Seasons are known to bring change. Autumn, unlike warm seasons, can also bring the flu. I’m home under multiple duvets, sniffling, and sneezing in my family’s guest room while I watch YouTube videos on a rainy NYC day. I’m supposed to be meeting James Charles, YouTube behemoth, and Gen Z makeup phenom, but I’m sick in bed. I ask him instead for a FaceTime call, which he is more than willing to accommodate during his busy press day.
Like me, James is an east-coast transplant living in LA. Unlike me, he’s an Internet sensation with over 16 million subscribers watching his every move—whether it’s applying makeup or blending a smoothie. Nonetheless, James is unimaginably sweet, and his sincere kindness turns infectious after just a few seconds on the phone.
“Don’t worry! You look beautiful!” James says on FaceTime while I’m slouched in a grey hooded onesie, desperately hoping my woozy brain and mouth will be in-sync during the call. If it were anyone else, I would’ve thought they were just exchanging a pleasantry, but with James, an uplifting sincerity came through the compliment. I began to understand his enormous following and exactly what it is that keeps people coming back for more.
His demographic ranges from very young to very old, he explains. I remind James of a recent event; I was at a cosmetics launch party, and a little boy no older than 10 was wearing bright fuchsia eye makeup that could pass for a magazine editorial. I asked him what products he used, and he said it was the James Charles Morphe palette.
In L.A., the probability of being one degree of separation from any celebrity is extremely high. A makeup artist overheard this and asked the young boy if he could send his photo to James. Within seconds, a text reply came through: “An angel.” The 10-year-old looked to his mom with the kind of enthusiasm and unadulterated joy of Charlie opening a chocolate bar with the golden ticket.
“I remember that!” James exclaims, “Those are the kinds of things that truly make me the happiest.”
His latest Morphe launch is a product that piques my own particular interest. It’s a mini version of his best-selling original palette; the component and mirror are ideal for makeup on-the-go. Eyeshadow palettes are persnickety for someone who travels as much as I do. They look and feel like schoolbooks stacked in my suitcase whenever I’m on the move.
Some critics have been quick to judge the product, saying it’s a lack of innovation from his first palette, but I love minis, and James is unbothered. He explains that this palette is made for his fans: for young kids who can’t afford the larger version and devotees that want to keep this famous color story on-the-go.
I ask CoverGirl’s first CoverBoy if he thinks everyone looks better with makeup. “Definitely not,” he answers quickly. “I think everyone should play with makeup and experiment with it, whether it’s for Halloween or every day. Makeup is an art form. I definitely want to inspire everyone, men and women, to be able to wear makeup if they want to, but some people are just perfect and gorgeous without anything at all.”
Makeup is an art form.
When I asked James what he considers real beauty to be, he replies without missing a beat: “Confidence.” His own confidence has cemented him in place with his cult following, despite multiple scandals and being the target of internet attacks since his rise to fame.
We dive into the topic of skincare splurging and whether or not James has a favorite luxury product. “Well, besides my Morphe Palette, I’d have to say the Tatcha Silk Canvas Primer,” he says. “I don’t really believe in primer; I use moisturizer and skincare instead, but I love that Tatcha product. I don’t use a lot of super expensive products as it is. My palette is one of the priciest things on my vanity. I’m much more into skincare than I am into buying expensive makeup. I feel like I can always make beauty work, but I can’t make it work if I’m putting it on bad skin."
The palette itself is an array of bright colors. When I ask about James’ favorite color combination (mine is pink and orange), he can’t decide: “This sounds so cliché, but my favorite color combo really is rainbow. I don’t have one favorite color, which is weird; it’s usually black and white when I’m getting dressed. When I’m at my vanity in front of my palette, I love putting all the colors together.”
I ask about his bleach-blond transformation, and he assures me he is going back to brown very soon—but not before experimentation with some fashion color. I suggest lavender based on Byrdie’s editorial director Faith Xue’s current hair. He agrees that lavender may be his next step before saying goodbye to blonde and its hair-killing ways.
For the 20-year-old on-the-move, his favorite self-care ritual is the opposite of a hot bath and crystals: “Locking myself in a new escape room for an hour and putting my brain to more work!” he laughs. “I love [escape rooms] because I love puzzles and high-stress situations, but I’m forced to live without my phone for an hour and pretend to be in a fantasy world. It’s really fun for me.”
Before we hang up, James reassures me that my stuffed-up sinuses sound fine, especially because he himself has been in makeup all day avoiding sneezing, lest he ruin his paint. “What did you do? Do you have any tips for me to stop sneezing in meetings?” I asked. His answer is both layered and simple: “Just pray.”