Michelle Phan is vlogging. On a December afternoon in an ivy-covered building in Culver City, Los Angeles’ latest startup hotbed, I’ve arrived early for our interview to find Phan seated at the centre of her sprawling Em Cosmetics headquarters.
The glass and cement converted warehouse has been softened with playful dashes of tween fantasy: Pepto pink kitchen appliances, a star fruit throw pillow. Eight employees buzz around the cavernous space, while Phan smiles serenely into her phone’s camera.
Amid the Bauhaus-meets-Barbie Dream House setting, there’s not a glint of the upheaval that has defined Phan for the past few years. That’s because in 2015 Michelle Phan became one of the internet’s greatest mysteries.
There was her meteoric rise: amassing close to nine million subscribers as YouTube’s first beauty guru before practically inventing influencer marketing and becoming a near-unicorn entrepreneur with a personal net worth (estimated at $50 million) hefty enough to land the cover of Forbes and be crowned ‘the Oprah of beauty’ by The Hollywood Reporter.
And just as suddenly, her disappearance. After more than 238 vlogs, Phan vanished from the internet without trace.
‘Where is Michelle Phan?’ people asked on forums such as Reddit and MakeupAlley, an online platform for beauty obsessives. Some followers even thought that she was dead.
But here she is, sitting in front of me, vlogging, breathing, her vital signs intact. This is the second coming of Michelle Phan.
‘People love a before and after,’ she tells me with the same soothing ASMR tone that guides more than a billion viewers through her jaw-dropping transformations into Daenerys Targaryen, Angelina Jolie and Rihanna.
Phan is an unrivalled master of this kind of content that seamlessly rises to the top of the 5OO hours of fresh video uploaded to YouTube per minute – videos that not only changed the course of her life, but the internet, the beauty industry and contemporary business as we know it. To understand Michelle Phan is to understand the culture we’re living in.
‘I could have retired years ago, honestly,’ says Phan. ‘I could be sipping mai tais under a palm tree. I would be so bored.’
Behind a curtain of long black hair, the 32-year-old’s heart-shaped face has the aspirational glow of someone enjoying an island escape: her foundation-free skin illuminated by a dewy wash of her own Em Cosmetics Color Drops Serum Blush in Soft Amethyst, a warm berry shade that she describes as mimicking the flush that accompanies drinking a glass of wine.
This is a woman who spent the best part of a decade controlling the narrative. When she tells me she live edits her videos in her head while she makes them, I can’t help but think of how I’ve heard her do it in interviews, weaving platitudes and soundbites into anecdotes whenever possible: ‘money doesn’t buy happiness’; ‘when one door closed, a laptop opened’.
Throughout our two-hour conversation, she insists, ‘I’m very normal,’ as many as seven times, despite having already lived a life so extraordinary that it’s changed the way we learn, buy and sell across the beauty industry and social media.
The second of three children, Phan was raised in Tampa, Florida, by her Vietnamese immigrant parents: a mother whose nail salon inspired Phan’s interest in beauty and entrepreneurship, and a father whose gambling debts, and later absence, inspired Phan to strive for financial stability. ‘My family never had wealth. They came here during the Vietnam War, so they had nothing.’
In her teenage bedroom, out of sheer boredom, Phan began blogging about her life on Xanga, an early blogging platform. Her mother hoped she would become a doctor, but Phan went to art school to study illustration.
While there, she tried her first vlog in 2007. Some 40,000 people viewed ‘Natural Looking Makeup Tutorial’ within a week, which was filmed over three days in the conservatory of the retirement community where she lived. Within a year, her videos were drawing a million views from around the world. ‘That was the first time I really felt successful. I thought, OK, I should pay more attention to this.’
Phan was accumulating student debt while taking home $20 (£15) a day as one of the first creators chosen by YouTube to monetise their content when a video she posted about doing her make-up on a plane caught the attention of Lancôme.
They offered Phan a 12-month contract. ‘It was as much money as a doctor makes,’ Phan remembers. She called her mother to tell her that she would never have to give another manicure again, then quit school and moved to LA.
Beneath the Hollywood sign, Phan first understood the ephemerality of the kind of power she was building. ‘I’ve seen those reality shows with “where are they now?” stars.’
So in 2012, she built a radical contingency plan, launching Ipsy: a subscription service beauty box curated with Phan-approved products. On the advice of her co-founders, the company raised $100 million (£77 million) investment, earning a valuation of more than $500 million (£384 million) based on the perceived value of the company.
In another groundbreaking move, Phan inked a deal with L’Oréal to create her own make-up for the beauty behemoth’s first startup, Em Cosmetics. Released in 2013, Em Cosmetics drew the roadmap for every influencer beauty brand to follow, including Glossier, Jeffree Star Cosmetics and the latest unicorn, Kylie Cosmetics, which, in November sold a 51% majority stake to Coty for $600 million (£460 million).
Phan’s career was high flying from the beginning. ‘I just knew that if I have this opportunity to build wealth, I’m going to do it now, so I can at least take care of my family.’ The hustle paid off. Her YouTube channel earnings were up to $60,000 (£46,000) a month. Her reach catapulted beyond the social platform and beauty industry and into mainstream success.
By 2015, Phan was not just on top of the world, she was reshaping it in her image. And this was the moment that she ‘disappeared’.
After deleting a number of videos on her YouTube channel and without any warning, Phan simply stopped posting on social media. It felt sudden, dramatic, regrettable even. Some colleagues claimed to not know where she had gone. But Phan tells a different story.
After eight years of posting online, she found herself supporting more than 3OO employees and her own family. The pressure weighed heavily on her. Em Cosmetics, too, had lost its footing. Customer complaints ranged from ‘cheap’ formulations to price points that exceeded her followers’ budgets. ‘It was one of the biggest make-up flops,’ says Phan, allowing herself a moment of anger. ‘Everyone in the industry laughed at me.’
Phan didn’t know where to turn. Legally, she had to support the brand and remain silent about people’s misgivings. Her name and her voice had been signed over to L’Oréal. The lack of control was exacerbated by her passionate online following.
‘My life was fan-fictioned by my viewers. They were expecting me to make certain choices. There were deepfakes [of messages] that I couldn’t disprove. I became really overwhelmed with people feeling too invested in my life.’ In an effort to regain agency, Phan had bought Em Cosmetics back from L’Oréal through Ipsy in 2015. She also stopped showing her private life in her videos.
‘My state of mind was very fragile,’ says Phan, who felt overworked and out of touch, and retrospectively diagnoses herself with depression. ‘I didn’t expect any of this – I went on YouTube when no one else was on YouTube. I was not prepared for this.’
In early 2016, Phan decamped to Zermatt, Switzerland, a car-free town, to take a break from her unrelenting schedule.‘There was no plan,’ asserts Phan. She didn’t forewarn her viewers or ask them for permission to pause her online life. ‘I almost felt I’d become a shell of who I was before I was living for the internet.’
Phan still checked into the office via email, but found herself travelling further and further away from LA in what would unfold into a year-long world tour. She went to the Netherlands and China, searching for presence, perspective and answers to the questions: Is this what I want? Am I really happy? She posted nothing.
‘I felt too much pride to let you see me at my weakest,’ she later explained in a YouTube video she posted in June 2017 called ‘Why I Left’. It has had more than 13 million views.
There was, admittedly, anxiety around being forgotten, and the fame and fortune Phan was arguably losing by the minute. But instead of returning, she followed an almost magnetic draw to the origin of cosmetics: Egypt.
Standing in front of the Giza pyramids, Phan had what she calls her ‘introspective breakthrough’. ‘I realised that we’re not here for a very long time. We don’t remember the people who built the pyramids, but they’re still here. If people forget me, I’m fine. That’s when I felt comfortable enough to just take a break.’
A number of prominent YouTubers have taken a page out of Phan’s book, including PewDiePie, who announced to his 102 million subscribers in December that he will be taking a short break from YouTube in 2020.
Phan formally left Ipsy at the end of 2017. ‘I just want to be free.’ She slept deeply for the first time in years. She spent her days with her family, learning to cook traditional Vietnamese breakfast, Pho and chicken, and helping her mother to find a house in Portland, Oregon. She read everything she could get her hands on and studied belief systems of the past and future: astrology and cryptocurrency.
When she felt ready, Phan began to create again. In 2017, she bought Em Cosmetics back from Ipsy: ‘It was very symbolic for me to own my brand and my name again.’ She then created new products from scratch, with a small team she hired via a left-field policy: striking astrological balance. This time, Em Cosmetics would only create products that Phan was sure she would want to use every day.
And she’s succeeded. The mousse-textured lip cremes, velvety eye shadows and dewy serum blushes beg to be played with. Phan started making videos with them for fun, posting one out of the blue on YouTube mysteriously named ‘Hello :)’ on 16 September last year.
She explained on Twitter: ‘Yesterday the moon was in Aries and I was feeling spontaneous as hell. Anyways. Hi!’ It, too, was unplanned. ‘I haven’t planned any of this. I didn’t plan to vlog. I didn’t plan to drop out of school for L’Oréal. I go with instinct. If I sense there’s an opportunity, I will jump to it. That’s how I’ve lived my entire life. Opportunities in my life that were crucial: I saw it and I went after it.’
For a multimillionaire, multi-brand CEO and fully fledged celebrity, the Phan in front of me is remarkably unhurried. While the sun sets in LA, she never checks the time and never sighs before answering a question.
There is no agent hovering over her warning, ‘five more minutes’. Her story is measured and thoughtful, if at times cagey and calculated. She’s learned what she’s willing to share and what she will experience privately. Phan cites Beyoncé as a role model creative who is generous in her work while maintaining personal mystery – a woman so in control of her own narrative, she exclusively told the story of her marriage trauma through 2016’s best-selling album Lemonade.
Phan is concerned about her legacy, about the kind of example she will be to other creators. Rather than maintaining the jet-setting #goals aesthetic that has become synonymous with influencers, she now tries to show realistic slices of her life in videos, including scenes of her cat, going to work, eating a microwave lunch and playing with beauty products stored in a ziplock bag. ‘I don’t want to sell an image of an unsustainable lifestyle.’
Only when Phan speaks about the workings of the internet and the future of the digital world does she feverishly overflow with information.
‘We shouldn’t even be looking at what is going to be the next platform. We have to look at how we can protect our purchasing power.’ This online Nostradamus has set her sights on bitcoin, opening crypto investment firm Divinium Capital.
‘For the 21st century, the internet was this groundbreaking means of communication. Bitcoin will be that for money,’ she emphasises, citing venture capitalist Tim Draper’s estimate that a single bitcoin will be worth as much as $250,000 (£192,000) by 2022.
So, what exactly is Phan working on with bitcoin? She’s coy to respond. Yes, there is a new company in the works, but she tells me she can’t say much apart from that it will debut this year. Instead, she tells me about the abundance of counterfeit make-up, the oversaturation of the beauty market and the unnecessary waste in luxury beauty.
‘I’ve been a consumer, a beauty creator, a make-up brand owner. There’s so much confusion in the market. Consumers are overwhelmed; influencers are overwhelmed. What can I bring of value? That’s what we’re building with this company.’
As nebulous a concept as she’s offered, Phan has earned the right to our attention. ‘I’m very intuitive. I’m able to tune into where the future’s going,’ she says with unwavering confidence.
To Phan, her own foresight is an inherent truth. She’s learned to trust herself. And what reason does she have not to? Historically, where she has gone, money and the internet have followed.
This article originally appeared in the March 2020 issue of ELLE UK.
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