After falling deep into the rabbit hole of Huda Kattan’s Instagram account, I developed a morbid fascination with seeing the popular beauty blogger without any makeup — and not the perfectly unmade face she wears in her daily “no-makeup” Snapchat, the real deal. I wanted to catch her with the kind of pore-out, blemished, wan face you’d expect from a woman who just spent the morning sending you frantic texts apologizing for her state of disarray, explaining that she’d been up all night with her vomiting 3-year-old daughter. No dice.
When I arrive at Kattan’s home, she’s already made up to maximum levels of Instagrammability, perched at her vanity in the cluttered walk-in closet that houses a fraction of the products she tests and shoots for her blog, Huda Beauty. (The rest are held in an off-site storage unit that her assistants tend to.) Her daughter, Giselle, whom she calls Noor, is playing amid the mountains of beauty products and perfume samples, eventually settling upon dabbing a brush in a palette of bronzer. Kattan looks up from her primping and starts giving the toddler instructions in what I recognize as her vlogger voice: “Now, for the bronzer, you should use a bigger brush. That brush is too small.”
“She can already do full lipstick perfectly,” Kattan says, beaming with pride at Noor, much as a surgeon might upon finding that her progeny could perform open-heart surgery before starting preschool. Then Noor begins to attack her mother’s face with the brush, threatening to undo her painstaking handiwork.“No, Noor!” Kattan exclaims. “Baby, not my face!” Kattan swears she has her standard routine — contour, false lashes, brows, lip liner, lipstick — down to ten minutes. Shockingly efficient, but you don’t get to be Dubai’s leading beauty personality without knowing what you’re doing.
The American-born Kattan started Huda Beauty, her blog and beauty brand, in 2010. She’d been working as a financial recruiter in the States and Dubai office when she realized she wanted out of the corporate world. “My parents are Iraqi,” she joked, “You have to be a doctor, lawyer, or work in finance; that’s it. But I knew I wanted to be a makeup artist in the Middle East.” After training with Joe Blasco in L.A., she returned to the United Arab Emirates, where she started doing makeup for wealthy locals and visitors. The UAE leads spending on beauty and personal-care products in the Middle East and Africa, but Kattan realized there wasn’t a strong beauty-blogger presence catering to the eager market. By 2012, her site was getting 1 million hits a month; and in 2013, her Instagram — where she posts tutorials, daily selfies, features other makeup artists, and hosts sponsored posts — exploded after she launched her own line of false lashes. She went from 80,000 followers to 3.6 million in the course of a year or so. (Michelle Phan has 1.8 million.)
“I want to make people look like a celebrity,” Kattan says, which explains why most of her site’s tutorials are How to Get Kim Kardashian Face 101. “People here are obsessed with looking on fleek 24/7,” she explains. “Although they don’t know everything about makeup, they know what they like. When I was first doing makeup out here, for instance, and they would ask me for natural makeup and I would give them natural makeup, and they would be like, no, no, no, more makeup, and they showed me a picture of Kim Kardashian while asking for natural makeup.”
“It’s a regional glam,” she says, explaining local preferences. “Saudi is very different. Saudi girls wear concealer, mascara, and lipstick, and they’re beautiful. Sometimes a red lip. In Egypt, they like heavier glam — lots of eyeliner. They like to put a little teal eyeliner on the bottom. In Oman, they love bronze cheeks. Even Abu Dhabi to Dubai is different in the way they like beauty. They like very simple makeup in Abu Dhabi, whereas in Dubai, they’re very glam; they want their skin to glow. It’s so different. But we all love a crazy liner. It’s all about using kahl,”or kohl.
The success of the blog and the Instagram hinges on her personality. She’s relatable, even with the artful contouring and colored contacts — chatty and a little scattered. But any sort of ditziness melts away when she starts talking straight business. It’s a skill honed in rooms full of skeptical businessmen who routinely speak over her. “I’ve got a reputation for being a bit difficult,” she says.
Currently Kattan’s home, one of many identical ones in a quiet, serpentine neighborhood in Dubai, plays headquarters to Huda Beauty. As a result, her house — at least the parts not dedicated solely to Noor and her toys — is dominated by the endless chaos of running the enterprise she’s created. There are dozens of boxes of Huda Lashes stacked in the entryway and living room. Meetings with Sephora execs take place at the dining-room table, photo shoots on the manicured lawn, by the pool and playset. Soon she plans to relocate to an office in one of Dubai’s countless skyscrapers, this one near the Burj Khalifa. Ambition, clearly, is not a problem. She recalls the year she launched the lash line, her main moneymaker: She wanted her product to debut in the Dubai Mall location of Sephora, and that was the only option for her — the biggest mall in the world (by total area, at least). When Sephora agreed to a smaller order than she’d hoped, she talked them up to 7,000 units — a year’s order — which sold out within months. Now she teaches beauty tutorials for the company’s YouTube site in her two biggest markets, the UAE and Europe, as well as her next target, the U.S.
For now she’s less worried about future American fans than pressures closer to home. “My American commenters won’t say anything. People here will be like, oh, your arms are so hairy.” She gestures to her outfit: “I wore this in an Instagram the other day; I’m worried about repeating it again! They’ll notice.” She’s chosen a high-maintenance lifestyle, but she says she doesn’t mind the work.
“I love no-makeup selfies. I do them all the time on Snapchat, and those are the ones that get the most screenshots. I think it’s important for people to know you don’t look full glam all the time,” she explains. “Like, I’ll never wear makeup to work out. If I ever post a selfie wearing makeup while I work out, I’m lying. I mean, okay, if I go to a gym instead of working out at home, I’ll put a contour on … and a brow … and a little lip liner, and a little mascara and concealer. Okay, I lied,” she says. “I totally put makeup on.”