I would be remiss to call Michelle Phan a YouTube sensation now, considering she's one of the pioneers of beauty vlogging. Launching her career with video makeup tutorials in 2007 when she was only 20, she's now a brand ambassador for Lancôme, has her own cosmetic line, an entire talent network to her name and a best-selling book, too. Clearly, this girl's got serious game.
I chatted to her about about how she got to where she is and where she wants to go, her 7 million odd followers in tow, of course. Read on to discover Michelle Phan’s best tips and advice on beauty, life and career.
Do you remember your first video?
“I do! I started out with a personal blog with photos because readers wanted to learn how I did my makeup, but I realized that the beauty of makeup is best seen in motion. The first video I made was with the built-in webcam on my school laptop and a free editing tool and I’m not going to lie, it was awkward. But I posted it anyway and to my shock, the next day it had over 10,000 views and over 40,000 by the end of the week. That’s how it all began.”
What did you have in mind while writing your book?
“I get asked questions about a huge range of topics everyday on YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram; everything from dating and making videos to dealing with acne or finding a job. I wanted to write this as a way to answer everyone’s questions; there was so much I wanted to teach girls about besides just makeup and so Makeup: Your Guide to Beauty, Style and Success, Online and Off, is filled with the kind of advice I’d give to my little sister. There’s beauty and fashion tips, advice on turning your passion into a profession, and even things like bullying and online etiquette.
One topic that really resonated with my teenage readers was how to build their own business, which makes me sure of one thing – we’re going to see a lot more empowered female entrepreneurs in the years to come.”
Speaking of which, what does someone looking to start out in the digital space need to know?
“When you're first starting out, it's important to know who your audience is and understand the type of content they want to see. Luckily with social media platforms, it's pretty simple to find that out by posing questions to your audience and testing different things out. The online audience is vocal and unfiltered, which allows for honest communication; developing a strong relationship with your audience through an ongoing dialogue is important in this process.”
What’s one thing everyone needs to know about makeup?
“With makeup, the best place to start is with the tools. You don’t need to go out and spend a fortune on makeup brushes. After all, the best tool is right in front of you; anyone can apply foundation, concealer, cream blush, lipstick and contouring and highlighting products with their fingers. You can even do a smokey eye with your fingers. If you can’t afford an entire brush collection, start small with a powder blush, a blush brush and maybe a foundation brush with synthetic bristles. These are three good investments."
"I wanted to write this (book) as a way to answer everyone’s questions; there was so much I wanted to teach girls about besides just makeup. (It) is filled with the kind of advice I’d give to my little sister."
You create so many different looks in your video, what’s your personal style like?
“My fashion is very minimal; I don't like to overcomplicate it with too many accessories and embellishments. I'm also a sucker for keeping my color palette monochromatic – I guess New York does that to you. But it saves so much time which is great because I’m always on the go.
Beauty-wise, I think less is more. I invest more time and money on skin care so that my everyday makeup routine becomes simpler. Even that is always understated— I think my beauty tutorials were an outlet for me to play dress-up on my face."
Tell me more about why you named your cosmetics brand Em.
“Em is a Vietnamese word meaning ‘you’, which is used affectionately to address loved ones, including a little sister, girlfriend, or elder. It’s also a reflection of ‘me’ – it’s a makeup line that reflects the needs of my community and their personal beauty stories. I remember when L’Oreal told me they wanted me to start my own makeup line from scratch; I felt like Cinderella."
What’s been the toughest thing about being an entrepreneur so far?
“The biggest challenge I recently overcame was building my team. When you’re working so much, you want your team members to be like your family. You spend more time working than you do with your family, so you might as well love the people you work with, get along with them, agree with them, and bond with them. It took me a while to figure out who I could and couldn’t trust, and who I should have by my side.”
"I remember when L’Oreal told me they wanted me to start my own makeup line from scratch; I felt like Cinderella."
How do you stand out from the competition?
“If you want to stay relevant, you have to keep pushing the envelope and constantly evolve. Big pop culture icons like Rebecca Black or Psy” – of Gangnam style fame – “last a year, and then they're gone. I've been doing this for eight years – that’s a long time! I have to constantly evolve, so I try to create different stories each time. I don’t want to do the same thing everyone else is doing.”
Tell me more about the ICON network.
“ICON is my dream of mentoring talent coming to fruition. It’s a network I created in partnership with Endemol Beyond. It’s a place where creators have a home to build their brands and work with each other in a collaborative environment. There’s a lot of noise, a lot of content to watch right now and I think what makes us different is that we’re creating a community and brand through the lens of positivity and empowerment.”