Ethan Peters was 12 years old when he was paid $25,000 (£20,000) for an Instagram page with over a million followers. He'd started the meme account a year earlier with the blessing of his property investor parents, who he lives with in Huntsville, Texas – a prison town nicknamed "the death-penalty capital of the world".
In 2015, around the time he sold that handle, Ethan noticed a new trend emerging online: boys wearing make-up. He soon started making up his own face and posting photos of his work to Instagram, and by the summer of 2017 he had brands like Make Up For Ever and Anastasia Beverly Hills clamouring to send him their entire product lines. When he reached 300,000 followers they were paying him $2,000 (£1,600) per sponsored video. Now, having just turned 16, he's charging triple that and is on target to make at least $100,000 (£80,000) by the end of the year.
Ethan is one of a small but growing number of children and teens picking up millions of followers by posting make-up tutorials and photos to social media platforms like Instagram, YouTube and Facebook. Unlike traditional make-up artists, these young stars – Ethan, Jack, Reuben de Maid and Natthanan, to name a few – don't seek professional training. They seldom look for inspiration in the pages of magazines like Vogue, they don't practice their skills on other people and, as their work is predominantly viewed by those in their age group, their audience is different to that of MUAs who work on fashion shoots or film sets.
In short: they're doing everything you normally don't do as a make-up artist – but their presence and popularity is still having a huge impact on the beauty industry, with an older generation of MUAs bemoaning the fact that a high follower count is now seemingly more important than talent.
"I realised the views for make-up tutorials were doing crazy well," says Ethan, recalling watching the work of online make-up moguls like Bretman Rock and Jeffree Star. "People would be getting 2 to 3 million views for every single video, and I was like, 'I need to do this, I need to figure this out.' So I worked out how to use clickbait on my videos, and literally from May, 2017, all the way until December of that year, every single video I posted would get between 300,000 views and 2 million."
While Ethan makes it sound fairly straightforward, his rise to the upper echelons of the social media influencer pyramid wasn't easy. Besides learning how to film and edit his content, he developed strategies for creating viral videos, analysing old Vines for ideas. He worked most nights and posted every single day. Pouring all his energy into creating content, he lost friends – the only normal thing about his life now is that he has a steady boyfriend – but the hard work was worth it: he's got savings, he gets to travel and the sponsorship offers are plentiful. He can afford to have an agent and manager to handle his business so that he can focus on the creative aspect – and although he doesn't describe himself as famous, he is recognised most times he goes out in public.
Alex Babsky is a professional make-up artist whose work frequently appears on the covers of Vogue, Harper's Bazaar and Vanity Fair. I ask him what he thinks has inspired this wave of young internet MUAs. "Most young children are interested in attention and, as they become aware of it, the idea of fame," he answers. "What young child, myself included, hasn't expressed an interest in being a pop singer or movie star? Increasingly, social media is where young people encounter 'famous' people. Beauty and make-up have such a massive presence in this arena, that I think this is now seen among children as one of the primary ways to achieve the kind of renown that previous generations would have looked to boy bands and acting heartthrobs for."
Indeed, Ethan's work is characterised by its desire to catch your attention. Drawing inspiration from screamo bands like Bring Me the Horizon and Motionless in White, he experiments with special effects, while his work is dramatic, emotional and, at times, gory. It's all this that first caught my eye on the Instagram Explore page; one picture captioned "tooth fairy" has him pretending to be pulling out his own molar, while in another he's wearing a nun's habit, inverted crosses painted underneath his eyes, his lips a puckered glossy black.
Ethan's work is provocative in the way that, say, Marilyn Manson's look was, but he can just as easily make up his face in inoffensive pastel tones, à la Kylie Jenner. In a nutshell, he's versatile and clearly talented. But not all young MUAs online show so much creative flourish. Younger influencers like Jack and Reuben de Maid seem to recreate the same "look" over and over, simply using different colour palettes. Of course, they're likely to improve with age, but given the lack of originality in their work right now, why are they so popular?
Digital media researcher Dr Michael Waugh argues that the success of the breakout stars is perhaps down to how often children are online these days.
"Increasing synchronicity with digital devices means young people are engaging with social media platforms from infancy, meaning that – to paraphrase cyborgolists and transhumanists like Nathan Jurgenson – there isn’t any distinction between the on and offline self and world. It’s only natural that children want to self-present, 'play' and engage in day-to-day activities online. Consequently, it's inevitable that these children and teens will then attain an audience of likeminded kids."
He continues: "Having said that, I definitely don't think that post-internet identity is the only factor at play here," explaining that because of "a liberal-minded movement toward acceptance, fluidity, performativity, fluctuation and indefinability" we're seeing "drag performances, for example, moving from the margins to become some of the most watched TV shows today. So it's inevitable that young people would be inspired by the frequent media appearances of makeup-donning men, seeing the potential to explore their own selves by doing the same."
Such self-expression can come at a cost, however, especially for those like Ethan, who are based in less than liberal surroundings.
"It was the summer of 2017 and I'd just hit 100,000 followers," recalls Ethan, of the moment his passion became a problem. "My [private Christian] school called me into the office and said the school board and the parents have concerns about my social media. Legally they couldn't tell me to my face that it was because I was gay or that I wore make-up – which, by the way, I never wore to school – but they said [my social media activity] violates their moral conduct code. At the time I was getting more impressions than Fox News and I'm a 13-year-old, but you want to kick me out of school for that? It doesn't make sense."
Ethan now attends an online school, which gives him the flexibility to do his schoolwork around his work schedule. However, conservative authority figures aren't the only critics of online MUAs. Increasingly, there is backlash from the make-up artist community itself.
"The number of followers does not equate Talent nore [sic] quantify you're [sic] worth. I hope in the future we will look back on this time as misguided diversion of talent, creativity and substance," wrote high profile make-up artist Alex Box on her Instagram account recently. In another post, the former creative director of cosmetics brand Illamasqua called out online MUAs' propensity for copying other's work without giving due credit, to which Yves Saint Laurent ambassador Celine Bernaerts commented, "The title 'make-up artist' has quite lost it's [sic] meaning in the online realm."
While it's possible to read comments like these as an older generation's inability to move with the times or appreciate the marketing acumen of young MUAs like Ethan, the route chosen by his peers does have consequences if one wants to pursue a professional make-up artist career. As Alex Babsky points out, "Making up your own face again and again on YouTube can quickly cultivate a formulaic and narrow approach to beauty, whereas a working make-up artist is required to deal with all kinds of faces, with all kinds of products, in all kinds of conditions, fulfilling all kinds of briefs and referencing all kinds of inspiration. Learning solely how you yourself like to do your own make-up doesn't in itself make you employable as a make-up artist."
There are other, perhaps even more pertinent, concerns about children starting their working lives so early. It's difficult not to compare the younger and less stylistically-distinguished child MUAs to the grown-up child actor who loses their appeal upon hitting adulthood, or to view their success within the context of the demands made on children by "Tiger parents" or "stage mums". Plus, given the relatively new ground that children earning online is breaking, concerns have been raised about a lack of regulation. A 2018 BuzzFeed article about four-year-old Instagram influencer Mila Stauffer and her family described it as "the Wild West".
"To become aware that the pursuit you become prodigiously good at is valued for its monetary worth turns it into an ends-driven, instrumental endeavour of a sort that, it seems to me, can sap the energy and intrinsic interest that children bring to the intense honing of talents," she writes over email. "If that rage to master something for its own sake is crucial to being really good at something really early, the realisation that it isn't really for its own sake can be disillusioning – certainly for some kids."
Ethan characterises such concerns as somewhat condescending. "I don’t know a kid who doesn't want to make money," he tells me. Being a professional make-up artist isn't his personal end-goal, either – he wants to follow in his parents' footsteps and invest his money in an apartment complex.
"As I write in Off the Charts, child prodigies have always inspired deeply ambivalent responses," Hulbert continues. "They're hailed as inspirational by some and held up as cautionary examples by others; they're seen as representing the remarkable potential of childhood and the exploitative impulses of adulthood and a high-pressure meritocratic society. But by now, the notion that high performance is effortless is harder to sustain than it has been in the past, which means that clear-eyed realism about what prodigyhood entails is more widespread. That seems like a good sign to me."
While, among the older generation of make-up artists, the jury's still out on how much talent online MUAs actually have – or, indeed how original their work is – as author Elizabeth Wurtzel succinctly sums up in her book on intellectual property, Creatocracy, "In the United States, you know you are talented because somebody is paying for your work."
One thing that can be said with absolute certainty about the popular young MUAs online is that they're brushing, contouring and feline-flicking all the way to the bank.
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.