Jackie Aina's beauty career began long before many of YouTube's most famous influencers turned on their cameras.
It was August 2009 and YouTube was a budding community for makeup artists to modestly share their tips, a sharp contrast from the high production value and fanfare of today. "I might as well have been a completely different person," the 33-year-old California native exclusively told E! News. "I was living in Hawaii, I was married, I was in the Reserves."
With a budding interest in makeup and without full-time work, Aina was encouraged by a friend to start uploading her own content. "My best friend used to always tell me, 'You're there. You don't have anything else to do. You might as well upload videos,'" she recalled. "To be quite honest with you, I loved makeup, but I ironically wasn't really interested in being on camera."
Her first upload—an instructional for an "electric purple smokey eye"—is evidence of that as Aina used a mix of captions and pictures set to music, a stark change from the animated chit-chat she films for subscribers today. "I just needed something different and I was just looking for a change, a creative outlet," she said. "After months of literally telling my best friend 'No, I refuse to do YouTube,' I finally was, like, 'Well, I'm not really doing anything else. She's right. I might as well,' and so that's how I started."
More than a decade later, what began as a way to fill a void turned Aina into a leading beauty influencer, amassing 3 million subscribers and almost 362 million views to date.
Of course, much like TV networks or other media outlets, not all beauty YouTubers are the same. It's a personal platform, where viewers often feel like they're sitting down with their favorite influencer in person as pals. What the talent wants to say, share, teach or promote is up to them. But, as Aina, a Nigerian-American recalled, finding the right person to watch in the digital sea of emerging YouTube personalities was not easy a decade ago. "Makeup tutorials were wildly popular on YouTube," she said, "but it was really, really, really difficult finding people that looked like me."
By making her own content, she helped fill that gap herself while simultaneously building a brand as a candid, entertaining and, perhaps most importantly, reliable channel. While the YouTube world is a hot bed for brand sponsorships and paid advertising, Aina prioritizes keeping her viewers informed. "If I have a business relationship with the brand owner or the person who owns the product that I'm reviewing, I always try to critique it with facts because I would want the same respect given to me, but ultimately, I'm not obligated to lie about a product. I would never guarantee a positive review," she declared. "If it's a favorite of mine and I'm recommending it as a favorite, it's because I made that decision on my own."
In sharing her experience with viewers over the years, she also become an early champion of diversity and inclusion within the beauty community. While Aina drew attention to inequality in her videos, addressing brands and shade ranges that did not serve people of color, it was not always applauded. "I really do not like whenever I'm talking about this topic and people are like, 'You shouldn't be begging for inclusion. You should just be supporting your own,'" she said at the start of her "The Worst Beauty Brands EVER For POC!" video from December 2016. "It's not begging to just call it for what it is. This line lacks diversity."
It wasn't only her more blunt videos that drew critics, either. As Aina told E!, "Even as simple as describing a product that works for my complexion to some people was like me being radical and me politicizing makeup, which is quite silly when you think about it because I'm only stating the obvious."
As her audience grew, so did the naysayers. "I start getting followers from people who don't necessarily experience the same things that I do and so, they don't know like, oh, this is a very normal part of being a Black person in America, being an African American, being a dark-skinned person. They don't get that, so they're seeing it as like, 'Oh, this is just so weird and this is just so taboo,' and it's like, well, not in our community it's not," she explained. "You come here, you're gonna have to understand you're not going to be able to relate to everything and that's ok and you need to be ok with that because I'm not changing my content. I never have and I never will. Period."
While she's had to endure the ignorance, Aina has also spurred tangible change. In June 2018, she took to her channel with an announcement: Too Faced's Born This Way foundation line was getting nine new shades all curated by her.
"At the end of the day, all of us just want to be heard," she told E!. "Whether we realize it or not, I think validation is extremely important to most people in general and so, being able to be approached by a brand that said, 'We want you to actually fix something for us,' and not just slap my name on a product or whatever—not that that would have been less appealing or fun—but, I feel like this was definitely a really meaningful partnership for me because it directly tied into things that I think needed change in the industry in general."
While the opportunity led to a more diverse shade range, it also marked a significant opportunity for Black women in the beauty industry overall. "We're often overlooked and underpaid and that opportunity definitely created the standard," Aina said. "I think it raised the bar for what most Black women in the industry can accept and should accept."
As Aina put it, there's still work to be done in the beauty world, but she also sees through excuses the industry continues to give. "I just truly think that when you want to serve a specific demographic, you will," she said. "Brands know how to create technology that fills pores in products, we know how to make lip plumpers, we know how to do all these different things, so I just feel like all of the standard excuses...we're always so used to being told, 'Oh, it's harder to do this....', but it's not impossible, so make it possible. We have so many products out there that take decades of innovation, but we still make them and so, for me, I've just learned there's literally no excuse."
Plus, as the inclusivity advocate clarified, the process of making darker shades "is not more difficult at all." Still, the lack of diversity extends beyond the products themselves. "There are brands that still go far out of their way to not represent diversity in their campaigns, they don't work with diverse models, they don't even cater to specific demographics," she listed off, "and yeah, it's very apparent that they don't want to."
But, fortunately, customers aren't at the mercy of the same list of companies anymore. If a makeup house doesn't want to expand their demographics, "that's fine. I don't have to force it. I can go where I'm celebrated," she said. "I can go where I'm appreciated and thank god there's so many more brands today that do exist that appreciate me and make products for people like me."
As more brands—beauty and otherwise—are emerging and spreading their wings, so is Aina. The creator recently launched a new lifestyle platform, @LavishlyJackie—as she described, "self-care bougie Auntie vibes"—as well as FORVR Mood, her own brand of candles. "I have more loves than just beauty," she said, citing fashion and interior design as additional passions. "I've been doing beauty publicly for 12 years now and it's kind of time that I branch out and show different things that I love."