Let’s Talk Cosmetics: Old Ways Might Not Fly for Internet Stars

I like to focus on the gaming video space here, for the most part. A recent report from Tubular Labs found that a whopping 15% of the content on YouTube is focused on video games, a number of channels and personalities large enough to warrant attention all on its own, within the greater context of web video in general. They’re intimately related, though, of course, the former and the latter, and there’s always something to learn from paying attention to even the most seemingly unrelated kinds of content out there.

So, today, let’s talk about make-up.

Just as the simple need to learn about new games, or to watch people play things you’d be too scared to play yourself, gave rise to the personality-driven world of Let’s Play, and the like, that we have today, so too did internet stars emerge from the world of cosmetics. There’s a lot of nuance to make-up (or so I’m told), and when it comes to learning the craft of applying it, there’s nothing better than an actual visual demonstration. Once people started watching, they fell in love with the creators on the other side of the camera, and a new kind of celebrity was born.

Zoella, real name Zoe Sugg, is one of the biggest. A member of the Style Haul Network, her main YouTube channel boasts an intimidating 6.8 million followers, and, in addition to a handful of television appearances, she launched her own line of makeup in September. She’s got a brand that’s working hard, and her relevance is real.

But, right now, Zoella’s fans are angry. They’re hurt. Upset. What has drawn their ire? What horrible sin has this almost impossibly bubbly young woman committed that is worthy of such disdain?

Well, you see, Zoella released a book. And someone else wrote it.

Ghostwriting is so common within the publishing industry that it’s mundane. Setting aside the books with non-celebrity names scrawled across the cover that were actually written by someone else, which is no small number, anyone who’s been in a book store in the last ten years can tell you there’s a veritable flood of biographies, memoirs, historical discussions, and even straight-up fiction supposedly written by actors, talking-heads, models, or reality-stars. Basically, if people already know you’re name, they’ll be more than happy to slap it on a book to sell a few thousand more copies. It’s just the way it is.

Zoella signed a two-book deal with Penguin Books earlier this year, the first seeing release in November, a typical teen romance called Girl Online. The novel broke the record for the highest ever first-week sales for a debut author, and is still, according to reports, the fastest selling book of the year.

Cut to earlier this month, when, following rumors, Penguin released a statement, saying “Zoe Sugg did not write Girl Online on her own . . . Zoe has worked with an expert editorial team to help her bring to life her characters and experiences in a heartwarming and compelling story.” To anyone familiar with the publishing industry, the subtext is clear: the book was ghostwritten.

No big deal, right? Well don’t tell that to her fans, who’ve reacted with shock. I don’t like picking out individual tweets and acting as if they represent a fan-base as a whole. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between actual discord and that which is manufactured by those telling the story. But if you believe the summary from this whining, gratingly entitled article from Salon, there’s a good number of fans out there who feel betrayed, and it has some wondering what kind of impact this could have on her brand.

Gaming video is no different from the rest of the growing marketplace, in a certain respect: the appeal of the individual is what makes a successful channel, and, more often then not, that appeal comes from a place of authenticity. Zoella, in principal, shouldn’t have more expected of her than any other celebrity. When Snookie, or the Kardashian sisters, or any other reality-star publishes a novel, no one cares if they didn’t actually write it. But Zoella, like other Youtube celebrities, have built their brand around a feeling of closeness between she and her fans. When she, in the minds of her audience, violates that trust, she does more damage to that relationship between celebrity and consumer than a traditional public figure.

This is a valuable case study in the ongoing experiment that is internet celebrity. There are all these predetermined paths, roads already paved for celebrities that lead to money, and exposure, but not all necessarily fit this new breed of fame. When the growing business needs clash with the independent spirit at the core of a channel or personality’s appeal, there are always great risks. What’s worth it? What isn’t? How can these two needs be balanced?…

I haven’t the faintest idea. But I’m sure, as more people flirt with that line, the answers will become more clear.

Originally published at blog.gamewisp.com Dec 24, 2014.

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