The Obsession With Online Beauty Conspiracy Theories

Photographed by Kate Anglestein
Here are two facts about American beauty guru Jaclyn Hill: when she was 21 years old, she was arrested for driving with an expired licence and taken to Hillsborough County Sheriff's office in Florida, where she was photographed and her bail was set at $250. Six years later, when she released an eyeshadow palette in collaboration with makeup brand Morphe, one of the 10 shades – a matte orangey brown – was named Mugshot.
At first glance, it seems like the name is a fairly obvious nod to Hill’s past – one of the other shades, On Camera, arguably references the guru’s YouTube channel, which has 5.8 million subscribers. Yet to the 175,000 members of Reddit’s makeup artist gossip forum, r/BeautyGuruChatter, something seemed off. 
In 2019, a user logged on to the subreddit to post their take. "CONSPIRACY THEORY," they began, "Jaclyn Hill named one of her eyeshadows in the Ring the Alarm palette ‘mugshot’ so that when people google ‘Jaclyn Hill mugshot’ pictures of the palette come up instead of her real life mugshot." Over 1,000 people 'upvoted' the post. 
This kind of conspiratorial thinking is not unusual in the beauty community. In 2019 both the businesswoman Kylie Jenner and actress Millie Bobby Brown were dragged on Twitter, accused of faking their skincare routines. 
On 29th May 2019, Jenner posted a video of herself using her new Kylie Skin face wash before patting her face dry with a towel. Digital detectives quickly screencapped a moment of the video which showed that Jenner’s towel was covered with foundation, indicating that she didn’t use her own product properly or that the product didn’t work. She was also criticised for using a filter while filming the video. Four months later, Brown demonstrated how to use her own new skincare line in an Instagram video but was forced to delete the post after people claimed that she wasn’t actually applying any product to her skin. 

I think everybody deserves to know what's going on and the shady things that go on in the back end. 

Julia Mazzucato, YOUTUBER & author
There is an apparent air of distrust surrounding beauty culture which leads people to play detective on social media, looking for clues that might expose famous influencers. On another Reddit forum, r/muaconspiracy, 16,000 subscribers share conspiracies about creators daily. Did Jeffree Star deliberately release his Cremated palette during the coronavirus pandemic to drum up controversy and thus gain extra attention? Are gurus leaking their own lines to create hype? 
Theorists speculate about products as well as artists. Just a few questions regularly asked are: does the beauty industry push lipstick liquids because they expire quickly, forcing us to buy more? Were seven-step skincare routines designed to make us use products seven times faster? Are Sephora samples higher quality than the full-size ranges? Does primer actually do anything? 
Why exactly have conspiracies become so common in the makeup world, and what do they tell us about beauty culture? Who shares these theories, and why? Is there any evidence at all for these claims? 
The Jaclyn Hill mugshot theory falls apart under minor scrutiny. Hill has tweeted about the mugshot in the past and included it in a YouTube video, so it clearly isn’t something she’s hiding. Yet Hill is a controversial figure in other respects: last year, her long-awaited lipstick line proved to be defective, with fans discovering hair and dirt inside the formula. Over the last decade, beauty YouTubers have transformed from small-time, best friend-type figures to powerful millionaires with their own ranges, creating an atmosphere of distrust in the process. 
"I think everybody deserves to know what’s going on and the shady things that go on in the back end," says Julia Mazzucato, an 18-year-old YouTuber from LA who uploaded a video entitled "BEAUTY BRAND CONSPIRACY THEORIES" in April. "A big part of beauty content is recommending products… And I think over time, especially as shady dealings have come into the public eye, a lot of people have lost trust and are just generally more on guard." 
Mazzucato’s video has been watched over 30,000 times and she says it was her best performing video that month. In the 24-minute clip, she listed 10 different conspiracy theories, speculating that brands intentionally leak palettes; release non-inclusive foundation shade ranges to drum up controversy and thus get free press; and release old formulas repackaged as new. She also argued that influencers sign long-term contracts with brands rather than sign up to create one-off sponsored videos – this way, influencers don’t have to declare that a video is sponsored by a brand because it technically isn’t, so they can promote the brand’s products without using the hashtags #ad and #spon. 
"I do definitely believe that a lot of those things do go on, and I thought it was really important to share that with my audience," Mazzucato says of her motivation to create the conspiracy video. As she now has her own management team and makes money from her YouTube channel, Mazzucato wants to "share some of that knowledge" with her subscribers. Ultimately however, the theories she speculates upon remain theories – there is no hard evidence that any of her claims are true. "It’s a lot of fun to think about these things even if they’re not necessarily 100% factual," Mazzucato says. "I think the truth lies somewhere in between." 
Dr Daniel Jolley, a psychology lecturer at Northumbria University and expert on the psychology of conspiracy theories, tells me that believing in conspiracies can be fun – they also help us to feel unique, as though we’re seeing things other people don’t. He explains that while conspiracies accompany almost all serious social and political events, conspiracy theories do not inherently have to be about earth-shattering topics.
"Mistrust in those who are perceived to be powerful – which can include the government, but this would also include big industries – is strongly associated with conspiracy beliefs," Daniel says. "Conspiracy believers do not trust these groups of people." 

I think it's important to question what you're doing and what you're seeing and why you buy things. I guess it's really just trying to save your money.

Michelle Platti, YouTuber
How, exactly, has there come to be so much distrust in the beauty industry? For starters, it’s because the community is no stranger to a scandal. Genuine conspiratorial events are proven to have occurred, such as when the nonprofit Truth in Advertising discovered that Kim Kardashian had 100 Instagram posts in which she didn’t properly disclose her relationship with the brand she was referencing, or when ColourPop admitted that it does have a connection with Kylie Jenner’s Lip Kit range after months of fan speculation (although Jenner’s formula was not the same as ColourPop’s, like some theorists claimed). Meanwhile the sheer quantity of beauty products in our lives has exploded – in the UK, the beauty industry has grown by 17% in the last five years
At the same time, the rise of Instagram and YouTube has ensured that cosmetics have become an entire culture in their own right.
Michelle Platti is a 22-year-old YouTuber from Florida who created a video titled "BEAUTY INDUSTRY CONSPIRACY THEORIES" in October 2019. "I think it’s important to question what you’re doing and what you’re seeing and why you buy things," she says. "I guess it’s really just trying to save your money," she laughs, "I feel a lot of products don’t work as well as beauty gurus say they do." Like Mazzucato, Platti’s theories are rooted in doubt. "You’ll see something a beauty guru has reviewed super positively and you could go to Sephora’s actual reviews of the product and people won’t like it at all."
In Platti’s video, she begins by talking about how makeup is overpriced compared to its production value and says this "scamming" is evidence that conspiracies may also be true. She then speculates that beauty brands jumped on the paraben scare to make products which are both more expensive and expire more quickly, and argues that brands lie about products being sold out to create hype. In an earlier beauty conspiracy video from 2018, Platti argued that some lip balm contains alcohol and thus dries your lips; that brands send better formulas to beauty gurus and sell cheaper versions of the product to the public; and that irritants are added to foundation to provoke people’s skin so that they then need more foundation.
"The beauty industry feels very manufactured in a very specific way, it’s very poster perfect, but behind the scenes I think it’s definitely not like that," says Platti. Like Mazzucato, her theories remain theories. "I think the mystery aspect is what makes it kind of interesting." 
That said, both Mazzucato and Platti say they made a conscious effort not to veer into 'tea' territory with their videos. Over the last few years, gossip forums about beauty gurus have exploded in popularity and many posters on these forums go too far, with their mistrust of creators becoming all-consuming. Last year, beauty journalist Sali Hughes spoke out about her experience with "bullying" trolls who accused her of lying about sponsorships by not disclosing when she was paid to talk about products. She denied these accusations, said the trolls had caused her "deep trauma" and asked her followers to boycott the gossip forum Tattle Life
"I tried to be cautious – I didn’t want to name too many names," Mazzucato says of her video. She herself has dealt with hateful and speculative comments on forums, and says it’s "the hardest part of the job". Platti says: "I think if a beauty guru saw my conspiracy videos, they wouldn’t be mad about it." For Mazzucato and Platti, conspiracy theories are a way to question creators in a fun, slightly silly way, rather than a gossiping, malicious way. 
Nonetheless the beauty industry or, rather, the adjacent cottage industry of unpacking beauty gossip and conspiracy theories, remains dramatic: tea channels are thriving, while beauty guru videos inspire comment after comment on gossip threads. 
"I didn’t even realise how much drama went on in the beauty community until I started watching videos on other parts of YouTube," Mazzucato says. "There’s new drama all the time… And then there’s the baking YouTube, where nothing this wild ever happens." 

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