What Makes A Celebrity Beauty Brand Authentic?
Experts weigh in.
In a culture that is obsessed with beauty and fascinated by celebrity, you’d think that when the two come together, the result would be unstoppable. As it turns out, the public's reaction to star-backed lines is often the opposite. With no signs of going away anytime soon, celebrity brands have become the most polarizing category in beauty, causing more and more consumers to be repelled by it entirely. While it’s tough to pinpoint the exact moment when these brands started eliciting eye rolls, the sheer volume of them is arguably a major factor. So if it feels like a new celebrity brand is launching every week, it’s probably true. According to WWD, over 20 celebrities launched lines in 2021 alone.
However, not all celebrity brands are met with the same sense of disdain. Those that are successful and well-received are ones the public perceives to be “authentic,” and this credibility directly correlates to the star’s involvement in creating the products.
But when the goal of any brand is to make money, and none of the actors and pop stars in the category are makeup artists, estheticians, or cosmetic chemists, how authentic can any celebrity brand really be? Not to mention, why do these stars end up with their own lines over others?
How The Celebrity Beauty Brand Boom Started
In order to understand how the celebrity beauty brand category came to be, it’s important to know how it started. Following the celebrity fragrance boom of the 1990s and early aughts, every other facet of beauty — including skin care, hair care, makeup, and body care — also became viable business opportunities for Hollywood.
Many point to Elizabeth Taylor’s White Diamonds perfume, released in 1991, as the first celebrity foray into the fragrance space. Glow by Jennifer Lopez came a little over a decade later, igniting the category for the next several years, with stars like Britney Spears and Paris Hilton launching successful collections spanning 29 and 35 scents, respectively.
In makeup, supermodel Iman launched her namesake line Iman Cosmetics in 1994, focusing on affordable complexion products for women of color, which were still hard to find at the time, and setting the groundwork for future brands to come. And in 2013, Drew Barrymore created Flower Beauty, a popular makeup collection currently sold at Ulta Beauty and Walmart.
But in 2015, thanks to the perfect storm of E! Entertainment, Instagram, and Juvéderm, Kyle Jenner launched Kylie Cosmetics with the viral Lip Kit, which built a billion-dollar brand that she sold to beauty conglomerate Coty in 2019. Jenner may have reinvented what a celebrity brand could be, but Kylie Cosmetics worked to tee up the line that would ultimately redefine the category: Fenty Beauty.
In 2017, Rihanna’s launch of 40 shades of foundation was a watershed moment that began to revolutionize the beauty industry. At the time, expansive shade ranges were mainly carried by artistry brands like MAC and MAKE UP FOR EVER. Fenty not only made inclusivity a cornerstone of its brand, it became table stakes for the rest of the industry.
Kylie Cosmetics and Fenty Beauty may have launched less than 10 years ago, but the state of celebrity has shifted since both brands hit the market. Jennifer Anniston (who recently started her own hair care brand, LolaVie) recently told Allure, “There are no real movie stars anymore.” Hyperbolic, maybe, but there seem to be numerous stars with enough notoriety to sell a product on their name (and face) alone.
Caitlin E. Lawson, assistant professor of communication and media studies at Emmanuel College, adds more context to Aniston’s quote. “These analyses are predicated on the notion that ‘stardom’ necessitates some distance from audiences, an air of mystique and unattainability,” she says. Lawson adds that some level of fame — even if it’s small — is more attainable now due to social media, and this notoriety tends to demand constant disclosure and parasocial relationships with one’s audience.
It’s a complete 180 from the air of mystique that classic movie stars held, but this modern approach to fame is what makes it easier than ever to get into the beauty space, even if you don’t have Jenner’s trend-setting style or Rihanna’s star power.
How Today’s Celebrity Beauty Brands Get Made
Today, a number of celebrity lines are created by beauty brand incubators. These are companies that can produce a product under one roof without unnecessary steps such as formulation, testing, packaging, and production, which can cut the timeline from conception to market down from two years to a matter of months. Given that incubators function as a one-stop shop, they are an attractive turnkey process for someone looking to start their own brand.
So if any celebrity can approach an incubator with their built-in audience, a team, and most importantly, money, what entices these companies to greenlight a brand? Scott Kestenbaum, chief growth officer at Maesa, a beauty brand incubator, says it comes down to the purpose, credibility, and authenticity of the celebrity.
“The brand must have a genuine reason to exist outside its founder,” he explains. “If the brand solves an unmet consumer need and pushes the boundaries beyond what already exists, it has a better chance for success.” He goes on, “… With some notable exceptions, there's very little correlation between a founder’s top line popularity and the commercial success of their beauty brands. What matters most is credibility.” He says that in today’s age of radical transparency, it’s become impossible to fool consumers.
Charlene Valledor, president and co-founder of SOS Beauty, a beauty brand and product innovator and incubator, also speaks to the importance of authentically showing up in the community you’re trying to enter.
She says for the brand to be successful long-term, the customer needs to know the star has put in the work — other than their face and name. “Many of these celebrities have spent years living these extremely private lives and have worked hard to protect a specific persona, then all of a sudden, two months before they launch a brand, they go on a whirlwind campaign to make themselves appear relatable and accessible. Needless to say, it doesn’t ring true,” she elaborates.
With that, it’s no coincidence the most successful celebrity brands are headed by stars with a history in their categories. Ahead of the June 2022 launch of Rhode, Hailey Bieber spent years doing “get ready with me” videos and talking about her favorite products on her YouTube channel, which worked as a direct, personal line of communication to her fans. “Hailey Bieber had TikTok studying her beauty routine like SATs were on the line,” says Kirbie Johnson, beauty writer, culture critic, and co-host of the beauty podcast Gloss Angeles. “When she eventually teased her brand Rhode, it seemed like a natural extension of her interests.” Johnson expands, “Halsey I think is [another] great example of this. They do their own makeup and have for years — even for [their brand] about-face’s photo shoots. The packaging is fun, the products are great.”
In lieu of using an incubator, Halsey launched about-face with industry veterans Jeanne Chavez and Dineh Mohajer, who have a track record of success with their brands Hard Candy and Smith & Cult. The growing collection of makeup products is fueled by artistry and influenced by Halsey’s painting, songwriting, and beauty looks on and off stage.
“[They] launched products that were exciting to use,” Johnson says. “Even though this is a money-making endeavor, you believe Halsey uses the products and knows what works (and what doesn’t) within the makeup-sphere.”
The Expectations Of Celebrity Beauty Brands
The parameters of what makes a brand authentic seem to change depending on the star at hand. In 2021, Harry Styles launched Pleasing, a lifestyle brand, with four nail colors, two skin care products, and a sweatshirt. Styles had long incorporated colorful manicures into his aesthetic, so the launch seemed like a reflection of his personal brand. The only thing that seemed to be removed from Pleasing was Styles himself.
Johnson notes, “I do think there’s a double standard. Oddly, I feel men get it easier than women. Pleasing had a writeup in Business of Fashion recently to the tune of, ‘How Harry Styles Built a Nail Polish Empire.’ I remember simply reading the headline and scratching my head — his fan base certainly hypes the products, but within the beauty community, Pleasing is not regular fodder. I can’t recall the last time I even heard about a launch. …I don’t see people talking about this brand outside of his fan base.”
What Pleasing is praised for is the very same thing that other brands are critiqued upon. Johnson notes that while Styles was lauded for his “hands-off approach” in the story, because it created an air of mystery, stars like Ariana Grande, who is active with her brand R.E.M. Beauty, have come under fire in the beauty community for not appearing as connected to their brands as Selena Gomez or even Lady Gaga.
On this double standard, Lawson says, “We can’t ignore the impact of sexism and the glass escalator effect that can make men very successful in the beauty and fashion world while women face greater critique. But in the online beauty circles I frequent, consumers are working to suss out if the products are legitimately good and their association with a celebrity is incidental or if the products are crappy-to-mediocre and merely a cash grab for the star.”
The Authenticity Debate
Both those in the industry and consumers routinely mention “authenticity” as what quantifies a successful celebrity beauty brand, but is the baseline for achieving this credibility? A star’s previous relationship with beauty, involvement with their brand, or both? And why are some celebrities judged more harshly than others? In an effort to avoid backlash, many stars have opted to circumvent the authenticity conversation by making it a cornerstone of their brand.
After writing an article detailing her choice to stop wearing makeup in Lenny Letter titled “Alicia Keys: Time To Uncover,” in 2017, Alicia Keys launched Keys Soulcare in partnership with e.l.f. Cosmetics in 2020. The line was introduced under the veil of self-care, resulting in a full collection of skin care supplemented with a few candles and journals. She’s since expanded the line into color cosmetics that enhance your skin rather than cover it up, a move that reflects the evolution of her personal less-is-more relationship to beauty, which is arguably relatable to many.
Selena Gomez’s Rare Beauty takes a similar approach as a beauty brand with a strong tie to mental wellness, which reflects her openness about her personal issues with mental health over the years. The products are all named with positive affirmations — sort of a Café Gratitude, but make it Sephora. With the launch of the brand’s nonprofit, The Rare Impact Fund, Rare’s mission and Gomez’s ethos have always seemed closely intertwined, deeming it more authentic than others in the space.
While Johnson’s assertion is that sometimes men have it easier when breaking into the industry, recent history has shown that may not be true across the board. Many of these brands' stories are still playing out in real time, but their potential for long-tail success has been questioned on arrival.
Last fall, Jared Leto (Twentynine Palms) launched a luxury skin care brand while John Legend (Loved01) came out with an affordable line. They were both met with the same amount of befuddlement from fans and consumers alike due to their lack of interest and history of involvement in the space. These celebrities are sex symbols, sure, but is that enough to make them viable skin care brands?
Kestenbaum says that if we look back in recent history, the answer is no. “David Beckham, arguably the most followed man on the planet, launched [House 99], a men's grooming line with L'Oréal, the world's largest beauty company. The brand, created by two powerhouses, infamously and quickly failed, as the founder lacked credibility within said space.”
An exception might be when the celebrity takes the role of a financier, rather than face – such as the case of Brad Pitt's Le Domaine, a luxury skin care line featuring an exclusive molecule scientists extracted from the grapes from the vineyard at Perrin family estate, Château de Beaucastel. Though the line was at first met with confusion, since it’s launch last fall, it’s slowly elevated beyond Pitt's name through the products’ science-based formulations.
On the other hand, Kim Kardashian, Kestenbaum explains, is a case study on how a celebrity’s ownership (and likely the decision-making) over a brand typically garners more success than a licensing deal. “The best study is Kim Kardashian, who entered cosmetics first through a licensing deal called Khroma Beauty. The brand was not a commercial success, as consumers did not believe it was an authentic extension of Kim. Afterward, she birthed KKW Beauty, which saw much commercial success and was acquired shortly after by COTY.”
The Future Of Celebrity Beauty Brands
If consumers are growing tired of the growing number of celebrity brands, and deeming a number of them as “inauthentic,” why do they keep coming? Valledor puts it plainly, “I think it's because anecdotally, there are success stories. … I’m sure it’s only natural to want that for yourself.”
Many celebrities are brands themselves with teams who run their operation. “It's not just the celebrities that are eager to start brands — it’s their teams (managers, their agents, their accountants), and these brand incubators and financiers and investors — there’s an army of people surrounding each individual celebrity that are all eager to get a slice of the $570 billion industry that is beauty and personal care, and they’re not going anywhere,” Valledor says.
Kestenbaum echoes this sentiment, but is quick to point out that there are exceptions to every rule. “The floodgates opened when Kylie's face graced the cover of Forbes as the youngest self-made billionaire… There is no doubt that consumer backlash exists due to so many celebrity brands launching in such a short time. And while some of that backlash is merited, some of it conveniently ignores the reality that many of the most relevant and bestselling brands in the market today are still celebrity and influencer-founded brands.”
Ultimately, authenticity is subjective and colored by an individual’s perceptions and experiences, and what we see in a star is often more a reflection on oneself than it is on the subject. So why do we expect it from celebrities and make it the benchmark of whether the products from their brands are worth purchasing?
The bottom line: To expect transparency from any entity whose aim is to make a profit off of you is setting yourself up for disappointment. Yes, you can be critical of celebrity brands, but you should equally question any brand that wants to take your money — especially while touting themselves as clean, sustainable, inclusive, planet positive, carbon neutral, and the other buzzwords increasingly used in the beauty industry.
And if a true parasocial relationship is what’s necessary for a celebrity to launch a brand with longevity, then you should keep an eye on how your favorite stars are moving on social media right now, because many are probably on the scene to launch brands in the coming years. But Lawson is quick to note that it is literally a celebrity’s job to perform.
“It’s important to note that for everyone, from micro-influencers to A-list stars, social media content is just as much a performance as anything else they do,” she says.