After Michelle Phan appeared on the cover of Forbes’ 30 under 30 list, founded two companies and made $60,000 a month from YouTube, she took an unannounced leave from the internet. Her leave was so abrupt that some fans speculated she had died, and even some of her professional colleagues had no clue as to her whereabouts.
Phan first appeared on YouTube in 2017, and her videos quickly went viral. Videos like “Barbie Transformation Tutorial” and “Lady Gaga Bad Romance Look” accrued tens of millions of views and established her as a recognizable name. Later, she moved more into everyday beauty tutorials and asserted herself as one of YouTube’s best creators. Phan was at the height of her success — so why did she leave?
It turns out that Phan was traveling the world while trying to really figure out who she was beyond the money, the views and the constant pressure of the internet. She returned ever so briefly to post a self-illustrated video titled “Why I Left,” which discussed her exponential rise to fame and subsequent personal burnout. In it, she shared personal stories including how her father left her family (due to a gambling addiction) when she was only 6 years old.
She came from a poor family of Vietnamese immigrants and her struggles early in life inspired her to dream big and be successful. Unfortunately, it came at a price, and Phan credited her absence to an obsession with striving to succeed, one that left her burnt out and feeling uninspired.
Her work includes founding two major companies, Ipsy and EM Cosmetics, the latter in partnership with L’Oréal. Unfortunately, consumers’ reactions to her personal brand were negative, if not hostile. EM Cosmetics’ sale to L’Oréal meant that Phan had little control over the usage of her name and the branding, and the commodification of the brand turned it into a failure. Fans complained of poor quality and unjustified prices, and the oversaturation of the line meant that it lost Phan’s personal touch. Ultimately it was a failure, and far from what Phan had originally set out to do.
Phan made a YouTube comeback in late 2019 with a video simply titled “Hello : ).” Phan shared videos of her cat as well as news about the production of one of EM’s newest products. It was revealed that Phan bought EM Cosmetics back from L’Oréal in 2017, explaining that although she could’ve started another brand from scratch, she wasn’t going to abandon her original company. She relaunched the line, narrowing it down to only a few essential products. Extremely well-received, the new EM merchandise is how Phan pictured it: personal, good quality and entirely hers.
Phan is back to uploading frequently and shares only what she genuinely cares about, even if it strays from the beauty tutorials that she is best known for. One of her most recent videos is on Bitcoin, and in it, she shares her interest in cryptocurrency and her newfound prominence in beauty and crypto spaces. Some have even referred to her as a “Bitcoin evangelist.” Whatever it is that she shares, though, her viewers follow. Unlike many YouTubers today, Phan’s content isn’t a result of what her audience wants — rather, she creates the want for the content that she makes of her own volition.
Phan’s continued relevance after years of absence is surprising in the current era of the internet as many public figures come and go, just as trends do. Maintaining internet relevancy is an uncrackable and unpredictable formula, but Phan has managed to solve it — not only during the advent of the influencer economy but even now. Her ability to adapt to a new age of the internet — and even pioneer it — sets Phan apart from her peers.
Upon her return to YouTube, she vowed to never again use foundation and skin filters. While most of her peers use the kind of punchy, fast-paced editing style that put influencers like Emma Chamberlain and David Dobrik on the map, Phan has adopted a style that embraces silence instead of splicing it out. She speaks with a Zen-like nature that radiates maturity, and it is no surprise that viewers consider her to be like an older sister. And, unlike many on YouTube, Phan is extremely private. Before her hiatus, she often shared insights into her life, her relationship and her day-to-day, but things have changed. Although highly selective with what she shares, Phan still manages to maintain an intimate connection with her audience.
It’s important to realize that Phan isn’t just an influencer: She’s an innovator. Ipsy, which was her first venture into the influencer economy in 2011, was one of the first subscription makeup companies. As of February 2022, the company is rumored to be valued at $800 million. Beyond that, it also created a platform for influencers. In 2016, Ipsy opened a 10,000-square-foot studio — complete with professional cameras and lighting — for their network of influencers to create brand-related content. At one point, they employed over 10,000 beauty influencers and creators, who made content in exchange for using the studio and being part of the Ipsy family.
Phan was one of the first to use influencer marketing, and there is no doubt that others followed in her footsteps. Although Phan moved away from Ipsy upon her YouTube return to focus on EM, there is no doubt that she understands the industry and how to mobilize people within it. This is what makes Phan such an enigma — she lives at the forefront of the industry and is both respected and loved by not only the people within it but those on the other side that consume it.