the ultimate i-D guide to youtube's beauty subcultures
From cosplay and kawaii to the male MUAs shattering boring gender stereotypes, get familiar with the weirdly empowering world of internet beauty trends.
If you can't find your beauty tribe IRL, you can probably find it on YouTube — and if not, you can start a cult of your own. In the decade or so since the video platform first launched, it has become a virtual playground linking countless young people to other like-minded weirdos. From kawaii and K-pop to haul girls and goth ones, take a deep dive into the most creative beauty subcultures on the internet. It's a weirdly and wonderfully empowering universe.
As Grace Neutral told us when she flew to Seoul to infiltrate Korea's six billion-dollar beauty industry, "The influence of K-Pop on the people of South Korea can not be overestimated." In the country's streets and specialist nightclubs, the mainstream K-pop ideal is mirrored in teen plastic surgery procedures and a thriving bath house culture. On the internet, superfans and makeup junkies share and soak up everything from makeup tutorials to the immensely popular photo montage videos of the prettiest K-pop idols. YouTube beauty guru Michelle Phan's Girls Generation-soundtracked "How To Look Like a K-Pop Star" video — inspired by the eight-member South Korean girl group — is one of her most popular tutorials ever.
It's not hard to see why the drag community is one of the Tube's most visible. When you consider the addictive power of clown contouring, false eyelashes, glitter, and artfully sculpted eyebrows — and the fact that all these things are hard AF to do without someone guiding you through each individual step — it's clear the internet's biggest drag stars hold sway over communities outside just their own. Some of the platform's most popular videos are the RuVealings from the wildly popular Logo series RuPaul's Drag Race. Trixie Mattel's fabulously OTT Bubble Gum Fantasy makeup tutorial has racked up over one million views.
Don't get them confused with Tumblr's bling ring of shoplifting teens, who upload blurry iPhone photos of their hauls and dish out "lifting" tips to kids with equally creative screen names and avatars of Winona Ryder. YouTube hauls are all big smiles, sharp cameras, real names, and a questionable interpretation of the FTC guidelines. While most beauty vloggers indulge in low-key haul flaunts from time to time, the most weirdly addicting videos involve semi-professional shoppers pulling products out of a Sephora or MAC bag for upwards of 10 minutes. Haul videos evolved from the "unboxing" trend, which involves (mainly) white dudes showing off their new electronics and action movie figurines.
Find it surprising that the most-watched beauty tutorial on YouTube is a cartoon? Screw clown contouring or Instagram eyebrows — in 2015, everyone wanted to look like Elsa from Frozen. And as feminism has infiltrated the cosplay community with a new sense of character self-sufficiency, sex-positivity, and all-around badassery, the YouTube beauty world has it mirrored. The gaming community might still have its share of women problems, but 2015 was the year Comic-Con finally achieved gender parity — and on the internet, it's ladies who are leading the charge thanks to cool new characters like 16-year-old Muslim superhero Kamala Khan.
Kawaii is an encompassing term, literally translating to "cute" in Japanese — which makes the kawaii community on YouTube more inclusive and awesome than ever. From the cybergothy visual kei of Babymetal to the decora subculture that thrust Harajuku style into the western mainstream in the late 90s, kawaii beauty goes far beyond just false eyelashes and eyelid-puffing Mejutu sticky tape. See zombie idol Akari Aoki or the stereotype-smashing transformations of Miles Jai.
Unlike most of the beauty subcultures that blossomed on the internet after growing up IRL, Seapunk was born from it — specifically from DJ Lil Internet, who first coined the term on Twitter at 4.50am one morning in 2011 after waking up from a strange dream. "SEAPUNK LEATHER JACKET WITH BARNACLES WHERE THE STUDS USED TO BE," he wrote. The word became a hashtag which became a record label and a visual culture comprised of Manic Panic green hair, stick-on face jewels, and 16-bit dolphin animations. Like most subcultures born online, it didn't take long for the trend to emerge on high-end runways and in mainstream pop videos.
Goths have held an authority over the world wide web since the Livejournal days, but YouTube has given OGs, ultragoths, and baby bats a chance to thrive on computer screens instead of hide behind them. Throw in sub-subcultures like the somewhat controversial pastel goth — a top-searched Tumblr tag since 2013 — and we're talking view counts often far exceeding those championing a mainstream idea of beauty. On a platform not exactly known as a breeding ground for open-minded comments, it's inspiring to see kids comfortable with parading their bleak beauty in front of millions.
Not to be confused with the 1989 TV series nor the recent Channel 4 documentary about the secretive world of female masking, these young men and women are committed to emulating a life in plastic. Ukrainian "Human Barbie" Valeria Lukyanova is probably the most well-known to mainstream audiences, amassing 370k followers on Instagram and 120k on her YouTube account, where the mesmerizing tutorial for her cartoonish makeup transformation has racked up over a million views. However that's nothing compared to the "how to look like a doll" video by YouTube sensation Venus Angelic, which has had over 14 million views since originally going viral in 2012. Other members of the doll squad include Anastasiya Shpagina, Alina Kovalevskaya, and Kiki Kannibal's younger sister Dakota Rose.
Beauty vlogging isn't just a girl's game, with gurus like Jeffree Star and Manny Gutierrez fighting gender norms with each "Fresh Summer," "Valentine's Day," or one-palette YouTube video. Androgynous internet overlord Jeffree Star started his transgressive career on MySpace, and though he was first a singer-songwriter, it's the videos of himself testing rainbow highlighter and $85 Christian Louboutin lip gloss that really get his fans going. On the less extreme end of the scale, UK makeup artist Wayne Goss frequently demonstrates beauty looks on his own face.
YouTubers like Morgan Joyce, NativeBeauty, and BreeAnn Barbie are spearheading an alternative online beauty subculture that's basically your standard makeup tutorial with much more metal. A sprinkling of sample videos: "How Much Does My Body Cost? Piercing Edition," "Who Does My Tattoos," and "Hair Changes & My Mom." Throw in the odd lifestyle video (i.e. NativeBeauty's "Stalker Fuckboy") and the tens of thousands of piercing and tattoo "experience" videos and you've got quite the extensive community. It's little wonder i-D's own mini-doc starring alternative alien princess Grace Neutral has accumulated almost two million views.
Text Hannah Ongley