Beauty Maven Kandee Johnson Talks Trials and Triumphs, Family and Her Meteoric Rise to the Top
Written By: Marissa Stempien
Photographed By: Andrea Domjan
Photographer Assistant: Rebecca Thacker
Wardrobe Stylist: Teresita Marie
Hair Stylist: Chris Dylan
Makeup Artist: Spencer Barnes Kandee Johnson
Sitting in a fur-lined, acrylic, Louis XVI chair against the backdrop of golden-framed artwork and midcentury-modern decor, Kandee Johnson looks like a contemporary queen. The YouTube vlogger-turned-beauty entrepreneur is stoic and seemingly almost unapproachable, surrounded by her beauty team as they curl her hair and prep her flawless skin until she sneaks a smile and turns to the room laughing. “My son’s a model, and he’s always shooting big fancy campaigns,” she starts. “I told him I’m shooting the cover for this magazine. He’s like ‘Mom that’s so cool, I’ve never been on a cover!’” she grins proudly. “He’s so excited for me!”
It’s hard to believe that Johnson has a son who’s old enough to model, let alone that she’s never graced the cover of a magazine. It’s impossible to be on social media and not see Johnson’s face everywhere. Her YouTube videos have garnered her millions of dedicated followers over the years, and with a bubbling personality to match, the beauty maven has created an empire of videos, makeup collaborations, guest TV appearances, award nominations and, as she hints later in our interview, a book.
Always a creative, Johnson grew up surrounded by makeup, glitter, paint and fabric, learning how to channel her artistic tendencies into a wonderfully imaginative talent at a young age. “I think my mom was my main source of inspiration and creativity, especially growing up,” explains Johnson. “She really fostered so much creativity, and she helped my artistic side bloom even more. I don’t think I would be who I am if my mom wasn’t that way. I’m so thankful for her always encouraging me.”
Growing up feeling creatively motivated lead Johnson to cosmetology school and eventually Los Angeles, where she began to build her career working on movie sets and at TV stations like MTV and VH1. For a moment, it seemed that she was on the rise to the top. But life, as Johnson notes, can be hard and unpredictable. “My career was starting to really take off…but it was really hard because I didn’t have any help there,” she explains, stressing the difficulty of being a single mother. On her parents’ suggestion, she returned home where they could help with her son, and she could put some money aside. “I was having such a hard time being a single mom doing makeup,” she says. “I put all my stuff in storage; I’m driving, crying all the way home, leaving, going back to Nevada…the whole drive home thinking ‘I’m leaving the city where all of my dreams are, I’m literally leaving the place where this career’s going to happen.’”
Life, of course, works in mysterious ways—what she admittedly saw as a failure turned into a godsend. Turning to YouTube as a creative outlet on the suggestion of a friend, she found a home on the video platform and now boasts over 3.9 million followers on YouTube alone. “If I hadn’t moved there I never would have started [on] YouTube. It’s like I was being pulled backward in a slingshot, but I couldn’t see it at the time,” she speaks honestly. “I was like, ‘I’m going backward, I’m going away from my dreams,’ but it’s…what catapulted me further. I never would have dreamed the blessings that I would have from doing YouTube when I started. That was one of those moments where I felt like I was a failure, but it really was the biggest stepping stone to a blessing I had no idea would even take place.”
Johnson counts her blessings every day. Anyone who follows her on social media can see that the family-oriented, mother of four uses her platform as a way to connect, uplift and inspire her followers. After her father’s passing, she used YouTube as a way to not only heal herself but those around her. “Right after my dad died, I remember thinking the good he would want me to take away from this would be to comfort others who are hurting in the same way,” she explains. “As soon as I posted about my dad passing, hundreds and hundreds of people sent me emails and comments saying…’thank you so much for making me feel not alone, thank you for your words of encouragement,’” she says. “So for me, any pain that I’ve gone through, I want to use it to comfort others who are feeling the same way, and to me, that’s the greatest blessing of any pain that you go through.”
Helping others through similar difficulties using such a beautiful and creative medium might be what Johnson finds so fulfilling about the work she does. She’s connected with terminal cancer patients, girls who have been bullied and fans who have lost friends, family and loved ones. People who come to her platform in search of a way to feel beautiful leave with a sense of connection and deeper understanding. “The first email I got that made me start crying…was a girl that said she was going to commit suicide, but she wanted to look beautiful when people found her body,” she starts as she begins to tear up. “She googled how to look pretty, and for some reason, my YouTube video came up at the top. She wrote [to] me and said ‘I just want you to know, that I was planning on taking my life…and I found your video. It’s eight hours later, and I saw your story and what you’ve been through, and how you’ve kept going. You’ve inspired me that I can keep going too.” As she glances up at the ceiling trying to keep her tears from messing up her makeup before the cover shoot, it’s clear Johnson’s appreciation for makeup goes deep beneath the superficial surface that so many attribute to the beauty industry.
For Johnson, her focus on external beauty feels like a reflection of self, a way to bring inner beauty to the surface. “I think that is the gift of what I get to do and really at the heart of why I became a makeup artist. Seeing the beauty that you can bring out, it’s always there. Even though people look at makeup as this superficial something that people are doing, it really is more about the internal,” she explains. Makeovers with Kim Kardashian and collaborations with Too Faced aside, Johnson becomes somber as she speaks quietly about the fans she meets and how mothers pull her aside and tell her what a positive difference she’s made on their child’s life. “It is the most rewarding thing to know that you’ve been able to have that impact, and to me, that’s greater than any award or accolade that I could ever receive, just to feel the difference that I’ve been able to make. At the end of the day, life is short, and I just want to touch as many people as I can and inspire them and make them feel loved and make them feel happy! There’s no greater reward than that for me.”
With such a dedicated fan base and so many career successes, Johnson won’t be taking a break any time soon. “I have a bunch of projects in the works that I’m so excited to work on,” she starts. “I have wanted to write a book for years since way before even YouTube, so there will be a book in the works.” She hesitates for a moment before she smiles coyly like a child with a juicy secret. She hints at a makeup collection then a fashion line, toting a passion for shoes and accessories. “I mean I want to do everything! I don’t ever want to limit myself or think that I’m like a one-trick pony!”
No one could ever consider Johnson a one-trick pony. The influencer has had her hand in everything recently, and it’s clear she can’t stop, won’t stop. Even as we talk, the image she posted on Instagram only moments ago has hundreds of comments from fans showing their support and excitement for her first magazine cover. She glances at her phone with a smile, “I’m so honored that I have this platform to use to inspire people, and everything I do I want to make people feel good, inspire them to be positive, give them hope and add fun! I just want to add fun to people’s [lives]!”
Tim Burton’s Masterpiece: Johnson has transformed herself into everyone from Barbie to Thor, but for her, one creation will always top them all. “Edward Scissorhands will probably always be a favorite because it was one of the first ones that I did. It was so crazy!” said Johnson.
Celebrity Fangirl: In 2010, at Fred Segal in Hollywood, Johnson once heard someone singing her name. “I turn around, I hear it again—it’s Brandy. Brandy was singing my name!” cried Johnson. They stopped to take photos together, but she was starstruck for the rest of the day.
Teen Beauty Queen: Johnson has been playing with makeup since she was 13 when her mother gave her her first Elizabeth Arden cosmetic kit. Using the palette, she made her own concoctions by mixing colors and blending eyeshadows with her chapsticks.
Shot at The Palm Baum in Palm Springs