How a Makeup Brand Melted Down TikTok
This week’s viral controversy has everything — two all-expenses-paid brand trips, major influencers, dozens of deleted videos, an apology in the form of a Get Ready With Me tutorial, a Formula 1 race, the late singer Prince, and an ongoing conversation about what kind of treatment companies owe creators of color. The brand at the center of all this? Tarte Cosmetics.
Like most internet drama, the trouble began on social media. On April 25, Tarte hosted a two-week influencer extravaganza in Turks and Caicos, at the former estate of late R&B singer Prince. Dubbed #TarteIsland, the trip featured influencers with both large and budding platforms, documenting each step for their followers. But after a group of white influencers posted a room-tour video of their accommodations, beauty influencer Cynthia Victor, known as @shawtysin, posted a video saying she felt like she was being treated unfairly by being placed in a smaller room. That sentiment was only amplified after some creators found out that a select group of girls — white creators with bigger followings — had been invited to stay at the resort for two full weeks, instead of one.
“I know this job, this trip, and the life I live is a privilege, but I’ve worked for it” Victor, who is of Sri Lankan Tamil descent, said in a GRWM video on May 1. “It was never about the size of the room. It was just about getting treated equally.“
If it feels like we’ve been here before, that’s probably because this isn’t the first time Tarte has been the Internet Topic of the day. Since 2013, Tarte has been at the forefront of influencer outreach and promotion. That year, the brand began the #TrippinWithTarte series, which used free trips for beauty YouTubers and Instagrammers to promote new or ongoing Tarte products. In the past 10 years, brand trips have moved from sporadic events for the top one percent of social media earners to a relatively common occurrence. But with an elevated platform comes bigger ways to make mistakes.
In 2018, Tarte went viral after influencer Jackie Aina called them out for an upcoming foundation line without any shades for darker skin tones. And in January 2023, the cosmetics company was criticized (again) for a luxury influencer trip to Dubai that was filled with mostly white influencers. Each time, Tarte has publicly acknowledged complaints and promised to do better — but that hasn’t stopped the cycle from repeating itself. And following Victor’s video, when Black influencer Bria Jones posted an emotional video on May 4, saying she felt like the Tarte team was treating her differently than white creators, a match was lit. Jones, who was scheduled to attend a brand trip to Miami timed to the Formula 1 Grand Prix, said she pulled out when she realized she had only been invited for the practice day, and other creators with bigger follower counts were staying to watch the official event on Sunday.
“It just feels like a sorority situation,” she said in a video that has since been deleted. “I have more integrity than to get all the way to Miami and realize that I’m being treated like a second-tier person or like I’m being ranked.”
It’s the worst of both worlds: a brand that’s been accused of selling creators of color short in the past goes on a redemption tour — only to have multiple creators say the problem hasn’t been fixed. The situation went beyond beauty TikTok straight to unsuspecting For You Pages. The hashtag #briajones has over 8.3 million views on Tiktok, with thousands of videos discussing the nuances of payment and representation in the creator economy.
Tarte was quick to respond. The same day Jones posted her clip, Tarte founder and CEO Maureen Kelly released an explanation in the form of a makeup and hair vlog titled “clearing the air: tarte island & F1.” She said while accommodations did differ for influencers, they were limited by the number of rooms available on the island. After discussion, Kelly added, her team chose to invite as many people as possible instead of focusing on identical accommodations — hence some smaller rooms and different trip lengths. As for Jones’ video, Kelly said they didn’t intend any unfair treatment— they just didn’t realize how important actually watching the F1 race was to some influencers, and blamed Jones’ confusion over the schedule to a typo.
“We’ve had our share of mistakes and I definitely want to take responsibility for them,” Kelly said, while putting on Tarte concealer and curling her hair in the now-deleted video. “But sometimes miscommunications happen.” The response didn’t go over well. Instead of calming down the drama cycle, Kelly was criticized in both comments and stitches for approaching such a serious topic in a lighthearted way. And even when Jones posted a follow-up video saying she made a mistake in responding to the situation so quickly and Tarte wasn’t to blame for the entire matter— the backlash continued. “Tarte has a record of doing this to creators that look like [Bria]. Ten years in and these mistakes keep happening,” said one comment. “It’s giving… ‘Be grateful you even got an invite,’ added another.”
But two of the most viral responses came from Black influencers who attended Tarte’s F1 Miami trip. In several now-deleted videos, Black comedian Fannita Leggett announced that she was invited last minute by Tarte and hopped on a plane. While the creator is known for her comedy videos, she’s been vocal about brand interactions she felt were unfair. Most recently, after a viral set of videos she made for Pyrex went viral, Legget posted a now-deleted video in which she accused the brand out for lowballing her on an offer — and then rescinding it all together. So when Legget went on the trip, her followers accused her of undermining Jones’ decision to not attend, and allowing Tarte to use her as representation without action, all for a free vacation. Phrases like “taking crumbs” and “Uncle Tom” were thrown around frequently.
After Fannita posted and then deleted several videos, she uploaded a final explanation on Tuesday saying she felt the backlash she was receiving was misplaced.
“The narratives that have been spun about me in the last 24 hours are absolutely insane,” Legget said, adding that she wasn’t aware of Jones’ video before she went on the Miami trip. “I’m not a coon. I’m not anti-Black. I’m not a token. I was just a person on a trip that a lot of people go on. A lot of your fave Black girls go on these Tarte trips and y’all don’t say a word. I go on it and because I’m fat and dark-skinned and talk a certain way, y’all hate it.”
A representative for Legget declined to comment further on the matter but said the influencer “has moved on to focus on herself, her business, and new partnerships.”
Nigerian beauty creator Niké Ojekunle, the face behind TikTok and Instagram accounts @specsandblazers, posted multiple videos with Leggett during the trip. Rather than a last-minute invite, she was given a space on the trip after reaching out to a Tarte representative. But she got most of her negative attention from saying she was always grateful in the past for brand invites and several inflammatory comments deriding those who criticized her decision to go on the trip.
“Back in the day, we were just happy to be invited anywhere. I’ve been doing this for 14 years,” Ojekunle said in a now-deleted video. “There are some bridges you just do not burn. You don’t touch that bridge.” Before deleting her videos on the subject, Ojekunle doubled down on her in her comments section. I’m the Harriet Tubman of influencing,” she said in one comment. “I’m Black TikTok’s messiah,” she said in another. “Don’t care if you love me or hate me… but you’ll respect me.”
During a tearful interview with Rolling Stone, Ojekunle addressed her now-deleted comments, saying she made them in the “heat of the moment,” but doesn’t regret them because she says she wasn’t the one responsible for the whole debacle.
“If I was guilty I would have left [social media]. I haven’t. I’m still posting every day,” Ojekunle spits out through tears. “I also find it funny that there were seven black girls on the trip and the black girls who are getting roasted are dark-skinned with braids and locs.”
Tarte’s weekend in Miami is already over. But this controversy, unlike the others, does have a high potential of changing how the company operates. In a statement shared with Rolling Stone — and condensed into a TikTok (this time without the makeup routine) — Kelly apologized for “falling short” in treating creators equally and announced the brand would be hiring a diversity, equity, and inclusion employee: a role popularized during the brand apology era of 2020.
“I take full responsibility for a TikTok video I posted responding to claims made by a respected and valued tarte creator that was meant to be informative and conversational, but missed the mark completely. I chose a lighthearted approach to a topic that deserved a serious response,” Kelly said. “Even worse, I failed to directly address the unequal treatment of black creators within beauty creator programs. I recognize the importance of addressing concerns promptly and empathetically, and I failed to meet those expectations in this case.”
While drama is the big reason the Tarte mishap went beyond beauty influencers to the rest of TikTok, the underlying issue — how Black and brown creators get their due — is one that continues to cast a shadow over content creation. Creators of colors face higher hurdles in terms of compensation, following, brand fees, or even something as simple as getting credit for a viral trend or dance.
“There is no one who looked like us at the table,” Black fashion and creator expert Shanna Battle tells Rolling Stone. “They’re not in the room. They’re not in the building. They’re probably not even in the same area code. It is difficult for a brand to fully understand and recognize the importance of diversity, in the room, in ad campaigns, even in press trips.”
Battle adds that the diversity problem can also be exacerbated by the lack of respect influencers get when they decide to speak out for better treatment.
“Content creation, it’s a job. It’s writing scripts, it’s filming, it’s editing, it’s legitimate,” Battle says. “I wish we could get to a point where people see this as something legitimate and not just merely taking pictures and making aesthetic videos for Tiktok and Instagram. And the extra ‘You all are always complaining,’ or ‘You should be grateful to even be invited,’ is an added frustration. It makes it difficult to have these types of conversations. Black creators deserve to be treated as equally as our white counterparts.”
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