Michelle Phan

Michelle Phan: The self-made sensation

How a daughter of refugees, who grew up in poverty, became Internet royalty

Los Angeles – On a brilliantly sunny California morning, Michelle Phan clicked her strappy heels into her office, flawless and camera-ready. Following a quick exchange of pleasantries, she sat herself in front of the cameras. 

“I'm Michelle Phan and I'm a creator at heart,” she said, flashing her made-for-TV smile. 

Phan isn’t your typical makeup artist. She rarely makes up any face other than her own. But when she does, people watch – a lot of people. 

The 27-year-old has one of the most popular accounts on YouTube, with 7.5 million subscribers. She's been on a meteoric rise ever since her first video in 2007, "Natural Looking Makeup Tutorial," which now has more than 11 million views. At last count, Phan's account totaled more than 1.1 billion views – and she's busy building that audience into an empire.

Last month, Michelle Phan records a make-up tutorial in her studio.
America Tonight

Despite an average five hours of sleep a night, Phan is fresh-faced and in perpetual motion. She’s the hands-on beauty and brains behind a number of ventures, including ipsy, the beauty subscription service she founded in 2012 that employs more than 100 people and ships more than 1 million "glam bags" a month.

Last week, the beauty guru, whom Forbes recently placed on its renowned “30 Under 30” list, launched a global online lifestyle network, ICON, with reality TV giant Endemol Beyond, featuring original series and more from up-and-coming digital influencers and lifestyle experts. She also has a new book, a music venture promoting artists on social media, and her own cosmetics line that Forbes estimated would take in $120 million this year. 

Michelle Phan with First Lady Michelle Obama in Tokyo last month.
Amanda Lucidon/White House

If millions of followers weren’t enough, Phan’s hard work even caught the attention of the White House. Last month, Phan joined First Lady Michelle Obama in Japan as part of the "Let Girls Learn" initiative – a program that aims to help adolescent girls in developing countries attend and complete school.

Phan thinks she scored the invite because Obama's daughters are fans.

“It was a very wonderful experience,” she gushed. “I look back and I was astounded, like wow, this is incredible.” 

Anything but the archetype of millennial privilege, her road to success was fought one inch at a time. 

“I hate talking about myself, sorry,” she said, shifting her small frame in a director’s chair. “I don't care about the fame. I don't care about the recognition. I do it because I love it and I find it exciting.” 

Another major motivation was helping her family. Phan had a humble start, and has earned every click on her way up.

'My own universe'

Michelle Phan as a baby, with her parents and older brother.
Michelle Phan

Phan’s parents came to the United States from war-torn Vietnam. Her father spent three months hidden on a ship to Hong Kong and her mother fled by boat amid gunfire. After a chance meeting on an airplane, they fell in love and married. The young couple then crisscrossed the country in search of a better life, starting off in Boston before settling in Tampa, Florida.

But her father was a compulsive gambler who often lost the rent money. He eventually disappeared altogether when Phan was only six years old.

“Art was a way for me to express myself and for me to also escape because it was tough growing up as a child. We didn't have a lot of money,” she said. “I was always creating. I was writing stories. I was doing comic books. I made my own universe.”

A drawing Michelle Phan did of herself, her siblings and her dad.
Michelle Phan

Phan’s mother divorced her second husband after a tumultuous marriage the young mogul provides few details about. The family then moved into a cramped apartment where Phan and her older brother had to sleep on the floor. Despite her mother working 14-hour shifts, Phan said her mom would still come home and make dinner.

“When [my mother] came here, she couldn't speak English. She had less than $20 in her pocket," Phan said. "I look at what she was able to do with what little she had. She's someone that I aspire to be.”

To help make ends meet, Phan and her brother worked part-time jobs and they pooled their money together with their mother’s modest earnings. Phan also started writing a blog on her family’s home computer, where she fantasized about a better life just out of reach. 

The laptop

A still from Michelle Phan's first YouTube video, a tutorial on natural make-up, which has now been viewed more than 11 million times.

When Phan enrolled at the Ringling College of Art and Design in Sarasota, Florida, in 2006, she received a fateful laptop given to all incoming freshmen. At the time, her mother, brother and younger sister were living in a single room they rented from a family. Her brother slept on the floor.

“We didn't care," she said. "We were actually really happy just to have each other. You know, at least we had four walls around us, and a roof. That's more than what most people in this world have, so we were very grateful. And I think us being grateful opened a lot of opportunities and doors.”

Phan, who was working part-time as a restaurant hostess, was always interested in make-up, and she applied for a job at the Lancôme counter at a nearby mall. She said she nailed the demonstration, but was rejected because she didn't have sales experience.

Don't trust everyone, especially if they say 'trust me.'

Michelle Phan

"[I said], 'You're not going to give me a chance? It's okay, I'll find my own way,'" she recalled. "And I did. I opened that laptop and I shot my first video two months later."

Phan's been working nonstop ever since. She's afraid that if she stops and takes stock of everything, she could get overwhelmed.

"I might just become really emotional and cry and be scared at the same time," she said. "Be scared of losing something so amazing."

Michelle Phan recording a video at her studio.
America Tonight

Before long, Lancôme's corporate offices came calling, asking Phan to be the beauty giant’s official video makeup artist. Google called, too, wanting to partner for more YouTube videos. 

A favorite saying of Phan’s is "I live, I love, I teach, but most important, I learn." Asked what her greatest lesson learned has been, she replied: "Don't trust everyone, especially if they say 'trust me.'"

Though Phan keeps her private life private, she happily shares her childhood struggles with her millions of followers. 

"I wanted them to see that I was able to make it out of this poverty," she said. "I was able to make, I was able to take myself and my family out of it by doing something I love."

When Phan first made it, she bought her mother a house. She's also reconnected with her father, the man who knew when he named her that she was destined to be the powerhouse she became. Her Vietnamese name, Tuyết Băng, means "snow exploding" or “avalanche."

“It makes sense now that I am an avalanche because of my communities and how the accumulation of snow, it created a trigger effect and created this snowball," Phan said, "this giant snowball, this avalanche."

Now she wants to open doors and provide opportunities for those who come behind her, especially her dedicated followers she dubbed "dreamers."   

“I want to be able to leave behind an infrastructure and a road map for any of my dreamers to follow. So that they can again take care of their family, pursue what they love and live a fulfilling life,” she said. “Everyone is called, but not everyone answers. I was called and I answered.” 

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