Fifteen-year-old girls don’t want advice from their mothers. It’s a truism as old as time, and yet for every parent, a bitter pill. When it comes to crafting and caring for their emergent selves, teenagers look to their phones, to brands, to celebrities. In this moment, they are finding all three in Selena Gomez, who, with 428 million followers, is the most followed woman on Instagram. This is despite the fact that she famously logged off social media for four years, returning only in the past year, because it was wreaking havoc on her mental health. When I ask my own teenager and her friends—musical-theater nerds, athletes, Black, brown, and white girls—to explain the singer, actor, and cosmetics founder’s allure, one says succinctly, “Selena Gomez doesn’t make me feel less-than.”
Gomez, 31, greets me at the back door of her serene “glam room” at the Encino, California, house she shares with her grandparents. She’s wearing a loose tank top and gray pajama pants, her foot in a boot after she fractured a bone tripping over her friend’s puppy. “I’ve performed on stage hundreds of times in high heels, doing whole dance routines, and have never broken a bone. Then I take one wrong step over a little dog,” she says, laughing.
We settle on a green velvet couch near a wall of makeup mirrors and two makeup chairs. When asked why she thinks girls like my daughter have such an allegiance to her, she says, “I’m not unattainable. I look at someone like a Beyoncé, and I am amazed. My jaw drops. Every part of her is just impeccable, and it’s just so beautiful. I went to her show and was blown away. But I’m just not that, and that’s okay. I’m me, and I’m a little silly, but I also like being sexy and fun, and I also want to do good with the time I have here. We need goddesses like Beyoncé and Adele. But I’m just happy to be your best friend.”
Gomez brought that spirit of relatability to Rare Beauty, the makeup line she launched three years ago that has become an astronomical success and taken on an identity that transcends Gomez herself. Rare Beauty is expected to exceed $300 million in sales in 2023, according to industry sources—triple what it earned in 2022, when sales doubled from 2021. Near the end of its first year, the brand went global, just recently expanding into India and Indonesia. Rare Beauty’s in-house-curated TikTok has a reach of 3.3 million, with a consistent engagement rate above 8%—significantly higher than the industry standard—and the company has 6.1 million followers on Instagram. A recent survey by investment bank Piper Sandler showed that Rare Beauty ranks second on its list of the top cosmetics brands among Gen Z, behind mass-market juggernaut E.l.f. and above Maybelline, L’Oréal, and Fenty Beauty.
Conor Begley, chief strategy officer at CreatorIQ, which tracks and measures influencer relationships on social media—a leading indicator, today, of a brand’s value—explains that Rare Beauty far outranks other beauty brands in terms of volume of influencer coverage. Its closest rival in this regard is Charlotte Tilbury (which was bought for a billion dollars three years ago by 109-year-old Spanish fashion and fragrance company Puig). Rare Beauty is growing at 110% year over year with influencers, CreatorIQ reports, while Charlotte Tilbury is expanding at around 18%. Begley believes that if Rare Beauty were to be acquired, it would possibly represent the fastest trajectory “from zero to a multibillion exit” in the history of the beauty industry. “Their success is unprecedented,” he says.
Vennette Ho, managing director and global head of beauty at financial services and investment company Raymond James, echoes Begley’s enthusiasm. “There are not a lot of brands that come to market and so deeply resonate with the customer in such a profound way,” she says. For instance, when Rare Beauty launched its Soft Pinch Tinted Lip Oils, which come in shades like Hope, Wonder, and Serenity, they sold out within 12 hours on RareBeauty.com, generating a wait-list of more than 20,000 customers. “I don’t even think of Rare Beauty as a celebrity brand,” continues Ho, “which has an implication of being fleeting, or requiring constant pushing by the celebrity. I think of it as an iconic, mission-driven brand. Customers aren’t just buying this because of the person, but because of what the brand means.”
Sales and social media metrics only tell half the story of Rare Beauty’s success. In Gomez’s 2022 documentary, My Mind & Me, the former child actor—who first appeared on Barney & Friends at the age of 10 before becoming a multiplatinum pop star (and who currently appears in Hulu’s Only Murders in the Building alongside Martin Short and Steve Martin)—unspooled her mental health journey as she came to terms with a bipolar disorder diagnosis. Her vulnerable revelations rang a bell with her tender legions of fans, who have long used her as a vessel to pour and project their own angst. After all, a recent CDC report showed that nearly three in five teen girls in the U.S. felt persistently sad or hopeless in 2021—a nearly 60% increase from 2011—undoubtedly exacerbated by COVID-19. “I wanted there to be a conversation started,” she says. “I wasn’t ashamed, and I wanted it to lead to something healing.”
The idea of destigmatizing mental illness and fostering conversations around hope and agency is baked into every element of Rare Beauty, particularly its nonprofit division. The Rare Impact Fund aims to raise $100 million in 10 years to expand access to mental health services and education for young people around the world. It has already partnered with 23 global organizations, including Trans Lifeline and the Black Teacher Project, supporting them with more than $5 million in grants. While we’re chatting in the glam room, Gomez receives a text from DJ Marshmello, agreeing to perform at the inaugural Rare Impact Fund Benefit in Los Angeles in October, which will gather 350 deep-pocketed guests for a night of fundraising and entertainment.
“When I was younger, I thought I could save the world,” says Gomez. She cries while recalling some of the rawer encounters she’s had with fans. “It breaks my heart to hear a girl come up to me and say, ‘I was so close to taking my life, but when I watched your documentary, I couldn’t imagine doing that anymore.’ That’s the coolest gift, but yeah, look at me . . . ,” she says, gesturing at her tears. “It’s crazy to have that responsibility.”
It was the crying jags and bouts of hopelessness that prompted Gomez to cancel the end of her Revival tour in 2016. She sought help, completing a 90-day stint at a treatment facility in Tennessee. A lupus diagnosis, and the emotional and physical stress surrounding symptom flare-ups, led to a kidney transplant in 2017. She waited, though, until 2020—unmoored in the pandemic like the rest of us—to voice aloud, during a one-on-one conversation with Miley Cyrus on Instagram Live, the fact that she’d been diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
To speak so deliberately about perhaps the most difficult time of her life was a risky choice for a star raised in the Disney machine. “I grew up being a people pleaser,” Gomez admits. “I had a responsibility at a very young age—young people were looking up to me. I didn’t know who I was. Having that responsibility would make me walk on eggshells a lot. I thought maybe it would be damaging to tell people who I am. It started to become a threat that freaked me out. Well, if you’re not right, then you can’t work.”
Looking back now, she says, “I went through a really hard season. It was my highs and my lows, and I didn’t know what to do, so I couldn’t control it. I would want to cancel things. It was just a tormented feeling. That’s why, when I found out my diagnosis, it was just, ‘Oh, okay, I feel a bit relieved, I understand a bit more.’ I got second opinions. I went to doctors. I’m fortunate enough to be able to have people who can help me survive every day.”
During her recovery, Gomez— who was still reeling from her final breakup with longtime on-again, off-again boyfriend Justin Bieber—realized that social media had become too toxic a space for her. “I had just gotten my heart broken. I didn’t need to see what everyone was doing,” she says. “Then there were those moments of not feeling positive about how I looked because of what I’d see on Instagram. Wow, I wish my body looked like that.” She handed her password over to her assistant and logged off. With time, she realized how quickly a person’s head can clear when they look ahead instead of down.
Which doesn’t mean social media was ready to quit its obsession with her. In 2018, internet trolls had a noxious field day over paparazzi shots of Gomez in a bikini on a boat in Australia. The scars from her kidney surgery were visible, and she no longer had the body of her younger self—a fact that had already been made abundantly clear to her at a fitting for a fashion magazine. Before, she’d “had a teenager’s body,” she says. Now, “none of the sample sizes were fitting, and that would make me feel embarrassed. Although how unrealistic is it to expect a normal woman’s body not to change?”
When Gomez caught wind of sniping comments about her appearance in the paparazzi photos, she temporarily suspended her self-exile from social media, hitting back with a stiff hand. In an Instagram post she dictated to her assistant that went on to get more than 3 million likes, she took steady aim at “the beauty myth—an obsession with physical perfection that traps modern woman in an endless cycle of hopelessness, self-consciousness, and self-hatred as she tries to fulfill society’s impossible definition of flawless beauty.”
Fuck the patriarchy, as Gomez’s close friend Taylor Swift sings. That now-famous “beauty myth” post, and its urge to dismantle the status quo, is what helped inspire the launch of Rare Beauty.
Growing up in Grand Prairie, Texas, Gomez loved accompanying her mother to the MAC cosmetics store. Her single mom paid the bills with a juggle of part-time jobs, working at Starbucks, Dave & Buster’s, and a modeling agency, and also as a makeup artist. “My mom would give me any leftover makeup, and I would just play with it all the time.”
When she started exploring the idea of starting a makeup company of her own, Gomez met with a trio of executives who’d shepherded NYX cosmetics from a scrappy startup through its reported half-a-billion-dollar sale to L’Oréal. They became Rare Beauty’s founding team: CEO Scott Friedman, chief digital officer Mehdi Mehdi, and chief product officer Joyce Kim. “You have to think about the beauty industry back in 2018, 2019,” says Mehdi, who helped originate the idea of influencer marketing while at NYX. “There was a lot of pressure on young girls and women to look a certain
way.” Gomez had spent years “scrolling on Instagram and seeing people saying this and that about her, and she’d feel terrible about herself. She was like, ‘If I’m feeling this way, what are all these other young people who aren’t as equipped as I am feeling?’ So early on, we knew there was a reason to exist that was outside of just [being] a celebrity brand for Selena Gomez.”
Today, Rare Beauty is sold exclusively in 36 countries through its own site and at Sephora. The brand, which is vegan and cruelty-free, is considered “entry-level prestige,” a category within the fast-growing “prestige” sector. According to Larissa Jensen, a beauty adviser at Circana, prestige sales in the U.S. totaled $14 billion in the first half of 2023, a 15% increase over the previous year; the mass beauty market accounted for $28 billion, and it grew 9%. (Circana doesn’t circulate specific figures about entry-level prestige.) The company is well positioned to grow with its audience and go upmarket over time.
Rare Beauty products are priced at $30 and under, putting the brand in a competitive set with MAC, Clinique, Tarte, Benefit, Urban Decay, and Stila. Yet Rare Beauty’s sleek, luxe-looking package design speaks to a discerning and aspirational audience. Even those who can’t afford to throw down $23 for the coveted Soft Pinch Liquid Blush are devoted to the brand and its founder. As a friend of my daughter’s told me, “I’d buy the blush if I could afford it.” Thankfully, following Selena Gomez and Rare Beauty on Instagram is free.
The beauty industry has historically been a vector for reinforcing cultural norms. But it has also, at times, offered individuals a means to challenge them. From Cleopatra to Billy Porter, people have used makeup to advance traditional definitions of gender, identity, and belonging. Fenty Beauty forever changed the game for inclusivity when Rihanna launched the company in 2017 with 40 foundation shades (it now offers nearly 60); Rare Beauty has built upon the idea by reinforcing that makeup is for everyone, meant only to enhance what makes people unique, not to help them achieve a homogenous look. Rare Beauty, where more than 60% of the staff are people of color, shares content from users ranging from a blond albino young woman named Oceanne to a Filipino fashion blogger named J.R. to Rare Beauty employee Emily’s abuelita from Michoacán, Mexico. It’s the specificity of these individuals that connects with fans, not some uniform look they’ve achieved. “The beauty industry has been slow to move in this direction,” says Raymond James’s Ho, who views Rare Beauty as a trailblazer. “But that’s what today’s consumers want.”
Katie Welch, who came from the Honest Company to become chief marketing officer, grasped early on that Gomez had an uncommon ability to connect with her audience as individuals who deserved to be seen and heard. “Selena wanted to break down standards of beauty by creating this warm, welcoming community that could kick-start positive conversations around self-acceptance,” says Welch. “I thought, Man, I’ve been working in the beauty industry since 1999, and I’ve never seen that. This idea of ‘Come sit with us.’”
Gomez had her heart set on naming the company Rare Beauty, after her own song “Rare.” It’s a word she has tattooed on her neck, and she loves it for being both a rebuke of perfection and an acknowledgment of worth. The only problem was that somebody was already using @rarebeauty on Instagram. It turned out that the handle belonged to a young woman who was more than happy to sell the name. Gomez thanked her by contributing money toward her education.
But Gomez wanted to make change on a larger scale. What if Rare Beauty could leverage makeup and beauty to talk about the broader issue of mental health? Before Rare Beauty had even signed a lease on office space, the founding team brought in Elyse Cohen to lead its social impact department and launch the Rare Impact Fund. Cohen had previously worked in the White House—as deputy director of Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! initiative—and with various corporations on social impact efforts.
The first thing Cohen did was assemble a mental health advisory council that includes doctors, psychiatrists, and representatives from trusted organizations including the National Alliance on Mental Illness and the National Alliance for Hispanic Health. “We do not put a single piece of content or programming out there that is not created in partnership with a medical expert or a youth-serving mental health organization,” Cohen says.
Then, before it released its first product, Rare Beauty announced plans to donate 1% of all sales to this fund. “To make a pledge like this from the beginning shows that this isn’t performative or an afterthought,” says Ho. “Whether they were going to be a small business or a big business, the greater mission was always going to be fundamental to the brand.”
Next, Rare Beauty upended the standard courting rituals with influencers. Most beauty companies offer flashy, do-it-for-the-Gram experiences (such as Tarte’s extravagant three-day trip to Dubai for 50 influencers and their plus-ones); participants are then expected to post a certain number of times a day to earn their glamorous keep. Rare Beauty, by contrast, invites small groups to various retreats where they’re under no obligation to produce content. They can spend the weekend in sweatpants while attending wellness experiences or fireside chats with Cohen and mental health experts such as Tramaine El-Amin at Mental Health First Aid. In May, Rare Beauty hosted its first mental health summit, with 150 community members (as the brand calls its most devoted fans) gathered in person and 50,000 others joining on TikTok from around the world.
In some ways, the event was a natural extension of the first-ever mental health youth summit that Gomez cohosted last year at the White House. “I got to talk to the president and the First Lady about mental health,” she says, describing that experience as “surreal.” For Cohen, returning to the White House as part of a call to action for young people, policymakers, and corporate America to prioritize mental health was a full-circle moment. “When I left the White House in 2015,” she says, “nobody was publicly sharing their stories. Companies were hesitant around the legality associated with talking about this issue, as if it was so different from physical illness.”
As Rare Beauty’s presence in the mental health space grows, Gomez and Cohen are mindful that there are limits to their influence. “It can be challenging to navigate a real crisis from a superfan,” says Cohen. “Whenever we see something alarming in the comments, we respond individually to them. A member of our team will direct them to crisis care. Now, if something is so alarming, which has happened on very limited occasions, I will directly reach out to the team at the National Alliance for Mental Illness to ask them for someone we can directly connect them to. Because we’re global now and there’s no global crisis line, a lot of time we have to direct them to a web directory, which isn’t ideal. You want someone to have one click if they’re in crisis. We know we’re not going to solve global mental health overnight,” she continues. “But we’re going to do our best, knowing how many young people are following us.”
Celebrity-driven beauty companies don’t stay hot forever. (Just ask Kesha.) Typically, when the star fades, fans merely turn to a different display at Sephora. In Rare Beauty’s case, though, any change in Gomez’s stature or the company’s revenues—including an acquisition by a beauty industry behemoth—could potentially be devastating, given how many young fans have come to rely on the brand for emotional support. For now, though, millions of people are being exposed to resources, education, language, and each other. Plus, Gomez’s fans would always know how to find her. Her music would still resonate, her social media accounts are likely to stay active.
When asked if she can go on bearing that burden of responsibility on a global scale, Gomez doesn’t blink. “I can,” she says firmly. “I really can.”
While I visit with Gomez in her glam room, Rare Beauty has convened about 15 community members for a gratitude-journaling event across town in Venice. The 1,400 members of the Rare Beauty community on the Geneva chat app are buzzing with news of triumphs, headaches, and griefs, a ribbon of affirmation holding everyone together.
Gomez, meanwhile, is wrapping up her day before spending the evening in the studio, where she’s working on her new album, her first in three years. She describes the music as a fun departure. “I love sad-girl music; I’m really good at that,” she says, as the gentle sound of a waterfall from the pool trickles in through the open door. “However, I can’t really write that if I’m not sad. I’ve had to relearn what being me and being happy looked like. There is not one sad song on this whole album.”
Still, “I’ve never promised anyone that I’ll never have a bad day again,” she says. “I’ve always been honest with my fans. Even when I take breaks from social media, I’ll say I’m taking a break.”
For now, returning to social media means accepting the headaches that come with it. Recently, snoops noticed that Gomez had unfollowed Dua Lipa, which led to feverish speculation of a feud. “It was an accident!” says Gomez, laughing. “I was just cleaning up some of my Instagram. Then somebody called me and was like, ‘What happened with Dua?!’” In a public gesture, the next day Gomez wore a dress from Versace, which had recently launched a collaboration with Dua Lipa, to a Rare Beauty event and posted a picture of herself celebrating the other woman’s win to prove there was no beef.
Wouldn’t we all be better living offline? I ask. Can’t she speak into my tape recorder and warn her 10-year-old little sister, her fans, my 15-year-old who is furious at her mother for not letting her be on TikTok about social media’s proven mental health-draining nature?
Gomez smiles patiently at my request. “All I would say is, ‘Every choice you make is yours. At the end of the day, you have to be proud of it. If it ends up being a mistake, it’s your mistake to learn from. Take a lesson from that. Does it make you feel good? Does it not? Evaluate and get to know yourself as much as you can.’ But I would never say don’t do something, because I don’t live with regrets.” Why would she, at this point? “I can relate to a whole sea of beautiful human beings, because I’ve walked through some really tough moments, and now I’m on the other side.”
Back home, I buy some Rare Beauty products at my local Sephora and ask my 15-year-old daughter if she’d consider doing my makeup. We sit in my bedroom, where the afternoon light is forgiving. It’s a sweet, easy 20 minutes without any friction. Probably because she’s in charge, and I have to keep my mouth closed. My teenager looks at me, and then carefully selects one of Rare Beauty’s best-selling Soft Pinch liquid blushes. “Let’s try Hope on you.”
This story is part of Fast Company’s 2023 Brands That Matter. Explore the full list of companies that have demonstrated a commitment to their purpose as a brand and cultural relevance to their audience. Read more about the methodology behind the selection process.
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