The ugly side of beauty influencing: Tarte furor reflects ongoing slighting of influencers of color

The ugly side of beauty influencing: Tarte furor reflects ongoing slighting of influencers of color

By Joy Saha

Staff Writer

Published May 12, 2023 1:53PM (EDT)

African American woman using compact applying lipstick (Getty Images/JGI/Jamie Grill)
African American woman using compact applying lipstick (Getty Images/JGI/Jamie Grill)

Tarte Cosmetics may be a fan favorite amongst celebrities like Shay Mitchell and Kourtney Kardashian but recently, the popular beauty brand has been wrapped up in controversy after several Black creators accused Tarte of mistreatment and racism.

Back in January, Tarte hosted a viral Dubai influencer trip, where influencers and content creators dropped more than $3,000 for a three-night excursion in the luxurious tented pool villas at The Ritz-Carlton. It didn't take long for the trip — which, mind you, actually took place in Ras al Khaimah — to garner online hate, notably on TikTok. Many complained that it came across as nauseatingly gaudy and "tone deaf" amid an ongoing inflation surge. One TikToker also complained about the trip's budget and lack of diversity. 

Now, almost four months later, Tarte is facing more accusations of second-class treatment from several BIPOC women influencers following the brand's most recent trips. It all started with the Tarte Island trip in Turks and Caicos, where influencers were invited to stay in Prince's former island estate. Because guests weren't staying in a hotel, some received larger accommodations while others received significantly smaller ones. But per one TikToker, the room assignments also felt racially coded.

South Asian beauty influencer Cynthia Victor (@shawtysin) took to the app to reveal that she was given one of the smaller rooms. She didn't know her room was smaller until she saw room tours from other influencers who were also in attendance. For Victor, it wasn't the size of her room that upset her but rather, feeling that she got the "short end of the stick" as a "minority creator." She was also upset over the fact that some creators were allowed to stay longer than others.

In response, Tarte asserted that each room was "assigned in advance based on check-in/check-out timing, plus ones, and more." 

"We selected this house because we felt all of the rooms within this private estate were stunning and would be great accommodations for all of the creators joining us," the brand continued, per Elite Daily. "In fact, the BIPOC creators were only situated throughout large and medium rooms and were offered the same experience as every other guest throughout the stay."

Shortly after Victor posted her video, another TikToker Bria Jones (@heybriajones) said she opted out of Tarte's Miami Formula 1 trip after "being treated like a second-tier person" by the team. In a now-deleted TikTok, Jones said she was invited to attend the Formula 1 race on Sunday, May 7, but realized after checking her plane tickets that Tarte planned on flying her out the day before. She was also shocked to learn that her friends, who were also on the trip, were scheduled to fly out the day after the race.

"As grateful as I am to be invited on a Tarte trip, I was sad to realize my experience was going to be different than my friends that were also invited," Jones wrote in her caption. "I have been on many brand trips and typically everyone is treated the same, so this caught me off guard. I wish I had the heads up."

Tarte's CEO Maureen Kelly later addressed the Miami trip backlash in a joint statement released with Jones, saying, "From the Tarte side, the initial email to Bria with her trip details did include a confusing typo, and the brand takes full responsibility for that. We both recognize that we could have easily cleared the air together before feelings were hurt. Bria acknowledges and understands that posting that video has allowed for miscommunication and confusion."

After Netizens attacked Kelly's dismissive response, Kelly reactivated her TikTok to offer a more sincere apology. "I take full responsibility for a TikTok video that I posted responding to claims by a respected and valued Tarte creator," Kelly said, adding that her "light-hearted approach" to a serious discussion on issues of diversity and inclusion "missed the mark." She continued, saying that she "should have used this as an opportunity to address the unequal treatment of Black creators within beauty creator programs."

This isn't the first time BIPOC influencers have felt slighted by major beauty and fashion brands. In 2019, lifestyle YouTuber Kianna Naomi accused Dote Shopping of using her as the "token Black girl" during an influencer trip to Fiji. Naomi said she felt like an "outcast" amongst all the white influencers, who socialized amongst themselves and were given more attention.  

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For years, Black influencers have remained outspoken about the lack of inclusion in cosmetics, which ultimately led to the success of Rihanna's Fenty brand. In 2018, Black beauty gurus Alissa Ashley and Jackie Aina released the viral video "Black Girls React to Tarte Tape Shape Foundation," in which they criticized the brand's limited range of foundation shades for people of color. Such disregard coupled with the second-class citizenship that many influencers experienced amid the brand trips further reinforces just how ostracized BIPOC individuals are within an industry that continues to heighten white folks.

It's also worth noting that many influencers who recently spoke out also felt the need to apologize for sounding "ungrateful." In her TikTok, Victor said, "First, I wanted to talk directly to Maureen and the Tarte family and express how thankful I am to be invited on such a big brand trip and to be acknowledged as a creator." In the same vein, Naomi said in her YouTube video, "I didn't want to be the problematic Black girl, and I didn't want to be labeled as ungrateful because I'm literally in the most beautiful country there is." Despite it being long overdue, it's time that beauty brands award BIPOC creators that same grace.

By Joy Saha

Joy Saha is a staff writer at Salon. She writes about food news and trends and their intersection with culture. She holds a BA in journalism from the University of Maryland, College Park.


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