Creators On The Rise: Let Johnny Ross welcome you to the unique hell of being a gay Sephora staffer

By 04/05/2023
Creators On The Rise: Let Johnny Ross welcome you to the unique hell of being a gay Sephora staffer

Welcome to Creators on the Rise, where—in partnership with global creator company Jellysmack—we find and profile breakout creators who are in the midst of extraordinary growth.

Johnny Ross knows Sephora inside and out.

For him, that’s a blessing and a curse.


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The curse? Living with the memories of his time as a staffer at the Sephora location in The Mall at Short Hills in New Jersey.

The blessing? Reliving those memories has made him a bona fide TikTok and YouTube star.

Ross originally got into makeup because he saw it as a safer passion to indulge than his biggest love: theater. “I was going to go into theater, but I didn’t really want to take that financial risk in college,” he tells Tubefilter. “I went to cosmetology school and the rest is history as far as beauty goes. I worked for Sephora and Burberry, and Laura Mercier, and then I went back to college for marketing and graduated about two months before the pandemic, which was lovely.”

With COVID shutting basically everything down, Ross couldn’t get the kind of work he’d trained for. “All in one day, I believe it was March 8th of 2020–it was a depressing day–I’d gotten a text from my boss who I did bridal makeup for, for about five years, and she told me eight months’ worth of work was canceled, and then the one job interview I got, which I was excited about coming up, they emailed me a half hour later saying they were going on a hiring freeze,” he says.

For about a year after that, Ross struggled with depression. Then he decided to try applying for jobs again. One of them, a makeup artist position with a major brand, required that applicants have at least 5,000 followers on social media. That aggravated Ross, who felt like the company was trying to “leech” off its artists’ personal social platforms, but given how many jobs were starting to have similar requirements, he figured he’d give TikTok a shot.

Monthly view and subscriber count data from Gospel Stats.

It turns out Ross doesn’t need to worry about a company leeching off his platform, because he doesn’t need a company, or a boss, anymore. Not long after he posted his first videos, his following exploded.

These days, he has more than 1.3 million followers tuning in for his Sephora reenactments, beauty tutorials, and slice-of-life vlogs–and that’s just on TikTok. Over on YouTube, he has an additional one million subscribers, and is generating upward of 30 million views per month.

Check out our chat with him below.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Tubefilter: Pretend somebody’s reading this and has no idea who you are. Can you give me a little bit of background on you and how you ended up on YouTube?

Johnny Ross: Yes! I guess I would describe myself as an actor, comedian, and makeup artist. I went into beauty because I was going to go into theater, but I didn’t really want to take that financial risk in college. I went to cosmetology school, and the rest is history as far as beauty goes. I worked for Sephora and Burberry, and Laura Mercier, and then I went back to college for marketing and graduated about two months before the pandemic, which was lovely.

I was going to go into corporate cosmetics. That was really my goal because I had given up on the idea of social media because I think until TikTok, it was really almost impossible to grow on YouTube and Instagram because this ship had sailed, but with Tiktok came Instagram Reels and YouTube Shorts, and they needed content for that. For the first time, in years, they were actually pushing in people.

The pandemic was rough. I spent my whole 20s really trying to feel like I was catching up to everybody. I think a lot of artists and creative people feel that way. When I graduated, I spent the beginning of 2020 applying for jobs like crazy. All in one day, I believe it was March 8th of 2020, it was a depressing day, I’d gotten a text from my boss who I did bridal makeup for, for about five years, and she told me eight months’ worth of work was canceled, and then the one job interview I got, which I was excited about coming up, they emailed me a half hour later saying they were going on a hiring freeze.

Tubefilter: Perfect timing.

Johnny Ross: Yes. It just felt like…I always say I was running this marathon for 10 years, and I broke my leg five feet before the finish line. I was depressed for a year. I babysat my nieces, because my sister is a nurse practitioner. In the beginning of 2021, I started applying for jobs again, and it was a national makeup artist position. The last bullet point said a minimum of 5,000 Instagram followers. It was a very big company, very well known.

It aggravated me because I think we’re just living in a time where (A) who are you as a corporate company to want to leech off someone’s personal social media following? And (B) this company is so big, the fact that they think 5,000 Instagram followers is a lot in the context, that it all shows they don’t know what they’re doing. I was just really aggravated.

Going into 2021, I said to my fiance, “Listen, I’m going to spend a whole month uninterrupted trying to make something happen on social media, and if it doesn’t happen, I’ll just take the first marketing job I get.” Then it brings us, I guess, to the social media beauty of it all. I didn’t even have TikTok downloaded. I didn’t really understand this new wave of short-form content because I really started in the makeup industry when long-form YouTube videos were in its heyday. I had to learn all that.

On top of it, I think being the age I am, I spent so many years realizing that guys in the beauty space are not represented. They’re not included in beauty brands’ marketing, and it’s very difficult to get exposure and grow. That’s what gave me the idea to start the comedy skits, because it was a Trojan horse where I knew the comedy had a better chance of going viral, but in half of the video, my one character is wearing a full face of makeup.

The plan was for people to see the comedy and come to the comedy and then be like, “Wow, your makeup looks amazing. What’d you do?” I started posting makeup videos six days a week and between the comedy videos, and the plan worked. I posted all this stuff to YouTube and it sat for a little bit. YouTube takes a little longer to take off because I think it spends the time to really try to match the audience, and it was honestly only March of last year that the comedy skits started to take off.

I went from about 7,000 subscribers in March of 2022 to almost a million now. It’s only been about…I don’t know, I can’t do that math. Nine months or eight months. Then the rest is history. I’m really grateful that I diversified and got myself big on all three platforms because I think God only knows what’s going to happen to TikTok. I’ve never been somebody to put my eggs in one basket. I love YouTube because it’s the only platform that actually pays creators, and it’s, in my opinion, one of the most, I don’t know, healthy platforms. Yes, that was the whole content creator rise and where I’m at.

Tubefilter: Amazing. You mentioned that you considered going into the theater. I’m assuming that you didn’t just wake up during the pandemic and be like, “Today I want to film videos,” instead of, for example, doing static Instagram posts. Did you have that desire before?

Johnny Ross: Honestly, I always wanted to be a performer. I’ve always loved singing and acting. Right before the pandemic, I was in a really great theater group that performs all the time off Broadway and in cabarets. I love that instant connection with an audience. At the time, during the pandemic, the thought of getting a job that was just a sell-out marketing job, it actually made me sick to my stomach, because I always wanted to do something that felt creatively satisfying.

When I said to myself like, “Okay, this is great. Now I can’t even get a job in marketing or artistry in the beauty industry without a social media following, so I guess I have to try,” that was really the match. I don’t know if you know the creator, he’s an actor, his name is Benny Drama on Instagram. What gave me the idea was right around that time, he came out with this skit about a makeup employee that was very good.

That’s what gave me the idea where I said, “Holy shit. That is brilliant.” I have all this acting experience. I have all of this retail cosmetic experience, and the retail jobs I worked were all in these very wealthy towns in New Jersey. Let’s be honest, a lot of the wealthy people I dealt with were very rude. I had a bunch of horror stories, and I knew I could infuse that and get to flex this acting chops, comedy chops, and writing.

That’s what made me start the “What it’s like to work at Sephora” skit. It just took off, the very first one I did. I am also somebody that feels like the makeup and beauty community, in general, is just very toxic and very shallow, and it’s very driven by brands and brands trying to make money. On top of it, for the regular consumer, I always felt so bad because it’s become this monster that is so overwhelming and so oversaturated.

The point of my comedy skits, even down the line with the straight guy skits, was to just give a voice to the people, the regular consumers that felt it was so ridiculous and show why is it this way. Why are straight guys afraid to buy beauty products? Why are people so overwhelmed that they don’t know how to describe a color, or there’s too many colors, too much makeup, whatever?

I wanted to infuse a message in it because I think I’m somebody that, no matter what I’m making, I find it very difficult to make just content about a product, or I find no meaning in that. That’s why I love acting in theater so much is because you have the opportunity to connect with someone and move them, and maybe make them leave feeling differently about something and impact. I think that’s why I took the approach I did when it came to making content.

Tubefilter: It’s really nice to hear you talk about your inspirations too. Are there any other creators in this space, or any space, who inspired you?

Johnny Ross: Honestly, not really in the sense that I really didn’t see anybody else doing what I was doing, and obviously, I know Benny Drama, he’s not a makeup artist, so it was more, he was just approaching it from a comedic standpoint. But obviously him, and I love, her name is Caitlin Reilly on social media too. She is a genius, like her comedic takes.

But as far as makeup goes, I really admire Glamzilla. Her real name is Stephanie, but Glamzilla is her handle. She was somebody that I really enjoyed when I was educating myself about this new age of trying to teach people something that took me a decade in 60 seconds. I loved her approach to it. She was very honest and very genuine and very authentic, so that was really it, but honestly, my real inspirations, I guess, throughout my whole life have been, which I guess what actors/comedian doesn’t say this, but I just really love the great comedians and actors with very brilliant takes.

Obviously, my idols growing up were Robin Williams and Jim Carrey, and nowadays I love Amy Schumer, her and Chelsea Handler, and their just view on the world and being able to call out how ridiculous and insane everything is at the moment, but still being funny about it, and being lighthearted about it, but using their comedy to make a statement. I love them so much and I hope to have that kind of career going forward.

Tubefilter: Got you. You mentioned before, I think I heard you say that your first YouTube video did pretty well?

Johnny Ross: Yes. I had really posted it to TikTok first and that went viral. That went viral first, but honestly, I think I had about 10 of my 40 Shorts or I had 10 of my, at the time, 40 or so comedy skits sitting on YouTube Shorts, but I really stopped uploading them because they would really cap out at 5,000, 10,000 views, so I was like, “I don’t know.” It just wasn’t worth the trouble and I was so focused on TikTok because that’s really where I was being discovered, but then after eight months out of nowhere, I just started getting all these notifications. All the comedy skits I had posted were just getting more than a hundred thousand, half a million, million, so on and so forth.

I said, “Okay, holy crap.” I spent a whole day uploading every single comedy skit I hadn’t uploaded to YouTube Shorts to there, and that was last March. The rest was history because from that point on, any short I uploaded really just took off, but I think my current frustration with YouTube is I think people who blew up on YouTube as “Shorts” creators, I think it’s very difficult to cross over to long-form content, and that’s really where the stability financially is.

I know come February 1, they’re going to start monetizing Shorts the way they do long-form, but let’s hold our breath to see if they systematically start suppressing Shorts views, so they don’t have to pay everybody a lot because that’s how it usually goes, but my focus now really is still making Shorts, especially with the monetization coming and long-form content. I just launched a second channel with my podcast on it. That’s doing really well, so that’s my current focus.

Tubefilter: Was there a point that you hit where you knew that this could be a long-term thing?

Johnny Ross: Honestly, I would say it wasn’t until I blew up on YouTube, because I was big on TikTok for almost a little over a year, like 14 months, and I was still doing bridal makeup full-time. Other than one or two, to be honest with you, other than one or two brand deals in that 14 months, I didn’t make a dollar, and I was barely getting PR. I was working two jobs, pretty much full-time content creation and full-time bridal makeup.

It wasn’t until I blew up on YouTube that I really started to make an income from YouTube, and that’s where I said like, “Okay, wow, I’m finally making the money to sustain this being my full-time thing.” It’s still really difficult because even with everything going on at the moment on TikTok with the drama of brand deals and people not being honest, I think it’s hard, because you can’t make money on TikTok and Instagram without brand deals. I’m somebody that, I don’t really love doing brand deals because I don’t like promoting products for pay unless I really believe in them.

Then YouTube is the only way to make money, but YouTube really isn’t bolstering Shorts creators’ long-form content. Come February, I’m hoping that changes, but it always feels like, as a content creator for most of us, I know everyone likes to talk about the biggest of the big as though that’s how every content creator lives, but for a lot of us, it’s just month to month, really feeling like you’re starting all over again and wondering, “Am I going to make enough money to keep doing this kind of a thing?”

It’s challenging, and I think that’s why I started the podcast to try to start to show my hosting abilities and interview abilities and still doing comedy to branch into career opportunities beyond beauty content creation.

Tubefilter: That’s really smart. It’s what a lot of people I speak to who went popular with short-form are doing now. Looking beyond, looking to long-form, looking to podcasts, that kind of stuff. From my side, we get a fair amount of insight into YouTube, but I also don’t know how Shorts monetization is going to go.

Johnny Ross: I know. Fingers crossed.

Tubefilter: Fingers crossed. I’m hoping it’ll result in more sustainable careers.

Johnny Ross: Yes. I just really hope, because the minute any of these platforms introduces some form of monetization, that’s when the puppet strings come out for them to start manipulating views to honestly keep their payouts manageable. That would really be a shame, because my engagement is so great on Shorts that I really don’t want to take a step back in that regard. Like I said, fingers crossed, but we’ll see.

Tubefilter: What’s your current production schedule like? Do you have a set production schedule per day or per week, or do you just film things as they come to you? How does that work for you?

Johnny Ross: Oh, gosh. I am somebody where, I’ve had depression and ADHD my whole life. It’s very difficult to get motivated, and I think someone who has depression especially, or anxiety or ADHD, I think a career in social media is very difficult, because I think now more than ever, these social media platforms are giving the most attention to the most negative or shock value people, and I struggle. I wish I had a routine, but I really don’t because I spend so much of my time second-guessing what to put out there, because when you’re somebody that just wants to put out honest, positive, non-controversial, non-shock value stuff, not only do the platforms not show it, but people don’t engage with it because everyone’s addicted to drama and the negativity.

I try to film maybe one day a week or now two days a week with the podcast and when I’m interviewing guests. Then I really spend the rest of the week just planning and answering emails and editing everything and putting it all together. If I am working on brands going back and forth and sending drafts, et cetera, it’s a lot of…I would say it’s like 99% editing and business, post-production, and administrative work, and 10% filming. I’m actually honestly thinking about changing up my strategy to be a little bit more simple where I might start filming on my phone and doing easier stuff because I’m realizing that quality doesn’t necessarily equal views or reward, if you will.

Almost two years into this, I’m realizing that there’s things I need to maybe simplify a little bit concerning my schedule so that I can get a concrete filming schedule or just manage my time better because as of right now, it is chaos.

Tubefilter: I understand. I also have ADHD, so the consistency of schedule thing is really difficult.

Johnny Ross: It’s hard because I’m somebody where I really enjoy getting inspiration from other people. I’ve just seen in the past couple of months, especially when it comes to beauty, I don’t even think you can really open your phone anymore without nine out of 10 videos being about just either some crazy product that is misleading people or confusing them or some drama or someone had a problem with somebody. When you’re somebody that you’re like, I don’t know, a depressed empath, you just absorb all of it. Then I sit down and I go, “Why the fuck am I bothering?”

That’s something I have to fight through every day. These social media platforms don’t–there’s no loyalty. Why do I have 1.3 million TikTok followers with videos that have 2,000 views? Then obviously, followers mean nothing. Why are we all in this rat race trying to grow if growing means nothing? I don’t think people realize that this career is just, it’s like The Amazing Race where they just keep changing the rules every 30 minutes. It’s maddening. It’s really, really difficult.

Tubefilter: Do you feel like you have a better connection with people who subscribe to you on YouTube versus follow you on TikTok?

Johnny Ross: Oh, yes. YouTube, hands down. See, I think the difficult part for me is that I know personally that in the past, all of my growth, almost 80% of my subscribers, have come from my Shorts feed. I know a lot of that has to do with the comedy. The problem is that YouTube doesn’t separate the analytics between Shorts and long-form. When I post long-form content about beauty, my entire subscriber base came for the comedy. Because they watch other comedy channels, even though they’re obviously interested in beauty because they subscribe to me anyway, they’re not even being shown the long-form beauty because it’s separate.

It feels like my audience on YouTube is more loyal, but it’s just difficult that [my content] is not really being seen by my entire subscriber base or even a reasonable percentage because of, once again, just the messed up system of it all.

Tubefilter: Do you have any other plans for the rest of this year that you’re trying to lock down? Anything you’re expanding into, anything that you’re hoping to do?

Johnny Ross: Honestly, obviously, I really want the podcast to keep going well. I would love for it to get picked up by a company to produce it. Goals for this year, I would love to have a collaboration with a makeup brand. I would love to maybe find an agent and start booking more hosting gigs and judging on competition shows, on makeup stuff, and really just starting to dive into more of the exposure and entertainment side of my interests in my career.

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