In early November, teenagers across America were sent into a frenzy over makeup.

Two popular YouTubers — Shane Dawson and Jeffree Star — with tens of millions of followers between them had been hyping their Conspiracy beauty collaboration for weeks, using documentary-style videos and social media to tout the collection’s crown jewel: a palette of 18 eye shadows for $52.

On the day of the drop, in school cafeterias and between class periods, fans flooded the websites where the line was sold. Over 1 million palettes were purchased in the span of 30 minutes, one of the creators announced in an Instagram Story. One website crashed for hours. The collection became a trending topic on Twitter. Everything sold out online.

In high schools, eye shadow palettes have become status symbols. Teenagers wait in long digital lines to buy them (weeding out the die-hards from the dispassionate) and then post about the experience on social media. That part is almost as important as actually making a purchase, because palettes are, fundamentally, a way for fans to support creators they love and signal which side they’re on in whatever the day’s beauty blogger feud happens to be.

For the influencers making them, palettes are big business; one successful release could mean a multimillion-dollar payout. (Eager to get a piece of the profit, some vendors sell knockoffs). But the palettes are symbolic, too — a sign that these internet personalities have been embraced by the cosmetics industry as professionals.

“If you don’t have a palette, are you even a beauty influencer?” said Bretman Rock, 21, a YouTube star who released his first palette last year. “I don’t think so.”

Urban Decay’s Naked eyeshadow palette, which is often cited as the palette that started the palette trend, in Bradenton Beach, Fla., July 19, 2016. (Melissa Lyttle/The New York Times)
Urban Decay’s Naked eyeshadow palette, which is often cited as the palette that started the palette trend, in Bradenton Beach, Fla., July 19, 2016. (Melissa Lyttle/The New York Times)

The palette economy

When Rock started posting makeup tutorials on YouTube four years ago, the idea of influencers collaborating with beauty brands was unheard-of, he said. That’s changed — in the last few years, influencer palettes have become a pillar of the multibillion-dollar cosmetics industry.

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Industry experts often credit the cosmetics company Urban Decay with starting the palette craze. In 2010, the brand unveiled the Naked palette: 12 neutral-tone eye shadows packed together in a velvet brown case for $50. The product inspired several spinoffs, knockoffs and an influencer-studded “funeral” for its discontinuation in 2018. (Nicole Richie gave the eulogy.)

“After the Naked exploded and did so well, everyone came out with their own version of it and it kept growing,” said Larissa Jensen, a beauty industry analyst at the NPD Group, a market research firm. “Fast forward to the rise of the influencer. Everyone’s coming out with their own collections, and there’s a million palettes out there.”

Plenty have arrived just in time for the holiday shopping season. This fall, YouTuber James Charles released a miniature version of the palette he created with the brand Morphe last year. His mentor turned nemesis, Tati Westbrook, recently debuted a palette from her own beauty brand, Tati Beauty. And Manny MUA, another beauty personality, just released a palette and brush set with Morphe, a company that often works with influencers.

The James Charles eye shadow palette is one of many influencer-branded cosmetic products on the market. (Handout via The New York Times)
The James Charles eye shadow palette is one of many influencer-branded cosmetic products on the market. (Handout via The New York Times)

I pledge allegiance to the influencer

For the teenagers who covet these collaborations, it’s not just about makeup; it’s about fandom and loyalty. Rylee Prado, a 16-year-old in San Antonio, had devoured Dawson and Star’s behind-the-scenes series that promoted their Conspiracy collaboration before its release in November. At school, many of her classmates were talking about the $52 palette.

“Moms will get palettes for their kids,” Rylee said. “The rich kids will get it, too.” The price, she said, was too steep for her.

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In a twist of fate, one of her classmates accidentally ordered two palettes; Rylee offered to split the cost of the second palette with a friend. “We’re switching off every week,” she said. “It’s like we’re co-parenting the palette.”

When the Conspiracy collection went live, Ally Vahling, a high school senior in Thornton, Colorado, was sitting on a bus headed to a phys-ed class. Many of her classmates, she said, were hunched over their phones on the Jeffree Star Cosmetics website. She wasn’t worried, though; her mother was at home, also on the site. Of her friends, she was the only one to secure the palette.

Ally said that for many people her age, palettes are a way of declaring which influencer’s team you’re on. “All these beauty gurus are coming out with their own palettes, so you get them to support them and show your alliance in all the beauty blogger dramas,” she said.

Ashley Frazier, a high school senior in Chicago, has about 30 palettes. It’s not that she wears a lot of eye shadow, she said. “I collect them because it’s visually appealing and to support the influencers that cater to me,” she said.