“So you really want to know [what I’ve had done]?” says Huda Kattan through a shy smile. I do—and I’m guessing her 43 million Instagram followers and 3.8 million YouTube subscribers are also curious.
We’re sitting in the bathroom of Huda Beauty’s Dubai headquarters, which often doubles as the setting for the videos that launched a thousand cut creases. The 36-year-old entrepreneur takes a deep breath and walks me through all the work it’s taken—both cosmetically and mentally—to transform herself into the makeup innovator, mother, and mononymous beauty icon she is today.
A nose job in 2013. Subtle Botox tweaks in the face and jawline. A breast lift. Fillers in her lips, cheeks, and chin, and under the eyes. Dissolving those fillers because she felt like it was too much. Feng shui consultations. Thread lifts in her jaw and cheeks. Semi-shaved-off brows. Three years working with a life coach. And, most recently, an innovative treatment created by her Dubai-based dermatologist, Marta Duarte, MD, that was inspired by her most critical YouTube followers. “I used to get comments saying, ‘You look like a nutcracker,’ ” Kattan says about the smile lines on either side of her mouth. “My doctor developed a procedure where she goes in with a small needle and actually rips the skin off the muscle piece by piece. It’s very painful.” When she’s in full glam, like today, it’s all topped with the icing on the procedural cake: about two hours of makeup.
It’s hard not to balk at this confession. But Kattan’s complete transparency—at a time when many are still hesitant to disclose that they have had even a drop of injectables, let alone cosmetic surgery—is a refreshing part of her brand. “I started bruising [from the treatments],” she says. “And I was like, ‘What do I do? Cover them up? Show them?’ And I was like, ‘Fuck it. I’ll just start showing them.’ It’s important for me to tell people when I’m doing something. And it’s liberating.”
In addition to her camera, her crew, and my recorder, her bathroom is overrun with serums, makeup products, and skin-care tools—some from her own seven-year-old brand, which was recently valued at $1.2 billion, and some sent to her by brands desperate to appear on her social channels.
The child of Iraqi immigrants, Kattan was born in Oklahoma City and eventually moved to Cookeville, Tennessee, with her family. Growing up in the South, Kattan found her name, heritage, and appearance made her feel like an outsider. She spent her formative years trying to find a way to blend in, which included briefly going by the more culturally ambiguous name Heidi. Still feeling insecure, she turned to makeup. “I felt like I wasn’t pretty,” she says. “I saw all these celebrities on television and thought they were so glamorous and beautiful. I thought [makeup] might make me feel a sense of happiness.”
Kattan’s love affair with cosmetics began at age 14, when she discovered a pinkish-brown Revlon lipstick in her sister Alya’s makeup bag. “It was so beautiful,” she says. “I couldn’t really afford to buy my own, but I always used to borrow it from her.” By the time she was studying finance at the University of Michigan–Dearborn, Kattan was taking every opportunity she could find to do makeup—for friends, for school plays, for basically anyone who needed a (free) makeup artist.
She took a finance job at the Dubai outpost of a consulting firm after graduating, which lasted less than a year before her role at the company was eliminated due to the recession. In a vlog on her website, Kattan admits that finance was “just not the right fit.” It was her other sister, Mona (one of Huda Beauty’s early investors, along with Alya), who suggested she study makeup. With the support of her entire family, Kattan moved to Los Angeles in 2009 to attend the Joe Blasco Makeup Training Center. After completing her coursework, she returned to Dubai and began working as a professional makeup artist. Early clients included Eva Longoria, Nicole Richie, and several members of various Middle Eastern royal families. In 2010, again encouraged by her sisters, she founded the Huda Beauty blog and began sharing tutorials and makeup reviews.
Her first product launch in 2013—a line of false lashes—caught the eye of Kim Kardashian West. “I was creating my own lashes by using bits and pieces from different brands to make unique lashes that felt good and looked like natural lashes, even if superdramatic,” Kattan says, wearing her signature lengthening lashes, called Hoodie. “Most falsies were just a single strip, which doesn’t emulate a natural lash. It wasn’t until we created our own product that things changed. People became more interested in what we were saying.”
A full makeup range eventually followed, and by 2017, Kattan was named one of the 25 most influential figures on the internet by Time magazine, and one of the top 10 beauty influencers by Forbes. But something was still holding her back from truly feeling confident: her skin. For years, Kattan had used makeup to mask insecurities about her skin and feeling like an outsider. Now she wanted to put her best face forward—with or without makeup. Despite having an entire roomful of skin-care products, she couldn’t find any that delivered glowy, even results without irritating her imbalanced, sensitive skin. Enter Wishful. “What do you wish for in good skin care?” she says of her new line. “Your wish is our command. We’re going to solve it.”
The first product, Yo Glow Enzyme Scrub, is an exfoliating whip that you smooth onto dry, clean skin to gently resurface and even skin tone. It’s a combination of soft cellulose pieces (an eco-friendly alternative to micro-beads), alpha and beta hydroxy acids, and a surprise ingredient that inspired the baby-yellow packaging: bromelain. Kattan discovered the anti-inflammatory enzyme while recovering from her nose job. “I had to go straight back to shooting videos,” she says. “I knew bromelain was one of the best things for [reducing] inflammation, so I juiced a pineapple every day. When I took the cast off my nose, it looked like I hadn’t had anything done. I became obsessed.”
It’s an unusual choice to launch an exfoliator as a skin-care line’s sole product. But then again, few could have predicted that a line of false lashes would ultimately spawn a billion-dollar beauty empire. Kattan realizes some may be dubious about entrusting their skin to a makeup artist known for “cake face.” But, she says, her hours of makeup training give her unique insight. “An exfoliator is the one product everybody needs to have. I use this before makeup because it smooths everything out.” By whisking away dead skin cells, the product also helps skin-care ingredients work better. “It’s great for everyone,” she says, “whether you wear tons of makeup or not.”
At the end of our talk, Kattan embarks on the ultimate beauty dare: Staring directly into the camera, she peels off her lashes. Then, using her long, sparkling nails, she scoops out a dollop of Huda Beauty Makeup Remover Balm and gently massages it over her entire face. A few Bioderma-laden cotton pads later and she’s barefaced. “Beauty actually has very little to do with what you see,” she says, as the photographer captures picture after picture of her without a stitch of makeup. “Since I like my skin now, I feel confident and proud. Everybody should feel that way.”
This article appears in the April 2020 issue of ELLE.