Vietnamese-American beauty pioneer Michelle Phan is one of YouTube’s biggest success stories. Phan, who began her channel in 2006, was one of the first vloggers to gain a mass audience, and has been dubbed the “first YouTuber” and the “Beyoncé of the beauty-vlogging world.” Her company, Ipsy, which mails beauty products to subscribers, has been valued at $500 million by Forbes, and she is a partner in the lifestyle network Icon. Phan recently relaunched her cosmetics brand, Em, which bombed the first time around; the trolling she received over its initial failure led to her quitting YouTube and social media for most of 2016. Since then, she has chosen to operate largely behind the scenes — though she remains a powerful and influential businesswoman.
Phan was born in Boston, Massachusetts, on April 11, 1987. Her parents were both Vietnamese refugees. Her father was an inveterate gambler, who constantly squandered their rent money, so the family was frequently on the move and sometimes had to rely on food stamps. “Every few months we’d get evicted,” Phan told Glamour magazine. “My brother and I never had the same beds for long.” One year, the family moved 10 times. They eventually settled in Tampa, Florida.
Her father left when she was six years old. Months later, her mother met another man, who became Phan’s stepfather; Phan has said that he was “incredibly controlling.” Only English was allowed to be spoken in the house, and friends were not allowed over, according to an interview she gave to Nylon magazine: “He didn’t want us to clean the house because he believed in organized chaos. It was disgustingly dirty,” she said. To escape her troubled home life, Phan would stay late at school — but there she faced bullying. She withdrew into art and creativity, which she has described as her “happy place in my head.”
Phan’s mom was a nail technician who eventually started her own business, and Phan spent a lot of time as a child “growing up in a nail salon,” she told Refinery29.com, “surrounded by magazines, makeup and colors.” Phan grew up in an era before beauty videos proliferated online. She learned makeup tips from books by Laura Mercier and Bobbi Brown, among others; she could not afford the books herself so would spend time browsing in Barnes & Noble. Her mom tried to steer her away from a career as a makeup-artist in favor of medicine. But even though Phan had spent “my whole life prepping to be a doctor,” she eventually enrolled in art school instead.
Makeup Tutorials on YouTube
When Phan began blogging about beauty on the Xanga platform in 2005, she created an alternative backstory in which she “depicted myself as the girl I wanted to be, with money and a great family. But it was all a veneer,” she told Glamour magazine. Nevertheless, she accumulated 10,000 regular readers. She launched her YouTube channel in 2006, during her first semester at Ringling College of Art and Design in Sarasota, Florida — using a laptop she had been given for her studies. She dropped out of college in her second semester because she couldn’t continue to pay the tuition fees — relatives had paid for her first semester. To make ends meet, she worked as a waitress. (Years later in 2014, Ringling awarded her an honorary doctorate).