By Amelia ButterlyBBC 100 Women

Getty Images Huda KattanGetty Images
Huda Kattan is one of the people on this year’s BBC 100 Women list

When Huda Kattan appears in public she’s greeted by the kind of adoring fans you might usually associate with A-list Hollywood stars.

As part of the celebrations for the 10th anniversary of her cosmetics brand, Huda Beauty, she has taken over a Paris building not far from the Eiffel Tower, and turned almost everything inside hot pink.

There are make-up stations loaded with her products, neon signs and glamorous people everywhere.

Fans waiting on the street scream when she arrives. Inside, the invited influencers and make-up professionals chant her name as she climbs the stairs: “Hu-da, Hu-da, Hu-da.”

People queue to take a selfie with her – some even burst into tears when she hugs them.

Throughout it all, Kattan’s smile never falters.

Huda Kattan: Beauty industry is sexist says, make-up icon

Kattan is one of the people on this year’s BBC 100 Women list, which celebrates 100 inspiring and influential women from around the world.

She has a cosmetics business worth more than $1bn, which is the biggest make-up brand on Instagram, with more than 50 million followers.

But she sharply criticises both the beauty industry and social media.

“I think the beauty industry is sexist,” she says. “It objectifies women a lot of times. It really can boil women down to just their appearance.”

She says that as a woman “who likes to glam”, she knows how frustrating it is to be judged by her appearance.

But she accepts that judging others too quickly is a common failing – and that it is something she herself needs to work on.

  • BBC 100 Women names 100 inspiring and influential women around the world every year – Michelle Obama and Amal Clooney are on this year’s list, while Melinda French Gates was listed in 2021
  • Meet this year’s 100 Women

When she first became a businesswoman, she found that some in the industry would not take her seriously.

“I struggled so bad,” she says.

“Oftentimes we’d be in a meeting and instead of making eye contact with me they would make eye contact with my husband and completely ignore me.”

“Don’t talk to me, talk to her,” her husband would say – but they would just continue addressing him, says Kattan.

Huda Kattan Huda KattanHuda Kattan
Huda Kattan grew up the daughter of immigrants from Iraq to Tennessee

She fumes about the slow progress of the beauty industry where inclusivity and representation is concerned.

Kattan grew up the daughter of immigrants who moved from Iraq to Tennessee and says she was always made to feel that she was unattractive.

She says it’s a priority for her to sell products in deeper shades, and foundations that match a wide range of skin tones.

But while she accepts the industry as a whole may be moving in the right direction, she says it’s going at “snail’s pace”.

“I’ve been in the labs with the manufacturers and I’ve said to them, ‘I need a richer skin tone product’. And I’ve seen them literally put black pigment in, [but] people’s skins are made of many different tones.

“I think there is still a lack of understanding. And it really comes down fundamentally to the manufacturer, even some brands.”

Getty Images Huda KattanGetty Images
Huda Kattan has a large social following

Kattan’s success is due in a large part to her presence on social media, where she shares make-up tutorials and reviews, as well as moments with her family and friends in Dubai, which is now her home.

Her curated lifestyle is a natural evolution from her early days as a beauty blogger. And to begin with, she loved social media.

“I thought it was just the best thing,” she says. “You know, it democratised voices. It gave everybody the opportunity to speak up. It was supposed to be a place where people connected.”

Instead, she says, it has become “a dopamine-hacking algorithm to keep people’s eyes glued into a screen”.

She is deeply cynical now about what it has to offer.

“Do I agree with social media now? No, I don’t. Do I think it’s good for the future? No, I don’t. I don’t any more.”

‘Unfair expectations’

One of the problems she points to is the pressure it places on women to be perfect.

“I think society has always been hard on women, but now, with social media, the expectations are just unfair,” says Kattan.

“When I go on social media, sometimes I feel I can never be good-looking enough. I can never have achieved enough.”

She accepts “absolutely, 100%” that in this respect she is part of the problem – but says she is also a victim of it.

“When you’re somebody who’s known for a look, you sometimes become almost a prisoner to your appearance.”

People expect her nails to be done, and her hair, and her complexion to be perfect, which is “not reality” she says.

“I definitely for a long time felt that I was a prisoner to my Instagram handle. I felt, ‘Here I am going out to the public, I am Huda Beauty’. Sometimes I feel like Huda Ugly.”

Getty Images Huda KattanGetty Images
Huda Kattan hopes to give inspiration to women of colour

Given the huge reach of her social media platforms, anything Kattan says online attracts attention.

“As our voice became bigger, became more of a platform, I started to feel the need to speak up about certain things,” she says.

“I am passionate about things that affect women, but also things affecting my community as well.”

This interview took place before the Hamas-led attacks on Israel on 7 October – which saw 1,200 people killed and about 240 others taken hostage – and the subsequent strikes on Gaza.

Gaza’s Hamas-run government says more than 14,500 people have been killed in the Palestinian territory since Israeli air and ground strikes began. The United Nations has warned of a humanitarian crisis.

As the conflict escalated, Kattan used her social media accounts to post in support of Palestinians, attracting positive comments as well as criticism.

“I’ve been outspoken about some political things. I don’t pretend to be a political expert,” she told BBC 100 Women in July. “But if I see something and I know some of the information I definitely want to post about it.”

Even before the current situation in Israel and Gaza developed, Kattan had been raising awareness about issues in the Middle East, saying political issues in the region weren’t talked about enough.

“I get really upset sometimes when I see things happening. Sometimes I’m also like, ‘Do I have the right information? Can I post about this? Am I only seeing one side?’. But I always want to post whatever I can.”

Getty Images Huda KattanGetty Images

When people message her asking questions like “How is your life so perfect?”, she answers honestly that it isn’t.

She says she would like the social media space “to be more vulnerable”.

“I don’t know where that space exists. I don’t think it exists on Instagram but we have to create it,” Kattan says.

She adds that she frequently has to disconnect or limit her own screen time, and doesn’t allow her 12-year-old daughter on to social media at all.

“She does go on it behind my back sometimes, but I can see a difference in her anxiety levels when she’s not online versus when she is.”

Despite living much of her life in public, there are things that she keeps private, such as her Muslim faith.

She says she wasn’t very religious as she grew up, but this changed as she became older. Now, she sees prayer as “one of the most beautiful experiences”.

“I don’t speak about it because I’m always afraid of the criticism – because I don’t cover,” she says. “People might say, ‘Oh you’re not allowed to do those things.'”

Huda Beauty is now 10 years old, and Kattan says she hopes she has given inspiration to some women of colour.

“I think back sometimes to that little Middle Eastern brown girl in Tennessee – there’s still a lot of them out there in the world – and maybe seeing someone like me, they can feel a little bit represented.”

Interview by Nouran Sallam.

Video filmed by Maher Nakhla and edited by Rebecca Thorn.

100 Women logo

BBC 100 Women names 100 inspiring and influential women around the world every year. Follow BBC 100 Women on Instagram and Facebook. Join the conversation using #BBC100Women.

Copyright 2023 BBC. All rights reserved.  The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read about our approach to external linking.

Beta Terms By using the Beta Site, you agree that such use is at your own risk and you know that the Beta Site may include known or unknown bugs or errors, that we have no obligation to make this Beta Site available with or without charge for any period of time, nor to make it available at all, and that nothing in these Beta Terms or your use of the Beta Site creates any employment relationship between you and us. The Beta Site is provided on an “as is” and “as available” basis and we make no warranty to you of any kind, express or implied.

In case of conflict between these Beta Terms and the BBC Terms of Use these Beta Terms shall prevail.