Often, success in this brave new digital and social world seems directly proportionate to how mean or “snarky” a personality can be. (Think news sites like Gawker, the ruthless annals of Reddit, or the Twitter accounts of any one of Bravo’s Real Housewives). Which is why YouTube beauty sensation and makeup artist Kandee Johnson is such a breath of fresh air. There’s absolutely no snark in her makeup tutorials, hairstyle how-tos, or product reviews.
Watch enough of her videos, and you might suspect that the bubbly, positive persona Johnson — or KandeeJ as she’s known to fans — presents in her videos is a caricature. But talk to her for a few minutes (or even an hour), and you’ll find that she really does pepper her speech with an infectious giggle and frequent exclamations like “Oh gosh!”
Nevada-based Johnson’s main YouTube channel boasts over 1.4 million subscribers and more than 203 million views. Some of her most popular clips, like this tutorial on how to apply glitter lip stickers and this transformation into the Queen of Hearts character from Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland,” have over eight million and three million views, respectively. Welcome to Kandeeland, a world where being genuinely nice and life-affirming leads to integrated sponsorships with brands like Kia, and guest spots hosting the Golden Globes for L’Oreal.
To Brand or Not to Brand?
So far, the 10-month engagement has boosted Johnson’s income through commercial appearances like the Kia series with Chester See, but even with Maker’s representation, she says YouTube still isn’t quite paying all the bills. “It’s definitely part of my income, but it’s not like I don’t have to do anything else,” Johnson says. “I blog and I do some TV show appearances and hosting.”
She’s also a single mom raising four children, sharing glimpses of that side of her life on her second YouTube channel and supplemental blog. In the midst of it all, Johnson manages to get new content up on her main channel almost weekly — a departure from when she first launched in 2009 with a constant stream of daily content.
“In the beginning, I did a video almost every day and it was insanity,” Johnson says. “I’d shoot these crazy costume videos that would take me two hours to film and then hours of editing to cut down to 10–12 minutes. If someone had told me that I’d be up until three in the morning every night making YouTube videos, I would’ve have thought they were crazy. But that’s what it was like.”
Johnson’s goal now is to do two videos per week, a task she equates to a 16-hour day for each video, since she serves as “camera man, lighting person, and editor.”
With this much investment, you’d think that Johnson would be a bit more focused on monetizing her efforts. Though she’s worked on some non-paid projects for makeup brands “she’s loved for years” like Urban Decay, MAC, and Makeup Forever, she doesn’t do paid product reviews or beauty endorsements on principle.
“I’ve had every brand approach me for years now, but it’s been a question of staying true to my audience,” Johnson says. “YouTube is like having a conversation with your friend — and if your friend says ‘this is brought to you by McDonald’s’ that feels very strange. And while I do think that turning down some of the opportunities was not a financially wise choice — particularly at certain times in my life — I didn’t and don’t ever want to talk about things I don’t believe in on YouTube.”
Keepin’ It Real
It’s this acceptance of what is real — without succumbing to negativity — that seems to fuel Johnson’s YouTube popularity. While her clips offer step-by-step instructions for how to make a lemon sugar scrub, or do a celebrity-inspired eye, or even attempt a runway look, viewers also eat up the bittersweet moments of life that she shares in between.
“My life is not perfect. I got married when I was really young, got divorced and then married and divorced again,” she says. “And I have struggled as a single mom. Some people on YouTube want to portray that their life is just awesome, but sometimes mine is not. I don’t wallow in that though, I try to inspire people, and I think that’s what makes them come back.”
For Johnson, she says the inspiration is what keeps her coming back — even more than the ad revenue. “I got an email shortly after I started, from a girl who was planning to commit suicide,” Johnson says. “She said she’d been watching my videos because she wanted to be beautiful when people found her. But eight hours later, she was still watching and eight hours later she was still alive, and she said ‘I’m alive because of you.’ When someone says you helped inspire them to keep living — that’s how you know you’re doing something right. So I’ll definitely keep at it.”