Twenty-one-year old JJ Smith, known as Sailor J, may have only burst onto the YouTube scene four months ago but she’s already garnered over 200,000 follows and more than a million views for her videos. Not content with teaching us all how to do a winged liner, Sailor J injects serious political savvy and feminist wit into her content. Her beauty vlog parodies cover everything from contouring ("If the men know we can shape shift, it's over") to 'bedroom eyes' ("A term used by gross men at the club who realise you’ve shown no outward signs of wanting to mate with them") and she even produced a blistering takedown of the cultural appropriation in Native American-inspired makeup tutorials over Thanksgiving.
We caught up with this fresh new face to talk unrealistic beauty standards, the challenges of being political online, and life in the military.
So how did you get started?
I’m in the US Air Force so I’m pretty far away from my siblings. They’re back in St. Louis and I’m in Florida. My sister just got to 11, so she’s hitting that age when she’s into boys and dating and stuff like that but she’s also into makeup. I was off sick that day so I just made the video for her as a joke (Getting A Man 101) because she had literally been messaging me saying this boy had been telling her to wear mascara or he wouldn’t ask her out or some shit like that. The video was meant to be satirical – giving men the makeup tutorial they actually want to see because everything always comes back to them, makeup is for them. It was just a joke. I put it online and I thought it would just be for my sister but it just sort of blew up.
It’s all happened so quickly!
I was panicking because I wasn’t sure how I would be able to top the first video. What if it wasn’t funny? But the second video (Contouring 101) actually did crazy better and it’s just suddenly taken off in a big way. This all happened in October of last year. It has felt like a crazy few months. I always marvel at just how quickly things change. It was so weird for me because I’ve never been used to having so many people know me or talk to me and interact with me. I was always the kid with like, two likes on Instagram. I’ve never felt this visible.
Is there a responsibility that comes with that?
Definitely. After Contouring 101, I was getting hundreds and thousands of subscribers a day. I had a fan who is Native American message me to say that she loved my videos and that it was great not having to watch white girls doing ‘Native American-inspired makeup’ on YouTube. I had no idea how much was out there. So I made a parody video about it and it got me a lot of hate but it also got me a lot of thanks, because there were a lot of people that didn’t feel super visible before then that were now feeling, 'Oh I’m being heard'. After that, I think it was expected that every video of mine would be super political or something that provocative. I don’t mind dealing with opinions that big but it’s not a comfortable place to be all the time. This one was for a subscriber specifically about something she cared about but not every battle is a battle for me to care about. Sometimes I just want to talk about Harry Potter characters and do drunk readings of Twilight! Not everything I post is going to be political.
Is it tough being a feminist on YouTube?
I think people think your YouTube has to be just one thing. But my interests are everywhere and about everything and I want to reflect that. Whenever I deviated – to do funny videos about college or star signs – I got a lot of commentary that I was a sellout or a bad feminist or something. The point of feminism, at least to me, is women being able to do what they want to do. Whether it’s girls who want to stay home and be a housewife or those who want to go off and have big careers. There are a lot of girls who are uncomfortable using the word feminist because there’s this stereotype attached to it and when ignorant people reinforce that it really dents the movement as a whole. That’s why I responded with I Have Failed My Fellow Woman.
Why satirise beauty?
I love makeup. I used to follow a lot of Instagram models and a lot of them would do makeup tutorials. I think it’s cool because they are teaching people but a lot of them look the same and it’s all very conventionally pretty. I don’t have a problem saying that I am not conventionally pretty. But I still belong in front of a camera and have all the rights to dabble with all these beauty tools and I can still show all these people what it looks like to have someone like me do it. Being funny with makeup is a good way of learning to not give a shit. I don’t think it’s safe to take anything seriously.
How representative do you think the beauty industry is?
We have a set idea of what beautiful is and it’s like: skinny noses, perfect teeth, high cheekbones and light skin tones. It just shouldn’t be acceptable anymore. I don’t even know how we skated by for this long with it being okay. When it comes to skin colour, I wish people wouldn’t shun dark-skinned women so much, I really do. You see beauty companies and they just have one fucking shade for black people – as if they’re all one colour. It’s like you don’t exist. When it comes to beauty, we look to the industry to see what a standard should be. I’ve had people message me asking me how I do my hair and that’s totally unrelated to my videos but just because they automatically think I know something that they don’t. If there had been a girl when I was growing up that I could look to who had my crazy curly hair, I could have seen her as popular and beautiful and felt that it was okay to look like that.
What do you do when you’re not making YouTube videos?
I actually love wrestling and used to do it a lot – I even had a manager. I’m a super big book nerd and I’m really into fan fiction, like Game of Thrones or Harry Potter stuff. I love seeing how creative people can be about it. I am writing my first book at the moment and really hoping to send it out to agents.
What’s it like being in the military?
The way you say military is really funny – it is exactly how I say it when I’m being dramatic; ‘Ohhhhh the military has stolen my yooouth!’ in my terrible fake British accent. I joined up when I was 18 because I was so broke, I was tired of being in the hood and it was a great way out. Largely I work in maintenance, on the big jets, but I was the only girl in my shop for so, so long. It was not a great environment. The military needs its own #TimesUp like… yesterday.
Plans for the future?
I want to see my following grow and then speak about bigger issues, like people going through assault or depression. I would also love to do sketch comedy. I’d love to do SNL – or at least see more new faces, and more representation on SNL. I mean, Leslie Jones cannot carry all of our turmoil! I wasn’t comfortable in front of a camera but now that I am I’m like, 'GIVE ME ALLLL THE CAMERAS! I WANT THEM ALL!'