March was a pretty good month to be an Afrobella. Creator Patrice Yursik was the lone black beauty blogger chosen to be featured in Fast Company magazine, which touted her ad network as a top innovator. Then Crème of Nature unveiled its magazine advertising campaign in Essence, Sister 2 Sister and other magazines, featuring her among an increasingly powerful group: black beauty bloggers.
Yursik, a former entertainment writer and editor at a Miami alternative weekly newspaper, started her blog less than four years ago. Recently, she excitedly shared her news in a blog post: Just a few years ago "if someone had told me… you're going to be a product endorser in a magazine ad, I would have laughed out loud and told them to stop trippin,'" she wrote.
"But now, it's here, it's happening, and IT'S ABOUT TIME."
Indeed. Time was print and television were the primary gatekeepers between the companies who make things and the people who buy them. But thanks to the explosion of new media, corporations are striking marketing gold by riding independent channels like Afrobella with a devoted fan base (75,000-85,000 monthly visitors) and social media networks (8,000 Twitter followers.)
As a recent Colour of Beauty documentary on the New York model Renee Thompson showed, Eurocentric beauty standards still reign in fashion. But some basic economics is fueling the corporate interest in the black women's beauty market: Black women outspend white women on beauty products three to one, according to Advertising Age magazine. Campaigns aimed at black women, such as Proctor & Gamble's award-winning "My Black is Beautiful," which recently started its second season on BET, seemed innovative and daring when it launched in post-Imus 2007. Today, they have become almost de rigueur. As opposed to just selling airbrushed fantasy images in glossy magazines, companies market their products by allowing consumers to trade beauty tips with accessible, sunny, girl-next-door personas such as the Trinidad-born Afrobella.
I recently spoke with Yursik by phone from her Chicago home-office to talk about changes in the media industry, how it feels to live her life out loud and corporate America's changing relationship with black women.
The Root: Before becoming a blogger, you earned an M.F.A. in writing from the University of Miami and worked as entertainment writer and editor at the Miami New-Times. What made you decide to get into blogging?
Patrice Yursik: [At the newspaper] there were awesome perks in that I got invited to everything in Miami for five years. But my editor-in-chief really wasn't feeling my focus on beauty and African American [issues]. I kept it a secret from my boss for a while. It was a way to write about things I may not have had the chance to. I was definitely buying Vibe Vixen at the time. And that was an influence for me. I loved that magazine. I was just tired of aspirational living. I wanted a balance between high and low end, and I love a magazine that makes me feel like I've learned something after I've read it. There was no consistent celebration of my particular kind of beauty. Every now and then someone would throw a bone to black women with natural hair, or plus-size women…but nobody shone a consistent light on us. I wanted to reaffirm for myself, and for women that look like me, that we're just as stunning and desirable and special as the women who are more regularly featured in mainstream media as the so-called standard of beauty.
TR: Even in 2006, the availability of free blogging software meant that everyone and her cat were starting a blog. How were you able to break away from the pack and develop your own audience and following?
PY: There were a lot of sites I would visit for inspiration. Motown Girl, Nappturality, 55 Secret Street, The Makeup Girl and All About the Pretty. They were the first to embrace me in the circle of beauty bloggers. We all found each other. They were able to show me the ropes, even though what I was doing was very different. We developed an online sisterhood. And Angel of Concrete Loop—I reached out to her really early. Fresh at Crunk & Disorderly. They put up a big link on the top of their sites. Because there was a void, a lot of people started to develop an attachment.
A lot of it is personality. Because [the information] is coming from a real person that they like and they want to be friends with. We have these blogger meet-ups. Some readers will leave me comments asking me about my cat. It's like stopping by your girlfriend's place to talk about makeup.
TR: Like many bloggers, you live your life out loud, blurring business with personal. You allow your Twitter followers to weigh in on your shopping choices, and you talk about cooking for your husband and post photos of your cat. Do you ever feel any boundary issues?
PY: When I was at the Miami New Times, it felt like I was in a box. Now I can express myself in every possible way. When I first started writing my blog, I would limit myself to certain topics. But eventually the platform I had built was strong enough. People will come back. I pretty much share 75 percent of my life with Twitter. So there is still a lot that I keep private.
TR: How do you see beauty media changing?
PY: Print is circling the drains, which is unfortunate. It is just me in my apartment. I don't have any overhead. I create my own editorial calendar, and it gives a different kind of freedom. It makes the beauty industry approach you in a different way. They kind of don't know what to do with me! I'm outside of New York. I'm totally outside the beauty world, which is a very insular world. These brands do desk-side appointments with these [New York magazine editors]. To reach me, it forces them to become a little bit more creative.
TR: What is unique about Afrobella? Why do you think your voice is important?
PY: I've heard from so many women that my blog inspired them to go natural. Or to start wearing makeup. Or taught them about some obscure singer or artist or cultural phenomenon they didn't know about before. I hear from so many up-and-coming jewelry and accessory designers and clothing designers that my blog brought them a big increase in sales, or brought them media attention from print media or other blogs. So that's telling, and it is an amazing feeling to know that my words touch people in those ways.
When I started Afrobella in 2006, there was nothing else like it. And since 2006, quite a few natural-hair blogs have begun, and quite a few plus-size fashion blogs, and quite a few black beauty blogs. Many of them do what they do amazingly well, and I get so much inspiration from reading and communicating with my fellow bloggers. But I don't think there's another blog that blends those topics and infuses it all with Caribbean spice, cultural awareness and musical inspiration.
TR: And you know the image of beauty and femininity has changed when Queen Latifah is a CoverGirl model and playing the lead role in a romantic comedy.
PY: Her story is so remarkable and so beautiful. The other day I was looking at the video "Ladies First." She was having her fashion moment. It was the ‘80s. She has come into her own femininity and celebrity. Her success is the force of her personality. It is who she is as a person. She smiles and she holds her head high, and you want to be that. She is full-figured, brown skin, playing the lead in a romantic comedy now, and we are celebrating her beauty. She is not being marginalized as the sidekick. It's an amazing thing. I love that young girls will grow up with that as a model.
TR: What are your thoughts about the changing relationship between corporate America and black women?
PY: I have no hard feelings toward corporate America, I just couldn't ever be a part of it. I think we're in a time where individuals have power. The existing structures are crumbling and it calls for ingenuity. So I'm seeing lots of black women start their own side hustle. I'm seeing lots of women who have been laid off or are actively job hunting, find ways to bring home the bacon by freelancing and moonlighting and stepping out in faith to control their own destinies. It's been a slow, steady change but it's remarkable and very inspiring.
Natalie Hopkinson is The Root's media and culture critic. Follow her on Twitter.
Natalie Hopkinson is a Washington, D.C.-based author whose current projects deal with the arts, gender and public life. She is the author of Go-Go Live: The Musical Life and Death of a Chocolate City. Follow her on Twitter.