The rapper Machine Gun Kelly, 31, stopped by The Drew Barrymore Show in early December, talking to the show’s host with somber sincerity about mental health. A beat later, the musician, whose real name is Colson Baker, said to Barrymore, “I know my publicist is back there just like, ‘What are you doing? You’re supposed to talk about nails!’” Baker appeared on the show to promote his new line of nail polishes, UN/DN Laqr, and he gave Barrymore a quick on-air paint job with his wares.
Baker is one of a spate of male musicians who have recently launched nail polishes. Singer Harry Styles introduced his beauty range, Pleasing, in November, featuring “collectible” bottles of polish topped with marblesque orbs. Rapper Tyler, the Creator now offers three shades of nail polish within his Golf le Fleur fashion brand. Backstreet Boy AJ McLean launched nail polish brand Ava Dean Beauty in late 2020. Rapper Lil Yachty launched a gender-inclusive nail polish brand in 2021, before announcing his exit from the company a few months later.
We are in a moment when more men are wearing nail polish and nail art than ever before. “Polish is an extension of your outfit and what mood you’re in,” Baker says. “I’m a fashion fiend, so I think of it like bracelets or earrings. It’s an interchangeable accessory.” Now that male celebrities have helped to normalize and popularize the trend, they’re cashing in and selling the beauty product as merchandise that can appeal to fans of all genders.
The prestige nail category (brands sold at department stores or specialty stores), is relatively small, according to Larissa Jensen, a vice president at the NPD Group, a market research firm. NPD says sales totaled $77.2 million, growing nine percent in 2021 versus 2019. (Sales took a hit in 2020, likely due to lockdowns.)
Nail polish offers an entry point into the larger, lucrative beauty world for these famous guys. In an industry worth over $500 billion in 2021 according to Statista, female singers like Rihanna, Ariana Grande, and Selena Gomez, and other stars of all genres have launched beauty brands.
A bottle of nail polish ranges from about $9 for drugstore staple Essie to $45 for new luxury entrant Hermès. These new celeb polishes are priced at about $13 to $20 each, putting them in prestige price territory while still ensuring that they’re accessible for a large swath of consumers.
Candy Harris, the CEO of Unlisted Brand Lab, the incubator that produces Baker’s line, said the UN/DN Laqr sold out its stock in four days. The company was initially expecting the products to last for a month and a half after launch.
Many start-ups are harnessing a new infrastructure for creating a beauty brand, with multiple beauty incubators, more deep-pocketed VC investors than ever and multinational companies and private equity firms eager to snap up brands. Historically when a celebrity wanted to work with a beauty brand, companies like Maybelline or
would hire them for a spokesperson gig for a set fee. Now, these stars and the businesses behind them want equity. Instead of money, celebrities invest their time and names into brands that interest them.
Talent agency CAA co-founded a beauty platform in 2020 called Creative Beauty, essentially ensuring a direct pipeline for its talent. A line for actor Peyton List debuts in January, with several more brands in development. Endeavor, the parent company of agencies WME and IMG, launched its Talent Ventures arm in January 2020. It’s staffed by financial industry vets whose job is to find entrepreneurial opportunities for their clients, like alcohol brands—popular thanks to George Clooney and the $1 billion sale of his Casamigos brand—and beauty.
“They are two of the most highly valued consumer industries. Beauty and alcohol can fetch multiples of five to 10 times, plus revenue,” says Vince Sirianni, a manager in the Talent Ventures arm of Endeavor. So celebrities are given equity in their brands, usually 10 percent to 50 percent per Sirianni, though it varies.
Many start-up brands ultimately fail. And as the market gets more crowded there is a risk of celeb beauty-brand fatigue. Celebrity brands get a lot of press at launch, but as with any other beauty product on the market, they have to live up to their own hype.
“You can always get someone to buy your product once, but if you want them to come back, it needs to work,” says NPD’s Jensen.
Backstreet Boy AJ McLean, 44, founded Ava Dean Beauty with his longtime security detail and friend, Joshua Naranjo, in a more traditional way. Naranjo made a lot of phone calls, got some mentorship from a former nail brand exec, and then launched the brand without an incubator. McLean often features his young daughters in social media posts, and the shades are named after family members. He and Naranjo funded it themselves. He acknowledges that a lot of its customers are Backstreet Boys fans.
“I was told growing up, slow and steady wins the race, and we have been exactly that,” says McLean, who declined to share sales figures.
McLean is not worried about the market getting too crowded with nail polish from his fellow crooners, who may be better funded or more culturally relevant. His attitude is that a rising tide lifts all boats.
“It’s all healthy competition,” he says. “It’s like Backstreet Boys and NSYNC. Everybody pitted us against each other, yet we were all friends.”
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