Ben Neiley | The Connoisseur of Contemporary Quality
March 13, 2019
The Connoisseur of Contemporary Quality
By Hanna Khosravi, Opinion Editor
As he organizes his production set in his Lipton dorm room, Ben Neiley jaunts around his inexplicably color-coordinated closet, sliding from corner to corner, dabbing powder on his chin, organizing his extensive Korean beauty collection on the shelves and periodically adjusting the tripod, all while munching on a cream cheese bagel from the dining hall downstairs.
He tells me his YouTube filming process requires a lot of time because of his intense focus on analyzing ingredients. But in watching him rattle off information about products into his camera, all it takes for the Gallatin senior to deliver a near pitch-perfect delineation on the products he is describing is a quick coif of his hair and an angling of his camera lens. There’s no teleprompter or script. He just turns the camera on, leverages the natural light from his colossal window and talks about each cream, powder, and cleanser with the ease of a natural orator, throwing out figures on the advantages of bee saliva as if it is common knowledge.
Neiley and Jorene He, our WSN photographer, proceed to gab about the ingredients in an array of products I know nothing about. I, on the other hand, inquire about my hair care conundrums.
“Oh my goodness, that happens to me all time!” Neiley hollers. He emerges from his hair care lair with a bottle containing an elixir of sorts that he promises is “perfect” for sopping up moisture. “And doesn’t it smell incredible?” he smiles, bringing the container to my nose. “I want my whole life to smell like this.”
The precision in the cadence of his voice, the ease with which he guides himself and other people through the street and his command of both his diction and his direction makes Neiley seem like a connoisseur in anything he describes, whether it’s his favorite Mexican restaurant downtown, the reasons why London recently dethroned New York as his favorite city in the world, or — of course — the potentially harmful ingredients in your acne cream.
And when he enters a room, whether it’s his own vlog set or the coffee shop we eventually settle into on Lafayette, he moves as if he commands the space. He’s not cocky — just confident.
Confidence is big for Neiley. It has to be, when your business revolves around your social media presence, your YouTube personality and your ability to get your point across in a boardroom filled with high-power executives. His concentration, called a “Fundamental Rethink of the Way We Market,” is rooted in analysis of the ethical nature of marketing and the understanding of creative-decision-making, scrutinizing the legacy of marginalization within the beauty industry. He tacked on an Art History minor after taking a class in the department while at NYU London his sophomore year.
“My colloquium will be a nice mix of ancient and Renaissance artworks, and, like, the Kendall Jenner Pepsi commercial!” Neiley tells me with a chuckle.
If you don’t already know Neiley from his Instagram account or his YouTube channel, you might have heard of him before — the wunderkind Lipton RA and Korean skincare guru. “Korean skincare?” you might ask. The calling is niche, but Neiley is eager to feed it.
He has always been the creative type — a character formula that defined his upbringing in what he calls the charmed Roaring Fork Valley of Colorado, 30 minutes outside of Aspen.
“It was definitely cool to have grass under my feet and stars over my head and be living this super outdoorsy, fun, adventurous lifestyle,” Neiley said. “I had an upbringing that cherished exploration and creativity.”
His go-getter persona does seem predominantly defined by the influence of his family. He describes his father as a literary, “joy-sparking” English major, and his mother as the ultimate source of his personal grit. Neiley says her mantra, “Life is not a dress rehearsal,” has provided the basis for much of his personal exploration.
Neiley’s early years seem to encompass both an admiration for his comfortable, small-town mystique, as well as an urge to break out of it, and it was during his sophomore year of high school that he began to develop a basic interest in fashion as a career prospect. As I look at him across the table — impeccably dressed in muted, neutral tones of mauve and navy — he tells me the clothes were purchased mostly from boutiques in London and Seoul.
The allure of the fashion world spurred an all-out desire to “become Anna Wintour.” At the age of 15, after a couple of months as a user on the application Wanelo, a social-media-fashion-platform-meets-digital-mall, Neiley became the most followed curator on the platform.
“I was doing a campaign with Nordstrom on a national Wanelo collaboration; I was going to events with Louis Vuitton,” he said. “Seventeen-year-old me was doing collaborations with J. Crew. I was so overwhelmed, but [I] learned such a huge amount so quickly about how to market myself and create a presence of myself that brands and people were interested in.”
After going viral, the rest was history for Neiley. Ever since then, his life and resume has been chock-full of rapid movement. His senior year of high school, he worked as a retail operations intern at Burberry in Aspen and fell in love with what he describes as its “welcoming brand ethos.” But a high school career’s worth of hours spent at high-fashion events and visual development meetings had rendered him disillusioned with the industry as a whole, which resulted in an identity crisis of sorts when he arrived at NYU.
“I started to develop a distaste for the people and the product of the fashion industry, and it clashed with my values, because I felt like it was really exploiting people,” Neiley said. “I remember standing in the Burberry stockroom and pulling a T-shirt out of a plastic bag that could have been an H&M T-shirt any day of the week, and it was $200.”
Despite choosing to attend NYU because of Gallatin’s open curriculum, Neiley began exploring an array of new professional identities — and no, he didn’t just take a new class or search online for career options. He went from interning on a Republican presidential campaign before abandoning politics to try out the entertainment industry, which he found equally uninspiring. (He keeps mum about which political candidate, aside from clarifying that it wasn’t Donald Trump and that the GOP no longer represents his views.)
The only point in our conversation when Neiley expressed anything other than invariable eloquence and stark self-assurance is when he described a particular aspect of his high-school experience. Despite being “a super gay guy who [was] really into fashion” in a conservative Colorado town, he remembers the time period jubilantly. Neiley’s mini-crisis actually stemmed from his experiences with “horrible skin” in his teenage years that led him to buy a full 10-step Korean skincare routine on a whim in Flushing, Queens during his sophomore year of college. Within a few days using the products, he could discern a complete improvement in his skin’s tone and texture. This time, it was different. Neiley had fallen in love.
“In high school, I had self-loathing on another level about my skin,” Neiley said. “[But now] I was finally using products that worked. And I was thinking ‘Wait, if I marketed these products, I would actually be having a positive impact on people’s lives.”
Neiley, as per usual, acted on his impulse. That spring, he flew to Seoul to do field research on the Korean beauty industry after receiving the Gallatin Undergraduate Research Fund. Shortly after his trip, he became a Digital Content Marketing Intern at Soko Glam, and blew up on its YouTube channel and on its article-based media outlet, The Klog. He then landed an internship at L’Oreal and has already lined up a job as a Marketing Associate at the makeup conglomerate upon graduation.
Neiley attributes his success, in large part, on his ability to dive down into the nitty-gritty of a product’s ingredients list. He says his “favorite part of skincare is the science,” and he describes many nights poring over academic research in Bobst in order to interpret clinical studies.
Sitting face-to-face with an exquisitely manicured, well-dressed Neiley, I tried my very best to get into the head of the archetypal, internship-subsumed student of NYU folklore that I’ve always heard about but thought was more of a mythical creature than an actual reality. And while Neiley is humble in his response, he also owns his accomplishments. Which, while at first somewhat jarring, is part of his authenticity.
“I am hyper-critical of myself, and I constantly compare myself to what my friends are doing,” Neiley said. “But I remember one time I called my mom and I was complaining about something, and she said to me, ‘Neiley, do you think about the fact that you are kind of an exceptional individual? These aren’t things most people really do.’ But it feels like second nature to me. If I want to do something, I’ll just do it.”
Neiley seems certain of his successes, and preserves his intentions — to move up and make an impact — with an iron-clad resolve and a well-groomed wit.
“Neiley is definitely a great advocator for himself, but in a very humble way,” said Cristina Fernandez, his boss at L’Oreal while he worked as a summer marketing intern for its luxury Japanese hair-care brand Shu Uemura. “He was always open to sharing what he was studying and how he perceived marketing.”
If moral quandaries regarding exploitation pushed him out of the fashion realm, Neiley is not letting it happen in the beauty industry, where he feels he has found a true home. He recounts an experience in which a group of executives in a boardroom were analyzing Nielsen reports stating that white gay men spent an exorbitant amount on skincare and are therefore one of the most lucrative demographics.
“In reality, the vast majority of the LGBTQ community is not white men who can afford to spend hundreds of dollars on skincare,” Neiley said. “If you depend on Nielsen metrics to determine who to include in your marketing, you will only include the people who are not in need of inclusion. Diversity can’t be crammed into data.”
Neiley’s goals are quite entrepreneurial — he wants his own company and his own unabating attention to ingredient details and personally developed marketing strategy to define his career. His ambition is undeniable. (He studies Korean and has already achieved a degree of communicative fluency, describing the Korean alphabet as “brilliantly designed.”)
“He’s really not the kind of person to give it 95 percent; he gives it over 100 percent,” Renee Jacques, his manager while at Soko Glam, said. “And he also doesn’t let any type of failure get him down.”
His emphasis on quality in every aspect of his life, whether it be his meticulously categorized shelf of skincare products or his adoration for British style, seems to permeate his every movement.
As he gets up from the coffee table to toss his matcha latte and give me a quick hug, I catch a glimpse of the phrase etched in white thread calligraphy on the inner wrist of his navy blue sweater. It’s as if the sweater’s designer left the two-word message in the shirt sleeve just for Neiley: “High Quality.”