Michelle Phan: The Beauty Director

Photo: Jason Nocito

Age: 27
YouTube followers: 6.1M

Recently Michelle Phan found herself checking out her assistant’s eyebrows, which, she realized, left some room for improvement on the aesthetic front. “I gave her a few tips,” Phan now says in the soft and silky cadence to which her 6 million YouTube subscribers have grown accustomed. “Sometimes it’s as easy as that, and you can really change a person’s life.” In fact, it was in this same spirit of gentle helpfulness that Phan uploaded her first video tutorial seven years ago using iMovie on a laptop computer donated by Ringling College in Sarasota, Florida, where she was studying art (“a college student in a retirement city—awesome”). Within a week, “Natural Looking Makeup Tutorial” had more than 40,000 views. “Which was insane. This was before being an online beauty guru was a legitimate career, so I didn’t really expect much from it. Like, YouTube videos consisted mainly of cats.”

Online beauty guru wasn’t a legitimate career before Phan came along. Phan maintains that she was only responding to demand, that the beauty tips (like a mask made of crushed aspirin) garnered from her time spent at the salon where her mom was a manicurist had gotten enough attention on her blog that people began asking for makeup tutorials as well, and that video simply seemed like the most efficient mode of getting across that information. But while she may have been one of the first YouTubers offering such fare, she was also savvy, tailoring her approach to her message. “I was really inspired by Bob Ross,” she says of the legendary creator of “happy little trees.” “He wasn’t the best painter in the world,” but he was both calming and instructive, a good model for the “spalike” approach she envisioned.

When YouTube rolled out its Partners Program in 2007—the first that allowed online video content providers to monetize—she applied and, a couple years later, finally started making money: ten cents a day. Within six months, that figure had grown to $200 a week, enough money for Phan—who had once sold wholesale snacks to the kids at her high school to help pay her family’s bills—to quit her job at a sushi restaurant. “I’m like, ‘Hey, I’m giving you guys my two weeks. I’m going to be dedicating my time to YouTube.’ It was during the recession. They thought I was crazy.”

She wasn’t: In 2010, she became the first woman to get a million YouTube subscribers (she’s now closing in on a billion views), and Lancôme came calling, making her their official video makeup artist. Two years later, L’Oréal offered Phan her own makeup line, their first that would not be under the L’Oréal name. “Immediately I called my mother. She was doing someone’s pedicure, and I told her, ‘Today is the last day you’ll ever have to work.’ ”

Phan’s production values have risen along with her internet fame (though she still says it’s a “pinprick” operation), and her ever-expanding oeuvre has grown somewhat fanciful: a Lady Gaga “Bad Romance” re-creation attracted more than 40 million views, and “Zombie Barbie” got close to 12 million. “I can’t go into Sephora anymore,” Phan says. “Every time I go, I get bombarded.” In fact, her brand has grown so quickly, and with so many tentacles into other companies, that she’s not even sure how much it’s worth. She’s currently in YouTube ads blanketing the New York City subway, and recently appeared in a national Diet Dr Pepper commercial. Even so, she says she’ll still make time to do a friend’s makeup for a first date or special occasion. “In the beauty department, I’m a really good friend to have.”

Michelle Phan: The Beauty Director