Claire Marshall is one of You Tube’s early adopters; a beauty mega-influencer with over 900k subscribers and more than 700k followers on Instagram to boot, she’s worked with brands from as Sephora to Samsung. Here she talks about dealing with her mother’s Alzheimer’s, how as an adoptee she’s begun to connect with her Korean heritage and why high school hell and depression doesn’t have to define you forever.
Growing Pains & Early Challenges
I was born in South Korea and my mom adopted me as a single parent when I was seven months old. I was found on a doorstep, so I always say she saved my life. Mom worked in the foreign service, so we moved posts every two to four years throughout my childhood, and it’s only really as I grew older that I realized what a gift it was to have experienced so many cultures as a kid. When I got to high school age, my mom decided it was time to settle full-time in one place in the States, so we came back to Virginia, Washington D.C. and our family home.
In lots of ways I was a really happy child, but high school was not a great time for me at all. I felt alienated from my classmates—having moved around so much I didn’t have that group of friends going into freshman year and I guess I also had a different perspective on life. It caused some issues with my mom, she’d hated high school too, but had channeled it into working as hard as possible so she could graduate a year early. She would always say, ‘don’t worry about those kids, they’re not going to be part of your life,’ but I really struggled in class. Except for maths—ringing true to the stereotypes—I found pretty much every subject impossible and got terrible grades. I ended up becoming really depressed and just feeling like a total failure. I didn’t have close friends and I was a bad student; I just didn’t fit in. After a while I started going to therapy and moved schools and things got a lot better. That was also the moment that my mom and I found a new understanding and started to respect and love each other as adults.
After graduation, I went to a private college in Virginia, but it just wasn’t for me and after 18 months I dropped out and started working in retail management, climbing the rungs. I had a lot of retail jobs which is how I ended up working at MAC. A few people had come up to me and said, ‘your makeup looks really great, you’d be such a great MAC girl,’ so it planted the seed. I wasn’t a great salesperson, but I loved helping people transform themselves. Even though I left the job after a year, I always had the feeling I wanted to get back to makeup artistry.
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Of course, you get caught up with other things and opportunities and eventually I was making a good salary as a manager at Urban Outfitters with a safety net and benefits—plus I was in a relationship, so the makeup idea was put on the back-burner. Then I ended up leaving, slash getting fired from my salaried management position and broke up with my boyfriend a couple of months after. It was a scary time because I didn’t know what to do next. I knew I wanted to do makeup, but I didn’t know where or how to start. I just knew that if I was going to go for it, I didnt want to stay in D.C. As for the relationship side, my mom very much raised me to be an independent woman who didn’t believe that security could be found in a relationship, so I knew I was going to be ok on that front.
Out of the blue, a friend who was living in New York got in contact to say she was looking for a roommate. I ran it by my mom and ended up moving to the city just after my 26th birthday. While I was there I was able to break into the industry a little and earned my rent doing makeup jobs—which was all I really cared about. I’m not going to lie and say it was straightforward, because it was definitely a struggle, there was no security and I wasn’t sure at any point if I was on the right path, but I did really enjoy it. Then my mom got sick.
Dealing With The Unknown
Mom had gone through breast cancer a couple of years before and I’d realized her short-term memory wasn’t coming back. A lot of people talk about ‘chemo-brain’ and I had a cousin who’d gone through cancer who said that it was normal to forget things and that her memory would improve once she was healthy. But with mom it just didn’t come back. One day she called me to ask me something, then called me right back straight after and made absolutely no sense. It suddenly dawned on me that she was having a stroke and I had to figure out how to get someone over to the house as quickly as possible. Luckily, she was friends with a neighbour who managed to get her to hospital and I immediately jumped in the car–thank God I lived in New York then and could just drive down to her. That was the beginning of six months of diagnosis. We went through every test you can imagine to see if it was just temporary or if it was something else.
“I knew I wouldn’t be able to care for her myself because I just wasn’t in a financial position to do so—I could barely take care of myself.”
She was diagnosed with early stage dementia in 2011 but we didn’t know how quickly she would deteriorate. My mom refused to take medication because she already had enough issues with headaches and she’d obviously just been through breast cancer. One of the most intimidating things about the situation was that I had to sell our family home and find her assisted living. I never thought I’d have to deal with anything like that, but you just have to grow up and make it happen. I knew I wouldn’t be able to care for her myself because I just wasn’t in a financial position to do so—I could barely take care of myself. I didn’t have a consistent job or benefits of anything like that. So, I found a place for her to move into and managed to sell our house. At the time she had two dogs and two cats, so I had to re-home them as well. That was heart-breaking and a lot to go through alone in your mid-twenties. We’d lived in that house since I was in second-grade so we left behind a lot of memories. I’ve been back to visit a couple of times—we’d changed the number on the house with a very specific tile and it’s still there, so that kind of still makes me feel attached to it.
You Tube Training Wheels
While this was all happening, I was at home for six months taking care of my mom. I wasn’t working and I wanted to have something to occupy my time outside everything else so I decided to start a YouTube channel. I’d been watching a lot of YouTube, but when I launched mine I didn’t really think about it much—my first video was a review of Sally Hansen nail strips and I made it on my laptop. That video doesn’t exist anymore, but obviously it wasn’t the best quality: firstly everything was mirrored! Today there’s such a pressure to create insane production levels when you’re only just starting—even I get intimidated by the level of polish and huge crews that are making some of the content out there now.
Everything stabilized with my mom, so I moved back to New York and just as it was time to renew my lease, another girlfriend who was living in Los Angeles got in touch to say she had a spare room in her basement. I’d always talked about moving to California so she wondered if I was interested? Again, I decided I would only do it if my mom approved, because I knew she was going through so much. At that point, she was still in an independent living situation and was pretty much conscious of what was going on around her, so just said, ‘I don’t want to hold you back ever. Go try it and if you have to move back, you have to move back.’
When I arrived in LA, it felt like home within a week. It just clicked. However, finding work was really hard. New York is so fashion-centred and there are so many photographers and models looking to test [Ed’s note: a test is collaboration between up and coming creatives to produce images for their portfolios through usually unpaid shoots.] In L.A it was a lot harder because people very much have their team and you can’t break in easily. Even getting assisting jobs was difficult–the agencies had filled their books. Luckily the friend I was renting from was a makeup artist so I got to assist her a couple of times, but I wasn’t getting consistent work at all. Eventually I happened to meet a photographer and hair stylist and ended up working with them a fair amount. Once you’ve found your people everything starts to fall into place, but it was months of financial instability and with that of course comes worry about making rent and keeping yourself afloat.
“It’s all about the views and with that comes all the comparison. I’ve had moments in my career of really wanting to get the likes.”
I think it was because I was having such a hard time getting work that I felt I needed to do something with my time and my brain. I discovered that I really enjoyed editing my You Tube videos and by talking about makeup in my videos it was like I was keeping the muscle flexed. When I was on a shoot I’d bring my camera with me so I could cover behind the scenes, but when I wasn’t, I could still talk about the products. One of the reasons I think my channel took off was because I was a normal girl living in a new city and trying to make it—or more accurately, survive. The response definitely took me by surprise and I couldn’t believe that after some time I was able to make my rent from the channel. Then it was enough for me to stop renting my friend’s basement and I could move into my own little place.
Five years ago You Tube was still an emerging platform but now there’s so much pressure to be the best. It’s all about the views and with that comes all the comparison. I’ve had moments in my career of really wanting to get the likes or just being conscious of what could get more engagement than something else. It’s impossible not to compare yourself to everyone else and so easy to end up creating content because you know people will like this or that kind of thing. But I think ultimately one of the reasons my channel grew was because I decided to do things differently and change the game.
Honesty is the Only Policy
I’ve always tried to be very open and honest with my following. I’m so appreciative of them and I think that they’ve always responded to my honesty whether that be on beauty products or whatever else was going on. When I first started out and everything was happening with my mom, I didn’t really have many friends or a solid support network to lean on. My audience really became my family and friends. Those few hundred followers were the closest I had to a network, so I shared a lot of what was happening in my life. For example, the first time my mom forgot my birthday.
Nowadays, I think there are times when some of my followers feel I’m holding back, but it’s really just out of respect for the other people who are now in my life, including my mom. When I moved my mom to LA, I did a whole video about it and I think a lot of people understood why I had to step back a little from my channel—because my priority was looking after her and moving her across the country. In the past I’ve talked about how hard it is knowing that my mom doesn’t really know who I am anymore and how that’s something I’ve started to accept. But now after taking some time for self-care this year I’ve realized I need to keep some things for myself and that’s ok.
“When I first started out and everything was happening with my mom, I didn’t really have many friends or a solid support network to lean on. My audience really became my family and friends.”
Equally when it comes to relationships I think because I’m older, I don’t want to talk about certain things whereas if I were I teenager I would be like, ‘Oh my God this boy I’ve been dating… he is so cute!’ That’s only natural. But having to go through that phase of breaking a relationship with everyone watching—I just don’t want to go through that again. Because in the past people have seen me get over breakups, I often get asked for advice. On the one hand I want to say, ‘trust me you’re going to be ok, because I’ve been there at your age and know what its like when you just feel it’s the end of the world and you’re never going to find love again.’ But on the other side I don’t want to become a poster child for single women the world over. I don’t want to be famously single–doomed to my cats for life! So ultimately I don’t want to post videos about that side of my life or become a relationship guru because I am NOT an expert.
Living the Dream; Aware of the Reality
You Tube does give me an element of financial security which I could never have dreamt would be a possibility. But that’s not the part of it that motivates me. I’m very appreciative and work hard on the projects I do with brands when I believe in a product. But really, I just want to be content in life and have good relationships and ultimately help people too. I think people look at me and say you’ve done brand deals, you must be making shit-tons of money and living this lavish lifestyle–and yes, I get to do some nice things. But I pick my projects really selectively. If I see something I can do creatively then it’s great that I don’t have to worry about how I’m going to pay my rent next week, but I definitely don’t say yes to every opportunity.
All images @heyclaire
A lot of my audience is high school age and I often think about how depressed I was at that time in my life. And I can imagine that from the outside my life looks really awesome, but let’s be realistic here–I’m not 18 years old, I’m 33. I saved up enough money to buy a car and got myself to L.A. and I’ve had a lot of jobs. I’m not just some person who picked up a camera one days and said, ‘hey, maybe I’ll do this.’ People often think that bloggers are lazy or just making ridiculous amounts of money for posting selfies. But there is so much more that goes into it. Not even just work-wise, but also emotionally investing your time and sharing parts of yourself. Sometimes I question whether I’m even cut out for it and I definitely wonder how this happened to me.
“The truth is Instagram is a highlight reel—nothing more and nothing less.”
I’m so thankful that my channel took off when I was in my late twenties and that I had ‘real’ jobs before. I see a lot of younger kids—literally kids—making so much money at 15 and living crazy lifestyles. Their first car at 16 is a Range Rover. My first car was an Oldsmobile. I think it’s important to remember that there’s a very different reality out there for most people. Even though I work in this industry I’m just as guilty of looking at people’s Instagram feeds and thinking #goals or, ‘Oh my God they’re on amazing trips!’ Others might think that my life looks really great too, but the truth is Instagram is a highlight reel—nothing more and nothing less. I try and look at Instagram as inspirational and aspirational, but I don’t really look at is as reality. You don’t want to post first thing in the morning when you’re just waking up with bags under your eyes and no one wants to see heartbreak tears. The glamorous side of life, the fun trips or nice clothes you post on Instagram are only ever one side of anyone’s reality.
Exploring a New Identity
I’m working on going back to Korea for the first time since my adoption, so that will definitely be something I want to share. I’ve been kind of been turning down opportunities to go there, because I know I want to do it on my own terms rather than say, on a branded trip, and I want to share the whole experience with my audience. I know I’m not the only adoptee by any measure–and I’m not going back to find my parents, but I want to go back to have that experience as an adult, as someone who is adopted and now not traditionally Korean at all. My mom wanted to go back with me, but we never got the chance to do it, so I kind of want to do it for her as well.
I went to Singapore for the first time last year–which was my first time back to Asia since I was a baby. It was really strange, even just being in the airport, there was a strange force or a pull making me want to be there and I feel that I’m ready to explore that side of my identity a little more. I’ve always felt that I had a guardian angel guiding me, right from when my mom found me through to people who have opened doors along the way. And while some people might think it’s mindless not to have a plan, I really believe the next project or step will come along when it’s just the right time.