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How the beauty world became so obsessed with drama


TextKristen Bateman

With more scandals these days than product drops, it seems like we have reached the peak, but the industry’s history is equally tainted with controversies and feuds

Somewhere between all the self-expression and fun, the beauty industry became just as well-known for its toxic drama. Just take a look at the most recent iteration of the Jeffree Star x Shane Dawson x Tati scandal, any number of the Kylie Jenner dramas, or even Deciem’s messy public interactions. Scandals have become so rooted in the beauty industry that they’ve begun to overshadow all of the things we all love about beauty – namely creativity and inclusivity. 

But how did it get this way? “Beauty drama and beauty scandals are not new at all,” explains Doreen Bloch executive director of The Makeup Museum. “There is a fascinating and important history with beauty scandals, dating back at least 100 years. What has changed now is the level of exposure and the ability for fans to follow along with every detail.” Social media and platforms like YouTube have given more access than ever before to beauty industry founders, many of whom have come from social media (influencer) backgrounds, the result being there is no shortage of interaction on all platforms.

One reason why scandals are especially prominent in beauty culture may have to do with the competitiveness of the industry. Afterall, the Jeffree Star x Shane Dawson x Tati moment was all about competitiveness, specifically about products and star power. “It is fiercely competitive, with thousands of product launches each year. Even the largest, most professionally managed global companies find it hard to predict the success of product launches, and can stumble badly. One estimate is that 90 percent of new fragrance launches fail,” says Harvard Business School history professor Geoffrey Jones, author of Beauty Imagined: A History of the Global Beauty Industry. “Getting the word out to consumers, and getting product through the distribution channels to consumers, provide further major challenges for new ventures.” 

Interestingly, the beauty industry seems to have more drama-fueled scandals than many of the other industries surrounding it. Think about it: while the fashion industry is full of its own issues, from knock-offs to racism, rarely do we see brand founders, creative directors, or higher-ups, such as Gucci’s Alessandro Michele or Burberry’s Riccardo Tisci interacting directly with fans. One example where that has happened – which is rare, obviously – is Dolce & Gabbana

“Beauty lends itself easily to drama because beauty in itself is about performance,” says Bloch. “Self-expression is inherent to make-up, so it makes sense that the beauty industry itself would have a strong set of characters who want to express themselves boldly and unapologetically in their quest to be at the top of the beauty business. Make-up gives people confidence, and it can embolden them to be a bigger or better version of themselves. This has been true for hundreds of years, and we expect beauty industry mavens to continue delighting us, frustrating us, entertaining us, and ultimately inspiring us for generations to come.”

This generation’s most successful beauty brands were literally born of the internet, with founders going from beauty bloggers to multi-million dollar brand owners. Just look at Kyler Jenner, Jeffree Star, Huda Kattan, and Emily Weiss of Glossier. As brand founders who initially were in direct contact with fans, answering questions, creating content for them and responding to them instantly, it’s no wonder there’s so much room for scandal and drama.

“Self-expression is inherent to make-up, so it makes sense that the beauty industry itself would have a strong set of characters who want to express themselves boldly and unapologetically in their quest to be at the top of the beauty business” – Doreen Bloch, executive director, The Makeup Museum

The titans of the blossoming beauty industry at the turn of the 20th century were every bit as obsessed with scandal. You just wouldn't know it since social media wasn’t around yet. Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden were famously known to constantly feud and take things to the next level: “Arden, the daughter of a Canadian truck driver, poached so many employees from Rubinstein that eventually she retaliated by hiring Arden's ex-husband. (When informed once that Arden had been bitten by a dog, Rubinstein expressed concern for the health of the dog.).”

“The most iconic feud of the past 100 years was between Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden,” says Bloch. “Rubinstein and Arden were fierce competitors; they were the richest self-made women in the world in their time, and each wanted to be in the number one spot of the beauty world. It is said that the women wire-tapped one anothers' headquarters, and it is known that they frequently poached talent from one anothers' companies. The competition did lead to important new advancements in beauty 'technology' with each one wanting to outdo the other in terms of innovation and marketing spin. For example, Arden introduced her fragrance Blue Grass in 1934, and by 1940 Rubinstein wanted a cut of the growing fragrance industry. Rubinstein's first perfume Heaven Sent was marketed by dropping balloons with fragrance samples off of her Fifth Avenue penthouse.”

Estée Lauder and Charles Revson, the founder of Revlon, also hated each other. According to Lauder’s biography, “'He curtly informed me of his intention to buy my business so that he could be the Cadillac of the cosmetics industry. I replied lightly that I thought his intention quite flattering, but that I would like to buy his business and be the Rolls-Royce of the industry. Not known for his sense of humor, he stalked away without answering. War was declared. ‘I'll destroy her,’ he told some mutual friends.'' Something like that doesn't sound too far off from what Star and Dawson said behind Tati’s back.

The feuds continued throughout both of their careers: when Lauder was in the process of launching the Clinique line, meetings were held in a windowless room to help keep it a secret. Famous for following in Lauder’s footsteps, Revon set out to launch its own allergy-free line dubbed Etherea, but just before it hit store, Clinique ran ads using the unannounced names of Etherea’s products as adjectives to describe Clinique.

Revson may have just been the Jefree Star of his day – there were rumors of how he loosened caps on other nail polish brands in stores so it would dry out, how a factory worker was bribed to ruin another brand’s nail polish in production, and even lawsuits from Coty in 1955 and Fabergé in 1958, for corporate espionage. Yet, as the New York Times notes, “Their feud surely brought out their best. Many of Estée and Charlie's products are still strong sellers.”

We could credit that exact thinking process to the reason why there’s so many scandals in the beauty world. Does it boost sales? There’s not much data to support that, however, there’s definitely an uptick in press, content, and conversation surrounding any beauty world scandal. You can guarantee that major scandal with a major beauty brand means coverage in every major magazine and newspaper today. With that, also comes fans chattering on Instagram, Twitter, and social networks (reaction videos have even become a thing); and even, positive reviews.

“Every single time there's beauty drama, there's always a spike in searches for their brands on our app and website, and there's even an increase in people making reviews of their products,” says Savannah Scott, editor of the beauty review app Supergreat. “For example, during the first huge Tati James fight over a year ago now, there was such a noticeable spike in people making mostly positive reviews of Morphe's James Charles palette that one of our engineers was like, ‘what the hell is going on with this specific product?!’ By then it was an old palette, and people we're making reviews on it as if it was a recent highly coveted drop. Some of our users just talked about the product itself and its performance, and others defended James Charles and mentioned the drama.”

“In a world where beauty has evolved to become more expressive, inclusive and open than ever before, shouldn’t the industry be able to move past petty drama and focus on the positives?”

Certainly, the scandals and drama are affecting how both consumers and bloggers feel about brands, and their spend. And oftentimes, it’s actually not in a positive way. For example, after Glossier’s anti-black and transphobia accusations, Justina Sharp, an LA based beauty and lifestyle influencer, is no longer supporting the brand. “After recent allegations about Glossier’s treatment of their POC employees, I will not only not be supporting them publicly but I will not be purchasing from them period,” she says. “I’ve been sure to lay that out to my followers. It’s honestly horrifying that a brand that makes so much money off being ‘in-touch’ is not just perpetuating this kind of behavior, but addressing it only in a performative way.”

Indeed, beauty scandals seem to thrive in today’s environment as they serve as equal parts entertainment and marketing tactics. At the end of the day though, fans have major fatigue with the constant fighting, put-downs and all-around drama. In a world where beauty has evolved to become more expressive, inclusive and open than ever before, shouldn’t the industry be able to move past petty drama and focus on the positives?

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