Anya Dua, the 17-year-old founder of Gen Z Identity Lab, an online platform for Gen Zers to express their views on politics, mental health, climate change and culture, remembers the first (and last) time she bought makeup from a celebrity beauty brand.
She was 12 and used her mom’s credit card to order a $29 Kylie Lip Kit in Candy K, a matte pink liquid lipstick and matching lip liner. Kylie Jenner’s debut makeup product famously sold out in seconds when it went on sale in 2015 (the website crashed, too), catapulting the youngest Kardashian Jenner sibling to beauty mogul status at age 18.
“It was a huge thing,” Ms. Dua said. “You needed to have one.” Lip Kits became so popular that they hit the New York City bar and bat mitzvah circuit. M.C.s would toss the liquid lip colors and liners into a sea of dancing tweens in bandage dresses.
Fast-forward five years.
The global beauty market, which last year generated nearly $500 billion in sales, according to Euromonitor, a research firm, is teeming with celebrities, inundating social media feeds with lip gloss, face lotion and, most recently, vibrators (not technically beauty but beauty adjacent), with the promise of plump lips, glowing skin and a better sex life.
New lines are coming out at a dizzying rate. There’s Harry Styles’s Pleasing, nail polish in tiny glass jars that look like old-fashioned perfume bottles; and Machine Gun Kelly’s UN/DN LAQR, nail polish with “paint splatter” shades and brushes for nail art.
Ariana Grande has a new makeup line, space-themed, as does Chiara Ferragni, pink and sparkly. Billie Eilish and Addison Rae have released their first fragrances. There’s Lori Harvey’s (daughter of Steve Harvey) SKN by LH skin care collection; and Demi Lovato’s Demi Wand, an eight-speed vibrator (created with Bellesa, an internet pornography site marketed to women).
Hailey Bieber has just confirmed that her Rhode Beauty will go on sale next year. (Rhode is her middle name.)
It’s starting to feel like satire. When the Alex Rodriguez concealer for men (a creation with Hims & Hers) landed in May and populated celebrity news accounts like The Shade Room, commenters thought it was a joke.
“When I see a celebrity beauty brand, I just don’t buy it,” Ms. Dua said.
According to Hana Ben-Shabat, the founder of Gen Z Planet, a research firm, many of Ms. Dua’s peers share the sentiment. Ms. Ben-Shabat’s data indicate that 19 percent of Gen Zers said celebrities influence their purchasing decisions, compared with 66 percent who cited their friends as the most influential.
“Celebrities are saying, ‘This is my skin care, this is what I use,’ and ‘No, I don’t get Botox, it’s just my products,’” said Stacey Berke, 34, an addiction counselor from Rochester, N.Y. “It makes it hard to believe.”
The traditional celebrity endorsement is no longer enough. People need to know there’s expertise or, at the very least, an interest in what’s being sold to them.
“It’s more apparent how transactional it is,” said Lucie Greene, a trend forecaster and founder of the Light Years consultancy. “It’s not something you’ve genuinely done because you’re passionate about lip gloss.”
Moreover, everyone knows celebrities often undergo procedures, cosmetic and surgical, to look the way they do. There is no serum that can make a 50-year-old look two decades younger, and yes, we know that butt is fake.
“The transition from, ‘I’ve made cash hawking brands for others’ to ‘Why don’t I try and create something myself?’ is not always the right reason to create something,” said Richard Gersten, an investor and the founder of True Beauty Ventures. The firm has been approached by at least 10 celebrity or influencer brands over the last few months, he said.
The Evolution of the Celebrity Beauty Brand
Once, the only way to gain access to a celebrity’s private world was through a spritz of their perfume, said Rachel ten Brink, a general partner of Red Bike Capital and a founder of Scentbird, a fragrance subscription service. Now fans are privy to the food, fashions, opinions and breakdowns, often in real time, of the famous people they follow.
Social media redefined how the public connects with celebrities.
“You own a piece by following a celebrity on Instagram, Twitter or TikTok,” Ms. ten Brink said. “You have access to them in a different way.”
After the fragrance heyday of the early aughts, when seemingly everyone — Britney Spears, Justin Bieber, 50 Cent — came out with their own scents, Kylie Cosmetics ushered in a new kind of celebrity brand: one that sold makeup (or skin care) online.
Ms. Jenner created a blueprint for how to market and sell a brand, which until that point was usually at a department store counter or at Sephora. An Instagram post was all Ms. Jenner needed to sell millions of dollars worth of lipstick.
Then, in 2017, came Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty, which fundamentally changed how the beauty industry approached inclusivity, shade ranges and conversations about race. In its first full year, the label generated more than half a billion dollars in revenue, according to LVMH, the French luxury group and co-owner of Fenty Beauty.
There is also Goop, which over the last decade, solidified itself as a so-called lifestyle brand. Its founder, Gwyneth Paltrow,sells skin care, supplements and bath salts alongside athleisure.
Everyone rushed to copy these models. Still, some industry insiders are lukewarm on famous founders, including John Demsey, the executive group president of the Estée Lauder Companies, owner of Estée Lauder, MAC Cosmetics and Clinique. He has worked with hundreds of celebrities, but there won’t be a brand entirely based on one, he said.
On Dec. 1, MAC, the O.G. of A-list collabs (Mary J. Blige, Rihanna, Lady Gaga and Mariah Carey have all worked with the brand), released its new Viva Glam lipstick without a celebrity for the first time in 27 years.
“It just seemed right now,” Mr. Demsey said of the red, blue and yellow lipsticks that come in tubes printed with Keith Haring designs. “We went back to the essential core essence of, ‘What’s the product?’ and ‘What’s the brand?’”
A collaboration captures a moment in time; a brand is forever.
The Beauty Industry’s Dirty Little Secret
The majority of celebrity beauty brands are a flop.
Everybody interviewed for this article, from executives at multibillion dollar companies to high school students, was asked if they could name one to three successful celebrity beauty brands besides Kylie Cosmetics, Fenty and Goop. None could.
“Living by influence alone is not enough,” Mr. Demsey said.
Nor is having tens of millions of Instagram or TikTok followers. In June, Vanessa Hudgens (43 million followers on Instagram) and Madison Beer (29 million followers on Instagram) introduced Know Beauty, a skin care line that prescribes a regimen based on a cheek swab DNA test. It had a splashy debut but hasn’t been particularly active since, though products are still for sale on its website. Know Beauty declined to comment on the company’s business.
Lady Gaga’s Haus Laboratories, introduced to much fanfare two years ago, missed striking a chord with her rabid fan base. Earlier this year, the brand brought in a new executive team to focus on product innovation, ingredients and packaging.
Its newest Casa Gaga collection is a departure, aesthetically, from the original black packaging. Lipsticks, highlighters, blush and more now come in white compacts and tubes with gold accents. Haus Laboratories declined to comment on the company’s business.
Other high-profile misadventures include the YouTuber Tati Westbrook, who announced that she was shutting down Tati Beauty in November, and Rflct, the skin care brand started by the gamer Rachell Hofstetter that closed in October after just two weeks because of unsubstantiated anti-blue-light claims.
What most people don’t know is that a handful of companies have built many of the celebrity lines we see today. These brand factories, or “incubators,” specialize in creating several labels at once, and fast. They are either developed with a celebrity or designed with the intention of bringing on a celebrity afterward.
For example, Beach House Group created Millie Bobby Brown’s Florence by Mills, Kendall Jenner’s Moon oral care line and Tracee Ellis Ross’s Pattern hair care. Forma Brands, the owner of Morphe, is behind Jaclyn Cosmetics and Ms. Grande’s R.E.M. Beauty. Maesa built Drew Barrymore’s Flower Beauty, Kristin Ess Hair, Taraji P. Henson’s TPH by Taraji hair care and Jada Pinkett Smith’s Hey Humans, a personal care line.
Most lines created by brand factories are not designed to be longstanding businesses, experts say, though there can be exceptions. Pattern, by Ms. Ross, appears to be doing well and may outlive many of its peers.
“Incubators are intentionally set up to churn,” said Greg Portell, a partner at the Kearney consulting firm. “They are much more interested in speed and velocity, not building a brand. It just happens to be the mode of the day.”
Shaun Neff, a founder of Beach House Group, said his team comes up with concepts for new companies and then finds a celebrity to pair it with them. “Kendall is the biggest supermodel in the world and has a great fan base, and we think she has great aesthetic and taste and good style,” Mr. Neff replied when asked how Ms. Jenner came to be the co-creator of the Kendall Jenner Teeth Whitening Pen and the face of Moon, the oral care brand that sells Cosmic Gel toothpaste in glittery silver tubes, like an edgier Colgate or Crest.
Changing cultural values are also a factor in the decline of celebrity brands. Older customers may be more lured by celebrity, but it’s harder to entice young millennials and Gen Zers who place a premium on authenticity.
Ms. Dua questioned the skin care know-how of Millie Bobby Brown, the 17-year-old star of “Stranger Things,” whose line came out when the actress was 15. “I don’t really trust it because what expertise do they have?”
And, wearing the makeup of someone else runs counter to self-expression, an important tenet of the younger generations.
“They don’t want to be like anyone else, even a celebrity,” Ms. ten Brink said. “They don’t want to just look like Addison Rae.”