And now, for the inevitable: James Charles, YouTube’s preeminent makeup guru, has been given his own serialized reality television show on YouTube Originals called Instant Influencer. It is essentially America’s Next Top Model for aspiring makeup moguls, half of which enter the competition with over 14,000 subscribers on their personal channels. (By my book, that makes them a micro-influencer probably not in need of much help.) The concept for the show is so simplistic and effective, I wondered why it hadn’t been done before. Of course, Charles’s fanbase, as well as his haters—and any YouTube fan across genre, really—would want to see a celebrity made in this format. Of course, it’s fun to watch guest judges critique and give guidance to industry hopefuls. But more than that, the show gives insight into building a successful brand. For those watching who dream of one day making money off their channel, it’s invaluable advice. For others, it’s an enticing peek behind the curtain.
The premiere of Instant Influencer, available today (April 24), introduces six BeauTuber hopefuls: Kailin Chase, Christian Perez, Britany Renteria, Gabriel Garcia, Ashley Strong, and Benny Cera, all competing to become the next Instant Influencer. That translates to a prize of $50,000, a filming/production set up exactly like the kind James Charles uses on his channel, valued at $10,000, and a collaboration on his channel. (In that way, it’s very similar to ANTM but with one huge distinction: there’s no brand deal or Maybelline contract signed at the end. It’s a one and done award with no immediately apparent longevity.) The contestants’ first challenge upon arriving at YouTube’s soundstage in Los Angeles is to plan, film, and edit an advertisement for the Ulta product of their choosing in less than three hours. (From what I can tell, the time limit serves to dramatize otherwise very boring-to-watch activities, like video editing.) “Advertisement,” “review,” and “vlog,” are used interchangeably throughout the episode, highlighting social media’s depressing qualities without trying to legitimize them: appearing authentic is priced higher than actually being authentic.
And unlike ANTM, where a conversation about personal branding may come in the middle of a season, it’s the first challenge on Instant Influencer. There’s no exercise to see how well the six contestants can do their makeup, or how likable and authentic they appear on-screen, but how effectively they can move product. There’s nothing more YouTube than that.
And yet, I’m engrossed. On one hand, the show appears to be a guidebook on how to sell yourself as a product; and on the other, it’s an entertaining examination on how social media careers can shapeshift. YouTubers like James Charles excel when they lean into the limitations of their platform and provide alternative entertainment that would not fly in traditional television media (such as vlogs, closet reorganizations, chaotically edited prank vids, and most relevant, makeup tutorials.) If the idea is good, traditional television media will mimic those vids with higher production value, much to the chagrin of the original creator. (An easy example of this is FirstWeFeast’s popular series “Hot Ones” with Sean Evans making its way to The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon.)
The relationship rarely goes the other way: it’s not often that a YouTuber will grab from Hollywood to make their own content—mostly because of copyright laws, and if they do, it is only under the guise of parody—so it is unusual to watch James Charles host what is effectively America’s New Top Makeup Guru. It will be interesting to see if this leads to, I don’t know, David Dobrik hosting his own version of late-night or America’s Funniest Home Videos. Tana Mongeau already has a celebreality show on MTV, after all.
Instant Influencer is not only an entertaining watch—it’s a sign of what’s to come: once the most popular YouTubers have grown to numbers so large they become real-famous instead of simply internet-famous, they’ll come for conventional media. And sometimes it will be entertaining.