The Secret Instagram Group Airing The Beauty Industry’s Dirty Laundry
Fans love it, publicists fear it, and brands know it can make or break a campaign.
A curvaceous perfume bottle that bears a striking resemblance to a 1990s classic. A palette of what looks like eyeshadow, with ingredients not FDA-approved for use around the eye. A new foundation coming out with only 11 varying shades of beige. Since launching in April 2018, Estée Laundry’s Instagram page has specialized in calling out shady behavior in the beauty world, and has since evolved into the industry’s biggest and most powerful watchdog.
But for an account that is now ubiquitous among beauty insiders, Estée Laundry started out a complete mystery. With just a few thousand followers to its name, the group seemed to emerge out of thin air, and quickly made clear its mission: to do for the beauty industry what Diet Prada had done for fashion. So, just like Diet Prada pointed out designer bags getting ripped off by major retailers or cultural appropriation on the runway, Estée Laundry called out mass brands for copying high-end designer packaging or white models wearing enough extra-dark bronzer to be considered borderline blackface.
The co-founders of Diet Prada were unmasked in May 2018, but the identity of Estée Laundry remained entirely anonymous — until October, when the account got more eyes on it than ever and we got some answers. That month, a former Sunday Riley employee leaked an email to Reddit showing that the popular skin-care brand had asked its employees to leave reviews of its products on Sephora.com.
View this post on Instagram
So @SundayRiley has admitted to posting #FakeReviews on @Sephora. #Laundrites, what do you think of this response? Do you think this is an ethical way to address potential negative reviews from competitors? We don’t think so. 🙅🏼♀️ Do you? 🤔#SundayRiley #FakeSephoraReviews #Sephora #CanWeTrustSundayRiley
The thread went viral, as did Estée Laundry’s post featuring a screenshot of the leaked email, which had also been sent to their DMs — a place that up until that point had mostly been filled with relatively harmless industry gossip.
In the hours following the leak, Sunday Riley addressed the account directly in a comment on one of Laundry’s Instagram posts. “The simple and official answer to this Reddit post is that yes, the email was sent by a former employee to several members of our company,” the brand said. “At one point, we did encourage people to post positive reviews at the launch of this product.” The brand later issued a formal apology and recently settled their complaint with the Federal Trade Commission.
Estée Laundry’s followers doubled that month, from around 5,000 to 10,000. (They’re now at 108,000 and counting.) Soon, it was making headlines in outlets like Women’s Wear Daily, i-D, and Dazed, where it was revealed through interviews that the account is not just run by a single person. Refinery29 spoke with Laundry’s only U.S. member, who lives in Los Angeles; she revealed exclusively that the international collective is comprised of at least five members. They’re all friends who currently work in the beauty industry in various forms, which is why relative anonymity remains essential. “We don’t want to get in trouble with our jobs,” Laundry says.
People see the beauty industry as something that’s glamorous, so we wanted to show that there’s actually a dark side to it.
The decision to create the Instagram account in the first place, as an impartial third-party “monitor” to the latest beauty industry news and happenings, came about naturally: They’d all grown sick of the same outdated norms they continued to see in an industry that should have been evolving. “We saw that there was a lack of transparency and inclusivity and different things that weren’t being addressed by the beauty industry,” Laundry says. “People see the beauty industry as something that’s glamorous, so we wanted to show that there’s actually a dark side to it. We decided there needs to be an informal watchdog for the community, and a platform to provide a voice for others.”
The experience with Sunday Riley in particular felt like a shift in purpose toward something greater than copycats and gossip. “That was the turning point,” Laundry says. “That’s when we realized that we wanted to talk about important things.” The group wielded its power to change the industry in ways they saw fit, targeting everything from the diversity of shade ranges and campaigns, to monitoring sustainability in the industry, and paying close attention to things like cultural appropriation, insensitivity, and workplace bullying. Soon, that exposure led to measurable change.
Like in April, when Fenty Beauty released a new shade of its Killawatt Freestyle Highlighter called “Geisha Chic.” “We got a lot of DMs about that one, so we posted it on our Instagram Story and asked, basically, ‘How do you feel about this?’” Laundry says. Within days, Fenty Beauty pulled the product from shelves and formally apologized to fans. “What we’re trying to do is create a positive culture of change,” Laundry says. “So when we call out brands, we’re not trying to get on their case or try to make them feel bad. We don’t want to be feared, per se, but we do want people to do better.”
The responses from beauty brands have been mixed: They’ve had founders and company slide into their DMs to thank them for their work, but they’ve been blocked by others.
For some people who work in the industry, especially those in marketing, Estée Laundry has been an undeniably influential new player in the game. “I think Estée Laundry is a visible force that is showcasing the sentiments a lot of people feel right now,” Eitan Reshef, president of the full-service digital agency Blue Wheel Media, told Refinery29. “They are creating a log of this information. We as consumers should be holding brands accountable. The general attitude of Millennials and Gen Z is that they care. They care how much it costs, they care that it doesn’t offend people, they care about its impact.”
Reshef says that the way he approaches and works with brands has changed since Laundry entered the scene. “There’s an extra layer of conscientiousness,” he says. “There’s now a level of inclusivity that we need our brands to understand is demanded of them from their customers. In addition to that, brands have to be communicative. If someone complains about your product or something you do, and you don’t respond, then you’re guilty. Consumers now want real-time responses because of social media.”
For those who work in beauty PR, Laundry has also become a tool, a feed that shows which campaigns, products, and brands are grabbing people’s attention right now — and whether that attention is good or bad.
“Estée is often one of the first to post about new campaigns, so scanning the comments serves as one way to temperature check audience sentiment and anticipate industry news before it trends,” Mallory Blair, the CEO of Small Girls PR, told Refinery29. “As a communications professional, sources like Estée, which help us quickly get a read on how campaigns or brand updates are landing, are helpful market research to inform our own brand strategies and recommendations.”
For all the positive influence they seek to have on the industry, Laundry also admits that they’ve had their missteps. Back in December, as Brandon Truaxe was being ousted from his company Deciem and exhibiting strange behavior on social media in the weeks before he was found dead on January 21, Laundry posted pictures of his dating profile from a follower he’d matched with. (Laundry estimates that 60% of its content comes directly from its followers.)
“That was one time when we realized we shouldn’t share personal information about people,” Laundry says. “We thought it pertained to the situation because of what was going on. It was not right of us, and we quickly took it off the page. That was definitely a mistake that we made.”
Even now, more than a year after their first post, Laundry is still figuring out how to balance holding the industry accountable while establishing a voice and tone of their own. That’s why, in addition to calling out the worst parts of the industry, they’re making a point to shine a light on the campaigns and brands that are doing things right, like Squish Beauty’s campaign that featured models of various sizes and abilities.
View this post on Instagram
We are feeling the new #SquishBeauty campaign! The vegan and cruelty-free beauty brand, founded by model, author and anti body-shaming activist #CharliHoward, was created to focus on embracing ‘flaws’ instead of hiding them. Per #DazedBeauty, Charli wants to normalise the fact that nobody has totally flawless skin. By casting models with diverse skin types (including models with acne), she hopes we can all become more confident about our appearance. The models range from size 0 to size 20, and 4”11 to 6”2 in height—all bodies are un-retouched, raw and real. We’d like to see more beauty campaigns like this! #Laundrites, what about you?💄 [Photo credit: @Squish.Beauty]
The members are also working out how best to grow the Estée Laundry platform. There’s been talk of launching a Facebook page, or even a subreddit, to give people more opportunities to directly connect. Unlike Diet Prada, they remain devoted to staying away from sponsored posts or partnerships with any brands, preferring to attempt to monetize independently. This summer, that included their own merchandise: a sticker, makeup bag, and fanny pack with their logo on it, sold via Society6.
“We launched never thinking it would get that big,” Laundry says. “We’re here to make positive change, and in this day and age with social media, brands can’t ignore us. People demand answers quickly; they want change quickly. That’s how it’s going to be for the foreseeable future.”
Blair says, “As long as accounts like these are presenting perspectives that are well-researched and allow brands to weigh in, they’re holding the industry to a higher standard. Who isn’t for that?”
Estée Laundry was just named Refinery29's Influencer Of The Year. Check out the rest of the 2019 Beauty Innovator Award winners.