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Episode 12: Michelle Phan | A Second Act

Updated: May 9, 2019

I needed to end my online persona...we all have to grow up. We can't just live in this fantasy world forever. Even that little girl that was in class that was daydreaming in her head. She has to wake up to reality.

Below is an abridged audio transcript for our conversation with Michelle Phan, which kicks off Rock the Boat's Season 2.


Welcome to Season 2 of Rock the Boat! We are excited to bring stories about Asian Americans who are making waves in the media and entertainment industries for this special mini-series, just in time for Asian Pacific American Heritage Month.

Our first episode is a very special guest: Michelle Phan! Yes, THE Michelle Phan - former YouTube beauty blogger and co-founder of Ipsy, now CEO of Em Cosmetics. Michelle started blogging and sharing beauty tutorials in 2007. Today, she has a cult following of close to 9 million subscribers. In total, her videos have accumulated over a billion views.

Photo Credit: Em Cosmetics

Michelle is known for her makeup tutorials, but she often infuses her own creative takes on looks inspired from pop culture icons such as Lady Gaga, Sailor Moon, and Barbie (which to this day is her most viewed video with over 67 million views).

But something happened several years ago. Michelle stopped posting on her YouTube channel. It was an odd disappearing act and surprised a lot of her fans. The last video Michelle posted on her YouTube channel is an explanation, in her own words, of “Why She Left”.

Much of our conversation with Michelle is about getting past that first chapter of her life, starting over, and owning her second act. She also shares some lesser-known stories about:

  • Being ridiculed in her early days as a blogger,

  • The alter-ego she developed,

  • Some of the hard lessons she learned from her first foray into business with Lancome,

  • What it felt like to intentionally step out of the spotlight, and

  • Where she prioritizes her energy these days

I. Michelle's Origin Story

Lynne: We met Michelle at her Em Cosmetics office in Culver City, California. She strolled in with a noticeably relaxed, cool swagger.

Lynne, Michelle, and Lucia at the Em Cosmetics office

Michelle: My name is Michelle. I always feel awkward introducing myself to people because I don't even know what the right label is. I can't really say I'm a YouTuber because I've taken hiatus for two years. I am an entrepreneur but don't do the day-to-day entrepreneur business. I hire GMs to run the day-to-day.

I'd say that I'm an investor but at heart, I'm a creator because I truly believe a good entrepreneur is a creator at heart. They're creating solutions, they're identifying problems in certain industries and they're bringing something of value. So at heart, yeah, I'm a creator. That's who I am.

Lynne: Michelle, like me, is a fellow Floridian. She grew up in Tampa. But she had moved from Oakland, California right before 2nd grade, and was used to having a lot more Asians around her.

Michelle: The first day of school when I was in Tampa, Florida was the first time I realized I was Asian. I guess because everyone just looked at me differently and I felt like a fish out of the fishbowl. I just felt so out of place. That was the first time people started to make fun of me. They would call me, you know, the typical Asian names like ching chong and all that. They would call me that and I just felt so ashamed of who I was so growing up.

I'm sure if someone were to find my old teachers in elementary school and middle school, they would say that Michelle never spoke in class. I actually remember this one time I was in fourth grade, my teacher brought me up in front of the classroom and he put his hand on my on my shoulders. He said,

"Everyone in class should be like Michelle, just quiet."

And so I guess in a way, a lot of the teachers liked me because I just never caused any problems.

I just became invisible. And I think in a way that's how I became so good at storytelling because I would just daydream in my head. I would go off into my imagination and occupy my thoughts there.

Lynne: While she was daydreaming, she was also putting pen to paper. Michelle loved to draw and classmates noticed. They would ask her to draw designs for various things like their school dance dresses. She became known as the school artist.

Michelle: I would just draw for people because I felt oh, this is something I can offer people I can and that's totally cool. Like I can be an artist for my class and that was something I just really loved: drawing and creating.

Lynne: Michelle's family didn't have a lot of money, so she was encouraged to pursue a lucrative career in medicine from a young age. She even went to a magnet high school focused on the health sciences. 

Michelle: I didn't like it. I'm not gonna lie. It wasn't something that I enjoyed. I didn't enjoy going to school learning about things that didn't inspire me. I was filling out my college papers and I thought to myself, "Dang. My whole life is planned out. Like the moment I fill out these papers and I start going to college and I start pursuing this, the next ten years of my life is already planned out."

I'm a fire sign, an Aries, and I like spontaneity. I love to wake up the next day and not not know what my life is going to be like because tomorrow I could die. And I want to be able to live my life to the fullest. But when I realized everything was already planned out, that idea just depressed me.

I found college papers for this art school and filled those out instead. I went home and told my Mom, "I didn't fill out the other paperwork. I'm sorry. I want to go to art school."

And she was crying. It was so dramatic. I got on my knees and I told her, "Mom, I'll figure out a way to make money while still pursuing what I love." Meanwhile in my head, I had no idea how I was going to do it. But I was so confident when I told my Mom. She said "Okay, I believe you" because she knows my will. I have a very strong will. If there's something I want to do. I'll do it, even if it's an impossible task; I'll figure out some way to achieve it.

Lynne: Michelle did end up going to art school at the Ringling College of Art and Design in Sarasota, Florida but she took a year off first to build up her Xanga blog - remember that?! Before her YouTube channel, Michelle had a popular Xanga blog where she would post photos of her artwork, her life as a gamer, and beauty hacks. That was the first hint to what her audience wanted.

Michelle: I knew they loved these beauty hacks. I did this one beauty hack on using aspirin as a mask on your face if you have acne because aspirin has salicylic acid in it. You can dissolve it, add honey to the aspirin, and it dissolves. Then you can apply it on your face leave it for a few minutes, rinse it on your face and it feels really smooth. It feels tingly and smooth like baby butt skin. And that became super popular. I just read it somewhere online on a forum and I tried it out myself and it worked. I tried it on my brother who had acne and it worked on him, so I made it into a post.

II. The Beautiful Exchange

Lynne: Turns out all of this was early user research for what would later become her YouTube channel. Timing also helped because the year MIchelle started at Ringling was the first year the school gave free Macbook Pros to all incoming students. With that, she uploaded her first makeup tutorial in 2007 - and the rest is history.

Michelle: I filmed my first makeup tutorial because I got turned down at a Lancome beauty counter. I needed a job and they were hiring. I did the whole interview and passed the makeup test, but I wasn't hired because I didn't have enough sales experience.

Even though I was really sad that I didn't get the job that didn't deter me away from my love and passion for beauty. I knew I still wanted to do something in beauty. And so when when I was just messing around with my webcam, I thought, maybe I should film some makeup tutorials and post it on my on my blog because people were asking me how I do my everyday makeup look. So instead of doing a normal blog post where I took pictures, I decided to film a full video, edit it, and add music/subtitles and everything. So I did that, self-taught and everything.

I uploaded to YouTube and in the first week, I got 20 to 30,000 views. Within a few months it got up to 500,000 and then up to a million.

It felt like I struck gold. It really did. Wait, people actually care? Like they actually want to watch me apply makeup on my face and they want to see more?

I mean, this was back in 2007. So no one even knew how to do a smokey eye, like a smokey eye was considered advanced makeup. Today it's considered very basic. But people would ask me to teach them how to do a smokey eye and so that helped me curate the tutorials.

Michelle would also post videos of her makeup transformations into popular cultural icons, like this one from Sailor Moon.

That was really the beginning of my journey as this online creator, this two-way relationship that I had with the viewers. They gave me purpose and I gave them knowledge. And it was this beautiful exchange.

Lynne: Even though she was living out this beautiful exchange online, her real life interactions weren't always so pretty.

Michelle: I had a really bad experience at this college party. I don't want to name any names, but I was invited by this pretty popular girl in college. At the time, no one knew about my YouTube Channel. I didn't tell anyone. It was kind of, it's cool to be an influencer but back then people would see you as being conceited. so I didn't want people to see me that way. It was kind of like my online alter ego, my Batman. And I was Bruce Wayne during the day.

At the party, I remember there was music playing and all of a sudden I heard my makeup tutorial being played over the speaker. And then she played the tutorial. A few other people were laughing at me. They were condescendingly mimicking my voice and just making fun of me. I remember no one was there to stand up for me. I was so upset. So I left that party. I remember when I got home I was like, "F these people. I'm just going to play like World of Warcraft and I'm just gonna make YouTube videos."

Lucia: I really admire her resolve. Instead of being deterred by the bullies and naysayers, she's going to carry through her mission whether people like it or not. I also loved how she likened her online persona to Batman, a superhero.

Lynne: Yeah and through sheer willpower, she'll make something work.

I'll walk through fire to do something. I'll literally sacrifice everything. I'm not scared. I'm not scared to fail. If you want to achieve something big, you have to risk everything.

Michelle: For me, I just knew that if I wanted to achieve something, truly, I'd have to be ready to fall flat on my face and get right back up and just do it again and again until I achieved it.

III. Michelle Phan: The Brand

Lynne: In the early days of YouTube, there was no opportunity to make money. And even when AdSense rolled out, the margins were... pennies at best.

Michelle: There's this misconception that a lot of YouTubers make a lot of money, but they don't. Not in the beginning. In the beginning, I was making 25 - 50 cents a day. It was really nothing. It wasn't until I started to post more videos consistently and also interacting, commenting, replying and having this dialogue with my followers that more viewers started coming in. My CPM got higher and that was when I was starting to make a few dollars a day, like $5 - $10 a day. Eventually I told myself that if I can make $20 a day, I can comfortably quit my part-time job as a waitress because I'm breaking even at this point. So I can free up my weekends to film and edit more videos.

After finally breaking into the $20 a day mark, I came in to work and gave them my two-week notice. I said, "Thank you for everything. I'm going to pursue this YouTube thing". No one really took me seriously. They just thought really, that's how you're going to make money?

I just knew it. But back then no one knew that this was possible. People didn't make money off the Internet. It was this new Wild Wild West that people didn't really comprehend but I just knew it was the future. I knew early on that YouTube would essentially become the TV for the youth and everyone would watch YouTube in the future.

Lynne: Michelle's prediction turned out to be true. The word influencer may not have been coined yet, but it was around this time that the rise of the influencer began to unfold. Essentially anyone with a camera could build their own following and meaningful brand. Michelle was leading the pack.

As her channel began to take off and she gained trust from millions of fans, big brands like Lancome reached out. They smelled opportunity.

Michelle: This was my entry way into the business world because I had no idea about what business was. I wanted to be an artist. I didn't want to become a businesswoman. So I was kind of thrust into this world. I told myself I should take this opportunity to learn as much as I can. This is like grad school and I'm getting paid for it. So that's what I told myself, just learn how this industry work. And so that's what I did.

I learned about how they spent an ungodly amount of money on their YouTube channel and their videos and how they were getting just a few thousand views.