Kiwi vlogger Shannon Harris – aka Shaaanxo – on how she became a social media superstar

The Palmerston North-based vlogger is one of New Zealand's most influential young people.

New Zealand’s most influential internet star, Shannon Harris, is gearing up to shoot one of her legendary beauty tutorials for her YouTube channel, Shaaanxo.

Bare-faced and ready to roll, she pulls a silly face, making sure the shot is set up just right. Hitting the record button on the camera she has set up above her computer in the white-walled, fairy lit office of her Palmerston North home, she greets her three million subscribers with a smile and a wave.

Today she’s pre-recording one of the three Shaaanxo beauty tutorials she releases every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. The look she’s road-testing? Mojito – a complex and beautiful blend of green eye shadows across and around the lid, coupled with soft pink cheeks and lips.

As the episode begins, it’s clear it really doesn’t matter whether you are interested in the techniques Shannon’s discussing in detail or not. The fact is, as she makes herself up on camera, she captivates.

There’s just something about the Kiwi vlogger’s frank, quirky, down-to-earth, tell-it-like-it-is style and self-deprecating humour that makes you want to… keep watching. Not to mention her ability to effortlessly conduct a glamorous makeover before your very eyes.

Since launching in 2009, Shaaanxo has grown to be one of YouTube’s most popular channels. Last June, it clocked up three million subscribers and Shannon was named by Forbes as one of 2017’s top global beauty influencers – she was number five on the list.

Aged 25 and already inspiring a massive online community of 8.3 million followers (and counting), Shannon is sought after by international marketeers as one of the key faces in the ‘new generation’ of online influencers.

These influencers have become important to the business of beauty because of their unique ability to introduce new customers to brands through their massive online networks. The power of their digital footprints is huge – just one endorsement on Shaaanxo can see a particular product sell out within hours of the episode going live.

Such influence means Shannon is now able to command hundreds of thousands of dollars in advertising revenue and sponsorship for both Shaaanxo and her personal channel, Shannon Vlogs, in which she shares anecdotes (especially about her two dogs, Lewie and Zeus) from her daily life.

Along with her on-camera presence, Shannon’s behind-the-scenes business savvy is also helping her to successfully build a family empire. She has leveraged her following to create her very own beauty brand, xoBeauty.

Launched in 2012, the e-commerce business sells Italian-made vegan cosmetic brushes, false lashes, beauty blenders, brush cleaner and cosmetics. Shannon also collaborated with BH Cosmetics in the US to release her very own eyeshadow palette at beauty department store Ulta.

Taking care of business with the help of family and support staff, Shannon has been based back in Palmerston North full-time since 2014, when she moved the business back to her hometown with boyfriend Hamish and their dogs in tow.

She runs the businesses alongside her mum and Auckland-based manager, Imogen Johnson.

Over the years, Shannon says she has learned the importance of backing herself, taking time out and never forgetting the advice given to her by her mum.

“She always told me to try to find a passion that is both a hobby and a pay check, so it never feels like working,” recalls Shannon.

“She was a big inspiration to me growing up. We weren’t well-off at all and we missed out on a lot of time together when I was small. I was with my grandparents while my mum worked holidays.”

Today, her mum remains a role model and inspiration. Shannon is honest. It’s “naturally” not easy to work with family but she’s most proud of the day her mum was able to quit her full-time job to join xoBeauty.

The nature of their relationship has changed since working together.

“There is no one you can trust more than your own mum. She always has my best interests at heart. She works her ass off for me! We have had to learn new things about each other. It has made our relationship more solid. She has had to come to terms with the fact I’m no longer her little girl anymore and I am now a business person with a reputation and a brand to uphold.

“We have similar personality traits –especially our stubbornness and drive –which can cause us to clash. When we are both throwing about ideas and one of us thinks it’s amazing and the other thinks it’s the worst, those moments can be tough. But we’ve always made it out alive and we know how to compromise.”

Like her YouTube channels, xoBeauty was developed after Shannon saw a gap in the market and filled the need. But when she first launched her channel from her bedroom, Shannon never thought her beauty vlogs would amount to much more than a confidence boost and a chance to find like-minded friends online.

For as far back as she can remember, she says she’s been obsessed with makeup.

“As a little girl I kept getting in trouble for climbing up on the bath edge to get in the cupboard where mum kept her giant Elizabeth Arden palette,” she recalls.

When she was bullied at school for her “red cheeks”, makeup became her shield from the world.

“My mum started letting me wear a little tinted moisturiser as the bullying was really affecting my confidence. When I got to high school, I started experimenting with foundation and mascara. It was a security blanket for me and I wouldn’t be caught dead in public without makeup.”

As she refined her techniques, she fell in love with the process of filming YouTube videos and eventually settled on the first ones she would post online.

“I uploaded and deleted a few videos before gaining the confidence to keep them up there and not care about what people thought. ‘Shaaanxo’ was just a username I used on social media when I was younger for my MSN account. At first it was ‘shanxo’ – short for Shannon, kiss hug. Then when I joined YouTube to watch my fave USA YouTubers, shanxo was taken.”

Thinking Shaanxo with two a’s “looked weird”, Shannon created the moniker that is now a globally recognised brand name. “I never knew what was to come in my future! But I’m glad it worked out the way it did. Shaaanxo is a cute username. It’s just part of me now.”

Embracing her love of film, Shannon went on to study for a Bachelor of Applied Visual Imaging at Massey University. But student life proved tough. After breaking up with the boyfriend she’d spent most of her five years at high school with, a shift to a new contraceptive pill caused massive hormonal changes, leading to debilitating anxiety.

“Life changed a lot for me. I went from having a sturdy schedule between work, school, family and relationships. Suddenly, I didn’t have a boyfriend any more to spend time with, my mum had just moved an hour and a half away and I had a lot more flexibility and freedom in my new university course.”

Using her free time to work on her YouTube channel and hang with friends, Shannon says she slipped into the typical life of a uni student.

“I was drinking too much, partying, staying up late… It all took its toll on me. When I was put on the new pill, I began feeling down, like really down. I wasn’t myself anymore and I didn’t feel happy. I was way too terrified to mention it to my parents. I was even too scared to tell my friends.”

The turning point came during a family dinner.

“I must have looked a certain way, because my auntie asked, ‘Are you okay, Shannon?’ I just walked off and cried in my room. That was the moment I knew something was up. The feelings of sadness and crippling anxiety were too much. I spent too long curled up in bed with no motivation to even move. That’s when I knew I needed to just start over.”

Making the decision to quit not only university but also her job was difficult.

“One and a half years in, I told my dad I wanted to drop out of uni. I’d always been hard on myself when it came to course work and I have always prided myself on doing a good job, so I felt pretty disappointed. But I also knew it had to be done. My dad saw that too. He knows me and knew it [the decision to quit] wasn’t something I would take lightly.”

This was also the moment she decided to back herself to make something out of YouTube.

“At this point I was regularly earning a few hundred dollars in Adsense [YouTube Advertiser] income off my videos. It was just enough to get by monthly. I knew I needed time to focus on myself and was never intending YouTube to become a full-time thing.”

Having met new boyfriend Hamish (she’s still with him today), she took another leap and moved to Auckland. Devoting all her time and energy to YouTube, Shannon says her channel started “exploding”.

“My channel quickly hit 100,000 subscribers. I was beginning to see more money through my ads, and slowly companies began to approach me to do paid features in my videos, which was unheard of to me. I remember saying to my mum, this could be a real thing!”

From a health perspective, Shannon also began to feel more like herself again.

“I soon came off the contraceptive pill I was on and everything changed, I felt so well again. It’s crazy how these pills and things can affect our mind and wellbeing.

“Looking back I wish I’d got some professional help to get me through those dark times, because I don’t even think I have admitted properly to myself how low I really did get.”

As he was then, today Hamish remains her rock and is by her side as she tours the world. When NEXT catches up with Shannon, the couple have just returned from their first-ever trip to Vidcon US in Los Angeles. Now in its eighth year,

VidCon is a multi-genre online video conference and the biggest event in the world for internet video creators and their fans.

In September she travelled to Melbourne for Vidcon Australia – another chance to springboard the Shaaanxo brand into the social influencer stratosphere and a new opportunity to push Shannon outside of her comfort zone.

Even with all the experience she has, she admits she’s still pretty shy and it’s a challenge to get up and talk in front of people. But this year, she says, she’s determined to do the things that scare her.

That means finding new ways to step into her power and harness her confidence. She says she felt hugely proud when she came off the stage at VidCon, having completed two talks at the conference. Yet she says there’s no way six or seven years ago she could have ever anticipated sitting in front of a live audience in the US with other vloggers, discussing the ins and outs of building a successful YouTube brand.

She’s also learned how to ring-fence herself after getting run down physically and emotionally last year. With a close family member suffering a terminal illness, Shannon has taken a step back to enjoy more downtime. She and Hamish recently bought a beach house in Mount Maunganui so they can get away whenever they need to and they’re planning to travel around the South Island to see more of New Zealand.

“I am so much stronger than I thought,” says Shannon.

“My problem-solving skills are so much stronger because if I ever need something done, I’ll teach myself and work hard until it’s done. I’ve learned I am capable of achieving things I thought were fantasy. And if I can do it I think anyone out there can do it. I’m just a regular girl from Palmy who took opportunities that came my way, worked my ass off and created a brand for myself.”

For more inspirational stories like Shannon’s, pick up your latest issue of NEXT magazine, on sale now.

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