never saw anyone who looked like I did in any of the culture I consumed. Nothing has made me feel better about my skin than watching beauty vloggers.