FORT WALTON BEACH, Fla. — “Men cannot know that we wear makeup,” Jahkara Smith says at the beginning of her first makeup tutorial, her face a mask of concern. “It will all be over for all of us. The universe will stop. Reproduction will cease.”
Pulling out foundation, she says: “The first thing you want to do is hide the fact that you have human flesh.” She begins to rub the product vigorously into her skin, extending it to her neck. “They’re looking at necks now,” she says. “They’re learning.”
As the video continues, Ms. Smith, who is 21 and goes by Sailor J on YouTube, layers on more and more makeup, all while dispensing mock wisdom for living in a patriarchal society.
On concealer: “If it rubs off on anything, they’re going to know you’re a witch.”
On eyebrows: “If they are off-kilter by a centimeter, everyone will know that you’re a lying wench.”
On the overall effect: “If you don’t look like a white beauty blogger, it’s over for you.”
The video, called “Getting a Man 101,” was filmed in Ms. Smith’s house last fall, with a pile of laundry visible in the background, during a sick day from her personnel job on an Air Force base in north Florida. After filming and editing the video in less than an hour, she shared it on Facebook, where it had 13,000 shares by day’s end. A week later, she posted another piece of social commentary disguised as a beauty video on YouTube called “Contouring 101.” That video now has more than 1.7 million views.
“Nothing attracts an undeserving cretin more than some sexy lashes”
The world Ms. Smith so deftly parodies lives on YouTube, which hosts millions of amateur beauty tutorials on its platform. (The genre is growing, too: According to Pixability, a company that helps brands and agencies with video advertising, beauty videos on YouTube increased by 85 percent between 2016 and 2017.)
Reading the comments on one of those amateur makeup tutorials inspired Ms. Smith to make her first video. Male viewers were posting all manner of rude questions, she said, like “why would you show your face without makeup? Why would you bother putting it on if you’re this ugly? Why not just own up to it?”
“Everything has to be about men,” she said. “All the time.”
To mock the sexism, she assumed the persona of a wild-eyed beauty influencer, and began filming. Immediately, her videos hit a chord.
“A couple of celebrities got me the views, like Sia,” Ms. Smith said recently. She was sitting cross-legged on the floor at her home in Florida, which she shares with her husband Kevin Smith, 23, who is also in the Air Force. “I panicked. People in the comments were liking it a lot. And then they started subscribing. The first couple of weeks I was getting like 10,000 subscribers a day.”
To be clear, Ms. Smith does apply makeup in her videos, but the tutorials have little do with actual makeup techniques.
In “How to Have Bedroom Eyes,” she plays with the idea that certain types of eye makeup are a call for male attention. “Activist?” she says, pretending to read the name of an eye shadow color. No. She moves onto another shade. “We’re trying to catch a man, not scare one off.” In “Thoughts and Prayers,” Ms. Smith gestures toward the products she will use in the video: a bag of brushes and … nothing else. It’s the Sailor J way of making a political statement. Thoughts and prayers are meaningless if they are not followed by real change.
There is a certain Dada absurdity to Ms. Smith’s style. In one video, for example, she cannot find lip gloss, so she pats a lollipop on her lips instead. She applies foundations, powders and eye shadow across her face with abandon, leaving streaks of color in places where they don’t belong. In all of her videos, including those about astrological signs and Hogwarts houses, she cycles through a series of characters, each one with its own accent and point of view.
“I was in and out of different homes for a while,” she said, referring to her childhood, which was often unstable. “I’ve been around different dialects, so it’s easy for me to pick up on a different accent I haven’t heard before. It makes it better because if it doesn’t land, you’re like, ‘That wasn’t me; that was Patty.’”
“Makeup is a form of appropriation as well”
Ms. Smith’s videos have attracted talent managers, but many suggested she keep away from politics so as not to alienate subscribers. Ms. Smith turned them all away. “I don’t want those kinds of people watching me anyway,” she said. “The problem with YouTube is you almost can’t be yourself if you want to make it career-wise.” And being herself means speaking out on divisive issues.
The first video that Ms. Smith made that sparked intense backlash (and a wave of hateful comments) was called “How to Do Thanksgiving Makeup That Has Nothing to Do With The 566 Federally Recognized Tribes.” In it, Ms. Smith parodies videos about “native-inspired” makeup looks that are more “Pocahontas” than Native American. “The natives didn’t wear false eyelashes, but we’re just going to add them because we’re cherry-picking here,” Ms. Smith says.
Some commenters “were upset that I was like, ‘White people should not appropriate Native American culture,’” she said. “I had to start blocking specific racial slurs. It didn’t bother me but it bothered other people in the comments section because they were like, ‘Oh this is so cute,’ and then they’d get 50 people calling them the N-word.”
“The military is a really good foundation”
The confidence to speak out, with humor, didn’t come easily.
“I grew up really rough,” Ms. Smith said of her childhood in St. Louis, which was marked by an absentee father and poverty. She joined the Air Force when she was 18 years old. “I had done pretty well in school, but I didn’t have any money,” she said. “I grew up broke, and I was like, if I go to school, I’m going to graduate and get a job and still be broke.”
But days before she left her hometown, Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was shot and killed by a white police officer in nearby Ferguson. Protesters took to the streets for weeks. “My aunt lives on the street he was shot on,” Ms. Smith said. “It broke my heart.”
Taking part in the protests opened Ms. Smith’s eyes to the extent of the problems plaguing both her city and the country. “One night, they kept shooting people with these rubber pellets,” she said. “They had imposed a curfew on Ferguson, but there were people who lived in Ferguson who couldn’t get home. They would have tanks at the end of the street. If they saw you, you would get arrested. We were belly-crawling across the street.”
Leaving amid the crisis haunted Ms. Smith, but she feels that she made the right choice. “For people who come from circumstances like where I come from, you don’t have a lot of stability, you don’t have money, you don’t have adults that you can be like, ‘How do I do this?’” she said. When she joined the Air Force, she started receiving a steady paycheck, set up bank accounts and got her first credit card.
“When I make something, I focus”
There were plenty of problems the structure of the military couldn’t fix.
“When I got out of basic military training, I went through a rough patch where I had no idea what I was doing,” Ms. Smith said. “I was never nice to people I dated. I was ready to fight all the time. I started going to therapy and things got way, way better.”
Ms. Smith also turned to artistic endeavors — like drawing, painting and wrestling, in addition acting on YouTube — for a creative outlet.
“Making art physically helps me a lot when I’m manic or my anxiety or depression is really bad,” Ms. Smith said. “When I make something, I focus on this one thing for hours and my mind isn’t so all over the place.”
She picked up Worldwide Wrestling Entertainment-style wrestling last spring when her husband was learning to do it. “I saw Lita, all her stuff on YouTube, there’s so many mashups of her moonsaulting off the top ropes,” Ms. Smith said, referring to a popular W.W.E. wrestler. “I was like, I want to do that.”
“I showed him the black widow,” she said, nodding to Mr. Smith, referencing a move where she spins around her wrestling partner’s torso. “We knocked it out in 10 minutes.”
In April, Ms. Smith and her husband went to the beach to show off some of the moves they have mastered. Ms. Smith was dressed comfortably in a sports bra and athletic shorts, with her many tattoos on display. Three large red roses spread from beneath her collar bone and across the curve of her shoulder, a representation of the three siblings she grew up with. “It was awful growing up, but we’re bonded,” Ms. Smith said. “We’re an entity outside our parents.”
Beneath the roses, running vertically down her left bicep, is an Arabic proverb: “I suffered, I learned, I changed.”
Ms. Smith looked at the Arabic letters and said: “For me it was about breaking the cycle of abuse. It goes way back in my family. I got this tattoo because I feel like I’m working on doing that.”