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Afrobella on the Explosion of Black Beauty Blogging and Its Uncertain Future2/02/2016
The Black women who thrive today on the web owe a debt of gratitude to the women who proved us a profitable niche. Beauty bloggers, like Pa...
Now Black beauty blogging has grown tremendously with corporations pouring millions of dollars into reaching Black women. That's a far cry from the scene back when Patrice began Afrobella in 2006. For better or worse, things have changed.
Editor-in-chief, Kimberly Foster, spoke with Patrice about her start and the current state of Black beauty blogging.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
My first question is when did you start Afrobella and why did you start it?
I started Afrobella in August of 2006. I started it for a couple of reasons. I started it because at the time I worked at a newspaper. I was the assistant editor of the calendar section for a newspaper in Miami. It was a very fun job but at the same time I wasn't able to write about the topics that I truly cared about and wanted to explore in terms of beauty for women of color, in terms of makeup for women of color, in terms of plus size fashion, that kind of stuff. There was limited room for me to explore my real life interests. That was part of it. It was a passion project.
At the same time I was noticing there was not consistent information about those topics, so I wanted to find a continual resource for makeup for women who looked like me, for hair products, for natural hair, plus sized fashion and just general lifestyle things that were interesting to me. I noticed there was a void in 2006. My friend was into buying all these domains. He was basically like, “Well, you actually write. Why don’t you have a blog?” We sat around talking about names and we bought the domain. I want to say that was August 13th of 2006, so this year is 10 years of Afrobella.
How did you come up with the name? You said you were just sitting around brainstorming and Afrobella came to you?
Yeah. We were sitting around brainstorming. I knew that I wanted it to mean black beauty. I knew I wanted that word. I wanted that meaning to be completely clear from the outset. I liked "Bella" because I knew that Bella means beauty. It would be something that people from different cultures would be able to identify with.
The first word we came up with was actually cocoa. Cocoa Bella was the name that we were interested in. My friend was like, “Well, how do you spell cocoa?” That became a whole thing. You want something that people instantly know how to spell. My husband is actually the one who looked at me and said “Afrobella.” That was it. We bought the domain on Godaddy.
You did a phenomenal job naming it. It lends itself so well to the branding. It’s catchy. It’s short. You hit the nail on the head.
You know that wasn’t even the thought. Branding, who knew it was going to be a brand? It was just a thing that we came up with. It was so whimsical, but thank you.
This moves right into the next thing I wanted to talk about. 2006, really not that long ago, but in internet years it’s like …
You’re a real blogging OG. Before people were brands and stuff, what was the blogging landscape like in 2006?
In 2006 I feel there were a lot more forums. For natural hair information I would go to Nappturality. A lot of people were posting on, is it F-O-T-K-I, Fotki? Is that how you spell it?
Yeah. I remember!
A lot of people were posting their pictures there. This is pre-Instagram. How were we sharing our natural hair information? It was all on these forums online. I think the first natural hair blog that I remember reading and being so grateful for the information was called Motown Girl. I think she is still online. To me she was the first natural hair blogger but she didn’t want to show her face and take on the ‘I am a personality’ part of it. It was really just hair information, and it really is still an amazing resource.
There were a few beauty bloggers. A couple of them, who are my friends, started just a few months before me. The Makeup Girl started in 2006. At the time, Nichelle, who is the creator of Vintage Black Glamour, had a site called 55 Secret Street. That was around that time. Julia Connie had All about the Pretty and Tia Williams had Shake your Beauty. Those were the sites to me for women of color that were popping up all around the same time.
The beauty blogging thing didn’t become bigger until 2007 when the New York Times* did a story about beauty blogging, which mainly focused on Beauty Addict and a couple of the other sites that weren’t necessarily multicultural in their focus. Then that caused a whole wave. After the New York Times wrote about beauty bloggers, everybody wanted to be a beauty blogger and I feel like 2008/2009 you see a huge proliferation of new blogs that are still around today.
It’s so funny. I almost feel like my parents when they are going through old records or something and they pull one out when you are naming these sites from back in the day that are like seven, eight, nine years old. I remember discovering ‘All about the Pretty.’ I remember first reading Nichelle’s blog. It’s really incredible the way everything has transformed
It’s changed so much.
You mentioned one of the first sites that you really liked, Motown Girl; the owner of the site did not put herself into the site. You’re a big part of Afrobella. It’s very personal. You have chosen to share a lot of yourself. Why did you choose to do that?
I felt that I wanted to identify with someone. That, to me, was what was missing. I even had a conversation with Motown Girl years ago where she said she was only comfortable showing pictures of the back of her head because it was about hair length and hair products. I was like, "But I want to see people’s faces." I want to know this person and I want to feel like there is a personal relationship there. That was a big decision. I clearly remember talking to my dad and my brother about that. They were very concerned about my identity being put out online. My brother was like people are going to use your picture and pretend that they are you. All of this stuff.
It was scary in those early days because it was a big decision to make. That was part of it; I wanted it to be personal. I was like if you are not the face of your brand, then who is? I have come up with this beautiful word that means ‘black beauty.’ I should try to embody that as well as I can. Whether it means being that from the jump or learning how to get there. That’s how I always felt it should be; that you should personify the thing that you’ve created.
Are there any drawbacks to inserting yourself so much into the Afrobella brand?
The beauty of it is that people think that they know you and the negative side of it is that people think that they know you. It can go both ways. For me, I am still a very low key private person. I cherish my privacy. It went from being able to control how much you disclose to now we’re in this age of social media where everything is disclosed. It’s been interesting navigating that. It can be interesting just being out in the world.
I realize that I put myself in a position to be recognized everywhere I go. I might just be very in my own head on the bus going to get some groceries and the girl behind me recognizes my face or my voice or my manicure, which has happened before, and stops me to say, "Hey you’re so and so!." You always have to be gracious and friendly and in a way ’on’ where you might not be used to that. It’s just taken away the complete anonymity that most of us move in throughout the day.
I realize that I have that for the most part. I am not by any means saying that I’m a celebrity or I’m famous or anything like that, but I am recognized by people. You just have to be aware as you move about you life that there will be somebody who probably recognizes you because you’ve put your identity out there. In that moment, smile with that person and be friendly and if they want to take a picture or they want to talk to you then let them because the reason that you are able to do what you so is because they support you.
You are certainly beloved. I can say you are in my mind the godmother of black beauty blogging.
Wow, thank you.
You absolutely made an indelible mark on this space. At what point did this become a career for you?
I would say it became a career when I quit my day job. I quit my day job in February of 2009. My husband quit his day job in March of 2009 and both of us packed up our stuff and left Miami and moved to Chicago. In those early days, I thought I was going to have to find a job in Chicago. Why would I assume that I could just move seamlessly into a life of working for myself? I didn’t think that. I went on several interviews and I wasn’t getting the kind of offers that I knew that I could fulfill in terms of my abilities and in terms of the kind of work that I was able to produce and was already producing.
That was my put up or shut up moment where I had to figure out okay so now you’re not getting the steady paycheck anymore. You’re going to have to make this work. Guess what? This thing that you made that has been your hobby that has been your passion project is your platform right now and is your career. That’s where that really began. I would say by September of 2009, my husband and I had moved into downtown Chicago, and I was full-time working for myself and no longer trying to go on these job interviews and be on somebody’s payroll. I was having to make it work for myself.
Did you have any fear when you made that move, because at this time …
The career ‘beauty blogger/vlogger’ is not really a thing.
Yeah, it wasn’t really a thing. I wasn’t thinking of it as beauty blogger/vlogger. I was thinking of it as hard working freelancer. It was really; what do you need me to write, I will write it for you. That’s where I started as the hair editor for AOL’s Black Voices and then when Vogue Italia was launching they approached me to write some of the first articles for Vogue Black. That’s where all of that began because I was available to take that work, and I needed to take that work. It really began as just hardcore freelancing for a variety of publications and building my name even more as an expert in the field that I created for myself.
You’ve gotten some amazing opportunities over the past 10 years. Is there one particular opportunity that stands out to you as most meaningful?
The one that would come to my mind and I think people as they think of my career would come to their mind would be the MAC Cosmetics opportunity.
I was going to say that.
Yeah. It’s the biggest, craziest one. It’s the thing that you would never dream in your life you would be able to do. That this cosmetic company that women around the world love and desire would approach you and say, "suggest your dream color" and then not only do you suggest your dream color, they then choose it and love it and invite you to come to the factory and make it. Then to watch the success of it blow up the way that it did was absolutely something I will never forget in my life. It positioned me to dream bigger.
Why do you think people are so drawn to you?
Are they? I think that throughout all of it, they know me. I am at a stage now where people will tell me, “I started reading you when I was a senior in high school and I graduated college and now I am a working person.” You know what I mean? I have been doing this for 10 years. I am the friend in your head that you’ve grown up alongside in a lot of ways. I think that I really do my best to stay exactly who I am. Exactly what you’re hearing right now on your phone and what you see online is what you get.
I can be shy, but I am not aloof. I am friendly and I know what it is to feel awkward and to feel uncomfortable, so I make a real effort to make sure that the people I am around don’t feel that way. I think that the reason that people might feel drawn to me is because I try to make people feel comfortable because I know what it is to feel uncomfortable. I am just genuine. That’s just who I am.
Friendly and warm, that’s what I go for.
You saw what has been termed as the Natural Hair Movement spring up across the web. What was it like being at the forefront of that?
That’s amazing to me. It’s blown up in so many ways and it’s given so many people so many wonderful opportunities. It’s really remarkable. It’s taken on so many different levels. I have seen the natural hair movement grow in terms of bloggers beginning to express themselves and to share the information about natural hair. Then I have seen a lot of bloggers take that and start doing events and expos and creating web channels all kinds of stuff where they’re sharing the information.
Then the brand side where brands have caught on and realized "Wait a minute. We need to start creating products for these women because they are looking to buy stuff." Then the independent brand side where so many women are like wait I can make this in my kitchen. I start creating this and it becomes more popular and now we’re in Target. It’s really amazing.
All of that I would say really began in 2008/2009 where it started to just blow up bigger and bigger into this force. I still clearly remember in the earlier stages of my blog looking for products for my hair texture at the store and not being able to find them and thinking to myself, why can't Target sell products like these? Now, the multicultural beauty and hair section at Target is huge. It’s an explosion.
I think some people a couple of years ago would have seen it as a trend. It’s not a trend. It’s not going anywhere. It’s only getting bigger and bigger. It’s no longer a thing where people are like oh let me try this out for a little bit. These brands are invested in us and there is a whole new possibility for growth. You can come out of high school and start an Instagram and have that be your thing that takes you to places you would have never even dreamed of so early in your life. It really is so amazing and beautiful.
There is a lot of money in Black women’s beauty. How do you think that the money has changed the Black beauty blogging landscape?
That’s a good question. When I first started, there wasn’t that knowledge of there being money and that money wasn’t necessarily available. Like 2006/2007 a brand that is launching a new product is not thinking "I am going to work with a blogger to get awareness of this product." They were going to mainstream magazines. Now we’re in an interesting place where the mainstream magazines have to compete with us who are normal people who don’t have a staff and don’t have all of the resources. It’s become a more even playing field in a way that I think people who are established in media could never have anticipated.
I’ve seen a couple of bloggers and vloggers talk about discrimination when it comes to who is represented and who brands choose to work with. I know Jouelzy had a great video a while ago about texture discrimination.
Oh yeah. That’s real.
You said that’s real. How do you feel about that?
I think that there is texture discrimination in terms of the brands and who they may choose to partner with or who they may choose to bestow an ambassadorship onto, but I also think there is discrimination from the readers and the audience in terms of who gets likes and who gets clicks and who gets attention. A lot of the old-school thoughts about things, phrases that I don’t like to use, things like ‘good hair’ and stuff like that, I think there is a lot of those shadows that still linger in our industry.
There are a lot of amazing bloggers and bloggers who maybe don’t get as much attention as everybody else. That might be because they have a hair texture or a skin color or an appearance that for whatever reason is not getting that kind of response from an audience. It’s something that we have to work on collectively and just love each other in all of our shades and our textures and shapes.
It’s been a minute, but I remember seeing another longtime beauty blogger saying that today beauty blogging, social media is all about who is the prettiest and not necessarily about who can offer the most insight or the most knowledge. Is that something you’ve seen?
I think that can be true. A lot of my peers who started blogging in the early days focused on writing. Over time, we have seen less and less of a focus on writing and more and more of a focus on video or just visual imagery. When that happens the content can change in terms of what comprises the content and also in terms of the quality of the content.
Something that I hear a lot of especially hair stylists and people who are actually trained in natural hair or professional makeup artists who have been doing this for a living for a long time, what they’re observing is a girl who is young and pretty and not necessarily trained in those fields can get more attention and more media success than somebody who has been doing it for a living for a really long time. That’s based on the visual and based on an aspiration that the reader or the viewer might have. There are so many levels to it. It’s become a really interesting playing field for people who are professionals in those industries.
Do you think that the current landscape of the beautiful social media stars and the beauty bloggers and the vloggers, the YouTubers who are becoming celebrities themselves is sustainable?
I think that everything has its peaks and valleys. For years now I have been hearing about people saying that there is going to be a point of saturation in blogging and eventually it’ll turn around and people will stop doing this. They say that with Twitter. Having done this for 10 years, I think there is always going to be changes, there is always going to be new things and new social media platforms to jump onto and all this stuff, but if you’re really producing quality and you’re sharing information that resonates with people and people like you because you’re genuine and you’re giving them something that they need then there is always room for more. I don’t know if I answered that question the way you wanted me to.
No, you answered it the way you wanted to. That’s important. Do you have any insight on where you think black beauty blogging is going?
I think black beauty blogging is only going to become a bigger and bigger movement. I think more and more companies are starting to catch on. They are expanding the ranges of their foundations shades. They’re deepening the pigments that they use in their eye shadows and makeup, so it’s becoming more accessible. Brands that for years coasted by on having six shades of foundation all of a sudden are like "Oh wait we’re behind the curve. We need to hurry up and get with the curve." Much of that is being moved by the Internet.
Brands that you would not have heard of, that aren’t even in stores are blowing up huge on Instagram and through Twitter and through Facebook and through word of mouth. Its like things that you used to be able to rely on you can’t rely on anymore. If you’re an old-school brand and your mentality is well I am going to pay for a full page ad in this magazine and it’s going to blow up from there, that’s not a guaranteed thing anymore. It really has forced us as bloggers to reinvent ourselves and to understand the nature of this as a business. The brands have realized that we aren’t going anywhere and that they have to figure out a way to work with us.
Do you think brands, by and large, get it now?
They have to, right? They have no choice. I don’t know. I think that they are beginning to get it and I think that there’s probably a lot of conversations behind the scenes that we are not going to be privy to where people are still learning these lessons of if you put a certain kind of person in your ad, you might have gotten a letter from an angry person back in the day. Now you’re going to get dragged on Twitter. They have to learn how to be responsive, not just innovative, but they have to realize now everything is communications. Whereas it used to be a one-way street and you’re just putting out your message, now, we can tell you exactly what we think about you in real time.
Have you had any bad experiences while working with brands? Do you have any horror stories?
I don’t really have any horror stories. The things that have happened to me over time, as I was saying, is just learning what my place is and learning what my value is. There were a lot of things that I wouldn’t necessarily say were horror stories, but I will say were tough learning experiences in realizing what I bring to the table. A lot of these people, when they approach you, already have a number in their mind or already have an idea of who are you, when you are still trying to figure out who am I and what is my value, they already know.
That was a lot of my early lessons, just trying to figure out what am I doing, what am I bringing to the table and what is my value and why do these people want to work with me in the first place? Those are a lot of the really tough experiences that I had. If I didn’t have them, I wouldn’t have been able to sustain myself and I wouldn’t have grown. I don’t regret any of those experiences necessarily.
It really seems to me like despite of the fact that you are so respected and have had so many opportunities, that you’ve really stayed down. You’ve stayed really true and authentic to your mission and your core audience. Is it difficult to maintain that authenticity when you get these offers and there so many opportunities available?
I am not afraid to say no. That was a big lesson for me. I had to realize that no didn’t mean the end of all opportunity. If something didn’t really feel right to me, there was reason. I have to listen to my gut. I also have to look at my bank account. I also have to be realistic with how much I can actually do in terms of work because these brands actually come to you and they have a whole line of attack planned. How much can you do as one person? I am still operating as a one-woman team. I have to take all of those things into consideration as well. I think that was the biggest thing.
How do I maintain my integrity? It really comes from my gut. I try to work with brands that I truly believe in, that I can stand behind. I don’t work with just everybody. That’s my main thing. I get a lot of offers from brands that are producing things that I don’t personally use. I am not saying that I am against the use of those things, but I am not your girl if you are looking to represent a synthetic hair company. My whole thing is natural hair, so it wouldn’t feel authentic to my audience and it wouldn’t feel authentic to me.
Same thing with relaxers; I don’t use a relaxer but my mom uses it sill, my aunt still uses them. I am not here to shame people who use them just because I don’t agree with it. It’s just not my thing but I’m not going to write about that stuff. It’s not my preference. There are other platforms that you can go to and you can spend your money with them. That was a big lesson for me; realizing that saying no didn’t mean that the opportunity wouldn’t come back. They came to you for a reason and they’ll come back to you for a reason.
Do you ever see other influencers do something, post something, a sponsored video or Instagram post or blog post and say “Oh that’s fake, that’s not real?”
I just worry sometimes about the backlash. I always get scared when I see, sometimes I’ll see a peer of mine take on a campaign where I say uh I don’t know if they realize that brand people are mad at them because of something that they did in the past that they are not aware of, that kind of thing. I try not to judge anybody else’s choices. It might sometimes be a campaign that I chose not to do, but to each his own.
What have you learned about yourself in your time beauty blogging?
One of the things I have learned is that I used to be very down on my appearance. Part of being down on my appearance was I used to compare myself to other people a lot and think that I have to achieve a certain ... It would always be something that somebody else had that I didn’t have, so whether it was a body type or that person has flawless skin and they didn’t seem to have the hyper pigmentation issues that I have or her grows this way and my hair doesn’t grow that way.
That was something that came from my years in school where this person may have gotten an A on a test and I got a C, you know what I mean? There was all of these things of comparing myself. When I learned that I am running my own race and that I shouldn’t be looking at the person next to me or the person behind me to figure out where they were because the finish line is still up ahead and I’ve just got to keep running, that was the biggest thing that I think really unlocked so much success for me and so much self confidence. I can only be me and I can only be the best me that I can be. That’s what I just try to do very day in terms of my physical appearance, in terms of the work that I do and just in terms of how I live.
There are a lot of influencers. There are a lot of bloggers, people who have positioned themselves as experts in this space. Do you think it’s getting too crowded? Is there room for more?
I think there is room for more if you’re a true expert. Or if you’re not a true expert, if you’re willing to admit that you’re not a true expert and reach out to the people that are and give them some shine on your platform, then I think that there is always more room. I think the reason there is more room is because there are more people. There’s new generations that are coming up. The people who have been around holding down the corner for a long time, like myself, are moving up into a different age bracket, a different demographic.
There is always going to be somebody new and hot for the girls who are now turning 20-something, the girls who are still in high school. There is always going to be somebody new. I think it’s really important for the people who are new to do the research and recognize what’s been done before and to continually find ways to be better at what you do, because there is a lot of information out there.
*This article was published in 2008
Photo: Chuck Olu-Alabi