Ten years ago, "beauty vlogger" was barely a word, much less a profession. But ask any high school class in America what they want to be when they grow up, and a surprising number will answer "YouTuber." In 2017, making video tutorials, hauls, and reviews for the internet has become a legitimate option for women aspiring to a career in the beauty industry, alongside becoming a makeup artist, beauty editor, or starting your own cosmetics brand. The market grows more robust by the day. According to statistics by ExpandedRamblings.com, YouTube overall reaches more 18- to 24-year-olds than any U.S. cable network; and as of late 2015, 91% of American internet users between the ages of 13 and 17 use YouTube.
There's no denying the massive demand for YouTube beauty content. The difference is that because the beauty vlogger career is so new, the future of it is unpredictable. Even today's most subscribed-to beauty vloggers must consider the uncertainties: Can they count on YouTube to be as popular a platform in five years as it is now? And will their young viewership remain interested as their generation of beauty gurus grows older? In 2015, DigiDay.com reported that in the beauty and style category, 57.1% of YouTube viewers are girls and women ages 13 to 24. Does this mean the lifespan of a beauty vlogger's career might resemble that of a ballerina's: Retire at 35 and move on?
To get an inside take, we spoke with three top beauty vloggers who've been on YouTube for as long as eight years: Ingrid Nilsen, Laura Lee, and Stephanie Ledda (known as SMLx0). Read on to learn about the mysterious careers of aging beauty YouTubers.
With over 12 million views, Laura Lee's most popular video is a tutorial called "15 Back to School Heatless Hairstyles," which she uploaded two years after starting her channel. At the time, Lee was 26—"back-to-school" hadn't been relevant to her personal life in years. But she knew the content would perform well among her young viewers. "Honestly, I was so scared of being criticized when I first started my channel, so I stuck to the tutorials and content that I was most confident in," Lee tells me via email.
In the beginning, Lee kept her demeanor bright, yet composed and avoided mentioning anything too offbeat or personal in her videos (she was particularly cagey about mentioning her husband, who she thought might make her sound old).
Nilsen and Ledda were younger when they launched their channels in 2008 and 2009, respectively. "The beauty community was relatively new and small, so I was just excited to put anything out there—honestly, I didn't have a content strategy at the time," Ledda recalls of her 19-year-old self. Nilsen's experience was similar. "I started making videos when I was 20 … it was truly a time of trial and error for me," she says. Since Nilsen and Ledda matched the precise demographic of their viewers at the time—and since the YouTube space was generally less competetive—they felt more freedom to follow their interests without a master plan in place.
In the years since, Lee, Nilsen, and Ledda's channels have seen tremendous growth. In this Wild West of a career, gauging how to evolve their content as they get older has been an adventure. For some veteran YouTubers, the pressure to maintain the youthful persona they started with can be overwhelming.
Take it from British vlogger Louise Pentland, who'd been making perky, wholesome beauty videos on her channel Sprinkle of Glitter for seven years until September 2016, when she uploaded a video titled, "Finishing With Sprinkle of Glitter." In it, the 31-year-old admits to feeling "bored" of the videos she'd been making for the past few years and that she couldn't relate to the content anymore. "As you go through adulthood, you just change … and something I've really never done is allow myself to change on [YouTube]," she confesses.
"There's so much more that I'm not putting out there for fear of judgment ... of stepping into the unknown. This channel didn't start to please the youngest viewer, but that's what it became, so we're changing. … I still want to do a few hauls and makeup-y things. … But I would like to talk about sex. I'd like to talk about politics. I would like to talk about motherhood. … I want to talk to you as a 31-year-old woman."
This channel didn't start to please the youngest viewer, but that's what it became, so we're changing. … I want to talk to you as a 31-year-old woman.
Ledda, Nilsen, and Lee have also sensed a demand to please their younger viewers. "I wouldn't call it pressure, but I definitely recognize a desire from some people for content that's focused on a younger age group," Nilsen says.
Still, they're careful not to let this steer their videos in a direction that seems stilted or inauthentic. "Instead of a prom look, I'll do a 'special occasion' look, or a 'quick everyday look' instead of 'back to school,'" says Ledda. "That way it can capture a larger audience." As Nilsen adds, "I don't ignore younger viewers. But it's about finding a balance that feels comfortable. … I don't force things in order to be relatable."
In the months since Pentland's confessional video, she has transitioned Sprinkle of Glitter to focus more on lifestyle and relationships—and her following has evolved with her. This has been Nilsen's experience, as well. In 2015, the once perfectionistic vlogger came out as gay on her channel. Since then, her videos have become more personal and geared toward wellness and LGBT issues, in addition to beauty.
"In the last eight years, I have learned so much about myself and the world around me and I think that's pretty clear in the videos I make now, which are much more diverse," Nilsen says. "What's been really cool to see is that a large part of my viewers have grown up with me. The majority of my viewers are adults and are experiencing the same pivotal moments in life that I'm going through."
What's been really cool to see is that a large part of my viewers have grown up with me.
Over time, Lee has also become much more open with her explosive personality, quirky interests, and yes, her grown-up marital status. "My interests have definitely shifted into less tutorials and more reviewing new and crazy makeup or gadgets," she explains. "I also have a growing vlog channel (Laura Ledda Vlogs) where I post and try out new content outside of beauty. If I'm able to find something that really resonates with me and my subscribers from that channel, I may focus more of my attention there."
Ledda, too, has noticed a growing interest in her personal life beyond beauty. "My viewers always want to see more vlogs from my personal life, so I'm trying to do that as well," she says.
Though newer, younger beauty vloggers crop up on YouTube every day, the veterans' careers only seem to be expanding. "Watching a younger generation come into this and seeing what they do, how they think, and what they have to give is incredible," Nilsen says. "I don't feel threatened or like I'm missing out because that time in my life has passed. The things I can give now are things I couldn't give back then."
If you ask honestly whether or not they think they'll age out of the career eventually, the consensus among veteran YouTubers is absolutely not. "No way! People of all ages watch YouTube!" says Ledda. The statistics agree. "Now a decade old, [YouTube] is mainstream enough to have a broad demographic reach," DigiDay reports. "Even the olds watch video." (That's approximately 20 million monthly American "olds" ages 65 and up, to be specific.)
In March of 2015, only 26% of beauty and style viewers were over the age of 35—but that stat may shift as YouTube creators like Nilsen, Lee, and Ledda age themselves. In the meantime, they're receiving no shortage of career opportunities in more traditional beauty arenas. In 2016, Lee released an eye shadow palette ($56) in partnership with Violet Voss, a move that many growing beauty vloggers are making. This year, Nilsen was announced as the face of BareMinerals Original Foundation ($29), another legitimizing gig.
But as YouTube continues to develop as a legitimate career in and of itself, beauty vloggers aren't afraid to move forward. "When it comes to the future, I'm open," Nilsen says. "I'm a naturally curious person so I like to follow my curiosity and see where it takes me." Lee isn't worried, either. "New trends are popping up every day," she tells me. "We will see where the YouTube wind blows."