How Kirbie Johnson Is Creating the Intersection Between Beauty and Pop Culture

·13 min read

When the podcaster, producer and journalist first moved to Los Angeles, she spray-tanned people for a living.

Kirbie Johnson.<p>Photo: Courtesy of Kirbie Johnson</p>
Kirbie Johnson.

Photo: Courtesy of Kirbie Johnson

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.

Kirbie Johnson is not just one thing. Her myriad job titles — on-camera host, podcaster, producer, journalist… — could tell you as much. For most, that professional balancing act should manifest as insurmountable chaos. But for Johnson, who has grown beloved by the beauty and entertainment industries alike, this is what she's been working toward her whole life.

As the daughter of a cosmetologist growing up outside Austin, Texas, Johnson was surrounded by beauty products, treatments and every piece of corresponding literature in between. She worshiped at the altar of Allure and Teen People, and found herself enchanted by the transformative powers of makeup — especially on Halloween.

"I was fascinated with the glam squads, which isn't what they were called at that time," she says. "I wanted to learn the insider tips and tricks of the people I was seeing on the covers of magazines."

So, she did. After studying journalism, advertising and public relations at Texas Christian University, Johnson moved to Los Angeles to fulfill her decade-long dream of, well, being Oprah. "But I also knew that was not a fail-proof career path," she says, laughing, "so I wanted to have something to fall back on."

That something came by way of an office assistant role at global marketing and public relations agency Rogers & Cowan, which she then parlayed into her big break: helming several shows for POPSUGAR's Beauty vertical and growing its video presence online. And grow it did.

"I was there for eight years," she says. "I mean, we started in a studio that was a garage. I remember Miranda Kerr came in for an interview, and we walked her into a garage."

In 2019, Johnson decided to venture out on her own, to create something on her own terms. That something was "Gloss Angeles," a podcast she co-hosts with fellow veteran beauty journalist Sara Tan, in which they share their perspective on all things makeup, skin care and wellness at the intersection of pop culture and entertainment.

Since launching in 2019, the show has issued a new episode twice a week: on Tuesdays, pulling back the curtain on trends, treatments and popular products; and on Fridays, welcoming guests, including Hailey Bieber, Selena Gomez, Jonathan Van Ness, Emma Chamberlain and more. But for Johnson, nothing has yet to compare to the listener base they've built.

"Social media is our community," says Johnson. "We call them the Glamgelenos, and we feel like we cultivated this particular community in a way where we're attracting listeners that we would actually want to be friends with in real life."

As Johnson plots her next move (which includes developing several shows, scripted and unscripted, based on her experience in the beauty industry), we spoke to the ever-busy multi-hyphenate about how she's navigated carving out the intersection between beauty and pop culture in which she now thrives. Read on for the highlights.

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Tell me about the origins of your interest in beauty, before you pursued it as a career.

My mom was a cosmetologist. She gave me my first set of highlights. She notoriously permed my hair all the time as a small child, so I was very used to these situations where I would have to be still and do something that would change my look in some way.

Being a cosmetologist, she was obsessed with Halloween. She was always the Wicked Witch of the West and would throw me these Halloween parties from kindergarten up to senior year. Growing up being Janet Johnson's daughter, she acclimated me to this beauty world early on.

I feel like that experience inherently gave me an edge on all my friends. Because of my mom's background, I was always looking for the new, cool product. I remember in seventh grade going to school with a giant Mario Badescu Facial Spray because Hilary Duff mentioned that she used it in a magazine. I was literally spritzing myself with rosewater at 13 years old in the hallways of school. People were like, 'What are you doing?' And I was like, 'It's a facial mist. Hello?!' That was my first foray into being passionate about beauty in general.

Walk me through the beginning of your career path, from the time you moved to Los Angeles to when you landed at POPSUGAR in 2011.

When I graduated from high school, I really wanted to move to LA. My parents weren't going to let me do that, so I went to school at TCU. I studied journalism, and under the journalism umbrella, there was an advertising and public relations emphasis. I went down that route because I was fascinated by how people decide to make a purchase. I was also obsessed with the idea of the Hollywood publicist, so I was like, 'Well, I'm going to move to LA when I graduate from college and I'm going to try to make my mark as a TV host.' I wanted to be the Giuliana Rancic, the Ryan Seacrest.

I moved to LA in 2009, a week after I graduated from college. I spray-tanned people for a living for a good, solid year. Eventually, I landed at Rogers & Cowan, which is this pretty prestigious public relations firm, as an office assistant. The great thing about working in the front office is you know everything about everyone. I delivered everybody's dailies to their office and got to build relationships with these high-powered publicists. I got a taste of how event production works, how publicity works and who you need to know to navigate this entertainment world.

How did the POPSUGAR opportunity come about, and what lessons did you learn in those early days that you still carry with you today?

The whole time I was at Rogers & Cowan, my boss knew I came out to LA specifically to be a TV host. I had a picture of Oprah sitting on my desk. I was constantly going on these weird auditions for things that were very poorly paid and probably wouldn't have amounted to anything.

There was a post on Media Bistro for a role at POPSUGAR. I believe the job title was 'on-camera beauty expert,' but they wanted someone with a journalism background who could write their own scripts, someone who was passionate about beauty and had a good personality to be on camera. And I was like, 'This is my job.' I didn't have any on-camera work, so I sent a bunch of YouTube videos I had done for my measly channel, and I didn't get a response initially.

This is a good lesson that persistence is key. When I didn't hear back, I responded four times. The final response was something along the lines of, 'Hey, I just wanted to see if you were moving forward with this process. Also, did you see it was revealed that Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor shaved their face so their makeup would go on more smoothly? This is a popular, trending treatment happening in Hollywood now.' It was dermaplaning, but this was 2011, and it was unheard of at the time. They responded to me after that email. I don't know if it was because I actually showed them I knew what I was talking about or they were like, 'We just need to see this girl because she's emailed us four times.'

My job at POPSUGAR was straight up, like, 'You're going to make at least three videos a day.' And at that time, POPSUGAR was the only women's media publisher that was going all in on video. I got a crash course years before anybody else was getting into the digital video game, and it really, really helped me out. But come 2018, I realized I didn't want to be Digital Beauty Girl my whole life. I moved out here to work on camera, to sell a TV pilot. I actually needed to do this stuff. So I told POPSUGAR I was leaving in January 2019, and then I left in July.

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From there, how did you go about getting "Gloss Angeles" off the ground?

I wanted to do a podcast. I think I was just obsessed with 'Serial.' I started thinking about it and I was like, 'Maybe it makes sense to have a co-host,' so I went to Sara Tan, the beauty director at Refinery29. We went back and forth for a while trying to decide when the timing was going to be right, and when I let her know I was quitting my job, I was like, 'I feel like this is the time.' She was like, 'Yes, I totally agree.' So while I was busy putting a pin in everything at POPSUGAR, we were getting a logo made. We were figuring out how you even make a podcast. All these little pieces started to come together. I announced I was leaving POPSUGAR on a Friday, and then we announced 'Gloss Angeles' the following Tuesday.

The ethos of 'Gloss Angeles' is pulling back the curtain on things people in the industry know that a lot of people listening to this podcast don't. At first it was just like, 'We're going to shoot the shit. We're going to have some fun, talk about our favorite products.' It's a full business now. But I don't think Sara and I ever decided to do this just for fun. We always saw it as being a bigger vehicle for the two of us. Sara has a full-time job, and I have multiple jobs outside of this job. But we're both very passionate about it, and we want it to grow and become even bigger.

"Gloss Angeles" is known for offering practical, fun commentary on the beauty landscape, which of course includes the brands that comprise it. What does it take to be a standout beauty brand today?

People don't take anything at face value now. You absolutely have to prove that your product is efficacious. If you're a celebrity brand founder, you have to prove that you actually know what you're talking about. You can't just slap your name on something and expect people to buy it anymore. And it really goes back to community building.

Diarrha Ndiaye of Ami Colé, for instance, built something so, so special. The products are not only incredible, she built a community where everybody feels seen. I know she comes from Glossier, and as much as I love and respect Emily Weiss, it did feel a little exclusionary if you weren't this beautiful, baby-faced, perfect-skinned person. I'm like, 'Your product probably isn't going to help with covering my melasma.' I love Stretch Concealer, but it can only go so far.

Obviously, Rihanna has killed it in the celebrity beauty space. We don't even need to talk about her. The numbers speak for themselves. Selena Gomez makes amazing products with Rare Beauty, and she also works her ass off. Hailey Bieber is on that level. I respect that she's just straight DTC right now; the team she surrounded herself with are not only just good at what they do, but they're in tune with what the beauty community is talking about. And she was smart: Before launching the skin-care brand, she was on TikTok, she was on Instagram, she was on Vogue talking about her skincare routine, she was putting out a YouTube video every week. And all the three women have focused on building a strong community of people. I mean, it's not a cult, but it could be. Their consumers pray at the altar of these brands, and they want to be a part of this brand community. If you don't have community, I can't see you thriving.

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If you go through the highlight reel of your career, what big moments stand out to you?

I had a show called 'Kirbie Tries' on POPSUGAR, and that show did better than any other series I had hosted on the platform. It put me on the map in a few different ways. It helped people see my personality, and it helped me build a social media following, specifically on Instagram and Facebook. But it also got me noticed by Freeform, because the former VP of social media over there loved 'Kirbie Tries.' Through that connection, I was able to host a few different segments for them for their '31 Nights' programming. If you were watching '31 Nights' in the month of October 2018, I was in a bunch of these interstitials. I mean, I was literally living my dream — it was Halloween on television.

Getting to be on the 'Today Show' was a big one. It's national television. I don't care what anybody says. National television is still the gold standard.

My first print story in Allure was a dream for me. It was about CGI and how it has changed the makeup industry on film. I'm very passionate about both entertainment and beauty, so getting to marry those two things gave me so many opportunities, too.

When we got Selena Gomez [on 'Gloss Angeles'] when she launched Rare Beauty in September 2020 — I think that woke a lot of people up. From there, it's been a steady stream of people asking us if they can have their client on. Selena was the kickoff for that. Having Hailey Bieber on this year changed literally everything for us. I mean, if you were ever doubting Hailey Bieber's influence, come talk to me. I can't even tell you. Her influence knows no bounds. After she came on, people were like, 'Oh, okay. We need to make 'Gloss Angeles' part of our press strategy.'

What's something that's exciting you about the beauty industry right now?

The tide is changing. The focus is going to be less on Gen Z. Brands are going to start to wake up and understand that the category of women 40-plus is a force to be reckoned with.

Gen Z became so important. I understand that brands wanted to adopt people early and have them be loyalists throughout their life. But there were core brands that have been around for decades that completely switched their entire strategy to focus on Gen Z when their products weren't even made for Gen Z, and they lost a lot of people along the way who were once their key demo — people 40 and up — because they're like, 'I don't see myself in this brand anymore.'

We're at a place in time where there are 40-year-olds that 10 years ago used to be watching YouTube religiously, who used to have the carved-out brow and the detailed face beat, who used every Morphe palette. And now they're noticing lines and wrinkles, they're doing their makeup completely differently. This is a segment of people who have been on social media for a long time, but now they're aging and want to find a brand that really does cater to these things.

I'm also so passionate about the below-the-line crew on TV, and I love that social media is able to highlight these people. Take Lily James becoming Pamela Anderson and the hair head, the makeup head, the prosthetic creator all getting their flowers on social media. They're just as much a part of the movie as the director or the lead talent. I'm eager to keep covering those types of stories.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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