The James Charles Palette, from the makeup company Morphe, had it all: 39 eye shadows in glittery pinks and blues, audacious neons and nonshimmery neutrals — and a solid gold tie-up with James Charles, the beauty influencer. It sold out several times and generated tons of attention for Morphe since the palette’s debut in late 2018.
But last year Morphe’s business relationship with Mr. Charles ended after accusations emerged that the influencer had sent sexual messages to underage boys, the latest in a series of controversies for Morphe and its parent company, Forma Brands. Forma also owns Morphe 2, a makeup and skin line geared toward Gen Z; Jaclyn Cosmetics, a label from the influencer Jaclyn Hill; and helped to create R.E.M. Beauty, Ariana Grande’s makeup line. (Forma Brands declined to comment for this article.)
Morphe, which gained popularity with its approachably priced eye shadow palettes (a 35-pan palette costs $25) and makeup brushes, is best known for its collaborations with the biggest YouTubers of the last decade. Makeup, especially eye shadow palettes, created with Mr. Charles, Ms. Hill and Jeffree Star, the beauty influencer, could sell out in less than an hour.
But most people outside of its dedicated online following never heard of the brand. Product drops and gossip about its collaborators remained largely within the confines of the devoted YouTube and Reddit beauty communities.
Then, in 2018, news of Morphe’s partners started to seep into the mainstream media. A video had surfaced of Mr. Star making racist comments, and he later apologized. Complaints from customers that Ms. Hill’s lipsticks were poor quality went viral, and she offered a full refund. Last April, Mr. Charles, who was 21 at the time, admitted to sending sexually explicit online messages to 16-year-old boys, and said he did not know they were underage. (Mr. Star did not respond to requests for comment for this article. Ms. Hill and Mr. Charles declined to comment for this article.)
“You may want to say you’re a makeup brand and you don’t want to involve yourself in the personal lives of others, but the person you’re collaborating with is someone who is in the public eye — and he has a certain reputation,” said Sukanya Narayanan, 33, of Mr. Charles.
Ms. Narayanan, a technology manager in Toronto, said she initially admired the James Charles Palette, but his behavior turned her off to Morphe altogether.
Zahra Mungur, a 21-year-old psychology student, bought the palette — before she saw the fallout from his comments.
“I got his palette and regret it to this day because I spent a lot of money on it,” Ms. Mungur said. “I didn’t know about the drama, so I just bought what I thought was cool.” She ended up giving it away.
Working with beauty YouTubers was proving to be risky business. Morphe’s public image started to suffer.
The company turned to content creators on YouTube to help sell its products, said Kirbie Johnson, a creator of Gloss Angeles, a beauty podcast. “Morphe is tying their name to specific people with huge followings, and then what happens when those people are irrelevant?”
At the same time, the beauty industry underwent a seismic shift. Makeup trends were changing; people wanted subtler “no makeup” makeup instead of the heavy contouring, baking, bold brows and elaborate eye shadow that defined the “Instagram makeup” era that Morphe played a pivotal role in creating. When the pandemic hit, many stopped wearing makeup entirely. There was a new focus: skin care.
In 2020, Morphe reinvented itself as Forma Brands, a beauty “incubator” that would both make its own cosmetics and buy other brands. That year, the newly formed company introduced three brands in rapid succession: Morphe 2 in July; Such Good Everything, a line of vegan gummy vitamins, in September; and Bad Habit, a skin-care label with the influencer Emma Chamberlain as creative director, in December. In 2021, Forma Brands got into celebrity with Ms. Grande’s R.E.M. Beauty, which came out in November.
Changing its name and model wasn’t as simple as putting out a new eye shadow palette, however.
Forma Brands experienced a string of setbacks. Such Good Everything is no longer for sale on its website or on morphe.com, and Ms. Chamberlain is no longer involved with Bad Habit. Her one-year contract as creative director ended in 2021, a Forma Brands spokeswoman confirmed via email. R.E.M. Beauty, which wasn’t publicized as being part of Forma Brands, was met with mixed reviews.
By January, Myles McCormick, the chief executive of Forma Brands, was out of the role. Earlier this month, Eric Hohl joined the company as chief executive.
“When Morphe came up, their whole point was about being something really original, but the minute you start to say, ‘Let’s do Glossier’ or ‘Let’s do this, let’s do that,’ you’re becoming a follower,” Hana Ben-Shabat, the founder of Gen Z Planet, a research firm, said of Morphe’s evolution into a beauty incubator.
Controversial Content Creators
Morphe’s founders, the siblings Linda and Chris Tawil, started the company in 2008 as a line of makeup brushes. Selling their products mostly online and at trade shows, the two expanded into makeup and opened their first store in Burbank, Calif., in 2013. Together, they transformed the label into a major player in online makeup, forging relationships and creating makeup collections with up-and-coming and established makeup artists and YouTubers that attracted attention online.
In late 2017, Ms. Hill tweeted a milestone: one million of her $38 Morphe x Jaclyn Hill eye shadow palettes were sold that year. She became extremely valuable to Morphe, along with Mr. Charles and Mr. Star, who helped propel the company’s success through promotion of product collaborations and the many feuds that populated their social media channels. Ms. Hill got her own brand under the Morphe umbrella, Jaclyn Cosmetics, in 2019.
“At one point Tati Westbrook, James Charles and Jeffree Star were among the top channels in the beauty space,” Ms. Johnson, the podcast host, said.
“When Jeffree and James were partners in crime, their videos were constantly shading people and shading brands,” she said. “They may not have been ‘problematic’ at that point, but they were still doing things just to create drama.” (A video from January 2019 is titled “Destroying the Makeup We Hated in 2018.”)
Mr. Charles’s and Mr. Star’s convoluted drama with fellow YouTubers reads like a plotline plucked from Andy Cohen’s Bravolebrity playbook. And drama drove sales — to a point.
Mr. Charles had a falling out with Tati Westbook, who is nearly twice his age, over gummy vitamins. Mr. Star took Ms. Westbrook’s side, creating a rift in the friendship between the two men. Then Ms. Westbrook spoke out against Mr. Star and blamed him for turning her against Mr. Charles in the first place.
Morphe eventually distanced itself from its biggest stars.
How Morphe Lost Gen Z
The appeal of beauty YouTubers with their ring-lit videos and high-profile friendships — and feuds — that helped Ms. Hill, Mr. Star, Ms. Westbrook and Mr. Charles amass millions, or in some cases, tens of millions of followers, while entertaining, hasn’t inspired Gen Zers (or millennials) to spend.
Talia Turner, 18, said she isn’t influenced by “traditional influencers” like Mr. Charles, nor does she trust them.
“They are getting paid to do this,” Ms. Turner said. “They aren’t going to say it’s a bad product.” She stopped watching his content, as well as others who were “getting into a lot of controversial things.”
Ms. Turner started taking her beauty cues from TikTok. She bought Maybelline Sky High mascara after a “random girl” on TikTok with “really nice eyelashes” posted about it.
Clara Schloendorff, 18, also buys makeup because regular, or “real,” people post about it on TikTok. The shorter the video, the better.
This is how Morphe 2, a Glossier look-alike that sells more “natural” makeup, was born. Morphe’s sleek black packaging was replaced with clean white tubes and compacts, and instead of richly pigmented hot pink eye shadow, Morphe 2 sold skin tints and lip oils.
Also, instead of collaborating with top YouTubers, Morphe 2 hired Charli D’Amelio, the most followed account on TikTok at the time, and her sister, Dixie, as the faces of Morphe 2.
Ms. Schloendorff and Ms. Turner said they’ve never bought a Morphe 2 (or Morphe) product. They haven’t tried R.E.M. Beauty either.
“Everybody wrote the same exact article about it,” Ms. Johnson said of R.E.M. Beauty, which is affordable (a plumping lip gloss costs $17) and “feels very Ariana.” But she hasn’t heard much, if anything, about the makeup since it went on sale in November — until several days ago, when Ms. Grande posted a teaser video revealing that her latest collection, “Chapter 2: Goodnight n Go,” would come out this week.
Before that teaser, Ms. Grande’s last Instagram post on the line was weeks ago, and the one before that, a tutorial on how to achieve her “signature” makeup look, was in early February, which is a dog’s age in social media marketing.
“It feels very much like Ariana kind of licensed her name out,” Ms. Johnson said.