Episode 54: Cassandra Bankson, Online Beauty Pioneer
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As a model and YouTuber with over 1 million subscribers, it would seem Cassandra Bankson leads a charmed life. But just a few short years ago, she was the scourge of her peers, mercilessly bullied for extreme cystic acne that covered 90% of her face and upper body. Years were spent enduring stares and taunts of—Worthless! Disease! Filthy! Outside of school, her afternoons were spent cycling through endless doctors appointments and medications in what would prove to be a futile attempt at a cure. Acne ruled her life, until she listened to her gut—literally—and revealed her most vulnerable self to the world.

Hear how she survived the bullies, healed her skin and created one of YouTube’s most-watched channels.

Dan Hodgdon
AnnouncerWelcome to Where Brains Meet Beauty, hosted by Jodi Katz, founder and creative director of Base Beauty Creative Agency.
Jodi KatzFasten your seat belts to listen to this episode with Cassandra Bankson. She's an online beauty pioneer, and major YouTuber. When I say major I mean millions of eyeballs on her quite frequently, and if you missed it check out last week's episode with Caroline Fabrigas, she's the CEO of Scent Marketing, hope you enjoy the shows.
Here we go good morning.
Cassandra BanksonGood morning.
Jodi KatzWe are joined today by Cassandra Bankson, online beauty pioneer. Welcome to where brains meet beauty.
Cassandra BanksonThank you so much Jodi.
Jodi KatzIt's nice to see you.
Cassandra BanksonIt's such a pleasure to see you. I know people probably can't see you right now, but you're in this amazing suit that has literal floral patterns all over it. It's making my morning.
Jodi KatzIt's very 70s, but I really love it. This is kind of early in the morning, for me. Is it early for you?
Cassandra BanksonI'm from San Francisco, so being here in New York it's like a three hour time change. You know, running on caffeine and adrenaline.
Jodi KatzTell us how you're going to spend your day today.
Cassandra BanksonToday I'm actually headed to the YouTube space. That's a space that YouTube has for their top creators that has camera sets, and studios. I'm working on a few nonprofit projects where I'm trying to bring out the true stories of the people behind the makeup. Show, and showcase their beauty, and their fashion, but really the underlying causes that have caused them to be in the life situation that they are. How they've grown from that, and how they're using that to help the world.
Jodi KatzAre you allowed to say who you're supporting in these videos?
Cassandra BanksonNot yet.
Jodi KatzOkay.
Cassandra BanksonYou can totally check it out online in like a month and a half though.
Jodi KatzOkay. You said you're a YouTube top content creator?
Cassandra BanksonYes.
Jodi KatzWhat does it mean, and how do you get there to be a YouTube top content creator?
Cassandra BanksonYouTube is great, because they have so many different opportunities for different levels of creators. For me specifically I have ... Which is crazy to say, but over a million followers across social media, and for me, I don't like to think about that, because I grew up as this girl with acne who was suffering, and just wanted a friend. So, the way I see it is that I've got a million butterflies, my little family of butterflies who've gone through this transformation with me of finding what beauty means to them.
What's amazing about YouTube is that they offer these spaces to people who don't have as many followers, to people who have way more than me, but they have this space where people can create, and really make their dreams come to life, and what it means to be a top creator, I guess that's different in different eyes. As a brand, you would see that as one thing. As a creator I see that as something different, and as an overall human I just see that as meaning people resonate with the things that I believe in, and want to hear what I have to say, and I'm blessed that they give me that time.
Jodi KatzGreat, so YouTube allows you to just schedule in?
Cassandra BanksonExactly. It's great, and then they give us certain cameras, certain sets, certain studios, editing suites, and because I have a little bit more privilege there I get to book things a little bit more last minute, which is really helpful.
Jodi KatzThat's so great that sounds fun, I'd love to join you one day.
Cassandra BanksonI would love that.
Jodi KatzWatch you behind the scenes, that'd be really fun.
Cassandra BanksonI would love that.
Jodi KatzYeah. We were introduced by Kate, my publicist who knew you from working on other jobs for other clients, and today's actually her birthday. So you can do a little birthday shout out to her.
Cassandra BanksonYes, please, happy birthday Kate! I love her.
Jodi KatzShe's probably still sleeping it's a little early for us. Let's talk about YouTube, because I am a big believer in YouTube, and I think content creators understand it, but I don't think the brands really fully understand it. Would you agree?
Cassandra BanksonI would agree. I'm nodding my head yes, because when you think about YouTube, it is a social media platform, and the reason that people have followers is because people resonate with that message, and ... I started back in 2010, so back from before YouTube even offered payment for advertisements versus now every single brand wants to have a YouTube channel, and wants to sponsor a creator. I think the difference is that in traditional marketing and advertising brands put a lot of money into their brand, and have these specific things they want to say or do, and instead of coming to creators, and trying to be super collaborative, many of them do come and say, "You're gonna say these five lines, we're gonna pay you this amount of money, and you're gonna create a commercial." Which is well and dandy if it's going on the brand's platform, or somewhere that the brand has normal viewers, but if you're taking a creator and almost walking into their home, into their online digital space, and trying to change things up the audience normally doesn't take to that well, because the reason the audience is there is to see the creator, and what the normal programming is.
I think that where the best of both of those worlds meet, is when brands say, "This is who we are as a brand, this is what we do, this is what we're trying to get across." And use a creator resonate in these three ways how can we authentically put this into your programming.
Jodi KatzWell get back to YouTube and brand content, but let's go back in time. You have an incredibly revealing acne journey that you're so beautifully open to sharing. Can you start at the beginning for our listeners?
Cassandra BanksonThank you, yes. The beginning was actually 3rd grade. I got my first pimple in the 3rd grade, didn't know what it was.
Jodi KatzThat's really young right?
Cassandra BanksonIt was really young, yeah. One of my friends named Carolyn was like, "What's that? Is that a wart?" And I ran home to my Mom, I was like, "Mom do I have a wart? Is it contagious?" She was like, "Oh no honey, it'll go away. Don't worry." Little did she know it wouldn't go away. I ended up developing acne that took over 85 to 90% of my face, chest, and back.
Jodi KatzIs that like middle school time, high school time?
Cassandra BanksonIt was middle school. Middle school and high school, and it was traumatizing, because this was my biggest insecurity, and I was wearing it on my face.
Jodi KatzAnd your chest and your back.
Cassandra BanksonAnd my chest and my back, which I covered with shirts, but still. Kids would call me things like the exorcist, the disease, freak of nature, pizza face. A lot of different really cruel things, and I definitely took those and magnified those within my own head.
Jodi KatzDid you have a solid crew of friends at this time?
Cassandra BanksonI did not. I had one friend who was part of a group of about five, and then all of the other four hated me. It was really great to be hanging out with the one friend that I had, and then the four other friends who just didn't like me.
Jodi KatzSo you had one friend who she would dislodge herself from the group to hang out with you?
Cassandra BanksonNo, I would ... I don't even know ... I basically just wanted to be her friend so bad that I probably followed her around like a lost puppy, and for me at the time, I was like, "Oh yeah we're best friends." But she probably was like, "Get off of me."
Jodi KatzAnd she was just probably the nicest of all the group of five.
Cassandra BanksonProbably, yeah.
Jodi KatzShe was gentle with you in that sense, but you weren't part of the group?
Cassandra BanksonPretty much. She had acne, and she was taking medication that helped her, and that's I guess why we were able to connect, but everybody else really hated me.
Jodi KatzWhat does a kid who's in middle school and high school do when these acne slurs are being sent your way?
Cassandra BanksonFor me I did a couple different things. One, I would run away from those problems, and I would change inside the bathroom, instead of changing in the locker room for gym. The second is I tried to make it a joke. There was a time in steel drum band where it was like a music class, and in steel drum band this kid named James decided ... When I was in steel drum band there was a fellow student of mine named James who was like, "Oh look Cassandra has a pimple on her chest you should pop it." I was like, "Fine." It was horrible. It was horrible, but I became this laughingstock, and everyone would laugh at me, and I was like, "Oh they're laughing at me, they're paying attention to me. I'm worthwhile for at least something." So I made myself the blunt of the joke. The brunt of the joke, and other than that I had a problem with picking, and I think that later on that stemmed into other self destructive behaviors.
Jodi KatzPicking at that ... The pimples?
Cassandra BanksonPicking at my skin, yeah. Then it became almost this psychological destructive behavior that carried on throughout my life.
Jodi KatzDo you think the picking was a control, like to have some sort of control over your skin?
Cassandra BanksonI think it was, and it was also ... This is going to sound horrible, but you know how when you pop a pimple it's like at least something's happening?
Jodi KatzYeah.
Cassandra BanksonYou know it's not good.
Jodi KatzYeah.
Cassandra BanksonYou know that it's bad.
Jodi KatzIt's satisfying.
Cassandra BanksonIt's satisfying, it's like, "Yes I got rid of it." I know it's going to leave a scar, and there's a mark there, and it's gross, but at least something is happening, whereas I could use products for a month, and not notice a difference, because it was literally my entire face. Unfortunately I started to depend on both that release of that pop, as well as a sensation of pain, and that I think turned into more self destructive behaviors as I got older, because I almost relied on that as a method of drowning out everything else around me. If you walk into a classroom, everyone stares at you, and someone yells, "Exorcist! Disease! Did you wash your face today? Filthy!"
Jodi KatzIt's everyday right?
Cassandra BanksonYeah, it's really hard to pay attention to your schoolwork, and when I would focus on pain, or when I would focus on something very pin-pointed it would drown out everything else around me. Think of it as like a laser beam versus a lampshade. A lampshade casts light everywhere, and if it's lighting up an entire room with a bunch of messages that are really distracting painted on the walls it doesn't feel so good, but if you pinpoint that light into a laser beam, you can focus on just one point, and that for me unfortunately was a very negative method of coping.
Jodi KatzThis is a time where you're seeing physicians, right? You're going to dermatologists?
Cassandra BanksonYes. Seeing regular physicians, seeing dermatologists, getting pills prescribed. Really being thrown like a hot potato from physician to physician, and I was put on multiple medications. I was never a candidate for accutane, because I have one kidney, and my parents wouldn't let me go on birth control, and for women that's a requirement. I tried so many medications, didn't expect to have some of the side effects. I would throw up everyday. Some made me gain weight, some destroyed my intestines. I tried topical creams, I tried a couple different light therapies, and it got to the point that after high school I had seen 24 dermatologists who either couldn't help, or turned me down, or said, "I don't know what to do, see this other specialist."
Jodi KatzThis is so fascinating, because you're young right? How old are you?
Cassandra BanksonI'm 25.
Jodi KatzOkay, so this is not like 40 years ago.
Cassandra BanksonNo.
Jodi KatzRight? And you live in a metropolitan area.
Cassandra BanksonSan Francisco.
Jodi KatzIt's not like you don't have access to innovative physicians, and people in the business who are moving the industry forward.
Cassandra BanksonExactly.
Jodi KatzIt's kind of surprising to me that this couldn't be solved for you.
Cassandra BanksonWhat was frustrating is that as I started to do some of my own research I would ask doctors, "Oh does my diet have anything to do with this?" Or, "I heard that stress levels could affect this." And they would just say, "Oh well take this pill." Or, "Oh use this topical cream." Or, "Oh pay for this treatment." I understand where some of them were coming from, especially when I saw a dermatologist who had a specialty in all the things such as melanoma spots, and cancer. Obviously they're not apt to treating someone with acne, but I even ... I saw a very well known dermatologist who has created an amazing product line, and even she wasn't able to fix my skin. Certain things would make a slight difference, but if I've still got 50% of my face covered in literal boils that feel like braille when you run your hands over them, and they're inflamed, and they're swollen, and you can't sleep because it hurts so bad to put your face on the pillow. It's really hard.
Jodi KatzAs we're talking, and I know our listeners can't see you, but you're smiling the whole time, you're talking about really painful things, how do you have a smile?
Cassandra BanksonI think that the reason why is because, number one, I was always used to putting on a smile when I talked about hard things, because you get really good at faking it, but also I feel like this smile is genuine, because I also recognize that if it weren't for all of that trauma that I've been through I never would have started speaking about acne. I never would have gone to school to try to study skin. I never would have gotten clear skin, which I have now, because I worked hard at it, and I learned what's right for me, and I wouldn't have a million people who believe in the same message of learning what beauty is to them inside and out, and treating themselves both holistically and medically, and making their best decisions. Because of that I ... It's hard to say, but I see acne as a blessing.
Jodi KatzRight, I can understand that, because it's moved you through something. There's this saying, if you're going through hell keep walking, or keep moving, and you ... That's what you did. You kept moving forward.
Cassandra BanksonIt gave me my purpose in life. If it weren't for acne I would've been caught up in trying to buy the latest pair of designer jeans, because that would make me popular. Now I realize that I have such a bigger purpose, and that I'm able to connect with people like you, with people, like some of my followers, like the people that I'm shooting with later today who ... I believe we're making a difference in the world, and there's no better feeling than that.
Jodi KatzLet's talk about your parents a little bit. What were they doing, or ... my guess is they probably felt pretty helpless? I think a lot of out listeners are probably thinking, "Oh, what do I do when my kid is going through this?"
Cassandra BanksonI've actually had the opportunity to speak to both parents and physicians about this, because it is so hard. When you look at the social and societal structures of children, especially teenagers, they're going through acne, and through hormones, but this is also a time where they're creating their own sense of independence, and when a parent comes to them, they're more likely to listen to their friends unfortunately, because they are experimenting with their boundaries, and their social economical place in this world. They're trying to create their own identity. For my parents, my Mom was always very supportive, and she would be like, "Oh honey they're just gorgeous 'cause you're tall. They're just gorgeous because you have a great smile." But, especially in my own perspective when my Mom would say that, of course she was trying to build me up, and make me feel better, but to me it felt like she didn't understand me.
It was like, no Mom, I'm not tall and gorgeous. I don't have a great smile, I'm an ugly, parasitic disease. That almost created this distance between us, because even though she was trying to help, I felt like she didn't see things from my perspective, and it created this gap where I could no longer go to her, and then who did I go to? The only group of friends I had. If you think about it kids go to school, and they come home. They have maybe a church group, that's it. They don't have a huge support team, and so I went to the friends who were making me feel worse about myself. I also think that when it comes to parents, of course they're trying their best, but also when a child is being told something by a parent, and they're going through this rebellious stage they might not want to listen. They might rebel on purpose. Obviously my parents were trying to do their best, but my Mom had two pimples on her wedding day, she'd never dealt with this, so I felt like she didn't understand me.
Then she would say things like, "Honey in five years this won't matter." But, to a child there is no five years, there's no next week. What happens today is essential, and as they grow up and fall down, scrape their knees, and get back up, they'll realize the world's a lot bigger, but as a child they don't have that perspective yet, and I think that for parents and physicians it's important to understand some of the limited constraints of a child's mind, or a teenager's mind. That they haven't had those experiences. Sometimes you need to fall down to pick yourself back up. I feel like the most ... In an ideal world for my situation, the most uplifting and positive thing that my parents could have done would have been to say, "Hey honey I know that this bothers you, I don't know what it feels like to be in your skin. Here's some information. I'm just gonna leave it here. If you have questions you can ask me. If you don't want to you don't have to."
Whereas I had a step grandma who would come over, and try to put every single product on my face, and poke at me, and it just made me feel like a live specimen. I was like, "I'm not your doll. I'm not a lab rat." Nothing would work, so it made me feel worse, and she's like, "Wow I don't know what's wrong with your skin." I internalized that from my step grandma as, wow I don't know what's wrong with you.
Jodi KatzRight, of course. This is really moving to hear, and I would assume that the work you do now is very therapeutic. Is it like, healing those wounds?
Cassandra BanksonFor myself, yes definitely. Definitely.
Jodi KatzI find this podcast as a form of therapy for myself, because I get to talk about what's hard, and have people who are in my shoes also talk about what's hard for them, and we're not robots in this industry, we're real people with real problems, and I really commend you on talking to parents.
Cassandra BanksonThank you.
Jodi KatzBecause I think it's hard to watch your kid go through something that's ... You have no control over. Right?
Cassandra BanksonMm-hmm (affirmative).
Jodi KatzI think it's really for that child to hear things that might make them feel like this is their fault. Right? Or that they're not doing x y and z, so a b and c is happening. It's really just an out of control situation that's just unfortunate. There's nothing to blame.
Cassandra BanksonExactly, but as a child unfortunately sometimes children tend to take blame where they shouldn't, and sometimes you don't know if a child is internalizing that. Also as a parent you want to do your best, this is your baby. Of course you want to help, and I ... I still can't imagine what it would ... What it was like for my Mom to sit there and see her daughter suffer, and not know what to do. Then to be pushed away by your daughter, who you're trying to help. I know that I probably made it so much worse on her, but at least now I can see that from an outside perspective, and at least share my story, and what I've learned, and the social psychology behind it to try to help other people who are either being bullied in school, or who are going through this issue of wanting to help, and not knowing what to do.
Then again, so one thing, I'm personally a vegan, but I don't sit here and tell you, "Oh, you should eat this, oh you should eat that." If I did that to you, you'd probably push me away. That's how I learned, maybe this how we should treat acne. It's ... I'm vegan, this is what I eat, this is what I do. If you have questions, come and ask me. I'm not going to force my opinions onto you. That's the way I see acne. Is that if a dermatologist treats you for a skin spot, and they're like, "Oh well you've got acne." It could offend the patient, it could make the patient feel worse, but if it's like, "Hey if you ever have questions about other skin issues." Or if a parent says, "Hey, if you ever want me to look over some paperwork with you, if you ever want me to take you to a doctor, answer any questions, let me know." That opens communication as opposed to forcing an outcome.
Jodi KatzLet's talk about the kids, and let's go back to being 14, 15. These insults were flying your way, you don't have alliances, right?
Cassandra BanksonYeah.
Jodi KatzThe relationships in school. What can you say ... What advice can you give to that 14 year old you to make getting through that easier, or what would you have liked to do if you had that power and knowledge as that 14, 15 year old self?
Cassandra BanksonWhat I would want to go back and just hold that child. Hold that 14 year old self, and say is that I know it's hard, but your struggle are validated. I'm not going to tell you that it gets better, because it might not get better for a long time. I'm not going to sit here and tell you that it doesn't matter, because to you it matters right now, but I want to tell you that everything you're feeling it valid. Your feelings, your emotions, your opinions all matter, because you matter, even if you don't feel like it. I needed that validation, and I think that regardless of what someone's going through they should know that whatever they are feeling is okay, and they are allowed ... Feelings are a part of life, they're allowed to feel those things, and they should try to find ways to make the situation better, but that's all going to happen in its own time.
Jodi KatzTell us how you did cure yourself. The physicians weren't able to help you completely, what did you do?
Cassandra BanksonNot really, so I started by going to esthetic school, and I started putting myself through pretty much skincare training. My goal now is to become a dermatologist, and I'm well on my way. Even as I was going through, we would always be working on products, and treatments, and all these other things, and slightly some holistic stuff would come in, such as maybe diet and water has an effect on your skin. Such as, okay if stress can caused acne, how can we remediate stress instead of putting a pill in its place. As these other things were there in ether I thought to myself, "Why am I not treating both sides of myself? Why am I only focusing on my skin?" Why am I not looking at what I'm putting in my body or these other things? I had many digestional issues because of those pills I had taken. I would basically swell up. I was asked if I was pregnant by people. I had irritable bowel syndrome, a lot of swelling, retention, and pain, and the doctor had put me on these different diets, a bland diet, all this different stuff, and I was miserable for like a year and a half.
Jodi KatzHow old were you at this time?
Cassandra BanksonThis was about 19.
Jodi KatzYou were out of high school at this point?
Cassandra BanksonYes.
Jodi KatzAnd you're studying to be an esthetician?
Cassandra BanksonYes, and through college to be a dermatologist. I'm going through all of this pain and not knowing how to treat it, and the doctor's having me on these crazy diets. It's really ruining my self esteem, because my body's changing, I don't know what to eat, I don't know what's safe, I don't know what's not safe, and it's all very confusing, because you have conflicting information from every single corner of the web, from every family member, from everyone.
Essentially I went online, and I saw one of those videos that animal rights activists posts, and overnight I was like, "If watching these videos isn't good enough for my eyes, why is that food good enough for my stomach?" So I went vegan for ethics issues, and I never would have expected it to have a difference in my skin, but within six months my skin cleared to probably 40, 50% which was more than it had cleared in years, and I was like, "Oh my god. Is my skincare working? I must be doing something right. I gotta do my skincare twice as much." Which was overkill, and made it a little bit worse, but the biggest thing was my audience was giving me feedback. I was giving them feedback showing them, hey, I'm cutting out meat and dairy, this is what's happening. This is how I'm feeling. Hey, I'm trying this new product. Hey guys, I sat down and I did this thing called meditation, and it was really hard, because all I could think about was what's happening later this evening.
My audience would give me feedback about what had worked for them, and alternatives, and holistic therapies, and alternative medicines that were working for them, and I choked down thistle root, and dandelion root, and it was horrible, and it didn't work. Then I switched my laundry detergent, and that happened to help, and overtime I started to figure out that it's not all just about skincare. Growing up I thought that if I just got the skincare recipe right that I'd be golden. Then as I communicated with people, and took their advice, and shared my own experience, I realized our bodies are all connected in super different ways. My knee is connected to my hip, which is connected to my heart through different areas of the body. Why would I ignore something like diet? Why would I ignore something like inflammation caused by stress? When that can show up in my skin.
As I started to take on those other things, as of last year my skin is completely clear.
Jodi KatzCongratulations. That's awesome.
Cassandra BanksonThank you, and as a beauty blogger I still try new products, so I mess it up sometimes on accident, because I think it's also having this platform it's my duty. Having this platform, and education. It's my duty to look at skincare ingredients, try them out, and share with people. Who is this good for, who is this not good for, so that consumers can make educated decisions, and know where they're spending their money instead of just throwing it at advertisements. Sometimes, that makes me break out a little bit, but I think it's all worth it in the long run.
Jodi KatzNow you're studying to be a dermatologist.
Cassandra BanksonYes.
Jodi KatzThis is medical school.
Cassandra BanksonYes.
Jodi KatzI'm kind of amazed at your time management, because you're doing a lot of things.
Cassandra BanksonIt's a little intense.
Jodi KatzRight, and you spoke before about the pills being thrown at you, and the creams, and potions being thrown at you by physicians. Now you're in medical school, you're learning what they've learned, but it sounds like you have a little bit of a different point of view about it now, so how do you reconcile this?
Cassandra BanksonYeah, what's so difficult is that when you look at any degree, or any major there are certain requirements that you have to go through, and there are certain standards that dictate how the tests are made that dictate what the right answers are, that dictate what you're going to put down. What's hard is that in anatomy and physiology it's pretty cut forward, this is where this organ is, this is what should happen, but when it comes to patient treatment, especially in the mental health sphere, and also trying to work on psychological, and social things, because it interests me. It's hard, because when you look at the paper, you know what answer you have to mark in order to get the right answer, in order to pass the test, but I also know that when it comes to these communication things, and when it comes to treatment things that that might not be the answer that I would give to somebody in real life.
That's hard, and that comes from my personal experience, but finding that diet plays such a major role in my acne, and stress played such a major role in my acne. When I become a dermatologist would I feel correct prescribing a pill to somebody knowing that it's diet or stress that's affecting them. Now if they're in danger of scarring, and if it's bad, and if I think that a pill could help them, then yes absolutely, because otherwise they're going to scar. If I think that it's caused by one of these other issues, and they don't need a pill, or it's not scarring. I couldn't imagine giving somebody medication that would do to them what some of the side effects, the rare ones, did to me. Then the root of the cause is still there.
Jodi KatzDo you have a dermatologist mentor who ... ?
Cassandra BanksonI have a few.
Jodi KatzYeah, like who believe-
Cassandra BanksonYes.
Jodi Katz... in this same sort of philosophy that you believe in?
Cassandra BanksonYes. One of the only dermatologists who ever listened to me about food and acne was Dr. [Sunny Bedusha Benshaw 00:28:04]. She's amazing. She also treats ethnic skin, which a lot of people said, "Oh you don't have ethnic skin, why would you see her?" She understood pigmentation. She understood different kinds of skin. Certain people who have more melanin, or darkness in their skin are more prone to scar, and more prone to pigment. Unfortunately they might use an over the counter product that could actually destroy their skin, or could actually cause some of these long term pigment spots when they're just trying to clear their acne.
So she was really used to working with those type of patients, so she knew that you have to be really careful in certain situations, and there might be weird alternatives that you don't see right off the bat, and she was the only person who validated my experience with food and acne. She said like, "I don't know for sure that food causes acne, or that certain foods don't cause acne. I can't say that they do or they don't, but if you found that's true for you, let's keep experimenting. Bring me a food log, let's see how this is actually working for you." Again, it was that approach where she stood back and said, if you have questions ask me, and you're validated in what you're experiencing.
Jodi KatzThat's wonderful. I'm glad that you found her.
Cassandra BanksonI love her, yeah.
Jodi KatzLet's talk about being vulnerable, which is basically how you spend most of your time now. You had to be vulnerable as a child, because you couldn't hide. You had a mask of acne, there's nothing you can do about it. If you had acne only on your back, you could have hid it, and you wouldn't have to be vulnerable, but you lived your life being forced to be vulnerable, and now you choose to be vulnerable, right?
Cassandra BanksonYes.
Jodi KatzWhich is a shift.
Cassandra BanksonIt is.
Jodi KatzTell us about the first video that you made that was really when you were really putting yourself out there for the first time, and what that felt like.
Cassandra BanksonThe first video that I filmed when it came to my acne was terrifying. At this point I had learned to do makeup so well that I was a runway model, and this was very hypocritical of myself, because here I was the ugly duckling in school, bullied for my acne, and now simply because I was able to cover it up so expertly, it took my three years, but because I figured out how to use makeup to my advantage, I was now being paid to be beautiful.
Jodi KatzAnd how old were you at this time?
Cassandra Bankson17, 18. How do both of those things fit within the same body? Ugly duckling, freak of nature, waste of life and air, to beautiful model, runway walker, paid to advertise things in magazines. Those don't fit in the same body, and for me YouTube taught me makeup. I would go to Sephora, nobody could cover my acne, and it was because I was watching other people online that I was like, oh this is what foundation is, this is what concealer is. Nobody was talking about acne. I didn't think anybody else had it, but I was like, "Okay, let's see what they're doing, or let me apply their techniques, and see if I can help my skin."
As I was doing that, I was able to become a runway model because I was able to cover my skin so well, but I felt like I was living a lie everyday.
Jodi KatzEvery casting you went to you had the full face of makeup on?
Cassandra BanksonExactly. They would say come with no makeup, and I was like, "I'll come with no makeup except for this." It was one of those things where I just felt like I was living such a lie, because I was putting on a mask everyday, and filming that video was almost my way of clearing my conscience. I knew that I had a couple people who I was talking about online with beauty, but I also knew how it felt like to live in my own skin, and if I was able to figure out the makeup that stopped me from hurting myself, that stopped my from wanting to commit suicide, that gave me the shield that I needed to go out and make friends, yeah it was a shield, yeah it was a wall, yeah it was a mask, but if it weren't for that mask, I wouldn't have learned my true identity. For so long I wasn't Cassandra, I was not Cassandra Banks, who was she? I was acne. I was worthless. I was acne. I did not have an identity beyond that, and when I learned to apply makeup, okay I could go out. I could meet someone who was wearing a cool floral jumpsuit.
I could go out and I could learn what kind of things I enjoy. What kind of foods I like, that I like hiking, and cats, and because of that I built an identity. I realized who Cassandra really is, and then I didn't need makeup anymore, but that video was terrifying, because it was the first time I was exposing my skin to the entire world. My biggest insecurity that I was willingly putting out there knowing it could destroy my modeling career. Knowing that it could lose me a lot of the friends that I had made. Knowing that it could really hurt me in the long run, but I felt like if this is what I did to not have to hate myself everyday, it's my duty to share that with whoever might be suffering. This was 2010, nobody really knew what YouTube was, and google was there but like, what was google? I never expected that people would watch it, or that anybody other than the people that were searching for it would see it, but they did.
Jodi KatzDid you tell your friends at the time that you were doing it?
Cassandra BanksonOh, no. Oh no, nobody knew.
Jodi KatzBecause you couldn't risk losing them.
Cassandra BanksonCould not risk it, and nobody ... I jumped offline for five months. Once I posted that video I just completely abandoned everything online, because I was so scared. Imagine if you're told every single day that you're a waste of air. If you're told every single day that you don't deserve to live, because you're doing a disservice to other people by just being in the same room because of how ugly you are, you expect to get that online. Especially because online is anonymous.
Jodi KatzThat's what I'm thinking. You went from being forced to be vulnerable, because of the acne everyday, then choosing to be vulnerable, but you're putting yourself back in that situation of the ugly getting thrown at you left and right by strangers. At least the kids in school it was face to face. It's almost like ...
Cassandra BanksonYou know who it was.
Jodi KatzMore courageous on their part.
Cassandra BanksonYeah.
Jodi KatzThis is a very tricky spot to be in.
Cassandra BanksonIt was. I left ... I didn't even look at the video for four months, because I was so afraid of what was going to be said. It wasn't until four months later that I went back online, and I was like, "Oh my god that thing." I remember, I was sitting at a friend's house, and I remember this rush of just terror coming over me, and I remember what it felt like, because I was like, "Oh my god I have that thing out there on the internet. I wonder who's seen it." It was almost like something I'd pushed to the back of my mind.
Jodi KatzWow, so you were really moving through the world not thinking about the video.
Cassandra BanksonNot thinking about it, because I had just put it out there, and I left. When I went back to check, I broke down in tears, because it was the first time that people had ever loved, embraced, and commended me for who I truly was. People were watching that video, and saw me with no filters, no makeup, no ego, literally bare to the bone, and people were telling me that I was beautiful. People were telling me that they saw themselves in me, or that this video helped them become vulnerable in their own life. There was a woman who said that she had issues with her fiance, and that they were thinking of canceling their marriage, and going through a divorce, because they had just gotten married, and he still hadn't seen her without her makeup, and he felt like she was hiding from him. She was able to take off her makeup, because of that video. She was able to be vulnerable with him, and reconcile their marriage. Their engagement.
Jodi KatzThis must be very emotional for you.
Cassandra BanksonI'm just like ... It is, because it's like, I never would have expected my pain to be reflected in other people's experience, and that we could come ... It's like a dumping ground for pain, and you know how good it feels to let go of that. It was a turning point for me and how I saw humanity. I was like, "Wow, there's kindness out there. There's goodness out there." I can be loved for who I am. I don't need to try so hard, maybe. I'm okay. I'm okay.
Jodi KatzThat was eight years ago?
Cassandra BanksonYeah, seven years ago.
Jodi KatzSeven years ago.
Cassandra BanksonYeah.
Jodi KatzPeople I'm sure still watch this video.
Cassandra BanksonYeah. It's got like, what, 30 million views? I don't know I don't count. Numbers scare me.
Jodi KatzDo you have any data on how many young people suffer with severe acne?
Cassandra BanksonYes, in America alone it's over 60 million. That's more followers than some of your favorite celebrities. Only about 20 million are getting treatment. There's a gap of 40 million people in America alone who are looking for help, but not seeking it out properly. Then in other countries there's so many more, and then you have different genetics, different food, different environments, and pollutants in the air. Different skin types, you have people that are suffering with acne in some of these other countries who are purchasing products from somewhere like the U.S. that end up hurting their skin. That end up causing pigmentation. That end up causing scarring and being detrimental, so there's definitely a lack of information. There's a lack of both combining medicine and holistic care, and I also think that there's just a lack of communicating about it, because again, it's an insecurity, nobody wants to talk about this.
Also when it comes to acne medications there are legalities as to what can be called an acne medication. There could be something that's curing people's acne, but if it's not FDA approved, and studied to a certain extent, and has these certain licenses it can't even be called an acne product. Therefore, just by the laws of labeling people might not even pick up a product that could help them, because the label is not allowed to say acne. Which is really tough.
Jodi KatzLet's use our last few minutes to talk about what all of our listeners or marketers want to hear about.
Cassandra BanksonAwesome.
Jodi KatzWhich is the practical aspects. We're going to wipe away the tears, and we're going to talk business for a few minutes.
Cassandra BanksonSounds good.
Jodi KatzAbout as a content creator, someone who's a voice for many, are you the type of person who from a business perspective will say, "Oh if you're gonna pay me I'll do it." Or is there an editing process, and a curation process, and just give me a sense of your head space around ... You are running a business, how do you run a business and feel authentic about it?
Cassandra BanksonThere's definitely a vetting process, and I have to honest. In the past I was not authentic to myself. As you said, it's a business. I decided to hire a manager, and a publicist, and an assistant to help me, and unfortunately a while ago I hired a team that did not understand who and what I am, and unfortunately I was pushed when I was on the fence about something to take opportunities that did not align with me, and I will be the first to admit that I accidentally hurt, and almost cut out some of my own audience, because they're like, "Oh Cassandra you believe in cruelty free beauty, believe in natural beauty, why are you promoting this product?" Because I definitely think this product could help some people, but is it a product that I would spend my own money on? No. That for me, especially today I'm like, "Hell no I won't even touch it." At that time I was under certain guidance. I was trying to be a good girl, and do the business thing, and I made some bad decisions. Happy that that happened, because I learned from it.
Jodi KatzWould you say as people are throwing opportunities at you, your team's throwing opportunities at you that self doubt about who you really were was what was coming through? These people know better, these people are professionals.
Cassandra BanksonExactly. My manager at the time had been in the industry for so many years I totally trusted her blindly to the point that that was a really bad decision. She obviously had her own motives, and I didn't realize that those were different than mine. When my care was about my audience and curating community, she's the business side. She wants to make money, and if we're not communicating effectively that's going to cause a conflict which unfortunately the conflict was hurting the audience, because I'm promoting things that weren't authentic to me.
Jodi KatzWhat kind of feedback were you getting from your audience when they were disappointed in your choices?
Cassandra BanksonI remember promoting a line. It was a luxury line, and again I do acne. I do skincare. I do science. I do empowerment. I don't do luxury beauty, and I remember this one person commented, and she was like, "Oh my god, this tutorial really? Yeah, I'll go buy these right after I fly away on my golden pegasus." It made me laugh, but I was also like, oh my god, I'm not even relatable to the people who I relate to most.
I have a new team, and for the past while now I'm at this point where I feel so good, because I can go to bed with myself at night. At the end of the day, you need to be okay with what happens, so that you can go to sleep. I'm okay with what happens, and I can put my head to rest on that pillow.
Jodi KatzWhat you're saying is, "I'm willing to not reach a certain income level to feel whole."
Cassandra BanksonWhat's amazing, exactly, is that for a while it was about the income, which was totally backwards, and I realized this isn't going to make me happy, and then the more money you earn, it's never enough, because you have to compete with the next big thing. I basically stepped away, and I was like, what am I truly passionate about? What is my purpose here? When you focus on that passion, the finances don't become anything, and when I made the stance of saying yeah, I eat vegan, why am I not wearing vegan fashion? Why am I not using cruelty free beauty? My audience was calling me out, they were like, "Cassandra, you're being really hypocritical, why are you using this brand that tests on animals?" So I said, "You know what? Done. I will not use a brand that tests on animals." I thought, okay, it's going to say bye bye to a lot of marketing dollars. It's going to be hard, whatever.
Ended up being better, because then the vegan brands wanted to sponsor me. Peta wanted to work with me. These different organizations wanted to work with me, because of who I authentically was, and I didn't have to pretend to be anybody else. I didn't have to push a product that I felt uncomfortable with, and then my content was no longer [ehh 00:42:30] type of content, now I'm super passionate about the brands I work with, and the content I create. Especially if you come to me, if you have a brand that I don't absolutely love, but you're offering me a lot of money, and I take it. I'm going to create that content for the money, but I'm going to be like, "Ugh, this brand go buy it." It's not going to be super authentic, but now you come to me and say, "I'm a cruelty free brand. I believe in natural beauty. I believe in sustainable packaging. I believe in the message that you're spreading to people." I'm like, oh my god, I can completely get behind you. I'm passionate about your message. Let's create something amazing. Number one, I think that we align, and then number two, because we align you're going to align with me audience, and I can help my audience through what you have to offer.
Jodi KatzIn that sense you're an editor then.
Cassandra BanksonExactly, and it has made me more money in the long run, because I'm now attracting the type of people that I've wanted to work with all along, and the type of people who want to work with me, and because that's a niche of cruelty free, global good, empowerment, science behind beauty and acne I'm able to serve these brands in such a meaningful way, and I'm able to serve my audience in such an impactful way, and they know that they can come to me for authenticity, and brands know that they can come to me for a very niche audience. It's been way better.
Jodi KatzDo you ever talk about brands that haven't given you compensation?
Cassandra BanksonOh yeah, all the time. Actually a lot of my brand deals start like that.
Jodi KatzOh, interesting.
Cassandra BanksonI'll go buy this product, I'll go buy this food, I'll go buy this thing, I'll start ranting and raving about it, and they'll be like, "Hey, you think we're cool? We actually think you're really cool. We're working on this specific thing for Christmas, or we're working on this specific campaign for holiday, or for summer. Can we have you be the face of it? Or can we pay you to promote our launch?" I'm like, "Hell yeah! I would've done it anyways."
Jodi KatzI love this. Thank you so much for sharing all this. You have this story about really honing in on your true voice, your whole self, and moving through the world authentically is something I really connect with, and it's like I'm a work in progress. You know, I'm getting there.
Cassandra BanksonWe all are.
Jodi KatzThere was a moment just a few years ago in my business where, my day job I run this creative agency, and I thought I had to be cool.
Cassandra BanksonYes.
Jodi KatzAnd I'm just really not cool, like I'm really not.
Cassandra BanksonSame! Same. If there's one thing that I think people should take away from this, it's the fact that, don't be anyone other than who you are. For the longest time you were trying to be cool.
Jodi KatzYeah.
Cassandra BanksonI fit into that as well, I've tried that too hard, I let go. For the longest time I was trying to fit into being pretty without having acne, but when you let that go and started doing your own business thing, when I let go of trying to be perfect, and said this is who I truly am, this is what my acne looks like, I'm dealing with it. You can start the conversation. You can start the awareness. You can start the healing, and you can learn from those lessons, and it puts you in a direction through a door that you didn't even know was there, and that's going to lead you to your true passion, and to what you're truly meant to do in this world. Of course that will be surrounded by people who love you, and by financial health, and things like that. If you don't chase your passion, you're not going to be able to enjoy what you do, and if you don't enjoy what you do, nobody else will want to work with you or want to be around you.
That's a hard lesson that I have to learn, because the world tell us that x y z is beautiful, or that x y z car is important, or that we should have these things to be successful.
Jodi KatzOr look successful.
Cassandra BanksonOr look ... Right? Or look successful, and I dealt with materialism a lot in the past. Never made me happy, but when I was passionate about what I started doing people started to see that, and I think that's very important for brands to understand, because when you think about it, think of a brand as a giant person. This is a person with certain likes, and certain dislikes, and it has certain people that it wants to surround itself by, and if that brand is not passionate about its own product, about its own message, about how it's going to serve the world, and what it does, if it's just trying to fit in, and it's a skincare company trying to compete with another, or a tech company trying to steal idea from another company.
I'm never going to do what you do best. I can copy you, I can copy your style, I can do everything you're doing, but by the time that I get to where you are today, you're going to be a month ahead of me. Now if I step back, and I say, "Hey I love and respect you for who you are, but I'm just going to be my best version of myself." That's when I start growing. If brands see it that way, instead of trying to do what everyone else is doing, trying to be the next x y z in their field. If they say, "Step back, what is my brand about? How can I serve my customers best?" That's how they're truly going to grow.
Jodi KatzI love that, me saying ... Just stay in your lane, it doesn't matter what's next to you-
Cassandra BanksonI love it.
Jodi Katz... zooming on the other side of you, it could be a tractor trailer, it could be a sports car. Stay in your lane.
Cassandra BanksonExactly.
Jodi KatzThere's a reason for you being here, stay in your lane. Well thank you this has been so incredible. For listeners, I hope you enjoyed this interview with Cassandra, please subscribe to our series on iTunes, and for updates about the show follow us in Instagram at where brains meet beauty podcast, thank you.
Cassandra BanksonAwesome, thank you so much.
AnnouncerThanks for listening to Where Brains Meet Beauty with Jodi Katz. Tune in again for more authentic conversations with beauty leaders.

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