Jackie Aina needed to do her makeup. The 31-year-old YouTube beauty blogger led me past her living room and through the hallway to the recording studio in her Los Angeles penthouse. She plans to rent the apartment unit on a lower floor to use as her new studio. (“If I had to go into an office every day, I’d probably never go,” she said.)
A white desk stood in the center of the room, surrounded by a camera, two elevated rectangle-shaped ARRI lights (both worth upwards of $5,000 each), and a maze of cords. On her desk was an iMac, a few rose gold–painted glass jars holding myriad makeup brushes, and a mic recognizable from one of Aina’s most watched videos, in which she eats chicken wings and reads haters’ comments, ASMR-style.
She sat down behind her desk and camera after closing a walk-in closet filled with disheveled boxes and bags sent to her by brands vying for her attention and, hopefully, her praise. “A mess, as you can see,” she said, unstressed. Aina had just come back from a trip to Morocco where Clinique had flown her and other influencers for a few days in the Sahara. “Morocco is beautiful,” Aina told me, as she began to apply her foundation (Nars in “Macao”) with a Beautyblender. “I’ve been to Marrakech. If you’re used to traveling, a few days there does the trick. Maybe take a stop in Casablanca.”
On Instagram, Aina shared a sponsored video from her trip in which she rolls down a small sand hill. She’s wearing a bright neon orange jumpsuit and head wrap, and her boots lightly hit the sand with each turn. As she rolls toward the camera, she whips out a bottle of Clinique face moisturizer and flashes a deliberately corny smile. Posted a few days before we met in November, the video has 91,533 likes and the comments are teeth-achingly positive. “Best ad I’ve ever seen!” reads one followed by a slew of crying emojis. “I can’t stand her! #bestfriendinmyhead,” reads another. This is just a small sample of the kind of enthusiastic fandom Aina inspires.
Since starting her YouTube channel with the username LilPumpkinPie05 in 2009, the Nigerian American former Army reservist has amassed more than 2.9 million subscribers on YouTube and 1.1 million followers on Instagram. (“The funny part is, I don’t even like pumpkin pie!” she jokes.) She’s not quite at the level of some of the biggest YouTubers, like Jake Paul (17.9 million subscribers) or PewDiePie (85 million), but she’s one of the most visible faces in the beauty community, a loose constellation of colorful personalities who win over fans with their makeup tutorials, recommendations, and beauty hauls. Among other famous beauty YouTubers like James Charles and Jeffree Star, Aina is notable for her emphasis on expanding makeup options for black women.
“It's funny. You see all of these content creators and they edge around being somewhat political, but they don't ever really say what they really think. But she does. She's laying it on the line,” says Moj Mahdara, the CEO and founder of Beautycon, an annual two-day event for Gen Z’ers and millennials obsessed with cosmetics, art installations, and selfies. Aina is among their “most-requested and well-respected talent,” according to Mahdara. “I can have a celebrity come to Beautycon with 20 million followers and that doesn't get the kinds of herds, screaming, losing their minds the way they do for Jackie.”
Aina’s videos usually range from detailed makeup tutorials (like how to cover dark circles under your eyes) to beauty brand reviews and fashion hauls. She says she’d bring photos of inspiring celebrity makeup looks to beauty counters at department stores and ask, “Can you show me how to do [this look]?” And they would say, ‘Oh, that wouldn’t look good on your skin tone.’ So then I'd just figure it out myself and do it in a video. That's how my channel kind of took off. I guess I just didn't realize [I’m] not the only person looking for that resource too.”
She’s now done collaborations with brands like e.l.f. Cosmetics and Sigma Beauty; her two highlighters with Artist Couture — La Peach and La Bronze (her nickname is La Bronze James) — have sold out twice, and she’s partnered with Too Faced cosmetics to expand its foundation line by 11 shades.
Aina’s bluntness and humor endear her to viewers who love her straight talk. She will tell viewers if a product is too light or ashy for her skin tone, or if a line doesn’t contain enough variety of colors to serve darker-skinned women (she’s both praised and side-eyed Fenty when they missed the mark with a product launch). If Aina doesn’t like it, there’s a chance other women of color who have been consistently looked over in the beauty industry — despite their growing buying power — won’t like it either. And no one is excused from her reviews.
Not even Kim Kardashian West, who invited Aina and other influencers to her home for a first look at the launch of her KKW Beauty contour kit in 2017. On YouTube later, Aina said she liked the kit, but thought it was too expensive. (“While it was cute, I’m definitely going to give it a B minus,” she told viewers.) Aina’s review was mild compared to others she had done in the past. But when Kardashian West didn’t tag Aina in an Instagram photo from the event, people immediately began speculating that it was an intentional slight. Kardashian West ended up responding on Twitter, saying she loves that Aina “has an opinion” and she plans on using her feedback to make better products.
Her rising influence has gotten her featured in the New York Times, Harper’s Bazaar, and Women’s Wear Daily (she was the fashion publication’s 2018 Influencer of the Year) and she’s been given NAACP’s YouTuber of the Year award, the first time the organization has honored YouTube talent. But as influencers grow in prominence and take on more brand deals, it’s become harder to believe that the brand-sponsored free trips and PR packages don’t at least somewhat factor into influencers’ editorial decisions. Yet Aina’s appeal is that she’s able to convey authenticity to her viewers even as the line between independent posts and sponsored content continues to blur.
How has she been able to do it?
Aina was born in California’s San Gabriel Valley (“it’s kind of a hood and kind of suburban,” is how Aina described it), about an hour’s drive in traffic from the quiet neighborhood where she now lives in Los Angeles. Her father, who moved to the US to go to culinary school, is from Nigeria and owns an automotive shop. Her mom is an X-ray technician. Her parents, who had a tempestuous relationship, are no longer together.
Before makeup, Aina was into fashion. “That was really my first love,” said Aina as she sat across from me on her plush, L-shaped living room couch. “I would sketch and I would design clothes.” Her mom was also a tailor who made clothes that Aina and her six siblings wore for special occasions. She and her mother “were both the creators, and my dad was the hustler and the business owner.” Then she started doing makeup on her siblings and it quickly became a passion.
Aina has three brothers and three sisters, one of whom, Folake, also has a YouTube channel. She has talked about “growing up with nothing.” When I asked her what she meant by that, she said, “Growing up, I had no leverage, I had no rich uncle.” Aina lived in shelters with her mother and siblings on three occasions, once when she was 11 and again at 16. “We got kicked out of a shelter, we couldn't get to another one quick enough. And when you're a mom of seven? It's not easy.”
Aina attended Cal State San Bernardino for two years, taking premed classes. “My brain just kind of, like, exploded in college. I was just burnt out and I couldn't do the really big classroom sizes. It just wasn't for me,” she says. Prompted by her then-boyfriend, who was in the military, she decided to enlist in 2008. “Girl, I don’t know what kind of midlife crisis I was going through, but I was like, I need to do something different. It was the best experience for me.”
Aina married the boyfriend and moved to Hawaii with him, where he was stationed. She was a reservist, meaning she worked part-time for the military, and this is when she became obsessed with YouTube, watching both makeup tutorials and vlogs. Aina’s best friend asked her why she didn’t make her own channel teaching people how to do makeup and eventually Aina decided to follow her advice.
She started with the basics, uploading videos about why black women should own orange blush and offering contouring and highlighting tutorials, like how to get Kim Kardashian– and Aaliyah-inspired looks. “I was hooked because it was my escape from being married and miserable. And living on an island by myself and not having any money,” she said.
A few months after starting her channel, Aina fulfilled a dream of working as a makeup artist at MAC, which she did for six months on the island. After one year of marriage, at age 21, Aina got divorced and moved back to Los Angeles. But in 2011, she left for Kuwait, where she worked for a company contracted by the military. She moved back to California a year later, and enrolled in cosmetology school. Toward the end of her courses, she started a GoFundMe to pay the remaining balance of her tuition.
Though she was posting videos steadily, Aina eventually became frustrated by low views, especially in comparison to YouTubers who weren’t trained makeup artists. “I remember one day I was venting to someone — salty, so salty. Just telling her, ‘Some of these girls don’t even do makeup professionally, they don’t even know how to do their own makeup.’ I was saying something along the lines of, how do they have such a big following and they don't even have a skill?”
Her friend pointed out that if they have a big following, they must be good at something — and that building a brand in itself might be a skill. “I never thought of it that way,” said Aina. “Talent isn't enough. And I think that in a way that's a good thing, because there are some really shitty talented people.” Aina described that conversation as her “pinnacle” moment. “That was the most brilliant thing I'd ever heard. So I think that's when I kind of changed my approach.”
She began making videos that weren’t just straight-up tutorials. At the end of 2014, she recorded “Makeup Trends We’re Ditching in 2015.” In the video, she satirically draws up “Rubik’s Cube eyebrows” and shows off thick, wing-like eyelash extensions. “Where are you about to take flight off to? Where you going? First class, or coach, ma’am?” she jokes. She proceeds to brush her lashes with a paddle hairbrush. The video was a hit, netting more than 5 million views.
“I didn't know it was going to go viral, I had no idea,” Aina said. “I was just in my room filming. I was like, ‘This is so dumb, no one is going to watch this.’ Three days later, a million views. I was confused. I could have just been doing this the whole time? What the heck. That's the one thing I wish I had really honed in on. Just relax. It's not that serious. Just be yourself, just be fun. Crack jokes. Don't be such a perfectionist.”
Aina began to show more of her personality in her videos. She would joke about increasing your credit score by watching her videos or would sing her own name, which over time became the theme song for the top of her videos. Her videos began to include a mix of makeup demos (“FULL Face of Maybelline Makeup!”), makeup hauls (“Glossier — What Is You Doing Baby?!”), and popular genres like “I spent some ridiculous amount of money to look like a celebrity” and “My boyfriend buys/guesses/applies my makeup for me.”
She also made videos that highlighted other women of color, like a makeup tutorial featuring all Muslim-owned brands and halal beauty products and another with brands owned by women. And she wasn’t afraid to be silly to prove a point. In her “I Don’t See Color” video, Aina puts on her makeup in black and white. When the video changes to color, she looks like a clown — because she couldn’t “see” herself putting on her own makeup.
“We're kind of moving away from the instructional how-to types of videos and people want to be entertained. But my thing is, I don't want to just become a court jester,” Aina explains. “I don't want you to just come here and think that life doesn't exist or people don’t have problems. Or at least if I'm going to be funny, I'm also going to [ask], well, what did you learn, though? Real talk.”
“In terms of beauty channels, I think she kind of broke the mold,” says Sam, creator of Here for the Tea, a channel dedicated to drama among beauty vloggers on YouTube. (Sam asked that I only publish her first name to keep her identity from being disclosed and to keep the “focus” on the beauty community.) Drama channels, or tea channels, are the watchdogs of the beauty community. They use fair rights law to piece together storylines from other users’ videos, and scrutinize how beauty YouTubers present sponsored content and product collaborations to their audiences.
“I think a lot of people forget that she has been doing this as long as she has,” says Sam, who used to be a makeup artist herself. “She's only recently blown up in the last two years to what she is now. She has been at this consistently. She's been focused on inclusivity for a long time.”
After applying her makeup in her home studio, Aina headed to her bedroom to get dressed for this story’s photo shoot. She walked out in a black sweater dress adorned with pearls around the shoulders and a Gucci belt. She decided to go shoeless, since none of the shots would include her feet. With each flick of the camera, Aina turned her head or shoulder slightly. “Should I throw the pillows in the air?” she asked.
We moved from her living room back to her recording studio, for a change of setting. She picked up a tube of red lip gloss and flashed a smile at the camera. Her publicist urged her to flip the tube so the Too Faced label wasn’t showing. “I’ll hear it from Ashley,” her publicist said, referring to Aina’s lawyer-turned-manager Ashley Villa. Posing with a brand-name product for a photo shoot and not getting paid for it is a no-no in the influencer world. It’s also a natural segue into a thornier topic of conversation.
After the shoot, Aina curled up on her couch and we got into it.
How much money does she make from YouTube, her sponsored Instagram content, product collaborations, and consulting? She refused to give specifics.
“There’s already so much vanity and glamour associated with what we do — I feel like the moment people found out what they thought we all make, they started doing the absolute most,” Aina replied. “It’s created a really green-eyed climate.”
While Aina declined to divulge her income, Gil Eyal, CEO of the influencer search and discovery directory HYPR Brands, told me that an influencer with Jackie’s engagement and following could charge upwards of $50,000 for a sponsored video and anywhere from $10,000 to $25,000 for a Instagram post. “I would say she is definitely top-notch and that influencers with similar followings but less engaged audiences or less valuable audiences could cost anywhere from a third to half per post.”
One creative producer at a media and marketing company told me that it’s unfair to speculate about their income because each deal with a brand not only could have a wide range, but is also negotiated based on factors beyond just follower count and engagement rate.
Regardless of how much Aina gets paid, there is no question that affiliate links — which give influencers a portion of the sales generated from products they use in videos — are an important part of a YouTuber’s income. In March 2017, Aina addressed the use of affiliate links in her video description four days after she posted a Sephora haul video with a lot of them. “I’m gonna give you 100% honesty. I always have, and I’d like to think that’s got a lot to do with why my channel is where it is today,” she begins. “You have got to be out of your mind if you think, with the amount of time I put into the content I create, the money that goes into this equipment, the stuff that I buy to try for you guys as viewers… You’ve got to be out of your mind if you honestly think we should just do this for good merits and not reap any benefits,” she says.
“I know there’s still a stigma attached to beauty bloggers making money, but I could make a lot more,” Aina explained to me. “Because I have integrity, and I actually do care about the quality of sponsored content, I don’t.”
I asked her if it was possible for her to not be influenced to at least some degree by her meetings with brands and by all the free items they give her.
“I’m professionally in a different position than most,” she told me. “I’ve worked with everyone there is to work with in beauty. So if you’re not rocking with me, I can just go someplace else. Whereas maybe someone else who may be still building their network, maybe they just started getting opportunities... I almost feel like the people who get less opportunities might walk on eggshells a little more.”
Which is not to say she hasn’t occasionally ignited a few controversies. In June 2018, Aina accused UK YouTuber Petty Paige, in a now-deleted video, of hacking her email and banking account. She later publicly apologized to Paige. (Through her publicist, Aina declined to respond to follow up questions).
This past year, though, the biggest drama to spill over from the YouTube beauty community was an intertwined debacle involving displays of racism in old tweets, social media fights, and eventually, teary apology videos from Jeffree Star, Laura Lee, Manny MUA, Nikita Dragun, and Gabby Zamora.
When it seemed like every beauty YouTuber had an opinion on this fiasco, Aina didn’t get involved, though she’s been candid in the past about why she doesn’t buy Jeffree Star cosmetics. In a 2017 “anti-haul video,” she explains that she has a “deep issue with the anti-black comments” seen in Starr’s videos and text messages.
She mainly keeps her focus on her work, and brands have rewarded her richly for it. In addition to her recent Morocco trip, François Nars, founder of the eponymous makeup company, flew her to his private island in French Polynesia. She vlogged about the experience on the separate YouTube channel she runs with her longtime boyfriend, Denis Asamoah. In an Instagram post about the trip, she attached two photos: one of her and Nars posing together on the island, and one from the first time she met Nars five years ago at a meet and greet.
How does she not feel the pressure to say positive things, then, about a brand who flew her to an island?
“My brain is not even there,” Aina said. “That’s already in the past for me. When I turn that camera on, I’m thinking about what’s sitting in front of me. It’s not like the staff’s here. It’s just me, and that’s kind of the beauty of filming by yourself, where it’s a safe space.”
Toward the end of our day together, Aina sat next to her assistant typing at a computer, and picked flowers to send to Nars as a thank-you for the trip. She also sent flowers to Angel Merino (the founder of Artist Couture), YouTuber and facialist Caroline Hirons, and to Claudia Soare (the president of Anastasia Beverly Hills) as a belated birthday gift.
“I have accomplished everything… most of what I sought out to accomplish,” Aina told me. “I feel like I have nothing to lose. I almost feel like I have the beauty world at the palm of my hands. There are so many opportunities for me, and I’ve never been in a position to say that. Five years ago, the goal was much scarier.” Next, she wants to expand her reach beyond beauty to create a bigger name for herself; maybe houseware or children’s clothing.
It seems Jackie Aina’s only regret is not being herself sooner — on the internet.●
Darian Symoné Harvin is a journalist writing about beauty and pop culture, and host of the podcast Am I Allowed to Like Anything? She lives in Los Angeles.