"Social Media…it's honestly completely changed my life," celebrity hairstylist Jen Atkin told me via phone from Ojai, Calif., in late August. She was taking a mini vacay with her husband, which I knew because I, like millions of other people, watch her Snapchat daily.
"I was an early adapter to it," she continued. "I just thought it was an opportunity to share my day at the time. It wasn't as promotional, it was more just storytelling and I feel like that's one thing that's definitely changed. Now people are really starting to realize the power of Instagram and Snapchat and are using it in smart ways to promote business."
Indeed, social media has rapidly and irreversibly changed the beauty business and Atkin is arguably the most famous celeb glam squad member to turn her personal photos, videos and ideas into a digital empire.
Currently, the hair pro has her own name-brand accounts on all the major social platforms (Instagram, SnapChat, Twitter, YouTube, Facebook) as well as equally active accounts for her newly launched hair care line, Ouai, and her passion project, Mane Addicts, a community for hair pros, enthusiasts and novices.
But not all celebrity makeup artists and hairstylists have been swept up in this sea change. In fact for many, social media can be a sensitive subject.
BREAKING THE RULES:
To understand why this technology is almost taboo you have to understand the history of the glam squad.
Since basically forever the celebrity beauty industry was, like the Hollywood industry it serves, nearly impossible to break in to. If you got in, you would assist for years to prove yourself and build a reputation. Along the way, a critical lesson to be learned was set etiquette. And perhaps the number-one rule when dealing with celebs was: Privacy above all and no cell phones.
"I had [legendary photographer] Steven Klein holler at me because I pulled out my phone to exchange a number," celebrity makeup artist Fiona Stiles remembered.
And even if you did somehow get a rare photo, sharing it was a copyright nightmare. "At that time any images I had, I would never post because I had to get model rights, photographer rights, I didn't own the content," explains Benefit Global Makeup Master Jose Rivera. "And taking a picture with a celebrity? You would never do that! It was bad business – you would never ask a celeb for a photo."
How things have changed. Today there are almost more images of celebs prepping for a shoot or red carpet than from the event itself. Even more notable is that these special BTS images are becoming essential to an artist's relevance. Because nowadays, if you don't Instagram it, did it even happen?
"If you don't take a picture yourself or get a picture from Getty Image, Wire Image or from the pap and post one, you weren't a part of it. You're not working. It's kind of this way of showing that you're thriving and working, and there's pressure…if you play that game. Not everyone is playing that game," explains celebrity makeup artist Pati Dubroff.
Take Stiles, for example. "Even people I've known for 10 years I don't take pictures with them—I'm old school in that way, I'm not comfortable with that," she says. "And when we first started [using social media], some publicist wouldn't allow you to publish photos of their clients on the red carpet because they felt like you were being self-serving and self-promoting and doing a disservice to their client. That has definitely changed."
Another change? Status. Today, celebrity glam squad members have become almost as famous as their clients. So not only has the backstage world of beauty been pushed front and center but these artist themselves have been thrust into the spotlight.
"The new version of success is you are the star of your own sort of reality show of being a makeup artist or hairstylist," Chanel makeup artist Rachel Goodwin explained. "There are lots of really cool people doing this job, there are really interesting, compelling individuals doing this. Are they all brands on feet, walking reality stars? Maybe not. Are they incredible talents? Yes. It was so hard to earn your place before because it wasn't about that. It was about being subtle and having an understanding of your role, and being intuitive and sensitive was a key component to this collaborative art."
Adds Dubroff: "I know that more people know who I am than ever before but that is never, ever going to jeopardize me taking care of and putting the focus on the client that I'm there to support. I'm there to serve the person that's hired me. If you take that away and make it all about you, then you shouldn't do that. You should go do something else."
For this article I talked to nearly 20 celebrity makeup artists and hairstylists on-and-off the record and while opinions on social media varied more than thoughts on contouring, everyone agreed that social media has created a new division in the profession.
"I always look at it like there are different tiers of people," explained celeb hairstylist Sarah Potempa. "You have the icon stylists that have been around for 30 years, who most of them don't have social media. Then there's my group of people: Me, Mark Townsend, Hung Vanngo—we all came up assisting the icons and made it to the point that we were busy and had success without social media. Now there's a new tier of people who started when social media was around. And that's when it becomes a totally different game because it's like ‘Who are these people who have millions of followers?' They're not the icons and they're not the hard-working celeb stylists who've been doing this forever. It's this new crop of kids who are very creative and have a portfolio solely from social media."
Adds hairstylist David Pierre Pappalardo: "Back in the day, the only real way to promote yourself was by being excellent for years and years. And now with social media that is no longer always the case."
Yes, there are quite a few glam squad members who have gone from zero to 100, real quick. And I don't just mean their follower count; I mean their celebrity client list.
"It's just hard because the game has changed so much and when you've worked for decades slaving and assisting and then you see other people just sort of shoot to the top…It's not a bad thing, just different and sometimes it takes time for people to get used to different," Stiles pauses, then continues: "Here's the thing: I think that always happens, it's just a very public display of how it's happening now. It's very transparent."
Quite literally you can see it happening on Instagram or Snapchat right now.
"I can't believe how many followers they get. They're making so much money. I have to say I'm a little jealous. I look at what they're doing, to be able to give a shout out to a brand who will pay them for how many followers they have but they haven't put the work in and all the time I've put in 20 years," celebrity makeup artist Tina Turnbow candidly admits. "I dunno it's just instantaneous and it's great for them but I just feel like I need to make money too and I'm not sure where my place is in all this."
FOLLOWERS ARE THE NEW CURRENCY
Like most things in life, the green machine (those dollar, dollar bills, y'all) is what's driving this beauty industry overhaul.
"In the past, makeup artists like myself, were paid off our reputation, our portfolio. Today you're paid based off of that in addition to your social followers," says Rivera. "There are some makeup artists who make more money than I do and they have not even a smidgen of the experience but because they have 3 million followers...Well."
It's not like artists don't understand why this is. From a marketing standpoint this makes sense—brands want the most bang for their buck.
Explains Dubroff: "When it comes to any kind of brand sponsorship or even being considered for certain editorial, advertising jobs their looking at follower numbers because they know they're going to get more leverage out of the day with you by you posting and tagging them and expanding their brand awareness. It's gross but it also makes business sense. I think my big frustration is that we've all been around a long time, we've got very large bodies of work but we don't have 3 million followers. So, when brands are passing over us for them, based on their numbers, that's when it starts to feel really unfair because our experience and depth of work is so much more valuable. But obviously certain brands are seeing value in numbers as opposed to body of work, history."
You might be thinking: Well, why don't these artists just start playing the game and post more photos and Snap to get more followers?
But again, personality.
"Not all artists are good self-promoters and not all self-promoters are good artist," says Goodwin. "There is a huge amount of confusion around that. And a lot of artist are incredibly humble and don't feel responsible for their abilities and are humbled by it and they know their craft is something outside of themselves. It's bigger than just them."
Plus, access doesn't necessarily mean talent. And many pros told me that they feel that skill and the art isn't what's being celebrated right now, its celebrity.
NOT COOL, PRO:
While some artists aren't playing the social media game at all, others are going to great lengths to win at it. Lengths that many consider, well, cheating.
"Often it's not even makeup doing the transformation, it's using Photoshop skills. That's infuriating," rants Dubroff. "It's infuriating for someone to call themselves a makeup artist and have filtered and retouched so beyond, literally there are makeup artists that are working, that are respected—not just bloggers—and they're changing whole faces before they post their behind the scenes pictures. Its false advertising."
Skill being substituted for, ahem, "savvy" to earn followers is not exactly ethical or fair.
"Followers are the new currency. But it's not been quantified what they're actually worth that's where I'm so confused and I think a lot of people are bewildered," says Goodwin. "To say I have two or three million followers, what does that actually translate to when it comes to expertise?"
Now, here's where the real drama comes in: Several pros told me that some artists and stylists are using the new currency, followers, as a substitute for actual payment. That is to say, they are supposedly offering to do celebrities' makeup or hair in exchange for an Instagram, often with a side of Snapchat.
"I'm appalled when I hear about it because it's people like Patrick Ta that are sabotaging the entire industry by doing that. You know, lucky for him that he can afford to do that but the rest of us have to work for a living," Dubruff says, calling out one artist who several claim provides services for posts. "We've established our worth. We've had to cut our rates for so many reasons, and also because of people like him and others who will work for free, then it's bringing the whole standard down."
A rep for Ta declined to comment when contacted by E! News.
On the flip side, another celeb hairstylist told me: "I feel like it's a resource that is available and if you don't use your resources then you're cheating yourself. I don't feel like you should ever be ashamed of promoting yourself because if you don't do it, no one else will."
ALL ROADS LEAD TO THE KARDASHIANS
Remember when I said that money was the primary cause of all this change? Well, there's one other major factor: The Kardashians. Because isn't that always the case nowadays?
There seems to be a direct correlation between the artists seeing great success on social media and the first family of reality TV. Not only have the Kardashians launched a particular look and style but they've also launched a certain sensibility as well. One that's about complete access at all times.
It's the Kardashians' mastery of publicity and self-promotion that has seemed to have rubbed off on the pros that work with them. That, and a few million of their followers.
Because it's not just their powerful influence; it's also their numbers. The Kardashians don't have a glam squad—they have a glam squadron. I counted over 50 pros on their team. And several of these now-famous-pros were hand-picked by the sisters straight from obscurity/Instagram to join their vast beauty lineup. That's a huge influx of very visible artists and hairstylists for an industry that was once intimate.
It should be noted however that the pros working with the Kardashians aren't the same ones also working with traditional A-listers. With a few exceptions, the A-list (stars attending the Oscars, for example) are still very much into that whole privacy thing. Thus their glam squads are much quieter on the Gram and Snap.
"It's different leagues," one celeb pro told me.
DIFFERENT STROKES, DIFFERENT FOLKS
Then there's Jen. Atkin is truly unique. Yes, she works with the Kardashians but she put in her dues and assisted under big-name hairstylists. She has the respect of the old school and is revered by the new school. So it makes sense she'd be the one trying to bridge the gap: Who else has the reach?
Besides Mane Addicts, perhaps the best example of what Jen hopes to achieve came a week before I chatted with her. Atkin co-hosted an impromptu get-together with none other than the legendary makeup artist Pat McGrath. The pair invited friends and followers over to a fancy suite in Los Angeles for an afternoon of beauty—including Pat's brand new Lust004 lipstick kit—and, of course, shared the entire event live on social media.
It might seem surprising that McGrath, who has always been an artist's artist, was so open to the shift towards social media; but when I asked her about it she said, simply: "Everyone has different journeys, everyone has different clients, everyone has different talents."