Johnny Kritsberg is nervous for his first interview.
Let me repeat: I, Tess, from QUILL, am his first interviewer. And this man, with more than one million followers combined, is nervous. I clarify that it’s not so much of an interview as a conversation.
Kritsberg, known popularly as okjohnnyboy on social media, has just joined the call with Jeff Parshley, co-founder of NOH8 and founder of NOW Nail Polish. The two have just collaborated on NOW’s latest product: an eyeliner pen.
Right off the bat, it’s clear that Parshley and Kritsberg aren’t just partners who created a product and never spoke outside of it – they’re friends, too.
We quickly begin the conversation, and it’s going smoothly… before I accidentally do the exact thing I told Kritsberg I wouldn’t do: ask an interview question.
For those who don’t know, Johnny Kritsberg is a social media superstar.
Born in Phoenix, he grew up in a conservative community. “Growing up, there was no one that I saw wearing eyeliner. And then I actually got on TikTok around 2019, and I saw a couple of guys just wearing simple, eyeliner looks underneath the eyes.” Kritsberg was captivated by the look. “It was like a rock star look. And I just thought, ‘that’s cool. I want to try that.’”
Jeff Parshley is also social media famous. Parshley is a co-founder of the NOH8 campaign, which was founded in 2009 and has blown up into a passionate human rights movement that works toward advancing equality for all.
He’s also the founder of NOW Nail Polish, a unisex nail polish brand. The name came by accident; “I was trying to think up another word for unisex, something that’s another word for ‘not only women,’” he explains. “So, I wrote down ‘not only women,’ and it came out as NOW.”
He ran with it. “I thought that I could use the word ‘now’ … by saying ‘now it’s for everybody.’ … Now we’re going to change the stigma and speak of the brand in a timestamp, like ‘the time is now. It’s not going to be tomorrow. We’re going to do it right now.’”
Meanwhile, Kritsberg was becoming a rising star on social media platforms, building his following with his unique eyeliner looks. He also began offering tutorials to his followers, who ate the videos up. He currently has over one million followers across platforms, though he remains humble – when I mention his 300,000 followers on Instagram, he’s quick to downplay it, correcting me and saying it’s closer to 280,000. (Big difference.)
So, both men love makeup, and both men hate stigma within the beauty industry. It was only natural that they join forces.
“I first reached out to him in 2019,” says Parshley. “I liked how he portrayed himself. I liked his style. And so I approached him about [collaborating] for the nail polish first.” They held a photo shoot, with Kritsberg modeling NOW’s polish.
But Parshley wasn’t stopping there – he wanted to expand NOW, create something bigger than a nail polish brand.
“I admired what he has put forth in the eyeliner world, just doing it and just for fun. So I suggested maybe we work on something.” Parshley explains.
Kritsberg jumps in, explaining that his manager had spoken with Parshley about the possibility of collaborating. “I thought, ‘that’s such a cool idea … to create an eyeliner that I know I love, because I’ve been using a lot of different eyeliners for my videos. So, it was really cool to actually be able to create that and make one that I love.”
Speaking of managers – I notice in the corner that Kritsberg’s own, Gianni Pasciuto, has rushed from a meeting to join ours. I don’t let him go unnoticed, thanking him for coming and helping to make this happen.
Like Kritsberg, Pasciuto is humble. “This was truly their passion project,” he says. “It’s been really fun.” He proceeds to mute himself, and the topic turns back to the eyeliner.
It hits me: I’m surrounded by people who speak to hundreds of thousands every day, and there is not a single ego on this Zoom call. It’s Kritsberg’s first interview; Pasciuto graciously thanks me for taking the time; Parshley has called in despite traveling for a NOH8 campaign. And I’ve gotta say: it’s refreshing.
Here is where I make the mistake of beginning my next sentence with, “so, my next question is.”
I catch myself, quickly changing the word “question” to “conversation starter,” cringe internally, and ask how the eyeliner came to be a jet-black, liquid pen.
Kritsberg is unfazed, jumping in immediately. “Jeff literally came in and brought in, I’m not even kidding, 20 or 30 different eyeliners.” he says. Parshley backs the claim up. “When he says I brought 20, I brought in all of the other brands. We looked at them and we said, ‘well, what do we like about this one? And what do we like about this one? And what don’t we like about this one?”
Kritsberg wanted to create a liquid liner “because that’s what I use most. … I like to do more intricate looks and, either way, even if I do a regular look, the number one thing is I’m always using liquid eyeliner,” he says. When it came to a pen or brush, he ultimately chose a pen, because it’s the least messy option when it comes to liquid formulas.
“We actually were set on a brush tip,” Parshley divulges to me. “[We] went to a lab in LA and created this formula – so it’s a proprietary formula for us – and … after we had the formula created, we realized the brush tip isn’t the best tip for the formula we have. And we changed to a felt tip.”
It sounds like a simple solution. It wasn’t.
“Just the tips alone, there are literally so many different options for liquid eyeliner tips that you could choose from. … It was a really cool experience to go through everything, and figure it out,” says Kritsberg.
Parshley chimes in: “[The felt tip] dropped more formula down, [and] it made it appear blacker. It made everything look so much better. … Then Johnny decided on the pen because it’s easier for him, and if it’s easier for him, it’s probably easier for everybody.”
Kritsberg begins agreeing, then interrupts himself. “I’m so sorry, I can’t help [rambling].” Parshley comes to the rescue: “It’s because you’re so proud of it.” And Kritsberg is, I can feel it. He may be nervous to be here, but he’s proud.
I mention how the pen also makes it accessible for people who have tardive dyskinesia, including myself, who struggle with brushes. “We had to really think about everything, but I’ve never thought about that. That’s really interesting, [and] I’m glad that was brought up,” Kritsberg says.
It wasn’t just the pen itself, though – the box was important, too. “We had to look at every eyeliner box too and see what was more appealing to the eye,” says Kritsberg. “We actually ended up coming up with this cool sleeve box.” And utilizing Kritsberg’s talents, the box features a tutorial from Kritsberg himself as a guide for using the pen.
“We did everything we could,” Parshley emphasizes. “We’re both really proud of the way it came out, and I personally wouldn’t change anything about it. It’s an amazing product.”
Then Parshley says something that thrills me: he points out how beauty products and marketing are almost entirely targeted toward women. A.k.a., QUILL’s entire point of existence. I settle into my seat and get ready for The Conversation; something tells me I’m not the only one passionate about the topic on this call.
“Even in Sephora, if you walk in, there’s not really … men wearing [makeup] for different brands,” says Kritsberg.
“It’s mainly female models or female models’ eyes that you see when you look at makeup. … It’s something that we really would like to change.”
I mention Shari Siadat being turned away by modeling campaigns because she does not have the stereotypical Eurocentric features, something that is still prevalent in the modeling industry. The same goes for eyeliner: it’s all women. And like Siadat, Kritsberg and Parshley are determined to change a stereotype.
“When [Jeff and I] came together, we thought, ‘yeah, [eyeliner] is perfect because I’m male, one of the few males doing makeup and eyeliner tutorials on TikTok. So why not? There’s a perfect opportunity.”
Parshley acknowledges that his brand, NOW, though for everyone, will probably be worn mostly by women. But his goal is to be fully inclusive. “That’s why working with Johnny was so perfect for me and my brand, because we can use someone who identifies as a man in eyeliner ads and almost force these brands to reconsider how they’re marketing.”
He’s on a roll, and I’m loving it. “I think the brands like us and people like Johnny are going to make the bigger brands reconsider what they’re doing. And it’s really their advertising and marketing that has created the stigma” — I nod my head involuntarily at the use of stigma — “that makeup is for women, because they market it to women. … They say, ‘you look great if you’re a woman.’ Great. But what about guys looking great in it too?”
“We’re just going to start showing them that men wear it, and you are not marketing your products right. And if you want to keep up with the times that are evolving, then maybe you’ll consider putting a man on that billboard.” Parshley finishes.
I snap enthusiastically to the camera in agreement.
I told them I’d take half an hour, and it’s 5:27.
I know I can’t go over, even though I’m dying to keep going. I ask what’s next for the two of them, whether there’s more to come with the eyeliner.
“I think for 2022 and so on, I’d really love to expand,” Kritsberg says excitedly. “Jeff and I firmly believe that once [people] try [the eyeliner], they’ll love it. So right now, it’s getting the word out and getting people to try it. That’s really the main goal at the moment. Just really get the word out and change the stigma.”
Parshley answers now, always bringing the conversation and focus back to Kritsberg.
“I’ll just add that Johnny has been changing the stigma for a while. He didn’t just start wearing eyeliner, it’s not new for him,” Parshley reminds me. “[And] I’ve been doing it with the NOH8 campaign and with NOW Polish, and the NOW brand in general for a while. We’re not just going to start changing the stigma now – we have been trying to.”
Social media has changed the game, too, and Kritsberg’s reach is inarguable. It’s hard to believe that Kritsberg wasn’t always bursting with confidence, but he explains that it has made him feel that way, especially as he began trying more intricate designs. “Social media has changed … everything, I feel like, especially for me. It’s really cool.”
Kritsberg has been positively affected by social media, and now he’s a positive influence on others, which Parshley notes directly to Kritsberg. “They’re watching your story, they’re watching your tutorials, and they’re thinking that that’s something they can do too, and they know … there’s more to life than what’s in their circle of life right now.”
I hear a smile in Kritsberg’s voice as he shyly mentions that others have told him he’s been a source of new confidence for them. And now, Parshley says adamantly, “those people that are feeling more confident because of [Johnny], he can now share a great product that he made with those people.”
Kritsberg matches Parshley’s confidence as the interview – sorry, conversation – comes to a close. “I can confidently say that this is the perfect eyeliner if you’re trying to do what I’m trying to do. Even for regular day stuff.”
Parshley closes the interview succinctly, strongly: “It’s for everybody, no matter what your look is.”