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Paola Mendoza, Moj Mahdara, Carmen Perez, Sarah Sophie Flicker, and Chloe Lukasiak at BeautyconNYC 2017
Paola Mendoza, Moj Mahdara, Carmen Perez, Sarah Sophie Flicker, and Chloe Lukasiak at BeautyconNYC 2017.
Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images

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What Happens When a Beauty Conference Brings Politics Into the Mix

Beautycon wants YouTube and Instagram beauty gurus to help “evangelize” for political causes.

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The first “fireside chat” on the schedule at Beautycon this past weekend wasn’t with a makeup guru with 3 million followers. It was with three organizers of the Women’s March.

Chloe Lukasiak, the 15-year-old former Dance Moms cast member, moderated the panel featuring Sarah Sophie Flicker, Carmen Perez, and Paola Mendoza. Gigi Gorgeous, a trans woman with 2.6 million YouTube subscribers and Beautycon’s host for the day, introduced the panel speakers. Alicia Keys’s “Girl on Fire” blared from speakers next to the stage and a stagehand shot metallic glitter from a gun as each woman walked up.

Gigi Gorgeous and metallic glitter.
Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images

Beautycon is a beauty media company that offers a subscription beauty box, creates digital content, and, most visibly, holds beauty festivals in New York City, Los Angeles, and London. Its goal is to get creators (YouTubers and Instagrammers who focus on beauty), their fans, and beauty brands together into a big room — in this case, a 200,000-square-foot warehouse complex at the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal. Moj Mahdara, Beautycon’s CEO, says it’s all about fandom. And now, increasingly, politics.

“We as a company want people to know where we stand on social issues,” Mahdara said to me in the Beautycon VIP area, where people stopped constantly to hug her in between grabbing glasses of wine and checking out the beauty swag on display. “We made a very conscious effort to reflect the times we’re living in. We’re not afraid. If you don’t like us for what we have to say, we’re fine with that.”

To that end, Beautycon’s organizers programmed the Women’s March panel; one on body positivity with plus-size model Tess Holliday; and one at the end of the day on beauty and politics moderated by Teen Vogue’s editor-in-chief Elaine Welteroth, whose publication has been garnering a lot of attention for the fact that, yeah, teens want to read about what is going on in the world. This isn’t the first time Mahdara has merged beauty and politics, though.

Back in July 2016, Mahdara approached Hillary Clinton’s campaign to set up a town hall meeting with the then-candidate and 90 YouTube creators in LA. According to an account in the New Yorker, reactions of attendees were mixed. One YouTuber told the publication, “I’m not going to lie, I’m not a politics person. I don’t follow Hillary on social; I only see the memes.”

A scene at Beautycon.
Noam Galai/Getty Images

Are the teens and young millennials who make up the majority of Beautycon’s attendees ready for in-your-face politics next to the Wet n Wild unicorn makeup sets that I saw dozens of people carrying? “Yes,” Mahdara says vehemently. “I mean, I’m a gay Iranian woman. They know what I am. I can’t pretend to be anything else.”

At the Women’s March panel, Lukasiak asked the organizers things like “What gave you the courage to organize the march?” and “What were the challenges?” The organizers were passionate and articulate in their responses, but there wasn’t a lot of discussion about how to get involved now — it was mostly a recap of events leading up to the march. The seats at the talk were about two-thirds full; it was the most sparsely attended of the talks I went to that day. To be fair, the panel was at 12:30 p.m. and general admission opened at noon. The main stage was also the farthest point from the entrance and there was a lot to be distracted by before you wandered back there.

“We both identify as feminists, and that looked like the coolest thing that was happening here today, but it seems like the least attended,” says Veronica, 26, who was attending with a friend who had received free tickets for Beautycon from her company. Veronica pointed to the long line at the booth of the makeup company next to the stage. “It’s like everyone is waiting in line for lipsticks and makeovers and, meanwhile, the founders of the Women’s March were just speaking and no one was here to listen to them. Just keep putting on lipstick while we all become handmaidens!”

Tess Holliday and other influencers at Beautycon.
Nicholas Hunt/Beautycon

It was a slightly harsh critique, because Beautycon is the most diverse, inclusive beauty event I’ve ever been to. Accepting that there should be no one particular standard of beauty is the first step in recognizing that certain factions of our government don’t feel that way — Beautycon excels at that message. And it is a conference about beauty, and a rare chance for attendees to interact with brands that they don’t usually have access to. One can’t really fault someone who may have paid up to $450 for a ticket for being excited about hitting up the Milk Makeup casting. There’s also been a lot of discussion about how beauty can be a sort of escape from the stress of the times we live in.

Arabelle Sicardi, who spoke on the Teen Vogue panel (which I unfortunately missed), already wrote beautifully here on Racked about how beauty standards are tied to race — and are absolutely political. The hope is that the teens and young 20-somethings who see a wide range of skin tones, hair types, and gender differences on their social media feeds will eventually realize that not everyone is as open-minded as they are, then get pissed off about it and take action.

But Beautycon is ultimately about commerce, which means that there are going to be some barriers to political action. Mahdara noted that there were almost three times as many beauty brands at the New York conference as last year’s. But companies, particularly larger corporations, are often reluctant to get involved in political discourse because, well, people in red states want lipstick, too. When Trump’s Muslim travel ban was first announced, some fashion and beauty companies came out against it, but most remained mum. As Beautycon gets more politically active, it will be interesting to see if companies continue to want to be associated with it.

The creators themselves also aren’t that politically active. The Teen Vogue panel featured Sicardi; Sir John, who is Beyoncé’s makeup artist; and Amani Al-Khatahtbeh, the founder of Muslim Girl, but none of the “celebrities” — the creators who inspire screeching the likes of which has surely only been heard at a One Direction concert — took to the stage for that or the Women’s March panel.

“I think the way to do it would be to get the people that these girls look up to, whoever is the beauty star of the moment, to espouse this,” says Veronica. “If you have the Women’s March movement leaders with whatever Instagram model is speaking next, maybe that would be a good idea. Find an entryway into their world.”

It was an issue among top YouTubers in general (though beauty personalities did not really enter that fray) during the election. Some faced backlash for choosing to remain apolitical and keep their views to themselves: take Taylor Swift’s much-maligned silence during the election. One Instagram beauty personality, Thomas Halbert, posted an Instagram after the election featuring a lip look that read “Fuck Trump.” Most of his followers were supportive, but he did get several negative comments on the post. Huda Kattan has also spoken out about the rhetoric against Muslims in the US. But in beauty particularly, creators don’t usually post many controversial things, unless you consider applying foundation with a condom controversial.

Mahdara acknowledged that this part is a challenge sometimes, and it’s one of the reasons she wanted the creators at the town hall with Clinton. “I was passionate about getting these [creators] engaged, not as PR but as people who have a large channel to consumers and who could be helpful in evangelizing votership and voting,” she explained. “So yes, it’s still complicated and it’s hard, but you have to get people addicted to a healthy diet of media. We want to be the voice of healthy news. But we can do better, we can always do better... but I think we’re trying to lean into who we are as a brand.” Whatever the motivation, Beautycon still feels genuine and earnest. Politicizing the event goes hand in hand with its mission of “challenging traditional beauty standards.”

While scrolling through Instagram stories to try to catch pieces of Welteroth’s panel, I came across a statement by Sir John at that panel that pretty much sums it all up. While a printed caption on the post read “With a person like this at the top, we need each other,” I’m pretty sure what he actually said on the audio was, “With a prick like this at the top, we need each other.” We certainly do. If a beauty gathering provides that, so be it.

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