Under the glow of a ring light in the spare bedroom of a Mumbai high-rise apartment, Indian make-up maven Debasree Banerjee has found fans across the world with a simple philosophy: "brown is beautiful". Banerjee’s audience includes women from as far afield as the Middle East and United States who also have a deeper complexion but have historically been overlooked by the cosmetics industry.
"I actually have a lot of followers who are outside India, and I feel like it’s probably because our skin tones match," Banerjee told AFP. "They can see how the product looks like on my skin tone, how the lipstick applies on my skin tone, and just have that sense of belongingness."
Rihanna “changed the game”
Banerjee, 34, began experimenting with make-up videos in her spare time a decade ago, after graduating from university and moving to Mumbai to work in sales. She is now a full-time beauty and lifestyle influencer, teaching more than half a million followers how to beautify themselves on Instagram and YouTube.
Early inspirations included British beauty content creators Tanya Burr and Fleur DeForce — both white and with millions of followers between them. But Banerjee said she had found no role models who resembled her.
She credits Rihanna for the seismic shift towards greater inclusiveness in the cosmetics industry. In 2017, the pop superstar launched her make-up line Fenty Beauty, in partnership with the LVMH group, which offered 40 shades of foundation and turned her into a billionaire.
"Fenty Beauty really, really changed the game," Banerjee said. "I think that’s when people knew that this is important."
While other international brands have tried to keep up, many still have "miles and miles to go" before they can be considered truly inclusive, she added. "I still see products being launched in three shades, in four shades, calling them ’universal’. And it’s just ridiculous," Banerjee said.
"In India, everywhere you go... you see our features changing, our language changing, our skin colour changing. So it’s very, very important to have more inclusive make-up."
Indian beauty market skyrockets
Cheap internet data, rising income levels and the world’s largest population of young people have fuelled an explosion in India’s beauty and personal care market. The industry is now worth USD 15 billion nationally each year, with Euromonitor projecting that figure will double by 2030.
Homegrown e-commerce platform Nykaa — which helped make global cosmetic brands easily available to Indians for the first time — was one of India’s most-anticipated IPOs in 2021.
"People thought brown skin is not pretty," Faby, another beauty influencer living in Mumbai, told AFP. "But now we’ve started learning to love ourselves."
Faby has nearly 900,000 Instagram followers and has established herself as one of India’s top cosmetic stylists, recently teaming up with top Bollywood actress Deepika Padukone to promote a skincare line. Almost her entire apartment has been refashioned into a studio with professional lights, camera equipment and retractable backdrops to stylise her regular online tutorials.
The work can be taxing, with some daylong shoots lasting until well after midnight, but the money Faby makes from brand collaborations is enough to comfortably support both herself and her mother. "It has been difficult, but now I can have my own Dior bag, I can have whatever I want," said Faby. "It’s all because of the followers who are watching."
India’s government belatedly recognised the explosive growth of online content creation last year, announcing a 10 percent tax on promotional gifts worth over 20,000 rupees ($244).
DIY also finds a growing audience
That move brought part of the country’s USD 120 million influencer market under the tax net — chiefly those advertising products beyond the purchasing power of the vast majority of Indians.
Actually, a single lipstick by a prominent international brand can cost around 2,000 rupees (USD 24) locally — more than what half of India’s households pay for their weekly groceries, according to market research firm Kantar.
But the gap between material desires and means has proven to be fertile ground for other Indian influencers showing their audiences how to keep on-trend without breaking the bank.
"There are many people who cannot afford expensive products, so my DIY shows them how to look more beautiful," Kavita Jadon, 34, told AFP.
From her home a couple of hours’ drive from the capital New Delhi, the housewife and mother-of-two makes videos showing how to make ersatz concealers out of moisturiser and coffee grinds, at a fraction of the cost of name-brand products.
Despite filming from a cheap phone, editing with free software, and lacking Banerjee and Faby’s elaborate studio setups, Jadon has amassed more than 169,000 followers on Facebook. Many of her homemade product ideas are the result of painstaking trial and error, with her audience eagerly sharing their own ideas or petitioning her with requests.
"Using products from big brands is not essential — it’s possible to use local products and create beauty products at home too," she said. "That’s why my page has grown so significantly."