February 25, 2024

It wasn’t long ago that the Kardashians dictated nearly every beauty trend and spun up their own beauty businesses alongside them. At the peak of their influence, the reality stars-turned-lifestyle moguls were borrowing aesthetics popularized by Black and brown women — and makeup techniques used by drag queens — and making them attainable to the masses. Suddenly, every white influencer had laid edges, overlined lips, and a dubious tan.

But in 2024, that era of beauty seems to be winding down. Fans accuse the Kardashians of being in their “flop era,” and even copycats of newer influencers. At the same time, one of the family’s closest friends, Hailey Bieber, has become the new queen of viral beauty trends, as well as a formidable threat in the land of beauty commerce.

While Kim Kardashian and Kylie Jenner inspired millennials to embrace maximalism with their contouring and lip kits, Bieber is teaching Gen Z to look a lot more plain.

From “glazed donut” skin to “vanilla girl” makeup to “latte girl” makeup, Bieber has been attached to a slew of recent minimalist beauty trends. The latest objective, it seems, is to look “clean,” naturally glowing (that is, sun-kissed but not necessarily doused in bronzer), effortlessly beautiful, and, overall, kind of bland.

While these makeup looks can be adopted and remixed for anyone — I, for one, enjoy the blush-heavy “strawberry girl” makeup look — a search of these trends across social media presents an almost uniform image: white skin, lightly freckled with some-shade-of-blonde hair slicked into a tight bun. These women all resemble Bieber and the standard of beauty she’s promoted through her own social media posts and popular skin care brand, Rhode.

How did this shift in beauty aesthetics come to be? After many memorable, discourse-laden years of Black hairstyles, flashy acrylic nails, and eye-catching makeup being “in,” how did Bieber go on to captivate the next generation — one largely associated with individuality, body acceptance, and progressiveness? What is she selling to Gen Z that’s so compelling?

Who even is Hailey Bieber?

In true nepo baby fashion, Hailey Bieber is most readily identified by her proximity to other famous people. (I’m not being rude. This is something she’s proud of.) She’s the daughter of actor Stephen Baldwin — brother to the more famous Alec — and, since 2018, the spouse of pop superstar Justin Bieber. She’s a close friend of the Jenner sisters and other mega-influencers in their Calabasas circle. She’s made headlines for purportedly being the archnemesis of her husband’s ex Selena Gomez.

The Biebers met when they were children — a fortuitous introduction made by Hailey’s father — and started dating as adults while attending the same church. (They love talking about their shared love of God.) They’ve appeared in music videos together, posed on the cover of Vogue, gushed about one another in interviews, and even filmed their nuptials for the singer’s YouTube docuseries Seasons.

Before becoming a musician’s wife at 21, though, Bieber was on a fast-paced — and privileged — trajectory to becoming a star in her own right. At 17, Bieber signed to Ford Models and quickly appeared in a plethora of glossy magazines from Love to Teen Vogue. When she joined the high-profile agency IMG in 2016, she was strutting down runways alongside A-list supermodels for luxury brands and landing cover shoots. Later, she inked major contracts with BareMinerals and Levi’s jeans. There were also efforts to showcase her personality through hosting gigs, including on the former TBS competition show Drop the Mic.

Hailey Bieber at the Rhode UK launch party in 2023.
Dave Benett/Getty Images for Rhode

Meanwhile, her Instagram, which currently boasts 51 million followers, became a fashion bible for young women looking to imitate her prep-meets-streetwear style. Bieber would post her daily outfits, red-carpet looks, and editorial appearances to millions of likes. But her pivot to TikTok during the pandemic signaled that something bigger was on the horizon.

In April 2021, Bieber posted a front-facing video on TikTok where she applies a generous amount of moisturizer to her face while zooming in on her poreless, glassy skin. “Glazed donut vibes,” the caption read. “Layering my skincare for that perfect dewy finish.” Bieber wasn’t the first to make the reference — the millennial beauty success story Glossier, which we’ll get to in just a minute, had previously compared the effects of its highlighter to a “Krispy Kreme” and “glazed look” — but she supercharged the trend. Cue a never-ending cycle of food-inspired beauty fads predicated on clear skin and minimal makeup that would become a key marketing strategy for Bieber’s soon-to-be beauty mini-empire.

Despite her presence across multiple platforms, Bieber isn’t exactly concerned with making herself knowable. She remains primarily a mood board, ready to project the consumerist desires of young, beauty-obsessed women. Not a persona, but an idea to aspire to. It’s the perfect setup for Rhode Skin.

How Bieber became the “it girl” of skin care

The crux of Bieber’s appeal is the lack of effort it seemingly takes for her to look stunning. It’s appropriate that she currently has her own Erewhon “skin” smoothie with dubious dermatological benefits. It’s a collaboration that feels particularly Goop-like in its absurdity and trollishness. While viral beauty trends and collaborations have helped position Bieber as a beauty uber-influencer, it’s starting her own brand that’s cemented her status in the space.

Bieber launched Rhode in 2022 with a hydrating serum, face cream, and lip treatment sold in gray, medical-looking containers. In an interview for Allure, Bieber said that Rhode’s primary goal is “hydration, hydration, hydration,” emphasizing that she doesn’t want to “cut corners” or “bullshit with this brand.” Rhode’s suite of products has remained small — a cleanser and lip tints are among the only additions since the brand debuted. Inventory has also remained somewhat limited; with every new drop, Rhode has generated tons of social media buzz and a subsequent long waitlist.

The tightly curated, simply packaged line focused on so-called good skin feels like a spiritual successor to Emily Weiss’s industry-disrupting beauty brand Glossier. Glossier, which launched a decade ago, was itself an alternative to the contoured, makeup-heavy aesthetic the Kardashians championed. “Skin first, makeup second” read one of its taglines. Like Glossier, Bieber has gone the direct-to-consumer route to start, bypassing brick-and-mortar stores and multi-brand retailers to sell her wares exclusively on Rhode’s website.

She’s also just one of many, many celebrities who have become beauty entrepreneurs in recent years, from Scarlett Johansson to Pharrell Williams. One point of difference, however, is that, unlike many of her celebrity competitors, Bieber claims to have lent a significant amount of money to the venture, rather than obtaining a licensing deal or utilizing an incubator. It’s interesting to note that Bieber founded Rhode with Michael Ratner, founder of the production company she uses for her YouTube channel; in this way, her social media presence is even more fundamentally linked to her brand.

Ama Kwarteng, beauty director at Coveteur, says that the brand’s authenticity angle makes Bieber stand out, even if her version of “realness” is highly curated.

“People want someone like Hailey, who’s on TikTok and posts photo dumps and can be vulnerable in public,” she said. “She’s talked about being cyberbullied and showed her skin when it doesn’t look perfect. That’s just where social media has moved. It’s not like the Kardashian age where everything was just so overly filtered and overly done.”

Of course, there’s a perennial desire for women to look “natural” and “effortless.” In an article for The Cut titled “The Big Lie of #NoMakeup,” writer Jessica Teas describes the moral value society assigns to “authentic” beauty. Not only are women who forgo makeup supposedly less vain, but they also take better care of themselves. “The idea is that a glow imparted by highlighter is fake,” she writes. “Whereas a glow imparted by a lifetime of denying yourself refined sugar is real.”

In an age when makeup tutorials are accessible to anyone with an internet connection, cosmetics act as an equalizer. It doesn’t matter what condition your skin is in, or what your “before” looks like; with the right products and techniques, you can make any number of tweaks to your appearance. Being able to say “I woke up like this” — or at least look like you did — is therefore an automatic flex.

A photo of several Glossier skincare and makeup products on a table.

Glossier, founded by Emily Weiss in 2014, also began as a minimalist, online-only beauty brand.
John Sciulli/Getty Images for Nasty Gal

“Even if it takes a billion steps, people want to look like that,” Kwarteng said. “They don’t want to be a try-hard. They don’t want people to see the labor that’s gone into their work to beautify themselves.”

Indeed, there’s a not insignificant level of upkeep and, notably, money required to look “authentically” gorgeous. Whether that’s having access to a good dermatologist or esthetician or applying makeup in such a strategic manner that it’s barely visible, the physical and financial dedication that such an aesthetic requires is nothing new. These women may not look as powdered or bronzed as the Kardashians, but they very well may have done the same amount of work to appear as perfect.

The rise of the “Clean Girl” comes with baggage

The concept of “no-makeup makeup” is hardly a novel idea; many of the current application techniques circulating on TikTok feel reminiscent of ’90s soft glam and the ethereal, dewy visages of the ’70s.

Still, it’s hard not to find trends like “vanilla girl,” “latte girl,” and “clean girl” and the overall rise of Bieber striking, particularly after a decade of influencers leaning into “otherness.” Not only does this evolution expose a level of disposability to Black aesthetics (and Black culture in general), the want for “pure,” “plain” beauty feels loaded.

The implications for Black women and other women of color in this current beauty era are a little fuzzy. Plenty of media coverage suggests something insidious underlying this aesthetic pivot. The racial connotations of the terms “clean” and “vanilla” — plus the women who appear first when you Google their associated beauty trends — do convey an exclusive message. But journalist and beauty expert Kayla Greaves says Black women have a claim to these trends as well.

“Black women have embraced the slicked-back bun, no-makeup makeup, minimalist look for decades before there was an actual name for it,” Greaves said. “Should we be credited? Absolutely.”

A paparazzi shot of Sofia Richie wearing a beige shirt with a cream sweater tied around her neck.

Sofia Richie is another popular Gen Z “clean girl” beauty icon, with aesthetic similarities to Bieber.
Rachpoot/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images

She mentioned women like Nia Long, Gabrielle Union, and Sade: They’re “absolutely stunning, but throughout the years have always gone for a more minimal, natural look.”

Kwarteng notes that these looks are often more achievable for a specific type of Black girl. For example, some Black women may not be able to put their hair in an ultra-sleek bun.

“When you think of the ‘clean girl’ aesthetic, it’s like the opposite of what’s technically considered a more urban or ‘Black girl’ aesthetic,” she said.

One of the few celebrity Black women associated with these current trends, Sofia Richie — Bieber’s fellow nepo baby, as the daughter of Lionel Richie — is worth considering. Her light complexion certainly plays a role in TikTok’s exaltation of her as an influencer. Likewise, she’s been credited with the explosion of the “quiet luxury” fashion trend that overlaps with “vanilla,” “latte,” and” clean” girl aesthetics. There’s a valuing of privilege and wealth (or, again, at least the appearance of those things) determining how young people want to look these days. As Kwarteng explained, “it feels like more of a class thing.”

To be clear, there’s nothing inherently bad or classist about wearing less makeup, simpler hair, or shorter nails. However, it’s fascinating watching a new, seemingly more progressive generation embrace a bland uniformity at the expense of individuality.

In an op-ed about the rise of “beige-influencers” for the Guardian, writer Sarah Manavis observes “a pervasive inclination towards dullness” amongst Gen Z.

“Heteronormative, conventional lifestyles have long been regarded as more socially acceptable than straying from this path,” she writes. “But conventionality has now been granted a pious, aspirational element, as if this isn’t how people have been encouraged to live for centuries.”

For all the discussion about our lack of monoculture, it’s still thriving in the beauty department.


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