Art students are known for being dreamers but not necessarily savvy business entrepreneurs. But former art student Michelle Phan certainly has proven herself to be both. Now one of most widely recognized names in beauty, the entrepreneur and beauty icon actually had no idea what was to come when she first began posting makeup tips and tutorials on her personal laptop. Almost overnight, her videos went viral and Phan stepped into her life as a YouTube sensation.
Today, Michelle has capitalized on this success with a line of business ventures that include book contracts, her own makeup line (em Michelle Phan), a beauty sampling service (ipsy) and a new blogging network (ICON). To top it all off, Michelle recently earned a spot on Forbes 30 under 30 list. Impressive, right? We were impressed, which is why we jumped at the chance to sit down with her to discuss her meteoric rise to fame. Find out what Phan had to say about her success as a beauty blogger, the challenges and triumphs of being your own boss, and the makeup products she can’t live without.
MAKEUP.COM: What first inspired you to launch your YouTube channel in 2007?
Michelle Phan: I started a personal blog with photos and was constantly getting inquiries from readers on how I did my makeup. I tried posting a few still images, but then realized that the beauty of makeup is best seen in motion. My laptop had a built-in webcam, so I planned my first tutorial and downloaded a free editing tool. I’m not going to lie, my first video was AWKWARD, and editing myself was so embarrassing! But I got over it, published it on YouTube and didn’t look back. To my shock, the next day it had over 10,000 views and surpassed 40,000 by the end of the week! It was incredible to read the comments and have people all over the world thanking me, asking me how to do a smoky eye, how to cover up acne, etc. The comments just kept pouring in … and that’s how it all began.
MAKEUP.COM: How has your life changed over the past seven years?
MP: I’ve always been passionate about pursuing my dreams — I just never quite knew where they would take me. When I decided to go to art school to become an artist, I had no idea I would end up on YouTube or that my videos would someday be seen by millions of people. I was not a professionally trained makeup artist. To this day, I am self-taught in every way — from makeup artistry to shooting and editing my videos. I never expected any of this would happen, but it's been an incredible adventure and I've learned a lot along the way.
MAKEUP.COM: What inspired you to start your own makeup line? Did you always have dreams of having your own brand?
MP: When I worked for Lancôme as a video makeup artist, I was told they were interested in helping me launch my own makeup line that would be a whole new brand, created from scratch, under the umbrella of (parent company) L’Oréal, the biggest beauty company in the world. I felt like Cinderella when her fairy godmother appeared and turned the pumpkin into a magic carriage! The line officially launched in August 2013 as the first makeup line co-created by a community of beauty lovers. I chose the name em, a Vietnamese word meaning “you,” which is used affectionately to address loved ones. It is also literally and figuratively a reflection of “me” — it is a makeup line that reflects the needs of my community, their personal beauty stories and life moments.
MAKEUP.COM: Describe your typical day.
MP: Every day is different! I am constantly creating, whether that be for my own YouTube channel and social networks, or my businesses like ICON (a boutique premium talent network that I recently began expanding in partnership with Endemol Beyond USA), em Michelle Phan (my cosmetics line with L’Oréal) and ipsy (a beauty sampling service I co-founded in 2011 that currently has over one million subscribers).
MAKEUP.COM: What’s the best makeup advice you’ve received over the years?
MP: The sun causes 90 percent of wrinkles, so if you want to slow down the aging process, slap on some sunscreen!
MAKEUP.COM: What’s been the biggest milestone in your career so far?
MP: So far, the most surreal moment in my career came when I was given me my own makeup line. I was already making videos for Lancôme, so when the representative from L’Oréal called, I thought I was being fired. As soon as I registered what was really happening, I called my mother (who was in the middle of giving someone a pedicure!) and told her I didn’t want her to go to work the next day. As I explained the project, we just sobbed together on the phone.
MAKEUP.COM: What’s your favorite part of your job?
MP: The wonderful relationship with my online family is one of my favorite parts of everything I do. Reading their comments, feedback and personal stories keeps me constantly inspired. I have not met most of them, however if I happen to meet one, it's like running into an old friend.
MAKEUP.COM: What advice do you have for budding beauty bloggers?
MP: If you're just 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 like Facebook and Instagram, it's pretty easy to figure that out. By posing questions to your audience and testing different things out, you can get a sense of who you’re serving pretty quickly. The audience on YouTube is typically very vocal and unfiltered, which allows for honest communication. And don’t shy away from engaging with them! Being an active participant in the conversations happening within your community will help you learn more about your followership so that you can create better content.
MAKEUP.COM: What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced in your career as a beauty entrepreneur and blogger?
MP: The biggest challenge I recently overcame was building my team. Most of us spend more time with the people we work with than with our own families, so we should nurture those working relationships and make them as strong as possible. It took me a while to figure out who I could and couldn’t trust and who I should keep closer to my side.
MAKEUP.COM: Since travel is now such a crucial component in your life, what are some beauty essentials you always have with you?
MP: Since I travel frequently, it’s important that I have my pre-flight routine down. I pack my carry-on bag with goodies that will help the hours pass and, depending on the length of the flight, I might throw a neck pillow and scarf into my bag. But, no matter what, I always take the following beauty essentials with me:
CONCEALER: I begin spot-treating discoloration around my eyes, lips and nose and on any blemishes with the em Michelle Phan Shade Play Concealer Color Mixing Palette. I love this concealer palette because it comes with six hues that you can mix to conceal, highlight and neutralize. I use the warmth of my fingertips to help it melt into my skin seamlessly.
LINER: I like to use long-wearing eyeliner to lightly define my eyes or create a soft cat eye. I love the em Michelle Phan Waterliner Intense Color Eyeliner. They are perfect for my lifestyle, as I’m constantly on-the-go and they won’t budge or smudge.
MAKEUP.COM: How do you draw inspiration for your own beauty line?
MP: As the name implies — em is a reflection of me and my community. It’s the first makeup line co-created by a community of beauty lovers so it’s very important that my community members be part of the whole journey. We’ve had focus groups around the world, brainstorms via Facebook to help pick names for new shades and palettes, and meet and greets across the nation just to gather ideas and feedback. This really inspires the formulas, colors and beauty concepts for em. We look at global trends for fashion and packaging, and also look to our social platforms to see what our community members like and what they’re looking for. Once we have our beauty stories in place, we bring it all together by inviting fans to participate in photo shoots to feature the makeup looks.