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James Charles on ‘Instant Influencer’: ‘Blend, but Don’t Blend In’

What impact can a full face of makeup have on a world at war with an invisible virus?

James Charles is on the hunt for the next beauty influencer, but what will happen once he finds him or her?

YouTube Originals unveils today the premiere episode of “Instant Influencer,” a reality competition series hosted by 20-year-old Charles. Similar in style to “Project Runway” or “America’s Next Top Model,” “Instant Influencer” features elimination challenges meant to test skills such as time management, video editing and ability to sell product.

The six Gen Z contestants’ first challenge is to choose a product from the Ulta Beauty-sponsored beauty closet, film a marketing video based on the chosen item and edit it down to one minute. Claudia Soare, aka Norvina, and Paris Hilton are guest judges.

What’s at stake for the last influencer standing at the end of the series is a full lighting and videography package worth $10,000; the promise of a collaboration with Charles on his YouTube channel, which counts 18 million subscribers; and finally, a cash prize of $50,000. Before sending the contestants off on their first mission, Charles tells them, “Remember to blend, but don’t blend in.”

“Being an influencer, you really are a jack of all trades,” Charles said via phone this week. “A lot of the challenges focus on personality and being a shining star on-camera and off-camera to your fellow contestants. Everybody wants to be an influencer, so it’s about how you can stand out. It’s about selling product and how you work well with others. It’s a huge mix of everything, and the challenges tune into all those skills.”

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As many as two billion unique users are on YouTube at any given moment, and many of them fall within the age range of 18 to 34, according to Alex Piper, YouTube Originals’ head of unscripted, North and South America. Shows like “Instant Influencer,” Piper said, help foster YouTube’s “amazingly fertile, talented, creative creator community,” of which Charles is one of the most prominent members.

“Being an influencer is more than how good you are with a brush. It’s about how well you can express and share your talents with a community that’s eager to learn, but even more eager to be entertained,” Piper said. “I think that’s where James stands out. He has great presence, great personality, fantastic credibility.”

Ulta’s sponsorship of the show seems a natural fit, given that Charles’ Morphe palettes, which have sold out numerous times, are carried by the retailer. In a statement, Ulta’s chief marketing officer Shelley Haus said “Instant Influencer” is “core to Ulta Beauty’s DNA.”

“We are thrilled to be the go-to resource for contestants throughout the show as well as for our guests across our app, our site and eventually across our stores as we begin to welcome everyone safely back to Ulta Beauty,” said Haus.

“Instant Influencer” was filmed pre-coronavirus, which has already caused beauty sales to nosedive. The NPD Group reported that prestige beauty sales were down 58 percent in March. The agency Kline predicted COVID-19 will cause the steepest decline the beauty industry has seen in 60 years.

Influencers have been eager to capitalize on increased screen time and engagement, though many are struggling to find their voice. Furthermore, what impact can a full face of makeup have on a world at war with an invisible virus?

It starts, said Charles, with a healthy dose of distraction. That’s what social media is for, after all.

“Everything going on in the world right now is awful, but this is a good time for people to be at home watching positive, entertaining content that can hopefully lift the mood and make people forget about what’s going on in the outside universe for at least a little bit of time,” he said.

Charles’ own subscriber count has only increased over the past month, according to Social Blade, which reports that he gained 800,000 followers in the past 30 days. Still, there are the aspiring personalities of “Instant Influencer” to think about. What impact will COVID-19 have on their channels?

Perhaps when the pandemic ends, they will pick up their brushes and blend again.

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