Beauty and the brains

Marlena Stell, Makeup Geek


Meet Marlena Stell at the 10 Steps to Starting Your Dream Business seminar at 12:45 p.m. on Sunday, November 16, at the Four Points by Sheraton Sacramento International Airport, 4900 Duckhorn Drive. Tickets are $180 and 100 percent of the proceeds benefit the Batten Disease Support and Research Association. Visit for more information.

When Marlena Stell uploaded her first tutorial to her Makeup Geek YouTube channel five years ago, she had no idea just how much her life as a music teacher in Michigan would change. The videos, which recreated celebrity makeup looks and offered honest (sometimes brutal) cosmetic reviews, quickly gained a cult following. From there Stell launched a website and online forum and, eventually, decided to create her own cosmetics brand. After tinkering in various labs, she released a line of products that include lipstick, eye shadow and blush. Sales skyrocketed and Stell hired a staff. Now the entrepreneur, who moved to Natomas in 2010, sells products to customers around the globe, and Makeup Geek was recently included on an impressive list—Inc. 5000 2014: The Fastest-Growing Private U.S. Companies (coming in at No. 1,348). Stell, who continues to film videos for her million-plus subscribers, plans to open a chain of retail stores with the first shop scheduled to open in Natomas in early 2015. The beauty guru chatted with SN&R about local charms, the ’90s and bad lip liner.

What will your store be like?

Really cool because it’s not just a retail store. It’ll also be a play area, so when customers come in, on one side of the room will be different stations with products that they can play with and another corner will have TV screens and books, so if people want to try out different looks they can flip through to get ideas. If there’s enough room I hope to add a little man cave with a Playstation, TV and some couches.

What inspired that idea?

I want it to be a different experience, almost like a place to hang out. If they find something they like they can buy makeup, but I don’t want people to just come in and feel like they have to buy a lipstick. We are all about education. Whenever [someone] buys a product from us, I do a video showing how to use it and to show which shades go well with different hair, skin and eye colors. That way they have the education to back up their purchase and know how to use the product.

Of all places to move … why Sacramento?

I was born and raised in Vacaville, and I have friends and family in Sacramento. I wanted a city that wasn’t too huge, so I could have room to grow and live and not have to worry about excess traffic. I fly so much for my company … and this city has an amazing airport. I can just drive for 10 minutes and hop on board and go. You are literally just a drive or plane away from where you want to go. It’s just a good compromise between city and suburban and seemed like a good fit for me.

Do people recognize you here?

All the time. It’s crazy because it happens a lot in Sacramento and I never thought it would because this city isn’t too big—I never expected there to be this many people here who are into makeup, but it happens a lot!

Why a makeup line?

When I’d make videos, I was basically promoting all these different brands like Mac and Nars for free. They weren’t paying me anything and I was selling tons of product for them just from them being mentioned in my videos. I needed to think of something to support myself … and I thought I could really make a really great makeup line. So I started researching different types of labs [and] started with just the eye shadows and then kind of built off of that.

Why do you think it’s been so successful?

Because I love makeup so much. My favorite part of my job is creating product because I love it so much that I know exactly what I’m looking for. I can say to myself, “I would really love to create a blush that’s smoother and doesn’t have talc,” [and] since I have played with makeup so much, I know what’s missing in other brands’ products.

What are you currently working on?

I’ll be really excited to get the lip products going because I have some cool ideas for unique colors and textures. I also have some duo chromes [eye shadow], too. They’re pigments that reflect two or three colors, depending on which way the light hits it. It’s such an easy look because you can literally pat it on the lid and it looks like this complex blended look when all you did was just slapped it on.

Do your YouTube subscribers help think of new products, colors or formulas?

Yes, it is really amazing because it’s almost like a viewer’s brand of makeup. I just posted a video about the new foil shadows and asked my viewers what they want to see. I’ll ask them and say, “What colors do you guys want?” I even have some of my viewers give ideas for names for some of the products.

Anything about makeup you don’t like?

One trend that has really started driving me crazy is the drawing outside of the lip line. I’m talking about when your lip line is halfway up your nose! You can do it a little bit … but when it’s so far outside that it is obvious it’s fake, it drives me crazy!

Go-to makeup look right now?

It’s funny because I never thought I would say it but it’s the ’90s lip colors. That kind of brownish mauve color that was so popular then. It’s coming back in style and at first I was all, Awww, no. … but after playing with it I've really come to embrace it.