Sailor J: The YouTube Beauty Star Skewering the Patriarchy

Her witty, subversive makeup tutorials take on toxic beauty standards, colorism, and political landmines like the Parkland shooting.

Photo Illustration by Sarah Rogers/The Daily Beast

Heroines celebrates women across a variety of fields who are breaking barriers and creating change. This is the third profile in a five-part series.

Fire up one of YouTube star Sailor J’s makeup tutorials and you’re going to get a lesson in more than makeup.

Sailor J, better known as JJ Smith, is a 21-year-old YouTube star who is redefining what it means to be a beauty vlogger. Her viral makeup tutorials have exploded over the past few months and she has racked up more than 250,000 subscribers and over 10 million views in the process.

Most makeup tutorials and beauty vlogs on YouTube follow a very predictable format. A good-looking, usually young and usually white woman artfully applies winged eyeliner or the latest shade of blush and highlighter. They’re peppered with helpful beauty tips and often links to products.

Smith’s videos are a refreshing departure.

Rather than simply show women how to best apply eyeshadow for an event, she transforms her five- to six-minute vlogs into lessons on feminism, racial inequality, social justice, and issues that matter today.

Her “Contouring 101” video, for instance, is less about how to artfully apply two-toned concealer to your face and more a lesson in feminism, unrealistic beauty standards, and the toxic way society views women.

Her “How to Do Thanksgiving Makeup That Has Nothing to Do With the 566 Federally Recognized Tribes” video skewers the way that women trivialize and appropriate Native American culture.

“Are you a white person who cares about brown people?” she opens. “Thanksgiving is right around the corner which means a plethora of white women are going to go on YouTube with their pretty faces and their pretty fucking makeup and they’re going to call it ‘native inspired,’ which is wrong.”

She continues with the tutorial, making small, sarcastic comments like, “The natives didn’t have false eyelashes, but we’re just going to add them because we’re cherry picking. It’s what we do with the rest of their culture.”

Her most recent viral makeup video, entitled “Thoughts and Prayers” makeup tutorial—which she released following the Parkland shooting—consists of her miming an entire makeup and beauty routine with makeup that is not there. The point is that offering up thoughts and prayers, rather than political action, is completely worthless and invisible to survivors and victims’ families.

“First we’re going to start with some foundation,” Smith says as she pretends to pour cream on her hand. “It’s called, if you’re white it’s a mental illness and if you’re brown, you’re a terrorist. If you can’t see it, it’s probably because you’re not really strong enough in the spirit.”

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The video spread across the internet and garnered over 300,000 views in a matter of weeks. “Indifferent people in Congress tweet about [thoughts and prayers] often, usually after a national tragedy like the Parkland shooting,” Smith said.

It’s not just Smith’s sarcastic, comical makeup videos that are unique; Smith herself comes from a very different background than most beauty vloggers. It’s something she feels sets her apart from the pack and leads her to create the type of content that stands out in a crowd.

Smith grew up in St. Louis, Missouri, and she got into YouTube partially by accident. Last fall, she sent a funny video she had created to her 10-year-old sister. “I sent it to her to make her laugh,” Smith said. She said she often sends her sisters videos while she’s traveling.

At 10 years old, Smith’s sister is just at the age where she’s getting into makeup. She asked Smith for tips on putting some of it on and Smith sent her back a joking snap where she accidentally sneezed while putting on eyeliner.

But Smith said the fact that her sister, who was still essentially a child, was so worried about putting on makeup correctly and being judged on her appearance, struck something in her.

“It made me think about how even women that young are pressured to look a certain way,” she said. So Smith went home and made a video called “Getting a Man 101.” She said she created it to satirize the type of pressure women feel to adhere to certain patriarchal beauty standards.

“I saw a guy on Facebook be like, ‘we don’t like women who wear heavy makeup,’” she said. “So I made this video just dragging men. Like, they think everything is for them. I put it on Facebook and it started getting a lot of attention. I was like, OK, I’ll put this on YouTube. It got picked up and I thought, OK, I’ll make another one, and another one.”

“After that it’s just become a priority to inject political commentary between all the jokes and makeup,” Smith said. “Now I just post videos as they come along.”

Smith shoots, produces, and edits all her own videos. They all take place on her living room floor in her apartment in Florida.

Unlike other typical makeup vloggers, she doesn’t have a day job in fashion, beauty, or social media marketing. Smith is in the military.

She joined the military in 2014, mostly for financial reasons. She wanted to get out of St. Louis but had no money for school. She liked the idea of going to college but loans terrified her. She decided that the best thing to do would be to serve her country. That way, she would at least have a paycheck and wouldn’t be a burden on her family financially.

Right before she left, however, 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot to death by the police in Ferguson, Missouri, just miles from where she lived. Racial tensions exploded and Smith said that in the weeks following the shooting, her entire worldview was transformed.

“I was there in the middle of it all,” she said. “It was the first time I opened my eyes and was like, wow, this is how the world sees dark-skinned people and black people and dark-skinned men. This is how people get treated whether or not they’re guilty or innocent. I had never realized how racist St. Louis in itself was until then.”

She participated in the front lines of the protests right up until the day she shipped out.

“What I saw those weeks before I left was crazy,” she said. “People were getting maced for standing on the sidewalk, getting shot with pellets for walking down the street. People who lived there for years couldn’t go in their own front yard because of an imposed curfew. It made me think, like, is this the country I really want to serve? It almost felt bad to leave at the time that I left, but I didn’t have a choice.”

While she doesn’t regret enlisting and says she is happy with her day job, it changed Smith’s outlook on life and certainly made her more politically active and socially conscious.

Smith now spends an enormous amount of time on social media, educating herself about the issues confronting society today. She goes out of her way to follow people of different cultures, races, and genders online because she wants to learn.

“You have to go to people of that demographic and hear what they have to say in their own words,” she said. When you follow a lot of dark-skinned people on social media, you can hear their side on things like racial prejudice and colorism. It comes down to finding the root and source of these social issues are coming from and just listening.”

Smith said that in her case, she has found that humorous videos are the best way to get people to listen to her and pay attention to the issues she’s trying to raise. If she just produced 10-minute long YouTube videos preaching to her audience, no one would watch. But her parody makeup videos provide a way to disarm people and introduce them to sensitive and controversial topics in an accessible and nonjudgmental way.

“I’m big on women’s rights, equality, and diversity in media, it’s all in how you say things. If you present topics that are hard to swallow though comedy and satire it’s easier for people to have a conversation than someone being yelled at or dragging on Twitter. It’s easier to open doors that way,” she said.

Despite her success, however, she has no plans to become a full-time vlogger. She said that since she’s found success on her channel, various agents or managers have reached out, offering to help revamp her channel, improve her thumbnails, or post on a more regular schedule. So far she has turned them all down.

Smith said that ultimately she continues to do YouTube because she thinks it’s fun. Making it more corporate or forcing herself to adhere to some tough publishing schedule would just be stressful, and she’s worried about disappointing her fans. “What if I suddenly get deployed?” she said.

She also has an aversion to the whole mainstream YouTube influencer culture and prefers to operate on her own schedule, in her own way.

Ultimately, she hopes that the attention she’s received for her videos might lead to a career in book publishing. An avid reader and fan of fiction, Smith has been working on her own book which she hopes to eventually publish.

When she’s not vlogging, reading, or working, she’s a self-described nerd who loves Game of Thrones and video games, especially The Sims.

She goes to great lengths to keep her personal and creative endeavors separate from her main military career.

“Being in the military, you also have to be careful what you say,” she said. “Some people think you don’t have a right to say anything political, some think you actually have more of a right than civilians do.”

For now, she’s just grateful to be able to draw attention to topics and issues she cares about, and she doesn’t see herself stopping anytime soon.

“I feel like as long as I’m allowed to keep doing what I want with YouTube, I’ll stick around,” she said. “I think people have taken YouTube and made it into a very structured and un-fun thing because everyone wants to be Paul brothers status. That’s not for me. People know when they come to my channel that I’m not gonna make fancy thumbnails, I don’t have a nice intro or outro. It’s literally me, in my living room with my ghetto-ass camera and it’s worked for me this far.”