Dumbed-Down Beauty, Reality TV-Style

What’s Next, John Boehner Spray-On Tan?

Whether plopping down at her makeup table to do a surprisingly expert smoky eye, or running her fingers through her waist-length chestnut mane, 40-something Kyle Richards of “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” has captured the collective attention of millions of beauty-besotted (and credit card-wielding) women across America. Madly Googling at their computers after each episode airs, they want to know exactly what products she uses, and any other style tricks she has up her floaty caftan sleeves.

Depending on one’s perspective, this level of consumer interest in a reality television “star” – be it newcomer Richards or her massively famous predecessor, Kim Kardashian – is either the wave of the beauty future or no less than the decline of Western civilization.

Andrea Robinson, who has helmed some of the biggest and buzziest brands out there (ranging from Ralph Lauren Fragrances on the giant end to Tom Ford Beauty on the tiny-but-highly-influential front), falls squarely into the latter camp. “What we are witness to here is the dumbing down of America,” she says. “Everyone – the reality stars and their audiences – is digging down to the most base instincts and least-complex thought process.”

Ouch. But isn’t Kardashian, along with her coattailclinging sisters Khloe and Kourtney, at least lovely to look at? “Those women are so plastic,” huffs Robinson, who during her decades on the corporate side (and earlier years at Vogue) cast numerous models and celebrities for ad campaigns. “The Kardashi-I are now symbols of beauty and young womanhood? Their bodies are nourished by Gummy Bears, their minds are developed by Internet porn, their voices sound like they’ve inhaled helium, their taste influenced by the Playboy mansion.

“Give me Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy any day,” adds Robinson, tossing in a reference to Little Women.

“The Kardashians wouldn’t even know who they are.” Nor, probably, would the hordes of star-gazers who clamor after whatever cosmetic property Kim Kardashian attaches her name to, whether it’s her signature fragrance with Lighthouse Beauty; the Fusion Brand products LipFusion and IllumiFill Line Filling Luminizer that she fronts; or PerfectSkin, a new treatment line created in conjunction with her sisters and PerfectScience Labs.

As founder of BeautyStat.com, a fast-growing online interactive community and Facebook superstar, Ron Robinson says his 30,000+ members can’t get enough of Kardashian. “We recently featured a Q&A with her and the response was overwhelming,” he says, adding that members use terms like “aura-like glow” and “divine” in their online comments about her. “I don’t know if anyone is quite on Kim’s level right now. But believe it or not, I think has Snooki has great potential to parlay her reality- TV star fame into a lucrative beauty licensing business.” Yes, you read that right: Snooki. Of “Jersey Shore” fame.

The Robin ReportAccording to the New York Times, the third season of the MTV juggernaut has recently snagged close to 9 million viewers per episode, besting shows on ABC and NBC in the same Thursday night time slot.

“The best beauty spokespersons are not only beautiful but they should have a very warm and approachable personality,” says BeautyStat’s Robinson, who is thoroughly – and unabashedly – dialed-in to reality TV culture.

“If they plan to become a spokesperson for a makeup line, they should really be glammed-up and rocking the hottest shades. If they promote a hair care line, having great hair would be important. And if promoting a skincare line, having natural, healthy looking skin would be a plus. For example, Heidi Montag would probably not be a credible spokesperson for a skincare line given the amount of cosmetic surgery she’s had.

“An exception here would be Snooki,” Robinson adds, “as she has such a unique look and personality and has a fearless attitude that seems to resonate with consumers.” Though she spent a good chunk of her career on the CoverGirl account, former ad exec Gloria Appel is surprisingly egalitarian on the topic of reality TV personalities landing beauty contracts, and their encroachment on turf that once went to the Christie Brinkleys of the world.

“While these women hold no appeal to me, what they represent is seemingly attainable, accessible beauty that provides a refreshing foil to the ‘Real Housewives of Everywhere,’” says Appel. “By identifying a ‘real’ woman on the show, viewers and fans can feel like they can easily capture a look. That’s why women are so obsessed with So- And-So’s eyeshadow. Because – in theory – these stars are everyday women, their look can be more easily cloned.” In other words, a Kyle Richards type – who, along with her co-stars lives in a whopper of a home in Beverly Hills and appears to have a much higher standard of living than the average American woman – possesses exactly the right dose of beauty: Enough to be intriguing and aspirational, but not so much as to make viewers feel intimidated.

Beautiful, but not professionally beautiful. And not surrounded by full-time fleets of makeup artists and hairstylists, like, say, new Lancôme faces Julia Roberts, Kate Winslet and Penelope Cruz.

“When I worked on CoverGirl, we would often get comments about the models such as ‘I could never look like her’, ‘She’s not real’, and ‘Why can’t they show someone who looks more like me?’ There was real distance between [the campaigns and the] reader/viewer,” Appel recalls.

“Here the distance is, in many cases, minimal or at least significantly narrowed. And women love the vicarious thrill of watching them.” Of course, the jury is still out – way out – on whether any of these reality hotties will have anything resembling a career like the legendary contract beauties of yore.

Only time will tell whether Kardashian or one of her peers magically morphs into the next Paulina Porizkova.

“There just seems to be a lack of permanence,” says Appel, “and the hungry consumer will soon be onto the next show or star.” Bingo. Once you run the numbers, betting the brandequity farm on a “here today, gone tomorrow,” Snooki sort of manufactured celebrity is a risk that most beauty companies can’t afford to take. Especially if they intend to stay in business long after the season finale.

A beauty journalist for over 20 years, Dana Wood has served as Beauty Director for both W and Cookie magazines and has written for numerous national publications including Glamour, InStyle, Harper’s Bazaar and Self. She also spent several years in the Luxury Products division of L’Oreal as Assistant Vice President, Strategic Development. Her first book, Momover: The New Mom’s Guide to Getting It Back Together, was published in 2010 by Adams Media.

Dana Wood About Dana Wood

A beauty journalist for 20+ years, Dana Wood has served as Beauty Director for BRIDES, Cookie and W magazines, has written for numerous national publications, and is an author and a blogger. She also spent several years in the Luxury Products Division of L’Oreal, as AVP Strategic Development. She recently relocated to Florida, and is embracing high-speed, expressway driving.