Vox Media's, Racked sat down with Kat Von D to find out how a reality TV provocateur became one of the beauty industry’s brightest stars.
Who the F*ck Is Kat Von D?
How a reality TV provocateur became one of the beauty industry’s brightest stars.
Before there was Kylie Jenner, there was Kat Von D. Nearly a decade ago, the tattoo artist famous for a career in reality television and a string of tabloid-fodder relationships took her notoriety and turned it into a global beauty empire. Today, Kat Von D Beauty is one of Sephora’s most successful brands, with products that sell out in a matter of weeks and rack up tens of thousands of glowing reviews and live events that attract hundreds of fans.
Like Kylie, Kat has an instantly recognizable, highly-stylized aesthetic. It’s a combination of punk, goth, and good old-fashioned rock ’n’ roll, featuring lots of black (and lately, head-to-toe red) outfits in faux leather and kooky avant-garde shapes. Jet-black hair, red lipstick, and predilection for mismatched eye makeup have become her signatures. But she doesn’t want an army of Kat clones.
“My biggest nightmare would be if somebody came to Sephora, saw my brand, and said, ‘Oh, I want to look like her, so I’ll buy this makeup,’” Kat Von D proclaimed to an audience of beauty world professionals at the WWD Beauty Summit this summer, her first-ever appearance at a major industry event. “I think that model may work for Kylie or whoever else bases their career on vanity or some kind of superficial thing. It’s quite a gamble because that can be very fleeting a lot of times.” Despite the similarities, Kat doesn’t appreciate Kylie comparisons.
After Kat’s session at the summit was over, she mingled a bit with the suit-wearing masses and then walked downstairs in towering platform shoes, gently guided by a member of her team. “I’m very impressed by Kat Von D!” a gray-haired man said admiringly to a younger woman standing beside him.
“She’s not bound by any rules,” the woman replied.
“I wanted to get a tattoo afterward,” he said.
Tattooing is where it all began for Kat, who was born Katherine von Drachenberg. The 35-year-old is a professional tattoo artist by trade and is known for her elaborate, life-like grayscale portraits. She’s tattooed a ton of musicians and celebrities, including Miley Cyrus, Lady Gaga, and Harry Styles. She’s inked everything from the Mona Lisa to images of beloved pets on people’s bodies. It’s still something she does when she’s home in LA, though she tries to “limit it to one a day,” whereas a normal workday in her previous life would have had her seeing five clients one after another. Kat has a years-long wait list and is no longer taking appointments, in order to catch up. She recently said in a YouTube video that she doesn’t charge for tattoos anymore, preferring to do it for art’s sake.
Kat’s own body is covered with tattoos, which you can see in zoomed-in detail in her New York Times bestselling book High Voltage Tattoo. (She has published two other books since.) In it, she models in a bikini and describes the origin of each batch of ink. She’s perhaps best recognized for the spray of stars around her eyes, a motif which shows up frequently in her beauty products. At first, she only had one star on each temple. While Kat lore has long held that the Motley Crue song “Starry Eyes” inspired at least the first few stars, in her book she says she added to them because her ex-husband and fellow tattoo artist Oliver Peck once told her to stop tattooing her face. She even has stars tattooed on one eyelid. One of her best-selling products, a liquid eyeliner, is called Tattoo Liner.
Kat was born in Mexico; she’s fluent in Spanish and identifies as Latina. Her parents are from Argentina and her father’s family originally hails from Germany. Her father is a doctor and she grew up with a conservative background as a member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, where her parents were missionaries. She credits her paternal grandmother with instilling in her a love of art and music. (Kat’s a classically trained pianist and has a huge portrait of Beethoven tattooed on her thigh.) She says her father used to catch her on the floor drawing underneath the pews at church.
Kat moved to Colton, California, when she was four years old with her parents, brother, and sister. Her parents divorced years later and her mother moved back to Mexico. At 14, Kat discovered punk rock and started dating a boy named James, who was two years older and had a mohawk and tattoos. She got her first tattoo, an old English “J,” on her ankle at that time. Expanding on her interest in drawing, she started experimenting with tattooing, practicing on her friends. By 16, she had dropped out of high school and moved to Georgia with James. After three months, she moved back to California without him and started looking for jobs in tattoo shops. She secured a position at a shop near a San Bernardino jailhouse before moving to LA, where she landed a new gig every year or so and built up her reputation as a tattoo artist.
Kat didn’t become a public figure until she was cast in Miami Ink, a TLC series which documented a group of tattoo artists, their work, and the usual reality-show conflict and drama. She moved to Miami for the show, going home to LA on weekends. Kat appeared on the series from 2005 to 2007, until Ami James, the owner of the 305 Ink tattoo shop featured on the show, unceremoniously fired her. She was then promptly offered a spinoff called LA Ink, which ran from 2007 to 2011. Prior to its debut, she opened her own shop, High Voltage Tattoo, located in West Hollywood. Fans began to focus on her love life and some of the notorious men in it, like Motley Crue’s Nikki Sixx, Jesse James (best known for being Sandra Bullock’s ex and wearing Nazi uniforms), and Steve-O of Jackass fame. She became a bit of a gossip column mainstay.
“I feel like my name works against me sometimes, you know?” Kat says at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel in June. She’s there for the relaunch of two perfumes, Saint and Sinner, which she’d previously released in 2009 as limited-edition products. “People think, ‘Kat Von D, oh it's somebody that was on TV or somebody that dated somebody.’ And to me as an artist, it's kind of soul crushing. It's like, oh wow, what about all my hard work and what I would love to be known for?"
Kat says she knew that people would initially focus on her brand because it belongs to “that tattoo chick.” She really wanted it to evolve to the point where the product got attention rather than the founder. It might finally be getting there. She tells a story about a young woman who approached her on an airplane and said, “Hey, aren’t you that makeup artist?” Kat corrected her, because she isn’t a makeup artist, but was happy that this fan knew her from her work in the beauty world and not from reality TV.
Kat still has her rabid tattoo fans, though. One late September afternoon at High Voltage, Ashton Williams, the shop’s merchandise manager, is wearing a T-shirt that reads, “Who the fuck is Kat Von D?,” an homage to the “Who the fuck is Mick Jagger?” shirt Keith Richards famously wore on a Rolling Stones tour in the ’70s. There are sweatshirts and tees hanging all over the shop, many featuring a red and yellow High Voltage logo, skull motif, and Kat’s name. But exactly how many people are coming in for Kat merch?
“Tons. We have tour buses that let out in front of the shop all the time. People are obsessed with her. It’s crazy,” says Williams. “We have everyone from grandmothers from England to punk rockers. Nothing surprises me anymore. Literally, you’ll have a grandmother coming in who’s 70-something years old getting tattooed and she’s like, ‘I never really liked tattoos until I saw Kat.’ We have the broadest mix of people.”
People line up at the front windows of the shop and peer in when Kat is in the shop tattooing. She tattoos in plain sight on one of the tables that’s set up in the open-plan shop. They also run around to the back parking lot, Williams says, which features a building-sized mural of Kat and the shop’s other artists, to try to catch her as she’s getting into her car.
The look of the shop — moody red tapestry wallpaper, dark wood, dripping candles, crucifixes, “heartagrams” (a pentagram with a heart shape at the top), paintings in heavy gilt frames — is cohesive with the design of the beauty brand. Kat Von D products come in black boxes featuring gothic lettering and Kat’s original artwork. Shiny black studded tubes house her lipsticks. Religious iconography appears in the packaging and is echoed in the shade names, like her limited edition Saint and Sinner palette, which looks like a stained-glass cathedral window and includes colors like Sacred Heart, Worship, and Vestment. Her brand is everything that so-called millennial beauty lines are not. There’s no soft pink, no sans serif — everything is full coverage and ultra-pigmented. To compare her to Emily Weiss, another brand founder with a reality TV background, Kat Von D is the aesthetic sinner to Glossier’s saint.
Kat has always been a makeup person. She’s worn it since she was a kid and comparesbuying beauty products to “candy shopping.” Makeup has long been another artistic medium for her and she has said the process of applying it is therapeutic. She used to collect lipsticks, telling the LA Times that she’s tried every shade of red ever made, from CoverGirl to Chanel. Though it’s unclear whether or not she ever actively aspired to create her own makeup line, Kat did tell the paper, “I went through all my favorites and said, ‘If this was mine I'd add more purple, use a different finish.’” She has a tattoo on her abdomen that spells out “Hollywood” written in red lipstick, though it’s an homage to the New York Dolls’ logo rather than an ode to that particular beauty product.
Back in 2008, Kat got a call from a Sephora executive who told her people had been inundating sales associates with questions about the red lipstick “that tattoo girl” always wore on Miami Ink. So Sephora, which at the time was producing some of its own house brands, brought Kat up to its American headquarters in San Francisco for a meeting. She told the team there that she was bored (“so fucking bored,” actually) with things she saw in stores. The brand originally launched with four red lipsticks, which almost immediately sold out. This success led to an expanded line inspired by the inks and pigments Kat uses at High Voltage.
“Let's create high-performance, bold, highly-pigmented, long-wear shit that no one else is really doing,” Kat says she suggested to the Sephora team. “I don't think any of us really knew that it could grow into something bigger. My goal with the makeup line was to create something with a formulation you couldn't argue with. Whether you liked me or not, the product was good.”
By all accounts, it is good. Kat Von D Beauty now has over 350 products including lipsticks, brushes, and eyeshadow and contour palettes. The brand sells the products on the Kat Von D Beauty website (international shipping has been available since September) and in stores in 34 countries, 18 of which debuted in the last 12 months. It’s almost exclusively sold at Sephora. In countries where there are no Sephora locations, like the UK and Ireland, it’s available at Debenhams. While brands like MAC, Make Up For Ever, and Urban Decay were already making richly pigmented products, Kat Von D was one of the earliest beauty brands to introduce matte liquid lipsticks, called the Everlasting Liquid Lipstick, back in 2013. Again, she did it long before Kylie introduced her Lip Kits, which, yes, feature longwear matte liquid lipstick.
Sephora does not share sales statistics, but at one point, Lolita Studded Kiss was apparently the retailer’s best-selling lipstick. The dusky rose color is now available in several formulations and is one of the brand’s signature shades. You can even buy a $104 “obsession” kit that includes the original Lolita Studded Kiss lipstick, an eyeshadow, three slightly different Lolita lip liners, and two versions of the shade in the Everlasting Liquid Lipstick formula. Kat originally named the shade after the Japanese street style movement, but later dedicated it to the actress Denise Richards’s daughter Lola, according to a Kendo representative. (The two met when Richards went to get her “Charlie” tattoo — inspired by ex-husband Charlie Sheen — covered up by Kat in 2008.) It is not named for Lolita, the titular underage object of lust in Vladimir Nabokov's controversial classic.
“The color Lolita is a perfect everyday color. I literally wear it every day,” says 15-year-old Samantha, who owns three $20 Lolita tubes. A friend gave her one as a birthday gift and her mom bought her another. “Then I just came to buy another one because it’s so perfect and I love it so much.”
Samantha’s friend, Valentina, also 15, adds solemnly, “It’s a holy grail.” (Holy grail, or HG, is a common designation in the makeup community, meaning it’s a product that works best for one person’s individual needs.)
Samantha and Valentina are at the Sephora at Hollywood and Highland, the same store where Kat herself shopped for red lipstick during her LA Ink days. It’s a bit messy and disheveled, much like the crowded, touristy neighborhood in which it resides. The Kat Von D Beauty section is in a highly trafficked area at the center of the store, with tester pans worn down to the bottom and caps missing from lipsticks.
Samantha first heard about Kat Von D Beauty on Instagram, where fans frequently tag its handle; the brand has 4 million followers and Kat’s personal account has 6.4 million. Kat launched the brand on Instagram herself back in 2015, after a marketing employee (who is no longer at Kendo) scoffed that it wasn’t worth it. The account gained a million followers in one month and Kat is still intimately involved with the imagery that’s posted there, though she now has a dedicated social team.
In January of this year, Kat Von D Beauty had its highest earned media value (or EMV) ever at $42.8 million, according to Tribe Dynamics. EMV is an indirect measure based on mentions and engagement, but it does have some correlation with actual market share and revenue. Since 2015, Kat Von D Beauty has shown up regularly on Tribe’s top ten EMV beauty list, along with social-media heavy hitters like Anastasia Beverly Hills and Too Faced.
“When we think about patterns of successful brands, the thing that they tend to do really well is make great products. The large majority of this content is organic and people aren't going to give you editorial content if they don't love your product,” says Tribe’s Brit McCorquodale. She notes that in the second quarter of this year, over 4,000 influencers were talking about the Kat Von D brand online, but the majority of them were micro-influencers, with under 100,000 followers. “The fact that Kat Von D has performed so well within the influencer community speaks really highly of the products that they're creating, which is something Kendo does very well across their brands.”
(Instagram Q&A With Kat Von D)
Ah yes, Kendo. While Kat provides the ideas and creativity and is the very public face of the brand, Kendo is the entity behind the scenes that quietly brings her visions to life. The company is also the reason that Sephora maintains exclusivity when it comes to Kat Von D Beauty. David Suliteanu, then-CEO of Sephora Americas, started Kendo as a “private label development arm for Sephora” in San Francisco in 2010. In 2014, Suliteanu became the CEO of Kendo, which split off from Sephora as a freestanding entity; it now identifies itself as a brand incubator and credits Kat Von D as being the “seed brand” that launched it.
The luxury conglomerate LVMH is the parent company of both Sephora and Kendo. Kendo owns lip brand Bite Beauty and skincare brand Ole Henriksen, both brands it acquired. It developed Marc Jacobs Beauty, Rihanna’s just-launched Fenty Beauty, and Kat Von D Beauty. It also developed the now-defunct Sephora nail brand Formula X (a rare failure for the company), as well as Elizabeth and James fragrances, the Olsen twins’ brand, which is now under the auspices of Butterfly Beauty.
Kendo does not like to share information about its inner workings nor give any insight into its product development process, although Nancy McGuire, the vice president of product development for Kat Von D Beauty and Ole Henriksen, does sometimes share sneak peeks of products on her Instagram page. Kendo declined to make anyone from the company available for interviews for this story. Instead, they sent email responses which included information taken verbatim from Kendo’s site and the review section of Sephora’s site. A representative did share that “Kat Von D Beauty is among the top-selling brands in all of our retailers, and our products consistently rank as top performers in each category.”
Social media definitely catapulted Kat Von D Beauty into the stratosphere, but its steady success happened in parallel with Sephora’s. It’s impossible to dissect the causality: Did Sephora help Kat Von D or did Kat Von D help Sephora? Yes and yes. Sephora, since it shares a corporate parent with Kat Von D Beauty, naturally seeks to heavily promote the brand, a situation non-LVMH brands are not too pleased about. And as Kat Von D Beauty becomes more ubiquitous on social media, there’s only one place a fan can walk in and try it: Sephora.
Sephora is the number one global beauty retailer, and number two in the US after Ulta. In 2009, it had over 1,000 stores worldwide. Today it has 2,300. According to a recent New York Timesstory, Sephora has doubled its revenue since 2011; a Fung Global Retail & Tech research reportestimates the retailer made between $4.4 billion and $4.9 billion in the US last year alone. That’s a lot of potential Lolita sales. As people are turning away from department stores for beauty, they’re turning to specialty stores like Sephora instead. Sephora also has a reputation as a kingmaker, as Business of Fashion noted in 2013, and brands (especially indie brands) that sell there say they enjoy more perceived legitimacy from customers.
According to WWD, Kat Von D Beauty anticipated making about $2 million its first year and instead made an estimated $12 million. That momentum has apparently not slowed. The brand’s success is the result of a combination of Sephora’s support and Kendo’s uncanny knack for releasing the right products at the right time, presumably thanks in part to access to Sephora customer sales data. Take the holographic Alchemist Palette, which Kat says took seven years to develop. It debuted (and sold out) right as the unicorn makeup craze was at its apex. Kat Von D Beauty’s success also hinges on Kat Von D the person’s enduring star power.
Since LA Ink ended in 2011, Kat has attended countless Sephora store openings and launches for her brand, traipsing the globe to places like Dubai, Australia, Spain, and the UK for photo ops with fans. From the beginning, she’s maintained a steady line of communication with her fans via Facebook and YouTube; in 2013, a Stylophane report named Kat Von D the most engaged beauty brand on Facebook and she still makes frequent appearances on the brand’s YouTube channel. She has stayed in the public eye in other ways too, releasing her third book in 2013, accompanied by a tour. She also showed up on the Grammys red carpet that year with then-boyfriend Deadmau5. Now, she continues to be most available to fans via her wildly popular personal Instagram and in real life at Kat Von D Beauty events.
Kat is undeniably charismatic in person. Her deep, raspy voice is mesmerizing. She is a hugger. She is beloved by people in her orbit, and they are fiercely loyal to her. Williams, the High Voltage merch manager, credits Kat with convincing him to move to LA, telling him he would “blossom.” Kevin Lewis, a tattoo artist who’s been at High Voltage since LA Ink was still shooting says, “One of the biggest things for me is that, for someone who has made so much for themselves, she’s so grounded. She’s not cocky. She’s not arrogant. She’s not a celebrity.”
Ashley Sherengo, the 24-year-old Kat plucked off Twitter to run the brand’s social media says of their first real-life meeting, “I didn’t expect for her to be so open and kind. I felt like we were just friends who had gone a long time without talking.” Even Amber Rose, who showed up at the Saint and Sinner party after having Kat on her podcast, gushes, “I’ve always been a huge fan and I just kind of took a chance and I went up to her and told her that I love her and she was so gracious and sweet to me.”
None are quite as loyal, though, as the group of four official Kat Von D Beauty makeup artists, dubbed the Artistry Collective.
(Introducing the Kat Von D Artistry Collective)
In a nondescript conference room at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, hours before the Saint and Sinner party, party greeters in black-and-white latex dresses get their makeup done and drag queens from the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence cover their facial hair with purple glitter and put on their habits. Kat Von D makeup palettes are scattered everywhere. Steffanie Strazzere, whose taxi-cab-yellow hair, Barbie-pink lips, and aqua eyeshadow fit right into the colorful scene, is helping get everyone ready. She credits Kat with being her “fairy godmother of makeup.”
Kat hired Steffanie, along with Leah Carmichael, Tara Buenrostro, and Kelseyanna Fitzpatrick to be surrogates for her as the Kat Von D Beauty brand grows globally. She discovered all of them (except Leah, who she’s been friends with for years) on Instagram. As faces of the brand, they create content on YouTube and Instagram, do Kat’s makeup, represent the brand at stores and trainings, and help out with product testing. They’re all trained and talented makeup artists. The common thread between them is their artistic vision for what makeup should be, which is, well, uncommon. Kelseyanna, in particular, creates otherworldly, occasionally terrifying, looks.
“I get a lot of people sending messages thanking us for being ourselves and saying that it's pushed them to take more risks with their makeup,” Kelseyanna says. “Someone thanked me last night for doing ugly makeup, like, not caring about being pretty. That's the real stuff, and that really motivates me to keep creating.”
Steffanie worked at MAC for more than a decade but left because of animal testing, since the brand sells in China. “From a work standpoint,” she says, “I feel really safe because I know Kat has the best interests of the brand, animals, and us in mind, so it’s a very safe place.”
Kat is an outspoken vegan, and her brand is vegan (meaning the products don’t contain any animal byproducts) and cruelty-free (meaning they aren’t tested on animals nor are they sold in mainland China, which requires foreign brands to test on animals before they sell their products there). There’s a gray area when it comes to the cruelty-free designation, though. Kat Von D Beauty and all the other Kendo brands do not test on animals or sell in China. However, Kendo parent company LVMH owns beauty brands like Benefit, Givenchy, Make Up For Ever, and Fresh, which do sell in China. In the cruelty-free community, this is a point of contention that comes up whenever an indie brand that doesn’t test on animals sells to a large company. But it’s a big part of the brand’s identity and one, according to NPD Group beauty analyst Larissa Jensen, that is an asset. “The brand’s cruelty-free positioning,” she writes in an email, “enables it to connect with consumers on a value- and emotional-based level.”
Kat has tattooed Steffanie twice, once on each calf. One tattoo is an image of her fluffy white cat Baby Ghost and the other is a portrait of Lydia Deetz, Winona Ryder’s character from Beetlejuice. “I just feel so lucky,” she says. “My legs are the most valuable part of my body now.”
The foursome has become famous among makeup fans in their own right. They’ve each experienced huge jumps in followers on their Instagrams and fans regularly recognize them in real life. Tara carries around products to give out to people who come up and talk to her. She says that when the group and Kat are all together in the airport, it causes a lot of commotion: “It's just a sea of black and a ton of suitcases, and everybody's kinda like, ‘What the hell is going on?’ And then they're like, ‘Oh. Kat and the Kittens.’"
“I feel like her bodyguard, a protective shield, constantly looking around and making sure she's okay,” Leah says. “People obviously recognize her, especially when she's decked out in a full red outfit. She'll never be the bad guy, she'll never say no, so I think that's where we have to step in sometimes. She's so kind and gracious with every single fan.”
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