by Jason Pham
Camila Coelho returns to fashion
—but not without looking back.
SHE IS LIGHT
"I want to make women feel beautiful. That empowers me."
amila Coelho looks over her shoulder. She’s wearing a white one-shoulder knit dress with a teardrop-shaped cutout in the back. “I love that we can see her bikini tan,” says a member of her entourage, noting the contrast between her Brazilian-bronzed torso and her partially exposed skin several shades lighter. Coelho, 33, is at a cover shoot in the midst of New York Fashion Week. In the days surrounding her shoot at a studio across the street from the New York Public Library in midtown Manhattan, Coelho zips around town to runway shows and exhibitions for brands like Revolve (the online retailer where she sells her fashion line, Camila Coelho Collection) and Dior, the luxury fashion house that she worked for more than a decade ago as a department store sales associate—long before anyone, including her 14.7 million followers across Instagram, TikTok and YouTube, even knew her name.
But while her schedule is packed, Coelho, who is calm and composed at her shoot on a rainy, overcast Thursday afternoon, couldn’t be more at peace. “My schedule has been so different than it used to be. Even my driver was like, ‘Wow. This is great,’” Coelho says days later over a Zoom call from her home in Los Angeles, where she lives with her husband of 10 years. The past NYFW marked Coelho’s first fashion week since the pandemic, a period that impacted many industries, including her own. But Coelho didn’t return to fashion week, back to business as usual. For the first time since her social media career started in 2010, she’s learned to breathe and, more importantly, slow down. “This time was a time when we were off to process our lives, what we really want and our priorities,” she says. “Before, everyone was doing everything and going 100 miles an hour, including myself.”
Coelho grew up in Virginópolis, a small mountside town of less than 20,000 people in the State of Minas Gerais in Brazil. For fun, she would ride horses and play in nature, but her first love was makeup, an interest she shared with her grandmother, who gave her her first beauty product, a red Brazilian lipstick, to wear in her passport photo when she was 9 years old. “I asked my grandma, ‘I need something for my passport photo. I need a bold lipstick. I can’t just wear a bare lip.’ She gave me the red lipstick, and when I arrived there, I took it out of my bag, so my mom wouldn’t see,” Coelho says. “I put it on quickly and jumped into the photo. My mom was like, ‘Oh my gosh. What are you doing!’”
After her parents’ divorce when she was 14 years old, Coelho and her mother relocated to Scranton, Pennsylvania, where her uncle lived. “Right away, I felt very different,” she says. “I barely spoke any English. I was Latina. My brows were huge. I remember people called me ‘unibrow,’ which made me feel very insecure. Most of the girls were blonde, blue eyes, America. There were a few Latinos in the school, but very few.” However, her eyebrows and English weren’t the only things Coelho was insecure about: When she was 9 years old, Coelho was diagnosed with epilepsy, a seizure disorder, after she had her first seizure at a friend’s house. She didn’t tell many people about her condition in Brazil, but once she moved to the United States, she found it progressively difficult to keep her epilepsy a secret after her friends questioned why she couldn’t drink alcohol, a common trigger for seizures. “That’s when I started to feel even more different,” she says. “I was already in this new country, trying to fit in. When you’re insecure about something, every little thing someone asks you makes you feel even more insecure.”
Without telling her parents or her doctor, Coelho stopped taking her epilepsy medication, which led her to have a seizure in the middle of school. She woke up in the hospital, where her mother gave her a talk that set her straight. “She told me, ‘Camila, there are people fighting for their lives every single day. There are people who have epilepsy, and even though they take medicine, they have seizures everyday. How lucky are you to know that you can take the medicine and it will control your seizures?’” Coelho says. “That day opened my mind. Instead of feeling different, I started to feel grateful and unique. It completely changed the way I saw my condition.”
After she graduated high school, Coelho moved to Boston to live with her aunt, who got her a job as a sales associate selling makeup at a Dior counter in Macy’s. The hours were terrible, and included weekends, but the job was the first time Coelho was paid to do what she loved: makeup. “I wanted to make women feel beautiful. That empowers me. That’s when I figured out how empowering beauty is. It comes from within,” she says. After her job at Dior, Coelho worked full time as a makeup artist, creating looks for weddings and local fashion shows, when she came across her first makeup tutorial by Kandee Johnson on YouTube. “I was like, ‘What? This is amazing. I want to do videos like this, so I can teach my friends and my family,’” she says. In 2010, Coelho posted her first YouTube video, a smokey green eye makeup tutorial evoking Brazil’s soccer team in the World Cup. “I would never wear that to watch a game. I had no idea what I was doing. I remember sitting in front of a window with a lamp and a digital camera. The lighting was so yellow. You couldn’t even see my makeup,” she says.
Within a year, Coelho found herself on YouTube’s popular page. “I freaked out, and then people were posting crazy comments, and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh. I don’t want to go to the popular page anymore,” she says. She also received her first-ever PR box from Nyx Cosmetics. “I’m having fun with these little videos, and I’m getting free makeup? Little did I know I was going to get paid to do things,” she says. In that year, Coelho also started her eponymous blog and found herself with more than 150,000 visitors in her first month. By the end of 2011, she was working on YouTube and her blog full time when a brand reached out for the first time to pay her for a product placement. “I had no idea this could be my job one day. That I could make any type of revenue out of it. Imagine 10 years ago. It’s not like today, where you know it’s a business,” she says. She found an agency, and within three years, the unthinkable happened: She was invited to sit front row at a Dior couture show in Paris. “It was a full circle moment,” she says. “I remember I was sitting there at the show, telling myself, ‘Don’t cry. You’re here. You can’t cry at this show.’ But it was one of the most special experiences. For the first time, I felt like I made the right decision in my life.”
But Coelho’s success didn’t come without its hardships. As her career took off, she often found herself as one of few Latinas in a room. “When I started going to shows, I often felt like, ‘Wait, am I the only Latina here?’ Or I could count on my fingers who the other Latinas in the room are,” she says. Coelho, who was an influencer before “influencer” was even a word, also struggled to earn the same respect given to the generations of content creators that followed her. "I remember getting hate from journalists and even brands. I’d sit at a show and say, ‘Yeah, I’m a blogger,’ and I’d get looks,” she says. “I heard so many things. ‘You will never make it. ‘You’re just a beauty influencer.’ Many things that would make me feel insecure. But at the same time, it gave me the drive to make it and prove this is legit.”
Despite the backlash, Coelho recognized her clout and value for brands. “I knew in a few years, this was going to change the market,” she says. And she was right. In 2019, Coelho introduced her fashion line, Camila Coelho Collection, with Revolve, which saw a 92 percent sell-through the following March after she expanded the line to swimwear, according to Forbes. In 2020, she launched her beauty brand, Elaluz, a collection of clean makeup and skincare products that won an Allure Best of Beauty Award in 2021 and is sold in more than 700 Ulta stores across the U.S. But Elaluz, which translates to “she is light” in Portuguese, is more than a business. It’s a reminder of what she’s overcome. “My team said, ‘You should just put it under your name. Your name is already a brand. People relate to it, and it’ll automatically do well,’” Coelho says. “But I wanted to do something that went beyond my name. With my struggles with epilepsy, the moment I found my light was the moment I accepted myself as I was. That’s when it transformed me. I truly believe every individual, each one of us, has a beautiful light shining inside of us.”
The night of her cover shoot, Coelho was in bed by 9:30 p.m. She had already taken a bath and was ready to sleep, something unheard of at fashion weeks past. “Guys, I’m so happy,” she told her 9.2 million Instagram followers with her blanket tucked to her chin. A night like that would’ve been near impossible a couple years ago when her life looked complete—to everyone but her. “It was a time when I felt I had accomplished everything I wanted.,” she says. “I had gone to the Met Gala. I had done everything I could possibly imagine, even things I never thought I could do one day. But I was finding myself sad, overwhelmed and having anxiety often.” Then the pandemic hit and everything stopped. She had more time to reconnect with family and nature, a part of life she loved in Brazil but missed in L.A. The time also made her more confident in saying “no,” a word that used to give her FOMO but has been beneficial for her health. “I just got back from fashion week, and there’s this other event, paying a lot of money, a great brand that I love, but I know mentally I can’t do it or it would be a risk for my epilepsy,” she says. “My health is number one, and no matter the decision I have to make, I’m happy about it.” As the world returns to its new normal, so is Coelho. Her schedule may seem emptier than before, but in reality, it’s fuller than ever. This time, with things that matter. “The pandemic helped me figure out what I need in my life. These are the things that make me happy and I need to prioritize time for. It was a huge lesson,” she says. “It feels good to go back to the routine in a more healthy way.”
The pandemic helped me figure out
what I need in my life."
Photographer: George Chinsee
Stylist: Molly Dickson
Hairstylist: Dafne Evangelista
Makeup Artist: Keita Moore
Styling Assistant: Jordan Gross
Sweater: Sally Lapointe. Hat: Eugenia Kim. Socks: Steve Madden. Shoes: Prada, stylist’s own. Jewelry: Jennifer Fisher.
Top & Pants: Zimmermann. Jewelry: Jennifer Fisher.
Coat: Nana Jacqueline. Shoes: Giuseppe Zanotti.
Ear cuff: Jennifer Fisher.
Dress: Aknvas. Harness: Alaia courtesy FWRD Elyse Walker. Jewelry: Jennifer Fisher. Socks: Wolford. Shoes: Steve Madden.