At the top of 2017, cosmetics entrepreneur and YouTube wunderkind Jeffree Star took a 1,000-degree knife to a Chanel bag in a game of viral one-upmanship. Would this sentence have made sense before the 2010s? Does it really make sense now? Let’s unpack that.
Nothing defined the 2010s quite like the decade’s viral online challenges. There were the good — 2014’s ice bucket challenge raised over $100 million nationwide for ALS research — the weird, like the mannequin challenge, or the bottle flip challenge; and of course the bad and the ugly, like the hoax-y Tide Pod challenge, which prompted a very public revision to YouTube’s content guidelines.
It often feels like these challenges are born out of a teenage stupor and go viral when they feed into a primal competitive urge that sometimes leads to people dancing to Drake while jumping out of moving cars. The hot knife challenge seems to have spawned in 2016 when the Instagram account @watch.it.melt cut an EOS lip balm in half with — you guessed it — a hot knife. A “Hot Knife Vs.” compilation video hit their YouTube account one month later and the rest, as they say, is history.
In response to the perceived bro-iness of the challenge (a YouTube account dubbed “Mr. Gear” rose to prominence to the tune of almost 90 million views for putting a hot knife through a bottle of Coke), Star and fellow beauty guru Manny Gutierrez put a chicly shook sheen on the idea by taking their blowtorched knives to lipstick, foundation, highlighter, and even a Silisponge, not to mention Star’s own $5,500 Chanel Boy bag. The spectacle teases deeper questions about wealth redistribution under late capitalism while putting a devastatingly literal spin on the term “cut crease.” “We’re in Pompeii,” says Star at one point, debris from a slain liquid lippie falling in front of his face. (Another salient hallmark of this decade: how many microplastics we inhale.) To date, the almost 20-minute clip has been viewed more than 11 million times.
Star just so happens to be uniquely positioned in our content ecosystem to deliver something so extraordinary and yet so exceedingly mundane. He rose to fame as the most followed person on MySpace all the way back in 2009 and then, following a stalled recording career (Adam Lambert did not walk so that Star could run, is one moral of this story), he launched the vegan and cruelty-free Jeffree Star Cosmetics, in 2014. Fast forward five years and he’s purchased a $14 million mansion next door to arch nemesis Kylie Jenner; his business is said to rake in $100M annually. And while he isn’t the biggest financial success on YouTube (that honor goes to a 7-year-old who reviews toys), Star is one of its very visible top 10 earners and a self-made millionaire many times over. (He’s also one of its most outspoken; one viewer’s comment “Can you make another video entitled ‘1000 degree glowing knife Cutting my fake friends’,” garnered over 3,000 likes.)
Star can do what he wants with his money, but if watching other people have nice things and destroy them isn’t a starkly acute metaphor for the state of our democracy as we head into an election year, I’m truly not sure what is. By harnessing the newfound legitimacy of celebrity YouTubers and the nascent bankability of boy beauty gurus for the sake of queering a viral video challenge, Star put his stamp on the 2010s in a way only he could.
This story is a part of "The Teens": an exploration of what we loved, learned, and became in the last decade.