Working in beauty and fashion, I’m surrounded by people who, more often than not, draw beauty inspiration from what they see, both in the famous faces that grace our screens and on social media. However, I recently met one influencer who doesn't draw inspiration from the same places most beauty lovers do... at least, not in the same way. I recently sat down with Molly Burke, a YouTuber with 1.7 million subscribers, 721,000 followers on Instagram, and another 64,900 on Twitter. No, Burke has never seen the beauty routine of a Kardashian or the likes. If you don't know her, you might be wondering how that's even possible, so let me explain.
A master at makeup, Burke's bright blue eyes shine powerfully in every video she posts, and she certainly has the beauty tips to make them pop. I recently sat across the table from her at a restaurant in her hometown of Toronto, Canada. We chatted about living in L.A., our favorite beauty products, and her most recent YouTube videos. As we sit at the table, her service dog, Gallop, sits patiently at her side, and her mom reads the menu to her. Immediately, I sensed so much life in her — in the way she engages with everyone and works the room.
At a young age, Burke was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa. While I'd vaguely heard of the disease before, like most, I didn't have a deep understanding of it. Burke explains to me that it's not just "one disease that you find one cure for." "There are hundreds of types of retinitis pigmentosa, and I happen to have one of the rarest types," she says. "The likelihood of me actually getting a cure [is low]. They're going to look for [a cure for] all the other 200 types first — I'm last on the line."
By the time she turned 14, Burke had completely lost her sight. Aside from the normal teenage angst most kids deal with around that age, she dealt with bullying (both at public and schools for the blind) and says she went from having "a really good group of girl friends and being in with the popular kids to having no friends."
Being blind is such an isolating disability. You can be in a room with a hundred people and not find one person to talk to. You can't look around and make eye contact, and smile and walk up to somebody. You can't see that someone is wearing your favorite band shirt and go strike up a conversation about it. Until somebody comes up to you, you're just lost in a sea of sound.
Burke describes blindness as "such an isolating disability." She describes a scenario to me — one I never would've thought of — and paints the clearest picture of just how isolating it can be. "You can be in a room with a hundred people and not find one person to talk to. You can't look around and make eye contact, and smile and walk up to somebody," she says. "You can't see that someone is wearing your favorite band shirt and go strike up a conversation about it. Until somebody comes up to you, you're just lost in a sea of sound."
Luckily for Burke, when she was in high school, she met teacher-turned-lifelong-friend: Tracy Beck. She says Beck "was the first person who taught me I didn't have to be cured to be whole. She taught me to look at disability as more of a social construct rather than thinking something is wrong with me." Burke attributes her time with Beck as a life-changing experience, one that has allowed her to change the lives of others — a huge undertaking, considering Burke is using her now-massive platform to act as a role model for people everywhere.
Recently, both Burke and I returned to where Burke and Beck's relationship began — Burke's Toronto high school — along with Benefit Cosmetics, to surprise the deserving teacher with a gift.
In honor of the brand's Cheekleaders Pink Squad and Bronze Squad cheek palettes, Benefit Cosmetics (which has recently made headlines for casting a model with Down syndrome as the face of their Roller Liner campaign in Ireland) is giving influencers everywhere the opportunity to give back to the people and places that have helped them get to where they are today. For this launch, the brand organized a “Cheer on Your Cheerleader” day, partnering with five influencers in the beauty space to go back to their hometowns and surprise the teachers who changed their lives, gifting each school $10,000 and each individual teacher $5,000 for a well-deserved vacation (or, as Benefit likes to call it, a "hoola-cation").
Burke attributes having such a strong support system as what got her to where she is today. Aside from looking up to Beck, Burke calls her mom (AKA her bestie) her talking mirror. On days when she doesn't feel her best, she looks to her mom for reassurance that her makeup is in place, and her outfit is on point. "It's hard for [my mom], too, because she has to be honest when something doesn't look good," says Burke. Unlike most of us, she can't just step in front of the mirror and immediately confirm that she looks good. "I just have to feel it," she says, "and that’s sometimes really hard."
I can’t see my stretch marks. I can’t see my cellulite. I can’t see my scars ... I don’t know about that stuff, so it doesn’t bother me.
Some might assume that Burke is as confident as they come because she's not bombarded with impossible beauty standards in the same way a lot of people are. "In a way that’s true. I can’t see my stretch marks. I can’t see my cellulite. I can’t see my scars,'" she tells me. "I don’t know about that stuff, so it doesn’t bother me. Without a face of makeup, I don’t know what my skin looks like so I don’t sit and complain about my pores. I don’t pick on myself for my acne scars."
However, that doesn't mean Burke's self-image is 100% perfect all the time. She notes that being unable to see what more and more people are considering beautiful now proves a bit challenging. "I can’t see the beauty standards changing, so what I think of beautiful is still stuck in the early- to mid-2000s, which is tall, skinny, and big, fake boobs. I’m a pear shape. I’m short, I’m fair-skinned, and I have a butt and thighs and hips and no boobs ... but I can’t see [my body] being represented. I can’t look at a magazine and say, 'Oh, well, Kim has this body, so I’m fine.'”
So how, then, has Burke become such an influential part of the fashion and beauty space? Admittedly, before I met her, I wondered that, too. But then I watched her video with James Charles. In the video, Burke goes through Charles' beauty stash and names almost every brand and product just by feeling the packaging and swatching the textures. In under two minutes, Burke proved me so, so wrong.
She tells me she first developed a real interest in makeup at 12 years old, before she completely lost her vision — not that her vision lost has halted her love of fashion and beauty in any way, clearly. While she admits the fashion and beauty community gets a bad rap for being superficial, she attributes it to helping her gain her confidence back after going completely blind. And now that she's built her own fan base, she's using it to inspire others. "I always say I want to be the role model I didn't have when I needed it," she says. "I really needed somebody when I was really struggling with my depression; I really needed somebody who was authentic, vulnerable, genuine, and sharing their struggle, and not just saying it gets better, but showing me it gets better." For Burke, knowing that she gets to be that role model for other people is what motivates her every day.
When it comes to the logistics of her beauty routine, though it might be different from yours or mine, it's very much a process. "When it comes to picking my favorite foundation, I don't pick it for coverage. Texture is huge for me. I pick it by how it feels on my skin," she tells me. "I also really listen to what people say ... If you notice that people keep complimenting your skin, remember what foundation you're wearing. I think a really good way to finding what works for you is listening to feedback people give you."
Burke's lively persona and inspiring story don't always shield her from the online hate that permeates the beauty industry, unfortunately. For example, because she's so good at what she does, "people online speculate that I'm faking at times," she says. In fact, Burke is bombarded on a regular basis by comments that deem her a fraud. She explains it's because she doesn't "look like this media-portrayed idea of being blind." "I don't wear dark sunglasses. I love makeup and fashion," she says. "I look like a normal 25-year-old, and that's not what media has told us disability is."
She has even taken to her YouTube channel to post a video of her strapped to a lie-detector. She passed with flying colors, even when she answered "yes" to being blind and "no" to wanting a cure. "Disability empowered me to be the strong, confident, self-assured person I am. Why do we think disability is such a negative thing? It’s given me so many blessings that I would never take back."
After meeting Burke, I can honestly say it's clear she's paved her own way. She navigates her career, the world of social media, and her own fashion and beauty sense in a way that everyone can aspire to, all the while sharing her feel-good message of positivity. She hopes to, one day, collaborate with a brand to create her own makeup line, a huge feat for anyone. And there's no doubt in my mind that she will be gracing us with collection in the near future.