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The Makeup Mentalist: Emily Dougherty

Emily Dougherty creates makeup ASMR as an easy, accessible form of self-care.

Excerpt from The New Beauty: A Modern Look at Beauty, Culture, And Fashion

Makeup is powerful on many levels: sometimes, in fact, you can feel a zing just from looking at the pigments without even applying anything to your skin. Consider the social media feed of Emily Dougherty, a New York-based beauty journalist whose popular lipstick smashing and nail polish blending videos have earned her an ardent following among fans of ASMR.

Defined as “autonomous sensory meridian response,” ASMR is essentially a feel-good sensation, or a wave of euphoria that comes over you when you experience certain visual or auditory stimuli, such as a whisper in your ear, the sound of nails tapping on a surface, or in the case of Dougherty’s creations, makeup being mushed and swirled together. Such images can set off a reaction in the brain that’s deeply calming for some people. In these turbulent times, when everyone is looking for a little extra chill wherever they can get it, the genre has been steadily growing. To date, the ASMR hashtag has more than nine million followers, with makeup being one of the most captivating subgenres in the category.

Surprisingly, Dougherty hasn’t experienced ASMR’s magical-like benefits firsthand. “I’ve never personally felt the physiological effects of [it]—the tingly, relaxed feeling that some lucky people get,” she says. Yet, she was intrigued by the concept. “I was fascinated when I learned about it—that just by watching a YouTube video, someone could feel happier, calmer, more relaxed. A free healing treatment that takes less than a minute! An express train to feeling a little bit better.”

Given that not everyone has the time or money for wellness practices, such as yoga, meditation or massages, Dougherty considers makeup ASMR an easy, accessible form of self-care. “I love the idea that just by simply watching a free video, people could release some feel-good chemicals.” (Still, one should note that ASMR is not a cure-all nor is it a medically-tested concept.)

Whatever Dougherty is doling out, her fans certainly enjoy it. Not long after posting her first video in 2017, Dougherty’s lipstick smashes landed on the Instagram Discovery page—and were reposted by other feeds—making the beauty aficionado something of a star in the ASMR universe (her early posts generated as much as 500,000 views in her feed alone).

Among the most re-grammed: “A double Dior mix and a pink Tom Ford with a blue Urban Decay,” she says of the lipsticks she blended together, which “ended up getting millions of views on bigger platforms, such as @HudaBeauty and @Make.Up.Vines.” Dougherty also includes combinations from high-profile makeup artists, such as Robin Black, so viewers get pro tips on which shades mix well.

Not all commenters had positive, rosy things to say, though. “I started getting negative feedback from people who thought I was wasting the lipstick,” says Dougherty, who has always saved her mash-ups in pots for future use. It’s ironic, she says, considering that other feeds feature people crushing iPhones or using a hot knife to cut through Air Jordans— “actual destruction of something valuable,” she says, “and these posts didn’t inspire the same level of rage that my posts inspired.” Dougherty, though, is adamant about repurposing any leftover bits of makeup. “I always encourage people to give any lipstick a second chance—maybe the shade or texture isn’t just right straight out of the tube, but you can tweak it just a bit with another shade or a balm. I hate the idea of any lipstick all sad and alone and unused in someone’s drawer.” 

The unscripted element is part of the appeal.

Behind-the-scenes, Dougherty’s creative process is refreshingly low-budget. Most videos show her slicing into lipsticks with a metal palette knife, which she uses to mix the shades together on a plexiglass-like surface. At first, Dougherty filmed on the floor next to a window at the Elle offices in Manhattan, where she served as the longtime beauty director until 2018. Now she films at home in New York City.

“I don’t use lights—just natural sunlight—so I only make the videos on days when there’s good light. You can see in some videos when a cloud passes over the sun. It bothers some people who don’t want the distraction of a change in light, but I personally love it.” The unscripted element is part of the appeal. “I don’t do retakes, so hearing sirens in the background or seeing the sun change reminds me of that moment in time.”

Now we, ourselves, are the most important beholder of our beauty.

The only downside for Dougherty is that she can’t film as consistently as she’d like, since her ASMR videos are a side project to writing and consulting (“Life gets in the way,” she says). But the DMs keep her motivated. “I’ve gotten a lot of messages from people sharing that I help them fall asleep after a tough day or calm down when they are really upset.”

Especially during the pandemic, Dougherty has found makeup to be an important source of creativity, no matter if it’s worn on the face or swirled with a metal tool. “I love how all aspects of beauty are now being celebrated as a form of self-care—that we wear red lipstick, even at home alone, because we wear it for us, not for someone else. That old adage ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’? Now we, ourselves, are the most important beholder of our beauty.”

Photo Stephanie Gonot, The New Beauty, gestalten 2021

Kari Molvar

Kari Molvar is a beauty writer and backstage reporter who has covered everything from high-performance skincare to hands-on makeup applications. She started her career in beauty as a senior editor at Allure and has since written for Vogue, T: The New York Times Style Magazine, Harper’s Bazaar, Town & Country and the Wall Street Journal among other print and digital publications. She lives in Connecticut with her husband and two (DIY-obsessed) young daughters. Follow her @Kari_Molvar

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