James Charles doesn’t want to start a beauty brand.
Despite being a public figure with 11 million Instagram followers and nearly 11 million YouTube subscribers, 19-year-old Charles (his full name is James Charles Dickinson) is more interested in working behind the scenes, doing production or consulting with large beauty brands, which he says can have a hard time authentically reaching Gen Z consumers with their messaging.
While “do you want to start your own makeup line?” is the question he’s most frequently asked in interviews — “I get asked every time” — the fast-talking beauty guru says the answer is “no.”
And it remains a “no,” even with the remarkable success of his makeup collaboration with Morphe. The launch of his Artistry Palette, $39, resulted in one of the brand’s highest e-commerce days ever, and is said to have contributed significantly to the largest sales weekend ever at Ulta Beauty, where the line launched at the same time as Kylie Cosmetics.
“My passion is creating and marketing,” said Charles. “That’s what I’m really, really good at and that’s what I find the most stimulating for my brain to work on, so that’s what I really, really want to do as opposed to product creation.”
He credits the success of his palette to “the Sisters,” which is the name he’s given his fans. “It sold out everywhere, which is crazy. The Sisters are literally like the best in the entire world,” Charles said.
The Artistry Palette — a collection of pressed pigments with colors more akin to Crayola crayons than your typical eye shadow palette — was something Charles had designed before Morphe asked him to collaborate.
He was the face of Morphe’s 2017 holiday campaign featuring their 39a palette, which consumers sometimes took to mean that the palette was his project. It wasn’t, but it sold like crazy, and Morphe’s cofounder Linda Tawil approached him shortly afterward to ask if he’d like to do his own palette.
“She was like, ‘Let’s do something together,’ and I was like, ‘Oh that’s good, I already have it designed on Photoshop,'” Charles said. “After I got home I sent her the Photoshop file of literally this exact palette that I had already designed a few weeks prior. I had put it into the universe and it happened, which is so crazy. I don’t really believe in that type of stuff, but it happened.”
Charles has always been a hard worker. He started his first business — Twitter marketing — when he was 11. “Then I got kicked off ’cause you had to be 13, and they found out about me,” he said.
After that, he moved on to Tumblr, where he would code themes and sell them. He was 12.
He started on Instagram when he was 13, creating a page of inspirational quotes and “Pinterest-y-style” pictures. He later started a Nickelodeon-themed account and a movie-themed account, both of which he sold when they got to about 300,000 followers. “I got bored of running them,” he said.
Then things took a turn for the off-line world, where Charles started doing hair, and eventually, makeup.
“I took a break when I was around 15 because I started doing hair, just for funsies,” Charles said. His passion for creating — art, music and hair included — led to a stint doing a friend’s makeup for a military ball because she was late to her appointment.
“I was like, ‘sure, but if it looks disgusting, do not tell anybody that I did it,'” he said. “It actually ended up looking really beautiful and she felt confident. Well, OK, looking at it now it was bad — but she felt beautiful and that’s what truly mattered.”
He ordered a starter set of makeup from the Internet after that, and started practicing makeup on himself. His first look was skull makeup for Halloween. “It was pretty bomb, I’m not going to lie,” he said. “My looks following that were not so bomb, but it was so much fun to just paint on myself.”
He started an Instagram page — his first one as himself — and started gaining followers. He later started a YouTube page after his followers asked for one.
Charles was still in high school, and while he was creating artistic makeup looks for the web, he wasn’t wearing them day-to-day.
“I was way too lazy to try to wake up in the morning and try to do that — absolutely not,” Charles said. “When I started wearing makeup, my parents…were like, ‘You’re absolutely not wearing it out of the house.’ At first I thought they were not happy with me wearing it, but later on I realized it was out of fear of me getting bullied and ridiculed in school.”
Charles was “bullied and stuff,” he said, when he was young (pre-makeup) — but he said it made him grow skin that is “eight miles thick” and helps when Internet commentators go in on his voice, or his eyebrows (which have evolved over the years).
His ascent has been largely in the public eye.
When Charles was 16, CoverGirl named him the first male face of the brand. At that point, he had around 70,000 YouTube subscribers and 435,000 Instagram followers, but his fame skyrocketed after the CoverGirl deal. That helped bring the idea of men in makeup out of niche communities and more into mainstream awareness. CoverGirl’s decision was later mimicked by other beauty brands, like Maybelline, who tapped male beauty influencer Manny Gutierrez for a campaign in 2017.
“CoverGirl putting my face on such an international scale did make a huge leap forward for men in makeup, and for boys in beauty and for anybody wanting to express themselves,” Charles said. “For it to be fully gender-inclusive, it’s going to take a long time.”
Charles is unusually confident for a man of 19. Asked about it, he said he’s been that way for most of his life, and that his mom likes to tell stories about him unapologetically prancing around the house in tights and heels, or putting stockings on his head as if they were a wig, when he was small.
That unapologetic nature — Charles was wearing a glitter highlight with a Sisters Apparel tracksuit and Balenciaga sneakers at his WWD photo shoot on a Monday at 2 p.m. — has helped him to build his community, he said.
“I’m very upfront with my followers when it comes to my production, my love life when it comes to boys and my struggles in that sense, and scandals — I’ve definitely had some sandals, but it’s important for me to address [them] head-on and take full responsibility,” Charles said.
He’s also found ways to take criticism and turn it into money.
In one “scandal,” he appeared in public with foundation that was too light, and it went viral. But what it really led to was Charles breaking out of his creative mold to create a scripted satire video called “Flashback Mary,” where he makes fun of himself and the Internet. “I turned it into merch and I turned it into a video and I monetized it,” he said.
For a man with merch, Charles admits he wasn’t always “good” at fashion, and he’s had at work at it — both for his own personal style, and for Sisters Apparel, his clothing line.
“I don’t like to consider it merch because I like to think of Sisters Apparel as an actual clothing line one day,” Charles said. “I want to expand on that as much as I possibly can and make it like, a full line.
“My style, I’d definitely describe as ath-leisure with a twist of gay, which I really really live for,” Charles said. “You can find me in a super masculine tracksuit with a full face of makeup or a full face of makeup and an oversized hoodie and no pants on — underwear of course, for the sake of everybody — and a high-heeled boot.”
The clothing line is something that has allowed Charles to expand his sales beyond his core Sister consumer base, he said. At a recent appointment in Beverly Hills, where he was dressed in Sisters Apparel, a woman told him she had just found the brand on Instagram and bought hoodies for herself and her wife, he said.
“That got me so excited because it means that the brand is expanding and getting into the hands of people that don’t even know me. That’s the goal I want — I want it to be a self-sustaining brand without my name attached.”
That business mind-set — not all influencers are spending their hours trying to figure out how to sell products beyond their core fan bases — is something Charles is hoping to translate into a business that would potentially consult with big-name beauty companies, he said.
“I hope to work closely with quite a few major brands over the next few years when it comes to consulting and marketing to really help them figure out how to target the audience, how to sell to the right consumers and how to stay on the radar,” Charles said. “It’s definitely a learning experience for a lot of these older companies to figure out how to work with that — we’ve definitely had a lot of frustrating phone calls working with different brands that don’t quite get it.”