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How Jackie Aina Went From Army Reservist to Beauty Influencer Phenomenon and Activist

"No matter how hard it is, or how annoyed I am at the trolls, I just have to keep going, because this is bigger than me."
Photo: @jackieaina/Instagram

Photo: @jackieaina/Instagram

In our long-running series "How I'm Making It," we talk to people making a living in the fashion and beauty industries about how they broke in and found success.

Over the last decade, Jackie Aina has become a household name in the beauty world. She went from being in the army reserve, toying with makeup videos to cultivate her creative side in her off time, to becoming one of YouTube's top influencers — a title she never anticipated.

But Aina is so much more than a bold beauty influencer with even bolder eye shadows. Rather, she uses her platform to tout both product reviews and activism. She regularly posts videos discussing representation and diversity, like her very viral, "I Don't See Color." She's even earned herself the NAACP YouTuber of the Year Award for her impactful and ample efforts to help people of color feel included in the beauty community and hold the industry accountable.

Though Aina was once convinced that discussing taboo topics would stifle her career, since starting her YouTube channel in 2008, she's garnered almost 2.4 million YouTube subscribers and 920,000 Instagram followers. We caught up with the influencer and activist to chat about how she's used her platform to inspire change, and where it's taken her over the past decade.

You started your YouTube channel just about 10 years ago. How and why did you decide to start on the platform?

Next year will make 10 years on YouTube! Basically, I was living in Hawaii at the time — I was 21 or 22, miserable, married, going through life. I was also in the military, and YouTube was very popular at the time. I didn't really have any interest in doing my own videos; I was only watching a lot of videos. But I was always known as the girl who always had all these colored eye shadows and for doing all these really bold looks with my dark skin. My best friend talked to me and was like, 'You need to start a YouTube channel,' and I kept telling her, 'No I'm not interested.' Finally, I just gave in… I felt like I was stifling my creative side. I always loved beauty, and I'd always been passionate about fashion — it was always my number-one true love.

Photo: @jackieaina/Instagram

Photo: @jackieaina/Instagram

What did the beauty influencer world look like back then?

At that time, it was mainly white women and Asian women in the beauty community. So I was taking these looks that the more popular vloggers were doing, and I was basically showing people how to make them work for brown skin. What was unique at that time is, whenever I'd go to makeup counters or makeup shopping, I'd realize that it actually became a thing — I'd show them a picture or a video and be like, 'Do you have this listed? How do I pull off this new lip trend?' The super-blacked-out smoky eye was popular. And I'd take these ideas to makeup counters, and I'd ask, 'How do I do this?'

It seems like a recurring theme both online and offline that, at that time, there weren't a lot of things for people who look like me. I got tired of feeling rejected, so I learned how to do these things myself instead of counting on someone else to teach me or show me how it works with my complexion. And I was doing it on YouTube, not realizing that I was filling the void not only for myself, but for other people.

How have you seen it change over the last decade, if at all?

It's completely turned upside down. At that time, it was taboo to talk about disparities in the beauty industry. No one was talking about diversity in beauty. No one was talking about how there was this glass ceiling that a lot of creators, such as myself, were reaching when it came to growing and becoming more mainstream on YouTube. And I talked about those things because I was like, Why is it still so difficult to find products that work for dark-skin people? I was talking about things that no one else was talking about, so I thought, I'm probably not going to grow as quickly or as big as my peers and counterparts, and I'm OK with that. I wasn't thinking of it as a career; at that time, I didn't even know people were making money on ads.

Now, I think people definitely see me as the authority on diversity in complexion. And I think that's what drew people to me, because I was saying things that no one else was saying. A lot of people have painted this picture that the whole diversity thing was a marketing ploy. But, if anything, it did the exact opposite. It hurt my growth; no one wanted to watch that girl who only talked about black issues. Now, we're seeing a shift in the industry in which people are actively seeking diversity, and people are just now starting to have conversations that have been very much so present amongst, not only just me, but other black influencers, too. We've been talking about this for years.

Through your YouTube channel, you're not only reviewing products and teaching viewers how to use them, but you're also a huge advocate for black women, in particular, and have conversations that others aren't having.

Now, I don't just have black women that follow me. I don't even have just women that follow me; I have men that follow me, I have non-binary people that follow me, I have Asian people that follow me, I have white people that follow me, I have Latin people that follow me. So I always do my best to say that, if you come to my channel, you don't have to necessarily relate to what I'm going through, but I want you to understand and I also want you to learn something. I don't want it to just be about putting on foundation and lipstick, or what the newest launch is. I want people to walk away feeling like they learned something.

How do use your platform to send the message to people of all races, genders and identities that there's room for them in the beauty space?

About four years ago, before I got over a million subscribers, I had raised awareness about an issue on YouTube that there's always kind of been this glass ceiling for darker-skin creators. Specifically, in the beauty community, there was this period of time when anyone with dark skin wasn't getting anywhere near a million, let alone a million or over a million [followers]. Basically, I had asked in the video: 'Why do you guys think that is? Do you think it's because we don't appeal to large audiences?' And I just kind of made it a topic of discussion. 

I felt like — not just online, but also offline — if someone doesn't look like you, I think a lot of people are kind of hesitant to make friends with you or vibe with you. So I talked about that and said, 'I want to be the first dark-skin YouTuber to hit a million,' and I did, which was amazing. 

But I always talk about things like, Hey, just because we don't wear the same makeup shade doesn't mean you can't watch my brush reviews. It's not about looking the exact same as someone; it's about enjoying their content. I'm sure there are a lot of people who don't even wear makeup who enjoy my content, and that's OK — you don't have to look like someone to enjoy who they are as a person and to enjoy what they put out there into the world.

Photo: @jackieaina/Instagram

Photo: @jackieaina/Instagram

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How have you been able to grow your audience so organically over the years?

In the beginning, I felt like I had to be so professional, and I felt like I had to be in teach mode. I can go into teach mode very quickly because I started as a makeup artist, and obviously some of my veteran background has a lot to do with that. Plus, I'm the oldest of seven kids, so I'm used to being the one in charge, getting people's attention. But I've kind of learned over the years that, what if all of the weird, goofy, stupid stuff that I say off camera I just did that in my videos? What would happen?

People watch my videos now and they're like, 'You changed so much!' And I'm like, 'No, I'm actually more myself than I ever have been.' I decided to just let my guard down and really, actually be myself for the first time. And it was when I did my very first yearly series called Trends We're Ditching — a tradition of an end-of-the-year roast on all of the trends and whatever goofy stuff popped up on your Instagram newsfeeds — and the first time I ever made a video of myself just being silly and goofy, that I went viral. And it went like, viral, viral. I finally thought that this was what my channel always had potential to do, and from there on out, my channel just never stopped growing.

I'm really happy that I decided to wake up one day and just be myself, and I think people underestimate how important that is on YouTube.

How long does it take you to come up with an idea and then actually produce and publish it?

My ideas are so spontaneous. I wish I could say I had a whole creative team and a right-hand man. Every once in a while you have a random stroke of inspiration from a friend, but I come up with all of my own content. I have a list of ideas that I do weekly, and I'm very good at executing them quickly. I don't go hire a production team.

So you do all of your video editing and production, too?

Everything, everything.

On top of all of your videos, you're also doing really cool collaborations. I know you're working with Too Faced to expand the shades in its Born This Way foundation range. Can you tell me more about that?

They reached out to me in the spring of last year, so this has been quite a while in the making. We've been talking and going back and forth about what that partnership would even look like, because it's really the first time that an influencer has done a complexion collaboration.

I thought it was just going to be the quintessential influencer collab, but then [Too Faced] told me that they wanted to do that and I thought, This is what I’ve been working toward for most of my career.

I didn't actually announce the collaboration until August. Then, the foundation took a long time with production. They had to have the shades out a year before to actually be in this year's lineup. So we finalized everything — shades and names — around the fall of last year. And, now, we'll be seeing them come out this summer. And I'm so excited because I learned so much from this partnership, and you really don't realize how much work and time goes into producing products until you’re behind the scenes.

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Do you have any other collaborations or projects that you're especially proud of?

I do, but they're a little too early in development to start teasing yet. But 2018 is already the biggest year of my career, and I just feel like everything that is going to follow is going to be insane. I can't wait to have something tangible to show… but not yet!

Another accomplishment is that you won the NAACP YouTuber of the Year Award. What did that mean to you?

For me, that was a really cool opportunity, because it solidified that people don't just come to my channel for vanity or for lipstick. It's not just about how they look on the outside. For me, it kind of solidified: How do people feel when they watch my videos? How do people feel when they look at my content? How am I really impacting people's lives? That matters to me. I don't want people to just feel like they come to my channel and it's short-term gratification and then they go off and watch someone else's video. Because I do think that that's kind of what separates me from other people.

It was just a really powerful moment, and it was just nice to be acknowledged in the black community. When you think of an NAACP award, you think it's going to go to someone like Angela Rye. And you think, like, Wow, you found my YouTube channel and think I’m doing something special? So that felt amazing.

That's got to feel so good. What are some of the other proudest moments of your career so far?

There was a year that I got to be acknowledged as a United Nations Change Ambassador, another program that YouTube and the UN collaborated for. It was a year long and they asked, 'How can we raise awareness about differences and worldly issues?' And so they hired creators from around the world — Mexico, the UK, Brazil, Dubai. And it was all women, which made it even more awesome.

I feel like opportunities like that, and just being stopped at BeautyCon and having someone tell you that they never thought their own dark skin was beautiful, to me, is all the difference. No accomplishment is too small. And I feel like everything is so personal. No matter how hard it is, or how annoyed I am at the trolls, I just have to keep going, because this is bigger than me.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

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