in this episode, Adam and guest host Leslie Walker talk with visual anthropologist and film producer Chris Chan, producer of the 100 Years of Beauty series on YouTube. If you haven't seen this series (or some of the spinoffs from companies like Vogue and Allure, definitely take a few minutes to enjoy). As an ethnographer, he also makes a wonderful behind-the-scenes series that documents the research he and his team does for each country called Chanthropology.
This Anthro Life is produced and (lightly) edited by Adam Gamwell. I'm a small team of 1, so if you get something out of this show please consider supporting TAL on Patreon and helping make it happen. Even $5 a month makes a huge difference and me and our thousands of listeners are so grateful :).
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Chris is Director of Content at Cut.com
100 Years of Beauty and the Beast of YouTube with Chris Chan
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100 Years of Beauty and the Beast of YouTube
Adam Gamwell: [00:01:08] Hey, everybody. Welcome to This Anthro Life, as always this is Adam Gamwell
Leslie Walker: [00:01:12] and I'm Leslie Walker, your cohost, copilot for this episode. It's definitely a great pleasure to be back with Adam yet again. You and I have known each other for some time and we've become great colleagues and even greater friends. And I'm happy that we're doing this.
Adam Gamwell: [00:01:28] So, yes, it's a great pleasure to have you back. Leslie. I'm excited that we got to do it.
Leslie Walker: [00:01:33] Yeah. So in today's episode, we talked with Chris Chan who is a visual anthropologist and series editor for “100 Years of Beauty”, which is a video series that's available on YouTube that's produced by cut.com that explores the evolution of beauty or the trends that have changed within beauty and fashion over a century. And what it looks like in different parts of the world.
Adam Gamwell: [00:01:58] Yeah. So in this episode, we cover the development of the series, like in the fascinating way that an anthropologist approaches new media, what Chris vernacular media, which is the kind of content that people become inspired by, and then in turn, make their own versions of it.
We also cover the notion of chanthropology which is his twitter handle by the way. And this is the behind the scenes research videos that Chris makes that tell more of the human story behind the scenes where he interviews models and explains why the producers and makeup artists make the aesthetic choices that they do.
And third, Chris pushes us to think about beauty and aesthetics. As political, not merely as passive consumerism. So it's an incredible conversation. We can't wait to share with you. So let's get to it.
Chris Chan: [00:02:46] My name is Chris Chan. I'm a PhD student here at the University of Washington in Seattle, and I'm also the director of content at cut.com which is a digital videos studio that makes short form videos for platforms like YouTube. Let's see, what else, I guess we want my elevator pitch, right? Or my elevator speech. Yeah, I'm a visual anthropologist. Also. I have an interest in science and technology. And I'm really curious most generally about the relationship between the human sensorium and contemporary capitalism and I sort of look for that really, I look for those transformations and those influences at the ground in a venture funded startup where editors and cinematographers and producers are creating little internet videos for advertising revenue.
Adam Gamwell: [00:03:40] Do you find, so in that case, would you say that if you're looking at the human sensorium and kind of the intersections of that with capitalism do you study producers or is that kind of the ethnographic group?
Chris Chan: [00:03:53] Right. I do study producers and that, I guess the term producer is very broadly defined these days. I'm really interested in the emergence of the subject as a content creator. And so that really is just everybody now. But yeah, especially people who do work in so-called creative industries. In particular people that work on video and video editing is like the thing I'm really very interested in and post production, that kind of labor.
Leslie Walker: [00:04:25] And what made you decide to go into anthropology at the point of entry for studying.
Chris Chan: [00:04:35] It's funny. I think I've just had a long term affair with anthropology. I changed my major, like five times and undergrad. My first major was anthropology. And then I came around to it again and graduated with an anthropology undergraduate degree.
And it's funny, like I knew I was committed to anthropology and sort of our ethos around listening and empathy and deep hanging out and all of that, it was much longer before I was actually super interested in YouTube or in digital media or anything like that. I changed my project in grad school tons of times too but yeah, I think the thread that connects all of the projects as I was sort of stumbling through grad schools, cause I was interested in technology and vision and machine vision, and all the politics they're in.
Adam Gamwell: [00:05:36] And so that's actually super interesting too, where it's both, I definitely resonates, I think with both Leslie and I, that like one's subject and the focus of their research changes multiple times through school. And so even the idea that you kind of mentioned before that you were looking at the emergence of content creators as kind of subjects is quite interesting, but this idea of emergence is really compelling with video, right? Because it's like, what does it mean to, subjects feel like on one level, they're kind of constantly emerging as you watch them on video. And then in post production. So what does that look like in post-production? Does that mean it's kind of like, you're filming somebody for one level, then you come into post and that's when you can do special effects or do editing touch ups and color corrections and timing and cut the video and stuff.
So, I guess, what does that mean? Like what kind of subjects do you see coming out of that? Iis there a theorization around the subjects that come out of this as content creators? I guess.
Chris Chan: [00:06:33] Yeah. I mean, I think it seemed pretty niche. I like to ask color graders, like what in their world is motivating them to make these sort of aesthetic choices. But, film theory and cinema studies have been really great for giving us language to talk about all of those practices in post production for theorizing about the sophistication of those practices.
And the like, what we haven't done a great job of, I think in anthropology is actually doing the ethnographic work of asking them what that looks like and how they were brought there to do that sort of thing and the sort of choices they were making. Just at cut, one thing I'm very interested in is thinking about how the editors and everybody else in post production have access to this tremendous amount of data. If you go on the backend to look at your YouTube channel, it tells you watch time, which is when people click out of the video. The editors, I think of them as sort of like doing ethnographic work too.
They are also looking at all this data and making assumptions and making hypotheses about what human attention is doing at any given moment and are making choices in the context of that at the same time that they're also making choices in the context of their careers and the precarious labor market, on a precarious algorithmic programming landscape and I think we could actually empirically document all of these sort of subtle changes to the way we color something in post production or the way we edit or mix the audio. And so those are the things I think about at the same time though, I know nine-year-olds and ten-year-olds that do have a very robust language for how to post-process their photos before they post them on Instagram and I think like, I am very much interested in the emergence of that. I don't know, subjectivity, broadly everywhere.
Leslie Walker: [00:08:49] So would you say that YouTube is both the subject and the landscape and site for your research?
Chris Chan: [00:09:00] Yeah, it's tricky. So I am interested in games too, although it's not super feasible to study. Just because there's a force field of NBA’s on the other side of it. We do have relationships with people at YouTube, but even people that work at YouTube, which is like a complex organization, don't really know what the other hand is doing at the same time, data and algorithms are tricky ontological subjects. It's really hard to say exactly what they're doing at any given moment. And they're in fact, rewriting themselves as we speak. So, I think it's functionally easier for me to study the people in my immediate surroundings, the people that are creators and trying to interpret and live with these algorithms and with this platform.
And then there are these other places like VidCon, other places for creators to collaborate and talk to each other. Those are places that I'm interested in but it's happening on YouTube, but like at some point there will be something that sustains YouTube.
Leslie Walker: [00:10:27] Okay. And then I guess that brings me to my next question with your relationship and your work with Cut, how did you come to work for cut.com and how did you pitch the idea of “100 Years of Beauty” as a series for them?
Chris Chan: [00:10:43] Well, okay. Yeah. So this is like a funny trip down memory lane. I was in grad school. It was about my first year in between my first and second year. And so I think like many graduate students, I also needed pocket money. And I was doing freelance work with a bunch of people at a search engine optimization, at a search engine marketing company.
And it was really like in the Marxist sense, very alienating, repetitive non-creative labor that incidentally required a bunch of creative people. People that would describe themselves as creatives to do this sort of writing and I think there is like a general dissatisfaction between a couple people working there that like they weren't, they were being trained in this method, to game search engine results, to maximize profit for the startup.
A bunch of 'em splintered off and started a video company, which would become Cut. And they recruited me, they kept recruiting me mercilessly. And I hated writing, doing the copywriting so much I really resisted. They asked me to, so one thing about Cut that you'll notice is that they take, they were really good at taking vernacular formats that exist already on YouTube. So like videos of people smoking weed, videos of people drinking and talking to each other but one of the biggest genres on YouTube is the beauty video and that in this algorithmic marketplace you can hedge your bets a little bit by producing content that will circulate in these sort of suggestion levels.
And that the beauty landscape is pretty safe. It's like not very controversial material. So it's not likely to get demonetized. It's pretty family friendly, so people of all ages can watch. I think like when I was called into work on “100 Years of Beauty” they wanted me because I have a background in social science and I can do research and know how to look up things in visual archives.
And I have access to JSTOR, you know, all these little, small practical things and begrudgingly, I started working on “100 Years of Beauty” because if you look at me, you know immediately, I'm not a beauty person. I don't wear makeup. I don't know anything about makeup or fashion or anything really like that but I do have an interest, I think in like the historic sensation of certain aesthetics, pretty generally, I'm not a beauty expert. I'm not even an expert in any of the countries that we've studied in “100 Years of Beauty”. So I basically did some freelance research, putting together production documents for the director, for the hair and makeup people, for the models. And it's to give them as much data as I can possibly give them so that they could note and signify the historicity behind all of these legs. And so like also kind of tell a very pointed story about the development of a place.
Leslie Walker: [00:14:15] Okay. That was really great and where a “100 Years of Beauty” as a series, you have the TimeLapse video that shows the transformation of hairstyles and fashion throughout the decades. What motivated you to include those explainer videos that you were just alluding to where you share the research behind the makeover?
Chris Chan: [00:14:39] A couple of things that sort of inspired this meta analysis video of this, ancillary content of the TimeLapse video.
Adam Gamwell: [00:14:50] These are the videos you call Chanthropology right?
Chris Chan: [00:13:48] Yeah, we call them Chanthropology because that was, that still is my Twitter handle. They discovered that was my Twitter handle and they decided to call it that. So, yeah, it is good marketing. I wish I got dividends on it though, but no. So we make these timelapse videos. They circulate in audiences that are predominantly young women that watch other beauty time lapses or other beauty tutorials on YouTube.
The thing that we discovered and the thing that really excited me that we were making them is that these kids really were, say in “100 Years of Beauty Iran”, we're going into the comments and not just saying, Oh, I love this look. I hate this look. They were writing paragraphs that were like, what happened during the Iranian revolution?
And then someone would respond like, Oh, I asked my grandma and this is what she said. And then someone else would respond and people were having these like very sophisticated and very robust conversations about the historical context, trying to fill in the gaps because we only presented something completely visual and just a very cherry picked list of 11 looks.
And I think it became really clear we had an opportunity to release a little something for that audience that was so invested that they were literally doing their own research after watching the video to at least explain, sort of our motivations. I think the other thing was that I'm an anthropologist. My training in 2013 or 2014 is to feel like I can't be an authority about any of these places or that no one's asked me to represent the history of the Philippines on their behalf. So, I think by producing these research videos, we are just trying to put, my intention was just to put out there like, Hey, this is our method for doing this kind of visual project.
It's not to tell you a complete history, but it's to tell you one particular story about the relationship between one thing and how we dress and how we look in the world. And these are the sources we used and then feel free to comment if you feel like we missed something or you have a very different.
The chanthropology series is doing double duty events, explaining, trying to share at least what this method looks like and how we arrived at our choices but also to give people a space to like, the people that love beauty that also wants to talk about history and geopolitics, give them a space out there in the world that's actually for them.
Adam Gamwell: [00:17:45] And do you find that the conversations continue like these kinds of sophisticated level conversations discussing the Iranian revolution or one of the other examples that Leslie and I were talking about before that was interesting to us is the North Korea, South Korea, like the Korea video that like splits North and South Korea.
And so do you find that people's conversations are continuing after you put these research, these chanthropology videos out? Are they commenting on those also kind of keeping these conversations ongoing.
Chris Chan: [00:18:13] Yeah, I think there's no way to pick a look for any decade in any place of the world without people having thoughts about it. And I think the beautiful thing about such a vernacular format like a YouTube video is that in a format like “100 Years of Beauty”, it can be picked up by anybody and people can make their own. I do find that the conversation usually starts in the comments, but people have written think pieces. What I find really great is, people are inspired by the format and make their own versions.
The model that worked with us, Tiffany for a “100 Years of Beauty Korea” actually decided she wanted to make her own version. And she made her own looks and posted pictures of the look she would have chosen for the decades. So I think it is kind of like an interesting sort of a pseudo collaborative practice. Like we're all making these things together.
Chris Chan: [00:19:29] Yeah, it's funny. It's funny to me, like we, you know, you can include this on the podcast or not, but like we joke all the time that the internet and the content marketplace is kind of like a human centipede and people are really like regurgitating the stimuli in their environment and so much of it can be like, so, I don't know. What's the word? I don't know. It's like a symbol or whatever.
So I'll say this, there's nothing that gives me greater joy than to see like a mother and a daughter in Canada of South Asian descent doing their own a hundred years of beauty to celebrate their own heritage and their own genealogy. I think that's incredible. Like when people make their own a hundred years of beauty, when people in places like Croatia or like, you know states that are maybe more marginal in global consciousness or whatever, like people think their histories are important and want to make their own. That's incredible to me and I'm really proud of our team if we gave people this tool to be able to do that.
Now that you mentioned those, but there are some larger publications. That I think it is flattering definitely. But the Conde Nast publications, like Glamour or Vogue, produced their own hundred years of beauty videos.
I think when we watch those videos, we get a sense that they're doing something much different from ours. And that's not to say that they're better or worse or what have you but like we at Cut at least are really committed to telling those stories visually. I think you find in the Allure pieces it kind of looked like listicles, there's lots of text. So there's little magic there for me and I think there's so much potential that just isn't being capitalized upon in all of these spinoffs. I don't know. I'm just trying to be diplomatic basically, but I mean, good on them.
And nobody, I don't think we want to be territorial about “100 Years of Beauty”. It's not a very complicated idea but in the execution, there are things that are disappointing from those larger production companies or those larger publications. I think what it really reminds me though, in this marketplace for contents it is not about these huge multinational corporations, deciding culture for all of us. It's really obvious that the people that work in these creative industries that work for these large publications or these large media companies are in the ether with all these other creators, they're absorbing things that kids are making in their car in the backseat while they're waiting for a carpool. And that stuff is what becomes pop culture, you know? I guess there's that frank little update.
Leslie Walker: [00:21:21] That's really great. I think you shared the testament of your work, where mothers and daughters are able to see a video like yours and make their own collage videos. Also, I think it also expands representation certainly when you spoke earlier about the beauty videos, a lot of those quote unquote beauty gurus are white, early twenties, young women. A lot of the makeup brands, cater and market to them. You do see more progression with Rihanna. She has her Fenty beauty line; it's a wide range of color palettes for women and men of different skin tones.Do you feel that your work is also expanding what beauty looks like in different parts of the world and who can be beautiful?
Chris Chan: [00:23:57] Oh, God it’s hard. I'd say yes and no. I'm really torn about it. I feel like we've tried to do, let me rephrase this. Like we’ve actually tried to do more women of color and use more women of color as our models for the series just to make, there's a subliminal suggestion. Like. Yes, a woman in 1960s Haiti looks can be glamorized, can become high fashion if we just shoot her the right way and put music behind her, like she belongs in that Vogue editorial and that we can take a place like Ireland and show how it actually was ripped apart by sectarian violence.
At the same time. So let's say that I think the series is trying to do that double duty in that sense, to turn races that we think of as behind teleologically, not advanced in the third world or whatever, and show that actually. Yeah. They've been beautiful, glamorous this entire time. And that to take places like France or Ireland and show actually there's something quite tribal and exotic about those places.
And then how it has always been at the same time too. So there's that little bit of deconstruction work. I think we've been trying to do it. I do think representation is important. I think we're in this moment where representation kind of is not enough. I think it's, I love Rhianna. I love Fenty. I don't wear makeup, but I totally Stan Rihanna and Fenty. But I think beyond seeing ourselves as on the screen and beyond seeing different visions of what is beautiful. I think like in the end we also need to have material things like material assurances that our lives matter, that we are beautiful.
And I, so I worry that when we look to the media or we look to consumer products and things like that, that's not ultimately going to be satisfied for us because there's something else horrible in the world but still working against us. Yeah, that's a dark thought, but.
Adam Gamwell: [00:28:11] No, but it's really interesting. I mean maybe if you don't mind,, I'd love you to pack it a little bit more. Cause it's, so on one level, do you feel like 100 Years of Beauty and these kinds of films, in the idea of bringing more representation than it is this way of providing some level of assurance?
I follow you. I think that actually makes sense. I suppose then is this, not to ask the dark question, is this an effective way to and fight against those other kinds of forces that would tell people that maybe they're not beautiful or that they are, they don't fit in these categories or something.
Chris Chan: [00:28:47] I've definitely learned a lot working on the series and my feelings about it, well, they change all the time. Like, yeah. Well, we would get that fan mail where people were saying, Oh my God, I can't believe you guys did 100 Years of Beauty about my country and no one ever thinks of people from my country as beautiful or live it with this colored skin is beautiful, et cetera, et cetera.
And that does matter. And that does mean something. And that really does motivate us to continue working on it. I think again kind of like in this TS question though, is that video exists on a platform that as we know from scholars Safiya Noble and other people have built into it, sort of logics about what it’s worth, like which people, which audiences, which eyeballs, which skin colors are worth what.
And so we can continue to put these messages out in the world, but the problem is the YouTube algorithm, like anecdotally in our own observation really penalizes and democratizes content with black people with it and so we can create that video full-heartedly that tells black women in Haiti that they're beautiful but the platform algorithmically already decides that that video doesn't need to circulate. So it's like this thing where I really developed sort of my thinking about representation. Like it can't just be about what we see on the screen, but also like infrastructure and the technologies that deliver it to us and I think that's like the place that we need to start decolonizing.
Leslie Walker: [00:30:39] Yeah, thank you. Thank you for that journey. I believe that there is a lot of work that needs to be done, and I feel like 100 Years of Beauty is starting to break ground on that. Your videos largely focus on women however, there was the series on the U.S that featured both men and women, but also the aesthetics of African American and sort of quote unquote mainstream aesthetics, why did you decide to create that view, that commented on race and gender.
Chris Chan: [00:28:34] So if you're talking about the, I think it's like Sam is the male model. I guess we, there they've been a couple where we've. So we filmed 100 Years of Beauty with Nina, she's a white woman and it's basically white women's history of beauty. And we filmed the video. The next video was Marshay. So she's episode two and it's the history of black beauty in the United States.
We also filmed a video with Sam, he's a white dude and a video with Lester, he's a black guy. And then we did a series of like mashups and this is really just, you know, to sort of scrape the programming barrel a little bit, maximize the content, a series of split-screen videos where we juxtapose them together in different permutations.
So one thing I would say about that is like one is, I think there is something about. It's showing something visually like no texts, no speaking. Hold up two looks together. So when we see Nina dressed up as a sort of hippie with a beehive, and she’s got coral eyeshadow next to Marshay, who is modeled after Angela Davis, like we're seeing it. Two very different interpretations of the radical sixties, and the way, but two different bodies might have navigated that very same moment very differently. And I think what is nice about doing those sort of visual juxtapositions, like you can get a sense and a vibe for it without there being explicit or over commentary.
Now in the behind the scenes video I had to make overt explicit comments about it. And like I'm neither black nor white. I'm not really, like I'm just a person with questions and I hope that the series. The chanthropology series is just, I think of it as a way that promotes these sort of anthropological or ethnographic questions without having real solid answers or making definitive meta narratives about anybody or anything.
Leslie Walker: [00:30:55] That was great. I feel like, both the TimeLapse videos, the split screens and the chanthropology. It's comments on these ideas of race and gender temporally in an ethnographic sense but also in an ethnopolitical context it's so interesting that in your behind the scenes video you comment on the breadth of the video, but when it comes to the sixties and seventies, you talk about the political nature of beauty and fashion.
We can't think of them as divorced items certainly. I think from my experience, when I think of the seventies, I think of my grandmother and seeing photos of her with a really large Afro and then all of my great aunts and my grandfather but they were tied into a movement of black is beautiful and certainly this field that I deal with here at the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
You have James Brown saying I'm black and I'm proud and they have the campaigns for black is beautiful and you have a lot more black luxury and beauty items coming up with Ebony magazine, developing Ebony fashion fair the fashion show, but also the makeup line. And then years later you have Iman, the renowned supermodel of East African descent that's creating this makeup line and then Rihanna is picking up on it, I feel that people's adornment was also aesthetically to please people, but also to comment on certain and you were able to capture that moment in time and expand upon it.
Chris Chan: [00:32:52]I would just say that, I feel like those women in those periods were kind of like, I don't know. I feel like I just looked up pictures, but they were the ones doing the work of making that so explicit that there was no way we could have made that video without showing that, you know.
And I think like you're saying, like, I hope that I hope that what we're subconsciously getting when we watch this video is that we can't divorce our beauty practices, the practices of getting ready and leaving the house or shopping for products or, looking at magazines that we can't actually divorce that from our political subjectivities too. And even in moments where it seems like they are so sanitized or those beauty practices are so woke or politically neutral or whatever, that it still is.
Adam Gamwell: [00:33:49] It's incredibly powerful to think about this idea. And I really appreciate the way that you articulated this notion that we can't divorce our shopping practices, our ideas of aesthetic beauty from the political realities out of which they are born. I wonder if we might think about that ethnographically, I don't know, I'm kind of wondering about the political subject. I don't want to abstract this from the videos to be honest, but I'm thinking about this anthropologically and so it's like if we're thinking about the political emergence right. Of the kind of subjects, even as content creators too, we're thinking about this, I guess in a broad section is like, how does that, you know, do you find that you are finding, do you find yourself filtering or like noting the sort of political subjectivities of the producers and the content creators also as part of these, as part of this filming process, we're talking about representation through the models? Like, do you find it also through in the production side too?
Chris Chan: [00:34:46] Yeah, the thing, so the ethnographic vignette that I keep going back to rewrite or to revisit. We were filming “100 Years of Beauty France” on the eve of the presidential election and it's this moment where we were all sort of in the studio and the shoots by the way, they take like 12 hours, easily, eight to 12 hours.
It's a marathon really. And then we shoot the whole thing in generally one sitting and I have to give it to those models who have the stamina to do that. But we were in the studio at the beginning of the shoot, revisiting the Belle Époque era in Paris or whatever and at the same time we were looking at the monitors, the producers, the hair, makeup people, the model, everybody looks at this monitor to do the posing and to check the looks at the same time, everybody is also looking at their phones and looking at the election, the results of the polling predictions and things like that. Early in the day, according to the New York Times is a little moving infographic or whatever Hillary Clinton was gonna win almost with certainty. And then as we progress throughout the day. And we work, we keep filming that graph just kept changing the dials on that infographic kept shifting and it started looking a lot, much more grim. And yeah, I like the thing I couldn't help, but observer or notice in that moment, it's just the way in which we were all glued to our screens throughout the day and the kinds of calculations people were making in their own heads during the shoot. Everybody from the production assistants to the directors, our model Corina was getting visibly upset and it was just, it's strange actually to like dress her up as a Vichy collaborator, propaganda subjects, sort of on the eve of all of this happening. Yeah. So I am actually very much interested in this very nerdy thing, which is about how about screen time and about how people look at screens, particularly in the studio.
And yeah, just like all of that, all of those kinds of microtransactions it's funny because we spend so much time on our desktops on our phones and that just has not yet been the province of ethnographic objects. That seems virtual to I think most people still, but yeah, it's deeply obviously embedded in our everyday lives. I don't know if that answered your question.
Adam Gamwell: [00:37:48] Yeah, totally. That's fascinating. It's the same idea too. You know, we talk about these, these like the vignette, the film, this is this, one, two minute adventure I actually want to hear about your research process and like the filming process.
It would just be cool to kind of here's some nuts and bolts because 12 hours is insane. Like it's not long for a film shoot depending what you're doing, but that's incredible to think about that too, but at the same time, right. I love the idea too. It's just exciting to think about an anthropologist, both making the film and then sitting in there watching everybody on their screens, thinking like what do you know? What are the little microtransactions you're looking at? You’re all checking this, I'm seeing you visibly shift and change based on other circumstances. It's true. It's like, and that it's going to make me watch that video differently now, you know? Cause it's like, Oh man, that was the election video, you know?
Chris Chan: [00:38:33] Right, right, right, right.
Adam Gamwell: [00:38:34] Yeah. That's fascinating. Yeah. But I'd love to hear a bit about, yeah. There's this like your research process, you know? Cause you, you kind of alluded to this earlier on in the conversation, with the mix of library and museum research doing work online, looking at beauty styles, walk us a little bit through that process.Like what is it like? You're the series editor now so do you, do you come up with the countries of the locales to look at, or are they handed to you or how does that work?
Chris Chan: [00:38:59] Okay, to be honest, the number one deciding factor in choosing a country or a state or a territory or whatever to do 100 Years of Beauty is the availability of a model that genealogically can represent that place or has it connection or family connection to it?
And yeah, basically like it's harder to find the model. It's easy to come up with the research. In fact, fans submit archives and archives of their own family photos, and they'll make little PowerPoint presentations and send them to us cause they really want to see us create these things and put them into the world.
The number one thing is finding a model that's available to come to Seattle and shoot for 12 hours straight and often like the very successful, more established models are just like a little bit out of our range for a digital studio. And so we really have to find people sort of like at this turning point in their careers where they do have experience, they have backgrounds and can handle a 12 hour shoot but you know maybe not as established yet.
So that maybe we can still afford them. So that's just like behind the scenes technical problem. And that we really, like, there are hundreds of places we've always wanted to do and kind of beauty traditions, like we've always wanted to do. So yeah, that's the first stumbling block. I have a spreadsheet and there's like about 400, 100 Years of Beauties on there. So the other thing that I should say is that in the past few, couple of years, like you might've noticed we don't make 100 Years of Beauty, we release one every now and then but the reality is, and this goes back to sort of technology and the infrastructure behind these representations is that the revenue marketplace, I mean, the revenue, I don't know what you want to call it, assemblage the algorithms that determine which ads go to which videos and how much they're evaluated at has really punished 100 Years of Beauty. The marketplace on YouTube right now is really shifting towards longer form narrative content.
So that's fine. You see a lot more explainer videos and top 10 craziest things that happened on celebrity big brother and things like that. That's the kind of content that is much more profitable now. And so 100 Years of Beauty used to be very profitable in terms of advertising revenue.
And now it's just not financially feasible cause it does take 12 hours to film. It costs thousands of dollars to make because we have a full crew. We have to feed those people. We have to pay for all that makeup and a lot of wigs often. So a lot of transformations in the algorithmic marketplace have made it no longer financially viable to do.
That said I am working on a 100 Years of Beauty project now for the Wing Luke Museum on the Asian American experience. And so I am interested in this alternate model for funding 100 Years of Beauty which we collaborate with folks on the ground who want to see a project coming to life.
Leslie Walker: [00:42:44] To piggyback off of Adam's question about research. I remember in one of your explainer videos, you discuss how Lesterthe model, the black male model for the U.S set of videos that he brought in his own pictures. Are your model, are they involved? Are they corrective in the process? Cause you make a point to ensure that they represent that country as much as possible. I imagine they are able to share their insight from what their mothers or grandmothers had shared with them.
Chris Chan: [00:43:28] Yeah. We always try, it just sort of became this tradition as we kept making these videos that the last look would always be the models, personal look and often a selfie. Like we would always try to model the model after herself. Basically yeah, we use Lester's actually he had promo pictures, I think from his music career. My favorite I think collaboration with the models has been like we made 100 Year of Beauty Diné which I think is more commonly referred to as Navajo Nation.
And we actually had Sage, the model. We had her mom come and do her hair. And yeah, she ties her hair in a certain way which is sacred, which requires cultural knowledge. And, like it means a lot basically. So it's not like we could just have anybody put this thing on, buy it on Amazon and then have it assembled on her.
We had her mom come. We also had an artist, Nanava Beck who is a contemporary jewelry artist work on the accessories for that project. And so it really did feel like this kind of community thing where Sage, her mom, none of us were all basically like curating these looks, picking the accessories, telling the story that they wanted to tell.
And at the end Sage very passionately wanted to include activism around Standing Rock. We see raising her fist and it says No DAPL on it. Yeah. I think like when we make videos at their best, it is because of all of the people that have collaborated on them and it's even better when it's like family stuff and genealogical photographs and their vernacular archives.
Adam Gamwell: [00:45:31] That's super cool. That's actually one of my favorite chanthropology videos was that interview you had with Sage and her mom.
Chris Chan: [00:45:36] Oh yeah
Adam Gamwell: [00:45:37] It was very cool to think about that too. Cause you even mentioned the idea that, you know, you're talking about appropriation or clothing, you know, appropriation of indigenous clothing and wear and the lawsuit with Urban Outfitters.
And that is quite interesting too, where it's like. And even that idea too, cause it was like this nice idea that like you could really tell it was this kind of community that was putting this story together. And I don't know. Yeah, it was, it really, to me adds so much to these videos. Right. Cause there are these. You know, I'm going through a hundred years really quickly and I mean, 2020 the next year So you’ll have to add a decade.
Chris Chan: [00:46:12] Yeah I know. I don't know what to do about that, should we just do 110 Years of Beauty?
Adam Gamwell: [00:46:21] Yeah. It's still a round number. It works. I guess kind of one sort of wrap question, I think is what's next on your project list.
I mean, cause you said you're working on a 100 Years of Beauty project with the Asian American experience museum. And that's like one way of alternatively funding, this exact kind of project, I mean, is the idea to do more work with 100 Years of Beauty or maybe 110 Years of Beauty in this space, or are there other kinds of other projects that you are excited to work on? Do you want to finish a PhD? You know?
Chris Chan: [00:46:52] Yeah. Right, right. That is like a side project at this point. Yeah, I mean, I love 100 Years of Beauty. I've learned so much doing it. It's really been a transformative experience for me. I look at if I searched for a hundred years of beauty, now I see thousands of videos that have been made in the format and I would love to keep seeing it, if we can figure out how to fund it and how to keep it sustainable. I am interested in other formats though. I'm still interested in that intersection between, I guess I'm interested in this idea that like we have this market that advertisers and marketers think of as consumers, girls that just like frivolous things like fashion and makeup that actually, if you prompt them are down to engage and get intellectual and ask serious questions and have dialogue and discourse with each other.
Like, I don't think in media we actually, generally respect our audience that way and so there are all these vernacular formats that I think actually we can begin to ask again, the serious questions and challenging and maybe troubling questions. And that like, there is opportunity there. Like I am right now working on a show. I'm looking for a place for it to live, but it's sort of like a fashion competition in the style of Project Runway or something like that but the garments respond to a climate change problem that will need to be addressed in the near future in different places around the world.
And so thinking about the relationship between society and fashion and also climate, but also the geopolitics and sociology of climate. Like I am still interested in finding those things like what would a home improvement show look like if it also addressed gentrification? I'm always trying to think of new formats that look and feel like something really familiar, like a familiar piece of candy that can also smuggle in views. I dunno, like more troubling, ambiguous questions. Yeah. I'd love her to keep making 100 Years of Beauty but like it's the internet and things come in really fast and 100 Years of Beauty has been so thoroughly colonized by everybody else. But I almost I dunno, like if we make another one, I think would have to be radically different
Leslie Walker: [00:49:43] I think that’s where you come in with the anthropology. I think you started to make some headway with incorporating more men in the videos is that something that's worth exploring. And then also I'm thinking and feel free to take my idea, but at least give me a royalty check. But, your models are adult women. I think it would be fascinating to give them the camera and have them talk about sort of what were the beauty trends when they were five years old and how did they style themselves and when they were adolescents and then when they moved into their adulthood years, like how that has changed within their respective cultures.
Chris Chan: [00:50:29] That's interesting, you know, like, okay speaking of like familiar formats, like I just watched America's Next Top Model again for just nostalgia’s sake and I mean, it's ingressing. We all watch it for a reason, Like you're saying Leslie, like what would it mean to radically rethink a show like that?
And if it was from the perspective of the models and, just like working with models on 100 Years of Beauty and just hearing snippets of their lives that they share, they're generous enough to share with me when we're on set. And people have very different experiences in the industry like going to auditions, having adequate makeup and hair resources at the fashion shoot, depending on their skin tone or their hair texture. And then like that they all have their own, they're all sort of doing this ethnographic work of piecing together the cultural material around them. And they've been doing that since they were five. Yeah. I mean, I think that's a brilliant idea.
Adam Gamwell: [00:51:39] You're making me think too. What would be interesting is if there's a 100 Years of Beauty but it's like someone from every decade of their life, you know, from 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 after if they make it to 100, which means, you know, that kind of fashion changes kind of interesting.
Chris Chan: [00:51:53] And Yeah. I mean, I do want to do an intergenerational beauty show, like ideally with somebody and their parents and their grandparents. There's so much potential.
Leslie Walker: [00:52:10] All we need is funding and time, you know.
Chris Chan: [00:52:13] Yeah, exactly. Yeah. So if anybody has any funding agencies listen to him,
Adam Gamwell: [00:52:22] You heard it here, folks. This has been an amazing conversation, Chris, thank you so much for sharing your story and such poignant reflections. This is such great content to think on. I love the idea of taking these like familiar pieces of candy and being like, by the way, I just smuggled it in some critical thought.
Chris Chan: [00:52:42] Right? Well, that's all the best. Yeah, thank you so much for having me. It's been a big honor to be on the podcast.
Leslie Walker: [00:53:02] So again, the folks that was Chris Chan. I felt like that was a really great conversation, Adam I'm so excited that we were able to bring him onto the podcast and have just such an insightful conversation. I feel like there so many great takeaways that are all inspirational, but there are three points that really stick out to me. The first being that, how it's just amazing to see how cool Chris is.
I feel that the way that he has used his research and used YouTube as the medium for which he is disseminating it. But also I enjoyed the meta commentary that he had provided about how YouTube actually really works and how folks can use that as a way of monetizing their efforts.
And then he was very open about how YouTube’s algorithm hasn't necessarily been the best for 100 Years of Beauty. And that's push he and his colleagues to reconsider how they go about producing their videos and making them available and sort of that's impacting the next steps of what is to come with it. I hope that he continues. And I really do. I enjoy the critique that he offers with beauty over a century in different places of the world.
Adam Gamwell: [00:54:31] Yeah, definitely. It reminds me too of this conversation that you and I were having before about this. There's actually, the media scholar, Marshall McLuhan has this idea that the medium is the message, right?
And, you know, that's a very cerebral idea, but I think what's kind of cool to reflect on what you said with some of these takeaways is that this idea that like Chris's own message itself, is that anthro is cool. Right? That's a good thing to use in that video is one way of showing literally, visualizing how anthropology can be done and how it can use to explore ideas of beauty in this case, over time and in specific places.
But then there's this kind of second layer that I think is really worth taking away that I came away with this. From this conversation also is that YouTube itself is sending their own messages, right? About what kinds of content they want to prioritize if they want to do more long form versus short form video, as well as even the arts, that I was a little floored by where they may not prioritize films that have Brown bodies right now, I did not expect that at all.
And so these ideas of like, what are the messages that we're getting from these media companies also is, is really quite interesting and challenging to think about what is it, what does it next for this kind of medium, but also what's next for the kind of messages that we, as anthropologists want to put out in the world.
Leslie Walker: [00:55:44] Yeah. I think we can easily pun sort of McLarens thoughts on the medium is the message to the medium is the MASSage and how you can get information out and content out to a mass group of people. And I think that that is offered in Chris’s conversation about their algorithm and sort of the monetization. It's really rewarding if you're able to impact a large group of people. But also that it’s long form, it's massive, you’re able to run ads on it. There’s more to be offered.
Adam Gamwell: [00:56:33] Yeah, I think you're totally right. And so like, we are entering this new territory right. Of new media where we can in fact, I love this idea of the massage, right? If you can get the message out there, it's both what’s being said and how big it can get in terms of reach. That's super interesting. Well, Lindsay, this has been awesome. Thank you so much for helping, inviting Chris on the show. This has been awesome to talk with him and talk with you once again we should definitely do this in the future
Leslie Walker: [00:56:57] Of course, of course. I definitely enjoy these conversations.
I enjoy the opportunity to speak with our colleagues in different parts of the country, in different parts of the world and what their work means to them and what they see the impact being, so I definitely hope that we continue these efforts.
Adam Gamwell: [00:57:14] We definitely shall. As always thanks for listening to This Anthro Life. I'm Adam Gamwell.
Leslie Walker: [00:57:19] and I'm Leslie Walker.
Adam Gamwell: [00:57:20] Cool. We'll see you all next time.
Leslie Walker: [00:57:22] All right guys. Bye. Bye.