Exclusive: Huda Kattan Talks Cosmetics, Competition And Confidence

'There are so many amazing, badass women in beauty' - Huda Kattan

Huda Kattan, Photographer: Rui Faria

by Phoebe McDowell |

For over a decade, Huda Kattan has sold a face. Her face. One of geometric brows, anatomically impossible cheekbones, feline eyes and pillowy lips. It’s coveted and copied by millions; 50.6 million, to be precise – the astronomical number of people who follow her on Instagram, which, to put it into context, is greater than the population of Spain.

As the founder of Huda Beauty, a company that in 2019 was valued by Forbes at $1.2bn, the 36-year-old is one of the most influential people in the industry. The Iraqi-American blogger started out in 2013, selling fake eyelashes to her beauty-obsessed following. Within three years, she expanded her product offering to include liquid matte lipsticks and eyeliners, and in less than five, while deftly using YouTube and Instagram, sales hit $10m.

The Forbes valuation was ‘validating on so many levels – I was an influencer [in Dubai] in 2010 and, when I started out, it wasn’t normal for people like us to create brands’. While the world was not yet wise to the tedium of influencer culture, few took them seriously as entrepreneurs either. ‘Things weren’t in my favour,’ she says, sharing the fact that beauty giant Sephora initially ‘didn’t feel comfortable’ taking Huda Beauty on (they now stock it in droves). ‘I didn’t fit into a traditional space – there were conglomerates, and things were starting to pop off a little from celebrities, but influencer brands didn’t belong there.’

There are so many amazing, badass women in beauty

Huda Kattan

These ingeniously marketed companies now monopolise the market, competing with giants such as Estée Lauder and L’Oréal, yet Huda Beauty remains a cut above the rest, its story and success as compelling as it gets. Other female founders at the helm of unicorn brands include the likes of Rihanna (Fenty Beauty) and Kylie Jenner (Kylie Cosmetics), who had an indisputable head start. Not that Huda harbours any resentment. ‘There are so many amazing, badass women in beauty but I try not to compare. I am so focused on what I’m doing that I actually don’t know what other brands are doing until the team tells me.’

Truly, it’s hard to see how she’d have the time to care, between her HB Investment fund, whose aim it is to invest in ‘mission- based start-ups and female founders who create positive global impact’, the skincare arm of the business, Wishful, launched in 2019, and the newly minted supplements arm, Humantra, launched this February.

On set she’s a seasoned and smiley pro, full to the brim with energy, saying hi to all she meets. Were it not for her highly flappable team – two of whom eyeballed one another when a song came on that she might not like, as if to say ‘do something!’– and burly security, you could almost forget her stature. It’s precisely why her mass appeal endures. She joins our Zoom call equally bright-eyed and perky, thanking me for thanking her for the shoot, forgiving my dodgy connection and the fact that I was, of course, on mute. When her PR manager makes it clear that interview time is up, at 30 minutes and one second, no less, Huda enthusiastically echoes my request for ‘two more minutes’. Alas, she has content to film, interviews to fulfil and strategies to sign off on. Upending the old rules of what it means to be successful – despite the ‘challenges’ of operating in the patriarchal Middle East – her approach is thoughtful and empathetic. While she takes care of marketing, social media and product development, her husband and co-CEO leads on supply chain, finances, operations and sales. Indeed, it’s a family affair, with both her sisters in senior roles. Her dad, an engineering professor who’s apparently ‘very into supply chain’, ‘really wants to work at Huda Beauty’. Her mum, however, is more concerned with her daughter’s impact. ‘If I’m making money, how am I using it? She cares about what I’m saying and how my words are perceived.’ In an age when consumers care as much about the efficacy of a concealer as they do transparency behind the scenes, her solicitude is sage. The sun may have set on so-called girl bosses, leaving indelible marks on once untouchable founders and brands, but Huda remains unscathed. Her Dubai-based HQ is a ‘melting pot of genders, ethnicities and sexual orientations – it’s as diverse as it comes, and that’s what makes us rich’. What’s more, during the pandemic she forwent her salary for the sake of her staff and pledged $100,000 to make-up artists whose livelihoods were at stake.

When I started playing with make-up, I got treated better

huda kattan

Huda’s desire to bring everyone into the fold undoubtedly stems from her childhood in Tennessee, where, as the child of Iraqi migrants, she was picked on for looking different and having an ‘odd’-sounding name (it’s pronounced Hew-dah). ‘I grew up in Cookeville, which was so small... my family really stood out in the community, and I stood out at school. I got different treatment because of how I looked.’ It was this ostracism – and having older sisters – that got her into beauty in the first place, at the not-so-ripe-old-age of nine. ‘We were a family of six living on a salary of 20-something thousand dollars a year, just trying to make ends meet. [My parents] weren’t thinking about the way they looked, but you know, I was... When I started playing with make-up, I got treated better, so for me it was like... if I look better, I’ll get treated better and if I’m more attractive I’ll be perceived a certain way.’

The pressure of beauty standards is something she worries about for her daughter, Nour Giselle, who at 11 already has 133K Instagram followers (though the account is, thank God, run by her family). ‘She’s never not using filters,’ Huda says with consternation, which is one of the reasons why she took a stance against photoshopping and retouching pictures of herself and brand shots. ‘I want to see pores and texture and all the normal stuff,’ she tells me, before admitting that she used to have way too much filler in her face. ‘I don’t do as much as I used to,’ she says, ‘although I recently did my lips, just to make them even from doing too much in the past.’ And then she logs off, content with her face that’s launched a billion-dollar business.

Main image credits - Photographer: Rui Faria, Beauty Director: Joely Walker, Styling: Clementine Brown, Make-up: Nikki Makeup @nikki_makeup, Hair: Dom Seeley, Bookings Dirctor: Christie Phedon, Digital: Dan Landsburg, Photograper's Assistant: Anastasia Orlando, Fashion Assistants: Susie Lethbridge, Melissa Ewing

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