After a Controversial Demise, Beautycon Is Back & Doubling Down on Diversity

Beautycon is back in business after a four-year hiatus. The annual convention, once hailed as the Super Bowl of beauty, is returning to Los Angeles on September 16 and 17, boasting new management — but it’s got big shoes to fill, and the lingering shadow of a mysterious demise to overcome. 

Launched in 2011 by former YouTuber Marina Curry, Beautycon got its start as a place for influencers and content creators to meet. By 2013, the event was attracting some of the biggest brands and influencers of the era — NYX Cosmetics, bareMinerals, and Carli Bybel, one of YouTube’s early beauty vloggers, headlined Beautycon that year. 2013 was also the year Curry recruited digital media entrepreneur Moj Mahdara to bring the event to the next level.

In a 2014 interview with The New York Times, Mahdara, then Beautycon’s CEO, called the festival the start of a revolution. And revolutionize it did. Mahdara turned Beautycon, once a peer-to-peer festival, into a full-blown brand, launching e-commerce and, a digital content platform. Business aside, Beautycon’s values were also ahead of the curve. Before diversity and inclusion became table stakes for brands, Beautycon made an effort to platform influencers like YouTuber Michelle Phan, Lancôme’s first Vietnamese American spokesperson, and Gigi Gorgeous, who came out as transgender in 2013. In an era dominated by autocratic women’s media — headlines that told us to conceal this and expose that — Beautycon felt like a unicorn. A 2017 Forbes article described the company’s content as more “how-you” than “how-to.”

But the golden age of Beautycon wouldn’t last. The trouble began in 2019, when news broke that the company had gone through two rounds of layoffs in three months. Then came a civil suit, filed by 3G Productions. By May 2020, Beautycon was reportedly operating with only a handful of salaried employees. Shortly after, former Beautycon employees came forward with allegations regarding Mahdara’s behavior and business practices. Mahdara, who never publicly responded to the allegations, resigned from Beautycon in 2021. It was a sad and strange end, one whose details remain in the realm of hearsay, but are troubling nonetheless to loyal Beautycon fans.

In 2021, Essence Ventures acquired Beautycon and brought back Curry, its original visionary, as part of the buy-out. Now, Essence is gearing up to launch the new and improved event — a revamp that fans hope is a fresh start. 

While this year’s Beautycon is a chance for the company to move on, the upcoming event will also harken to the past, getting back to what made Beautycon so successful in the first place: its commitment to creators. “It’s a creator-first platform,” says Sophia Dennis, Beautycon’s programming lead. “Without the content creators, without the people who encourage innovation within the beauty space, the event wouldn’t exist.” A sampling of the creators who have signed on to Beautycon 2023: TikToker Emira D’Spain, the first Black, transgender model to work with Victoria’s Secret; Dieux Skin co-founder Charlotte Palermino; and Trevor Barett, a 21-year-old makeup artist and online personality.

Beautycon 2023 will also champion diversity, another one of its original tenets. A preview of the event, held back in June, announced the tagline for this year’s iteration: “Rally the rising beauty rebels.” “We’re looking at those individuals [who] may typically not see themselves in traditional beauty spaces,” says Corey Stokes, senior vice president of Essence Ventures (and Highsnobiety’s former fashion director). According to Stokes, the event will host a lineup of talent that’s diverse not just in skin tone, but also in personality and community. Expanding beyond traditional beauty influencers, this year’s event will also feature former political strategist Zara Rahim, rapper Saucy Santana, and Shirley Raines, founder of Beauty 2 the Streetz, a non-profit that provides makeup to unhoused folks on Skid Row.

This all sounds promising on paper, but it’s up to Beautycon’s new management to prove that its commitment to equity — a cause that Mahdara championed during their time at the company —  is genuine. As CEO, Mahdara spoke at length about the challenges they face as a queer, person of color navigating the world of investment. Under their leadership, a whopping 80 percent of brands participating in Beautycon were founded by women of color — a commendable achievement, for sure. As Beautycon moves forward, it’s imperative that its diversity efforts are truly as equitable, inside and out, as they purport to be.

The company’s last event was in 2019. Since then, a lot has changed. For one, there was a global pandemic. There were also global protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd, a reckoning that forced brands to voice their political values, often via statements posted to social media and donations to anti-racism causes. These initiatives weren’t always welcomed with open arms — savvy consumers were quick to point out when a brand’s newfound commitment to diversity and inclusion seemed at odds with its internal practices. 

Dennis is confident that Beautycon 2.0 won’t just talk the talk, but walk the walk. “It’s not just about doing campaigns or showcasing certain people on social media,” she says. “We shouldn’t have to post online for people to feel as though there’s representation across the board when you attend a Beautycon event — you should feel that way when you’re talking with members of our team. Also, from a business perspective, [Beautycon] is a place where you can come for discovery. It’s not just about the brands who can afford the biggest booths.”

Dennis, who spearheaded much of the event’s programming, also made a point to consider  how Beautycon’s panelists and discussions would land with attendees of different demographics. “When somebody is in the crowd they’re able to look on stage and say, ‘Hey, I relate to this person because we both have the same native language,’ or ‘We’re both from the same country,’ or ‘I look like her.’ At a lot of events, that’s very hard to find — sometimes you feel like you’re the only one in the room.”

At the end of the day, Dennis hopes every single Beautycon attendee will leave feeling valued. “You don’t have to have 10 million followers to feel important at Beautycon. You don’t have to be a content creator, you don’t have to be a celebrity,” she says. “Every single person who is attending the event is equally as important.”

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