Know this face? This is the face of a CEO, media exec, lifestyle guru, music producer, entrepreneur, author, multimedia artist, beauty expert and YouTube mega-star. And according to Michelle Phan — the head of a multifaceted empire, a digital pioneer who reaches 11 million people on a daily basis,a woman who epitomizes multi-hyphenate — she could be you or me.
Story by Michelle Woo
Inside a Dillard’s department store in Tampa, Florida, Michelle Phan walked to the beauty section crammed with gleaming displays of eyeshadows and cream concealers, approached the woman working behind the counter, and said she’d like to apply for a job. Home from college in the summer of 2007, she needed to earn some money to help her single mother who had been working 15-hour shifts at the family’s nail salon. Plus, she loved beauty products and thought she’d be good at teaching customers how to use them.
The woman looked at Phan’s application and told her she needed retail experience.
Phan pleaded for a chance. Trust me, I can sell makeup, she said.
The woman said they’d call if there was an opportunity for her. Phan waited. Two weeks went by, and she still hadn’t heard back.
Undeterred, she grabbed her makeup bag, perched her laptop on a table in her patio, and turned on the webcam. Then, she looked in the camera and filmed her first beauty tutorial.
PHAN HAS JUST RETURNED FROM VidCon, a mega-gathering of online video stars held in Southern California, where she spoke on a panel, signed autographs and posed for selfies in a sea of 18,000 mostly millennial-aged attendees.
“I call it YouTube petting zoo,” she says of the annual event. Wearing a simple striped shirtdress and ballet flats, she sits on an Ikea counter stool and types on her phone while her hairstylist, Octavio, fluffs her cascade of smooth, dark curls. “You’re mobbed and you’re chased. But it’s cute.”
The 27-year-old YouTube star is getting ready for a photo shoot in her Los Angeles studio, a Pinterest-perfect space sprinkled with chic décor items — a Tiffany-blue globe, speakers shaped like hot pink gems, lip gloss tubes in a glass vase and a ceramic mug adorned with the letter “M.” On a wall, mounted inside a glass frame is a gold-plated “play” button, a gift sent to her from YouTube execs when she hit 1 million subscribers. (She was the first to do so, but that was a couple years ago. She now has 7 million “subbies” and counting.)
Since uploading that first video tutorial in 2007, Phan has become a beauty and lifestyle power brand. She’s one of the first vloggers to achieve offline fame — her videos have played on a gigantic screen in New York City’s Times Square — and her success shows no signs of fading in the way of other one-viral-hit wonders. (“I feel like the Mother Goose of YouTube,” she says, while texting advice to a friend on hiring employees.) She has her own media company (FAWN: For All Women Network), makeup line (em michelle phan, backed by L’Oréal), and subscription beauty box company (ipsy). And she’s just released her first book, Make Up: Your Life Guide To Beauty, Style and Success—Online and Off.
While she started with straightforward videos on how to apply makeup — which have ranged from the practical (“Brow Basics” and “5 Ways To Plump Your Lips”) to must-hit-the-share-button-now shocking (she’s transformed herself into icons such as Angelina Jolie, Lady Gaga, Game of Thrones’ Daenerys Targaryen and even Barbie, a clip that has logged more than 57 million views) — Phan has evolved over the years into a self-proclaimed “life guide.” Like a modern-day Emily Post, she tackles topics spanning from hostess gifts to “textiquette” to starting over after a breakup, sharing bits of wisdom on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and her blog with her legions of fans who eagerly seek guidance on how to be all things Michelle.
It’s a life where every digital move is strategized, calculated and deliberated. At her kitchen counter, Phan’s team hovers around laptops and reviews the font on a promo flier for an upcoming live Twitter Q&A. During a conference call, they finalize the social media hashtags for her new book. Watching Phan in real life is sort of like being sucked into an infomercial. (I decided I needed to buy the teeth whitening device and detox vitamins she uses after she gushed about them. And no, neither company has paid her.) Yet she never comes across as mechanical. Instead, Phan is charming and exudes an everywoman realness, like an in-the-know friend. Naturally, her YouTube nickname is “Beauty Bestie.”
To Phan, branding is not about manufacturing fame, but about always presenting your best self, which she believes all young women should aim to do, Internet sensation or not. It’s also about embracing a DIY attitude at a time when financial certainty is scarce. “I was reading that we may not have Social Security money,” Phan says as a makeup artist brushes her eyelids with color. “It’s going to run out, so there’s not going to be any retirement money for you and me. So I told myself, I don’t want to depend on the system; I want to depend on myself. People my age paid so much money for college, and they’re in debt right now and can’t get a job because they have no job experience. How does that system even make sense?”
Phan wants to help lead a new movement, one that urges young men and women to build their own businesses, whether it’s making web videos or opening a food truck. “The Internet is changing the marketplace,” she says. “It’s no longer about conglomerates, but about sharing. It’s about asking, ‘What can I contribute to society? How can I make society better?’ People think, oh, well, you make makeup tutorials. It’s like, no, no, no. You don’t realize it’s not just makeup tutorials. It’s videos empowering women. When you have women feeling good about themselves, that can change the entire world.”
PHAN WASN’T LIKE THE OTHER girls at school. She had little interest in hanging out at the mall or playing Truth or Dare at sleepovers. Instead, she often spent her days sitting in her bedroom with an encyclopedia set that her family picked up from a yard sale, reading it from A to Z. “I was obsessed with Egypt,” she says, her eyes widening. “I learned how to write my name in hieroglyphics and made my own mummy and sarcophagus using papier-mâché. I kept it in my closet. My mom would always tell me to throw that thing away.”
She reflects a lot on history and the concept of time. It’s something that shapes her, fuels her. “I’m not interested in Hollywood scandals,” says Phan. “They’re so trivial. All these people that you see in this town think they’re ‘it.’ It’s like, no, you’re not. You’re very temporary, and so am I. When you think about it, the invention of the car was about 100 years ago. Such significant changes can happen [in a short time]. Imagine if everyone came together to work for a common goal rather than just going off and becoming the king of the world on their own.”
Her own history, as she tells it, begins in Vietnam. Both of Phan’s parents fled the terror of war in the late 1970s. During his escape, her father spent three months on a boat carrying refugees to Hong Kong. Many passengers died, and he watched as bodies were tossed overboard. “The cold,” says Phan. “He’ll never forget how it felt. It went straight through his bones.” Years later, Phan was born in Boston. Her father gave her the Vietnamese name Tuyet Bang, the word for avalanche, to capture that “unstoppable force.”
When Phan and her brother were babies, her parents stuck a crib in the back of a $600 van and drove for four days from Boston to San Francisco. There, her father developed a gambling addiction and would often lose the money they needed for rent. In one year, the family was evicted 10 times. “My mother would hide money inside my teddy bears and jacket pockets,” Phan recalls. “She’d say, ‘Don’t tell Father.’ I had to learn these mind games growing up. It sucked.”
They eventually moved to Tampa, and after a short time there, Phan’s father, who had been struggling in the flooring business, announced he was going back to Boston to look for work. He never returned. Phan says she always had it in her head that she’d find him again, and when she finally did as an adult, he told her that the moment he walked out, he knew she would be OK in life. She still loves him, she says. “He was a risk taker, kind of like me. He was just very lost.” When asked what her father’s best attribute as a parent was, she says, “He left us alone.”
High school started out miserably. As one of the few Asian Americans in her Florida town, she was taunted by kids who’d yell “ching-chong” and “do Jackie Chan moves” when she walked through the halls. “I was an emotional punching bag,” she recalls. She tried to cope the way many other young girls do — by changing the way she looked. To fit in with the Latina girls, she would lie in the sun until her skin was golden bronze, slather her hair with baby oil and wear “giant earrings with my name on them.” When she decided to try out the “hood look,” she asked her black friends to braid cornrows in her hair. “Part of it was insecurity,” Phan says of her experimental makeovers. “I didn’t think being me was good enough. But part of me liked it. I was this very emo kid. Wearing these masks empowered me to show different sides of myself. I could change my book cover.”
AS MALCOLM GLADWELL HERALDS in Outliers, his best-selling book on success, timing is critical. (His prime example is that several tech revolutionaries were born around 1955 and were about 20 years old at the dawn of the Computer Age — Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Paul Allen, among others.) For viral YouTube videos, it was 2007 that heralded a new era. It was the year the world was introduced to the hit clips “Charlie Bit My Finger,” “Chocolate Rain,” “Leave Britney Alone!” and the bait-and-switch meme known as “Rickrolling.”
Two thousand seven was also the year that a 20-year-old Phan uploaded her first makeup tutorial video. She had grown up with computers, selling candy with her brother at school to scrape together enough money to buy a bubble-shaped Apple iMac G3. At 15, she would read blogs and share her drawings of anime characters on the social network Asian Avenue, where she was known as “Asian Goddess.” She then joined the popular blogging platform Xanga, chose the username RiceBunny and wrote entries on topics ranging from how to make a ninja mask to how to curl your hair. Thousands of people read and commented on her page daily. “My ambition was to be popular online because I wasn’t popular in real life,” Phan writes in her book.
Using money that her uncle gave her family after visiting once and seeing that they had been living out of boxes in a single bedroom, Phan enrolled at the Ringling College of Art + Design in Sarasota, Florida. That year, the college announced it would give each freshman student a MacBook Pro.
It was with that MacBook Pro, just seven years ago, that Phan decided to make a video titled “Natural Looking Makeup Tutorial,” filming it in the patio of the home where she was renting a room. In the clip, edited with iMovie, Phan applies makeup for seven minutes, dabbing concealer under her eyes with her ring finger, filling in her eyebrows with eyeshadow and lining her eyelids with liquid eyeliner. She chose not to speak on camera, a stylistic decision that would become one of her trademarks. “I figured if someone is watching this, she’s probably not going to want someone who’s, like, ‘Alright, guys, now take your eyeliner and line your eyes!” she says, imitating a perky Valley Girl. “I wanted something softer, something very therapeutic and spa-like.”
Instead of talking into the camera, she records a separate vocal track, her lulling voice narrating each step over soft music. The result is so hypnotic that even those with zero interest in mascara can’t help but hit replay. She wanted to channel the late Bob Ross, star of the oddly captivating PBS show The Joy of Painting. “You know,” Phan says, “the one with the ’fro who was always like ‘happy clouds’ and ‘happy grass’ and was probably, like, baked out of his mind.” As for the tutorial, she says, “No one did it the way I did.”
Almost instantly, people started watching and then telling their friends. They would comment that she was beautiful and her voice was so calming and, hey, can you teach us how to do a smoky eye next? By the end of the week, the video had received more than 40,000 views.
Phan started posting more tutorials, and during breaks between classes, while the other students would wander outside to have a cigarette and gossip, she would open her YouTube page and hit “refresh,” watching the number of pageviews rise. Her teachers would tell her to stop getting distracted by this little hobby, but she knew it was becoming something more.
Before the days of savvy job seekers stamping their Klout scores on their résumés, when the term “followers” would more likely bring to mind images of a religious flock, Phan says she was already thinking about ways to build an online audience. She felt that it would help her somehow, even if it wasn’t quite clear how. “I saw what was happening,” she says. “I saw people graduating and not getting jobs. I just wanted to have my own little safety net that I built myself. I wanted to have some sort of advantage. I knew about the power of networking and the power of getting on people’s radar.”
Hank Green, co-creator of VidCon and the Vlogbrothers (a wildly popular YouTube show that he hosts with his brother, John Green, author of The Fault In Our Stars), explains, “Michelle wasn’t just one of the first beauty creators on YouTube — she was one of the first creators on YouTube. By mixing useful tutorials and tips with a positive and affirming outlook on life, she helped to define an entire genre of video that has become hugely influential.”
The little “hobby” also started bringing her a little money. Through her YouTube channel, Phan started earning 20 cents a day, and then $20 a day, and then $200 a week. Soon, she quit her part-time job as a waitress at a sushi joint. The restaurant owner shook his head and told her she could come back once she woke up to reality. But she insisted that he give her job to someone else. “If you give yourself a safety net, you give yourself that doubt,” Phan says. “But if you remove that safety net, you don’t even have an ounce of failure in your head. Because you can’t. It’s all-out or nothing. Success or bust.”
Phan was entering her final year of college and was supposed to choose a topic for her thesis. She had narrowed it down to either a project inspired by the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in the Bible’s Book of Revelation, or a makeup line. Then one day, she got a message from Kerry Diamond, then the head of public relations at French cosmetics powerhouse Lancôme. Execs wanted to fly her to New York for a meeting. When she got there, they told her their deal. The company had been making big-budget beauty videos with supermodels and professional makeup artists, and no one was watching them. “It was like crickets,” Diamond says. “We would get maybe five views a day, and that was from me and my team.” Curious as to what people were watching, Diamond started clicking on the “related videos” on YouTube and kept noticing Phan. “There was something very different and very special about her that I don’t think anyone could put their finger on,” Diamond says. “She had a certain je ne sais quoi. It was kind of magic.”
In a bold move, the company made Phan their official video makeup artist and online spokesperson. The gig involved flying all over the world — Paris, Hong Kong and Beijing — for magazine photo shoots and other events. At that point, Phan had to make a decision. “I said, you know what? I’m gonna do this Lancôme thing for a year, and if it doesn’t work out, I’ll go back and finish my final year of school.”
She’s never been back.
“NO ONE IS PERFECT AT EVERYTHING,” Phan says, speaking into the camera and holding an amethyst stone in her hand. “We’re all made to be perfectly imperfect, kind of like this crystal. See, it’s not perfectly cut like a flawless diamond, but it’s beautiful in its own unique way. There won’t be another crystal like this one, and just like you, it has many, many facets.”
The video, “How To Build Self Confidence,” released this past summer, is filled with Phan’s personal tips on how to find your best qualities and pass on your gifts to others. Like the many other videos on her YouTube channel, Michelle Phan, it oozes with G-rated, Disney Channel-esque charm. Over the years, the production values of her videos have gotten snazzier (she now has a camera guy, a lighting person and a production manager), but the basic formula remains the same — at their heart, it’s simply Phan talking to her viewers, sharing stories and wisdom. She shakes her head when new vloggers become obsessed with buying the latest video gear and software. “When I was little, my mom couldn’t afford a Halloween costume, so she drew an upside down triangle on my nose with lipstick and whiskers on my face with black eyeliner and we found a homemade lion costume at a thrift store, and I was a beast. That’s my philosophy in life. You already have everything. You have your hands and your mind, the most powerful tools that you’ll ever need.”
Phan, who calls herself a “multi-media artist,” holds on to that do-it-yourself mentality, and says she’s involved with every aspect of her brand. Living in a sort of online fishbowl, she’s also hyper-aware of her every move and how it might be viewed, and she shields her persona with fervor. “Because I’m a public figure, I have be mindful of what I say,” she says. “So I can’t just post a picture of me super drunk and being like, ‘YOLO!’ [‘you only live once’— the ‘carpe diem’ for the Twitter generation]. Branding-wise, that doesn’t work with my image.” Nudity, she says, is also “off-limits” and “something I only want my lover to see.”
She advises young girls to think of themselves as their own brand, and before they post anything online, they should ask themselves if they’d want their grandmother, future kids or future boss to see it. When she looks at her old Xanga posts, she cringes. “I think, oh my god, I was so annoying. I was this 19-year-old girl writing in all caps. Super obnoxious.
“I’m at a point in my life where I’m no longer a girl,” Phan adds. “I’m a woman. And because I’m a woman, I have more freedom. And because I have freedom, I have to be careful about the decisions I make. When you’re young, you think you’re invincible, but then things happen in your life, and you’re like, actually, I’m not invincible. I’m actually very fragile as a person. So you become more careful with what you do.” As for online attackers (and she has her share of them — multiple Michelle Phan hate-sites exist in cyberspace), Phan sees them as “terrible potholes.” The best way to handle them, she believes, is to ignore them or send them love. “I’ll say things like, ‘Hey, I’m praying for you.’ If they have to punch my online persona so that they can feel better, well, at least I helped them feel better. You just have to think of it that way.”
Phan’s rise to mega-fame has placed her in vulnerable territory. This summer, she was sued by electronic dance music company Ultra Records, which accused her of illegally using songs of its artists in her videos, including a track by Grammy-nominated DJ Kaskade. (Kaskade actually supported Phan, tweeting, “Copyright law is a dinosaur, ill-suited for the landscape of today’s media.”) Phan has countersued, claiming she did receive permission to use the songs. Her team declined comment on the lawsuit and instead directed me to the news of Phan’s latest venture — she’s launching a new music label with Cutting Edge Group called Shift Music Group.
The online artist never envisioned herself as a business founder and CEO, but now that she’s in that position, she’s urging others to get out of the corporate system, too, if that’s what they really want. This year, Phan inked a development deal with Endemol Beyond USA, the digital arm of global TV production firm Endemol. Her role is to build a female-focused lifestyle network, mentoring new talent and developing programming ideas with them. She believes that today’s digital revolution is shaking the structure of society in a fundamental way — and that’s a progressive step. “Things are getting worse right now, politically speaking, all over the world,” she says. “When you look at how just 1 percent of America’s population makes this amount of money while the rest is suffering, that shows you there needs to be a change. People complain about millennials being lazy because of computers. OK, then remove computers from school and just have dictionaries and encyclopedias, but is that really gonna better them? Yeah, they may not have to physically open things or do the manual work, but that gives them more room and time, and I think that with the right environment, you can really inspire them to become super programmers and brilliant people for the future.”
They can start by simply sharing what they know, whether it’s makeup or home décor or funny jokes, says Phan. Chances are, they’ll connect with someone. Once, at a meet-and-greet, a young man came up to Phan and told her that he started watching her tutorials after his mother was diagnosed with cancer. She had lost her hair from chemotherapy and was so weak that she couldn’t even lift her hands. Knowing that she always loved putting on makeup, the son decided to raid her cosmetics bag and do it for her, to connect with her and make her feel beautiful up until her final days.
“It’s not a superficial thing,” Phan says of makeup. “Beauty is your face. It’s what people look at when they’re speaking to you — your eyes, your mouth. It’s your persona. I have this bond with my viewers because I’m showing them how to find their own beauty, on the outside and within.”
After the photo shoot, Phan slips back into her shirtdress and flats, a breezy, no-frills ensemble that she says she would “wear every day if I could.” For a woman who made a reported $5 million in 2013 (her team declined to confirm her financials), she lives with extraordinary simplicity. When not working, she’s hanging out with her boyfriend, model Dominique Capraro, or watching documentaries like Sirius Disclosure. She sleeps on a futon sofa and uses the same bag from years ago. “I don’t have attachments to things,” she says. “I don’t want to own things because ultimately what happens is that the things start owning you.” She adds that having the philosophy that life is not a ladder but “a circle” has given her great peace. “I’m no longer chasing this idea of being successful and having money. Now it’s like, what can I do with this money? This money doesn’t buy me happiness. It buys me the freedom to build something even bigger that can help the whole world.”
At the end of the interview, I ask Phan if we can take a selfie together. After all, she’s the reigning queen of the art — her video “How To Take The Perfect Selfie” has been viewed 2.8 million times.
She gleefully agrees, holding my phone while extending her arm out in front of us.
“Always hold the camera up and look up,” she says. She elongates her neck and turns her face toward the natural light. Then she looks into the camera with confidence and smiles.
Story Michelle Woo
Photos Jack Blizzard
Stylist Reichelle Palo
Makeup Jayme Kavanaugh
Hair Octavio Molina
This story was originally published in our Winter 2014-15 issue. Get your copy here.