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Huda Kattan is a hugger. I’ve only “met” her once, and that was on a phone call two years ago. But that didn’t stop her from giving me an enthusiastic greeting, squeezing me warmly, and complimenting my hair, like we were old friends meeting up for our weekly coffee date. She’s completely disarming. It’s not surprising that her 17.3 million Instagram followers feel like they know her.
Huda’s combination of insane glamour mixed with a bit of self-deprecation and goofiness has helped her launch an indie beauty business called Huda Beauty. An auditorium full of beauty company executives came out to hear her speak at the WWD Digital Beauty forum in NYC this week, presumably to figure out how to capture some of her magic for their own brands.
Huda, who is in her mid-30s, was born in Tennessee to parents of Iraqi descent. She went to college in Michigan, where she studied finance. After a few false starts working in finance and as a recruiter, she ended up moving to Dubai with her husband. She finally decided to try to make beauty a career, became a makeup artist, and launched a blog. She was the makeup artist at several Middle Eastern royal weddings, and the blog led her to start successful YouTube and Instagram accounts. She launched Huda Beauty in 2013 in Dubai, starting with lashes, which sold out at Sephora there. She released lip liners and matte liquid lipsticks a few years later, and the growing collection is now carried at Sephora here in the US and at a few Sephora stores in France.
While the collection only features lashes, an eyeshadow palette, and lips so far, Huda gave me a few scoops about upcoming products. She had teased a new foundation on her Instagram Story last week, and confirmed that a foundation line, as well as a primer, are forthcoming. You can expect “over 20 shades,” launching around October of this year. Huda says the company is also releasing another eyeshadow palette in September and a highlighter palette as well.
“The [foundation] formula is special. I’ve tried so many foundations and it is full cover and it’s honestly changed my life,” says Huda. “Color matching for foundation is, like, the hardest thing I think I’ve ever done for beauty. I was doing fractions trying to find the percentage of people who have redness in their skin!”
Huda’s younger sister Mona Kattan, who helps run the business, was in town as well. I asked them if it was hard for them to promote other companies’ products on the Instagram page the way they used to. “I think what’s really hard, now that we’ve been in product development, we really know what’s good. It’s a lot harder to be excited about products when you saw where they went wrong and you saw where they skimped on cost,” Mona says. “But when we are excited, even when it’s a competing brand, we promote it.” Huda called out Kat Von D’s new liquid lipstick formula and Too Faced’s highlighter as products she’s loving, despite them being direct competitors.
I also asked the sisters, who are both Muslim-American and live in Dubai, about Trump’s travel ban. The Huda Beauty Instagram account shared a few images speaking out against it and supporting Muslims, which make up a large part of the Huda fanbase. “It broke my heart. I got scared coming into the States. I’m American, but I got really nervous,” says Huda, who ultimately didn’t have any issues entering the US. “It kind of broke my heart, but one of the best things about America is that it’s so inclusive and so welcoming. But I was looking at Instagram feeds and crying and was like, ‘I can’t tell my daughter this, that America’s not inclusive.’”
“We try to stay out of politics, but it does concern us,” Mona says. She notes that they let the political, often heated, discussion play out in the comments section without engaging. They’ll delete comments if someone starts attacking another commenter.
Heated discussions often pop up on Huda Beauty’s social media. Huda says she got a lot of flak for doing a boob contouring video a few years ago, and most recently again for testing out Vagisil as a makeup primer. She’s known for being a DIY’er, and she decided to test lube, milk of magnesia, and Vagisil. Vagisil was thrilled, however, and said in an email to them that sales “skyrocketed” for the brand after Huda said it worked as a primer.
In light of Snapchat’s impending IPO, I was curious about Huda’s opinion of the platform. “I have a very strong opinion on Snapchat! Snapchat is amazing peer-to-peer, but as an influencer there are things missing from it, number one being virality,” Huda says. “There’s absolutely no way to go viral on Snapchat, none, zero. My second issue is it’s so heavily dependent on user-generated content. Every 24 hours it goes away. If your users are not generating content, there’s nothing to watch. As a marketing tool for influencers, it has a long way to go. Instagram Stories has doomed Snapchat. It’s kind of taking over.”
Beauty is indeed strong on Instagram, but there is a bit of fatigue and sniping about how beauty influencers all look the same. Huda doesn’t disagree with this. “It is true that everyone on Instagram is starting to kind of look the same,” she says. “I did notice that when we post something and it’s kind of the same, you get a certain amount of likes, but when it’s different, people like it more. The reaction is much more powerful.”
Huda has scolded her content team, which aggregates posts from other users to the Huda Beauty Instagram page, for using homogenous images. She predicts that “individuality” and more natural looks will start to trend. “You’re still wearing layers of makeup but you want to look like you’re not. You’ll have glossy highlight, lighter contouring, no liner, more natural-looking lashes, bushier brows, more natural-looking lips.”
Her last admonition? “Embrace your flaws!” She then hugged me again, and turned to a fan who had been waiting patiently to take a selfie with her.