The strange allure of true crime makeup videos on YouTube
“Learning about awful crimes while watching someone do their makeup makes it a little more palatable, as opposed to a regular true crime documentary.”
Still from YouTube
The 2014 release of the first season of Serial, a true crime podcast researched and presented by journalist Sarah Koenig, marked an important turning point in the genre. Along with the Netflix docuseries Making a Murderer and HBO’s The Jinx, both of which debuted a year later, true crime was revitalized: no longer was the genre synonymous with dingy gas-station paperbacks or late-night TV, it was now serious, investigative, high-brow and we all became addicted. Podcasts, YouTube videos and documentaries began to flood every online space with tales of serial killers, cults and kidnappings; some made independently, others backed by big-name studios like Netflix, HBO and Amazon.
A couple of years earlier — in the late 2000s — a very different industry experienced a similar boom online: makeup. Mainly sequestered to YouTube and pioneered by makeup artist Michelle Phan, a community of creators started posting makeup hauls, tutorials and reviews, to audiences in the millions. This resulted in brand deals for the gurus, building empires out of names like Jeffree Star and Huda Kattan.
Other than the fact that both of these communities occupy large swathes of the online space, it may seem like true crime and makeup don’t have much in common. One concerns tragedy and violence, the other, self-expression and creativity. One operates on the basis of objectivity, the other, of subjectivity; you don’t often find true crime content creators ranking their favourite serial killers. Often. And yet, YouTubers have found a way to blend these two seemingly incongruous interest areas: enter the true crime makeup video trend.
Bailey Sarian is often considered the founder of this genre. She has nearly five million subscribers and posts several times a week. She entered the YouTube makeup world the same way her contemporaries did; by releasing makeup tutorials and reviews. But in January 2019, she posted her first “Murder, Mystery and Makeup” video, focusing on the murder of Shanann Watts and her two daughters (this case got the Netflix treatment this past summer). In the video, a fresh-faced Bailey admits that the merging of these two topics may seem bizarre: “Let me talk about someone getting murdered while I do my makeup,” she says, mocking her own idea. She then admits she was worried about making the video: “I don’t even know how to approach [this subject] without sounding insensitive.”
Nonetheless Bailey proceeds and for some reason, as she’s blending her copper eyeshadow and discussing Shanann’s troubling relationship with her husband, we can’t look away. Bailey’s true crime and makeup videos lack a few of the hallmarks of the tutorial: she doesn’t name the products she’s using as she’s applying them, nor does she review the quality of the lipstick, blush or eyeshadow palette (these products are discretely mentioned in the description box). The videos don’t instruct on technique either, and they don’t relay the inspiration behind the color story. Bailey simply applies makeup and tells a story.
The effect of these videos on Bailey’s subscriber count — and by extension, success and popularity on YouTube — is revealing. Prior to the release of her “MM&M” series, her channel gained roughly one thousand subscribers per month. Since the release of her first true crime video, Bailey’s channel went from having a little over 100k subscribers to almost five million, in just two years. She had struck gold, and many makeup YouTubers, like Brittney Vaughn and Danielle Kirsty, followed suit.
Rebecca, a viewer from California, watches Bailey’s videos several times a week to wind down after work. “Learning about these awful crimes while watching someone do their makeup makes it a little bit more palatable as opposed to a regular true crime documentary,” she tells i-D. The makeup isn’t there to be promoted, it evidently acts as a buffer.
This sentiment might serve as the explanation for this trend’s popularity. Amandra Vicary, Associate Professor and Chair of the Psychology Department at Illinois Wesleyan University, says: “One potential reason these types of videos could be appealing to people is because the makeup component may take the focus off of the more horrifying true crime elements. In other words, maybe people want their true crime fix… but nothing too emotionally upsetting.”
In a recent study, Amanda, along with Professor R. Chris Farley, looked at how true crime reading habits compared between men and women. They found that women overwhelmingly chose true crime books over books about gang violence or war. They also found that women were much more interested in cases that focused on female victims. “It’s clear both from my own studies and from statistics concerning podcast listeners, that women are driving the current true crime phenomenon,” Amanda explains. “As makeup primarily caters to women, it makes sense that we would be seeing makeup tutorials along with true crime as opposed to, say, tutorials on how to fix one’s lawnmower.”
Amanda acknowledges that the nature of a true crime makeup video could be upsetting to those connected to the crimes, especially families. But they might be helpful too. “It’s possible some of these videos could do some good if they are drawing attention to things like missing people or wrongful convictions,” she says. “Throughout my work, I’ve come to know several men in prison who state they are wrongfully convicted, and I know they would love to have their stories out there, even if the person is doing their lipstick while they’re telling it.”
However, that would demand extensive research on the part of the creator, and YouTube doesn’t necessarily support that kind of investigation when subscribers expect three or four videos a week. “It tends to be the case that the best true crime documentaries and writing take a long time because extensive research is required,” says Jooyoung Lee, an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Toronto. “It requires you to get in there and learn about these cases and communities, and unfortunately, that type of research is not always feasible.”
Jooyoung explains that this constraint leads to the concerning trend permeating many true crime makeup videos: a sensational focus on the killer. “True crime is inundated with very superficial representations of what happened, and the easiest way to produce this content is by focusing on the killers because that is what is out in the news media: they have the quotes, they have the interviews, eyes are already turned towards the killers.”
Though rare, thoughtful, victim-centered true crime content is not exempt from YouTube. Kendall Rae, a YouTuber who has 2.6 million subscribers and whose channel is solely focused on true crime videos, has two Google Forms linked in every video: one for regular subscribers to request cases, another for family members of victims who want to bring awareness to their loved one’s story. This second form is one of the reasons Kendall’s videos are diverse in topic. She doesn’t solely cover infamous serial killers but brings attention to lesser-known crimes, speaking to the victim’s parents, friends and investigators often onscreen. Kendall also only posts videos once a week.
“[Family members] should definitely be a part of the narrative,” Jooyoung says. “After the cameras fade away, after the groupies disappear, after the mass media attention goes away, you still have people that are mourning. That has to be a part of the story too.”
Though true crime makeup YouTubers might’ve found success in smashing two buzzy corners of the platform’s content together, there is nothing stopping them from adopting a similar practice in their videos. Centering stories around victims could help serve as a needed reminder that there are real people behind these riveting stories; real people and communities whose lives are still affected by violent crime to this day.
It goes without saying that getting directly involved in investigations or attempting to solve cold cases should be left to professionals, not YouTubers, and that the ethics of the true crime boom should be considered in all content creation. Still, this trend stands as a testimony to both the creativity platforms like YouTube offer their creators and the resilience of true crime as a genre.