It takes about two seconds of watching Huda Kattan on YouTube to understand her appeal — and watch how the beauty blogger-turned-YouTube guru turned Instagram star leveraged her influencer status to become one of today’s biggest online beauty sensations. Kattan’s presence is endearingly loopy: she laughs, she makes mistakes while applying makeup, she talks about her flaws — all while keeping up a running dialogue about she talks about colors.
Kattan is a cross-cultural, cross-platform star: the 33-year-old is a millennial who instinctively knows what kind of content works on every platform, from Instagram (she has 18.3 million followers) to Facebook (she was an early adopter). She grew up in Tennessee to Iraqi-American parents — attending the University of Michigan-Dearborn — but tired of working in finance very quickly post-graduation. She decided to become a makeup artist instead, breaking with her family’s wishes, who wanted a more stable life for her.
Now she’s the CEO of her own cosmetics company, Huda Beauty. The 33-year-old grew up online and found fame there, most notably with her beauty blog and YouTube makeup tutorials. Watching Kattan execute a tutorial on cream contouring, for example, is to watch her turn an advanced, intimidating makeup technique into something fun that even a beginner could try. (3.9 million people watched.)
The loquacious Kattan, who is also a Muslimwho bases her business in Dubai, told Allure.com that her earliest memories of beauty came from her sisters, particularly her older sister Alya. Growing up, 9-year-old Huda was “mesmerized” watching her do her routine.
She would create these insane lashes,” Kattan remembers. “She spent so much time putting on the mascara, separating the lashes. Watching her — it was like an art.”
Those lashes were powerful. Now, Kattan is known as the woman who sold Sephora on false eyelashes, Huda Beauty’s first product. They became a runaway hit in the Middle East and the States, even landing on the lids of Kim Kardashian. Kattan bootstrapped the initial run of a couple thousand hand-made pairs, initially selling them to Sephora Dubai. Alya, her older sister, made the initial $6,500 investment. Kattan began doing makeup artist sessions “back-to-back” with as many clients as she could to raise seed money.
Sephora took a chance on Kattan’s first product because her experience as a celebrity makeup artist and an influential blogger gave her an edge over traditional beauty brands, says Artemis Patrick, senior vice president of merchandising at Sephora.”With the initial launch of false eyelashes, Huda Beauty was an immediate success,” she says. Her online presence not only got her noticed, but created a base of customers who would stick around and engage with her. “It allowed her to build brand loyalty throughout the world, which is a true testament to her company,” says Patrick.
Kattan approaches the products she tests on her Youtube channel — or her blog, which is less active these days, although she has said she’d like to get back to more it — as both a makeup fan and an honest consumer. In an industry full of hype, where even the smallest influencer’s outfit could be bought and paid for by a brand, Huda’s audience has learned to trust her.
When Foreo launched a new line of products in Dubai last May, commercial sales director Rachal Nsofor sent Huda one of the new brushes. Kattan is sent upward of a thousand beauty products a month, but the brush — Foreo’s Luna for Oily Skin type brush — caught her eye, and she talked about it on YouTube. The brush sold out that week in Harvey Nichols and Bloomingdale’s [Dubai]. “I have no doubt that Huda’s review attributed to this sudden rush,” says Nsofor. “Huda has great influence when it comes to beauty within the [Middle East] region and beyond.”
Kattan’s digital reach eclipses those of say, makeup artists Pat McGrath and Charlotte Tilbury, although they shouldn’t be compared. McGrath and Tilbury are makeup artists with long careers in the fashion industry behind them; Kattan is a different breed. She has a native’s understanding of the Internet — she knows, for example, when it’s OK to go off-book and do a video about, say, testing personal lubricants as face primers. Aspirational? No. Fascinating and entertaining? Yes.
And unlike original YouTube cosmetics star Michelle Phan, who shifted her focus away from makeup tutorials in 2015 when she created subscription-box service Ipsy and her own makeup line, Kattan is still doing the videos that made her famous, even as she’s running Huda Beauty.
As a beauty brand CEO, Kattan describes herself as extremely hands-on. “I feel very emotional about things, and if I don’t feel emotional it wouldn’t work,” she says.
For example, while their first eyeshadow palette sold “far beyond all expectations globally,” she still listened to customer feedback on ways they thought the item could be improved. (Her Insta-fans are very vocal.)
“We went to the factory, we re-worked everything — it really came down to chemistry,” Kattan says. “We definitely listen to harsh criticism, we really do. And sometimes we listen and we agree but don’t take that approach.”
Huda’s default mode at the office is best described as a whirlwind, and a day at Huda Beauty (55 employees and growing) means that her staff has to manage around her fountain of creativity and ideas.
“I do try to respect my team’s time as much as I can!” she insists, briefly putting her sister Mona on speakerphone. (“She definitely loves to do everything in the company, which is great!” Mona says with a laugh). “Like today they wanted me to shoot a highlighter how-to, for Harrod’s, and I didn’t want to do it, but I did. I need to respect the time they spent setting up that beautiful lighting.”
She is very hands-on with product development. When it comes time for her to create, she draws the curtains of her office situated high above Dubai and sits in the dark on her couch, listening to “Disney, or something that makes me happy.”
Her reaction to suggested products, colors, and textures is primal: “I either love or I hate,” she says. “If it’s not amazing, it sucks. I’ll give exact details [for feedback].”
Kattan has plenty coming up this year — including the highlighter palette that hit U.S. stores this month – but she’s aware of the danger of rapid growth. “I want to make sure as a team we can fulfill everything and not get overwhelmed,” she says.
Besides the 3D Highlighter Palette, her fans will be checking Instagram obsessively for new products. There will be a range of lip glosses(also out now), a foundation (expect it in the fall), and some limited-edition products for summer.
And after that? To figure that out, she’ll no doubt be sitting in the dark, high above the desert city, dreaming of colors, shapes, images. She’ll either love it or hate it, and then move on — always two steps ahead of everybody else.
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