The Dirty Truth About Beauty Blogging

Beauty blogger Nadine Jolie Courtney. (Photo: Nadine Jolie Courtney)

Last month, my blogging agent fired me.

The reason? My social media numbers weren’t high enough.

When I started my blog in 2005, I was a magazine editor and beauty blogs were few. My former blog Jolie in NYC was anonymous, and my unmasking by the New York Post led to a white-hot media scandal and international publicity. I was told, “Hope you like beauty blogging, because you’ll never work in magazines again.” Scary because in 2005, beauty blogging wasn’t a career, period.

But what choice did I have? My snarky, tell-it-like-it-is blog ostracized me from the magazine industry, and I started blogging full-time: reviewing beauty products, doing my best to give readers the honesty missing from magazines, separating the hype from the truth, and trying to turn my part-time hobby into a real, legitimate career.

Right place, right time: the beauty blogging industry exploded around me, as if by magic, seemingly overnight. Over the years, I’ve been told by scores of fellow bloggers and publicists that they consider me the original beauty blogger. I may have been first, and not lacking in credibility with two beauty books published by HarperCollins, an English degree from Barnard, and stints at Lucky magazine, Ladies’ Home Journal, FHM, InStyle, and Harper’s Bazaar under my belt—but I was certainly not the best.

While there was almost zero competition when I started, and getting PR companies to work with me was like pulling teeth, within just a few short years, hundreds of blogs had sprung up and I was suddenly receiving scores of beauty product mailings per week, all from many of those same publicists who had briefly shunned me after I left the magazine industry.

A couple of years after that, when bloggers began to realize they had power and started demanding money for brand placements—known as sponsored posts—blogging agencies debuted. Back in 2010, the idea that bloggers might need agents seemed preposterous, but the industry was changing at lightning speed: bloggers suddenly had influence, brands were desperate to harness it, middlemen were (apparently) needed to intervene.

I signed with a New York-based agency who now manages some of the most influential, visible style bloggers in the world, but who at the time had a mom-and-pop feel. I was one of the original clients, and soon was commanding several thousand dollars per sponsored post, thanks to the agency's steady guidance. I had no idea how much I should be charging, and the agency stepped in, ready to chart the choppy negotiation waters.

The money was excellent. Who among us would say no to thousands of dollars for writing about a makeup item you’d write about for free? The problem came later: when the gigs started rolling in for brands I didn’t like. For brands I wouldn’t write about for free. For brands my readers, quite frankly, didn’t give a damn about.

But, but: the money.

It was a subtle, slow evolution, but looking back on it, it feels like I went from being a full-time blogger to a full-time shiller. While blogging was initially a hobby, once the money began to pour in, it was hard to turn away from. I fought to provide quality content, but little by little found myself turning my back on the personal, no-BS posts that made my name, instead focusing on paid content, building my brand, and trying to achieve those magical social media numbers. After all, more numbers meant more money, as this recent Harper’s Bazaar piece about Instagram sponsored posts bluntly explains.

The landscape changed. As a reader, I noticed it, too. You had to fight harder to find quality content. It was (and is) there—but there was (and is) a lot of noise, too.

I’ve been uncomfortable with the sponsored post game for years now. It took the joy out of blogging and distracted me from the reason I was doing it in the first place: to connect. To share. To create a space that was different from what you could find in magazines. I got into blogging because I loved beauty, but when I’d sit down at my computer to write, I felt depressed. The PR packages would pile up. The products would go untested. It felt stale and I needed more.

I resolved that I needed to make a serious change. I loved the money that came along with a sponsored post, but hated the feeling that I was selling my soul, one product launch-review at a time. I knew that friends and bloggers I admired were able to maintain that tenuous balance, but for some reason, I just couldn’t.

Then I was presented with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to star on a Bravo show (Newlyweds: The First Year). My initial motivation for doing the show was a hope that it would catapult my good-in-the-real-world but lackluster-for-a-blogger social media numbers. My finances had all but dried up, Erik was completely supporting me, and I hadn’t yet sold my next novel Wisteria. I needed a Hail Mary, and badly.

I moved further and further down the rabbit hole of seeking sponsored posts, trying to please my agents, trying not to anger brands, and muzzling what I really thought about various launches (sometimes impressed, but often wildly underwhelmed)…because if I pissed everybody off, my income stream would vanish.

I know that we live in a world where you wouldn’t have I Love Lucy without Philip Morris: somebody has to pay the bills, and if you’re doing this as a job, that comes with certain grown-up, realistic, way-of-the-world trade-offs.

But it gnawed at me.  I wrote about my discontent over and over and over.

When I finally relaunched my blog, I made the big decision to remove the ads. If I’d still been making thousands of dollars a month, it would have been a much harder call: I’ll be the first one to admit that. But I wasn’t making thousands of dollars a month anymore: I was making less and less money blogging, had those damn stagnant social media numbers, and stopped going to beauty events and having energy to play the game altogether while I instead focused on my flourishing personal life. I started making noises on Facebook about the evils of sponsored posts, and the need to connect with readers instead of please brands. I let it be known, loudly, that things needed to change.

And then a couple weeks ago: the nail in the coffin. Fired. A chapter closed.

I wasn’t surprised when my agent let me go. It was a pleasant, amicable conversation about the state of the industry, the requirements for high social media numbers, and brands’ need for ROI—and I get it. If I were on the brand side, with bosses and spreadsheets to answer to, I’d probably make the same call.

Although I initially felt fine after the chopping-block phone call, later that night, malaise set in. How on earth was I going to make money moving forward? Were my husband Erik and I doomed to be a one-income family—right when expenses were higher than ever because of our new baby daughter Aurelia? Could I even get a real job?

Then Erik made a good point. While it was a blow to my ego, it was a wonderful opportunity to refocus and unleash my creativity. It meant I was no longer shackled to brands. I didn’t have to muzzle myself for fear of angering anybody. I could get back to the honesty that started me on the blogging journey more than 10 years ago.

I could stop worrying about curated Instagram beauty photos and instead post AS MANY DAMN PHOTOS OF MY DAUGHTER AS I WANT (which is exactly what I’ve been doing for the past week). I’m sure I’m losing some followers after I’ve posted the fifth photo in a row of my chubby baby—like no human being in the history of the world has ever procreated—but that’s okay. It makes me happy: and it doesn’t have to be about the numbers anymore.

I’ve pressed the reset button. It’s the natural evolution of what I’ve been writing and thinking about for the past couple of years, and which has recently reached a boiling point.

For obvious reasons, I don’t have as much time for blogging as I used to. I live my life in Aurelia’s naps, and am still hurrying to finish the draft of my next book before its July due date. But if you click on my Q&A section and send me your beauty questions, I’ll get back to readers at some point and and flood my blog with as much honesty and truth as I can, like in the old days.

Beauty brands and PR firms might never send me another product for free. I might never get another brand deal, even if it’s a company I do actually like and believe in. Beauty press trips? A thing of the past. I need to make my money elsewhere and that’s scary: I’m still figuring that part out, and plan to freelance and pursue my career as an author. (A sure path to miiiillions of dollars! Just kidding. A sure path to about $20K a year.) I had a pretty good thing going for a while, and now I don’t. It’s partially the industry, and it’s partially me.

But I hope to blog until the day I die. And I’m not going to let anybody tell me I’m not valuable to readers.

Sometimes you need a push to make that leap. So here we are. I was pushed, and now I’m leaping and I’m moving forward.

I hope that the beauty blogosphere doesn’t continue to devolve into a place where you must fight to find quality content. We’ve seen enough sponsored posts. Let’s get back to the honesty that made the beauty blogosphere a fresh, heady alternative to magazines.  Let’s get back to content, for content’s sake. Let’s get real.

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