She Was YouTube’s Biggest Beauty Star. Then She Vanished.
By Kathleen Hou
Everyone thought Michelle Phan had died. After ten years, 385 videos, and over a billion views, YouTube’s biggest beauty star disappeared abruptly in 2015, leaving her Twitter, Instagram, and video channels silent. Phan arguably invented the entire genre of YouTube beauty. If you’ve ever fallen asleep to the calming tones of a beauty tutorial or learned how to contour from a video, it’s because of her. And now she was gone.
The 9 million people who made up her subscriber base mourned the loss in the digital equivalent of a candlelight vigil. “I’ve been watching you since I was 14,” lamented one commenter, “and I really miss you! Feels like you were my best friend and now I have no idea what you’re up to.” More worryingly, Phan also disappeared in real life. Initially, not even colleagues at her two beauty companies, Ipsy and Em Cosmetics, knew where she’d gone. In 2017, she posted a video called “Why I Left,” reassuring fans that she was thriving offline, but it seemed like her time as an influencer was over.
“Why I Left,” an 11-minute opus, remains Phan’s biggest video. Published on June 1, 2017, it’s a self-illustrated cartoon film explaining her absence and how her life had changed since she went from working at her mother’s nail salon to the cover of Forbes. In the film, Phan’s mother tells her, “You’ll be poor if you’re like me. Become successful, like a doctor.” But success didn’t mean that Phan was happy: “Once, I was a girl with dreams who eventually became a product, selling, smiling, and selling … Somewhere along the journey I lost myself.” As of this writing, the video has 13 million views. You could say that Phan’s almost as famous for leaving the Internet as she is for making a career on it.
And then suddenly, last week, she reappeared. On Tuesday, she posted her third video in two years. It was titled “Hello 🙂” and consisted of approximately 30 seconds of footage of her cat, followed by another three minutes about the making of an ad for Em Cosmetics lip gloss — hardly the kind of tutorial fans were used to. Still, soon after it appeared, Phan’s name started trending again on Twitter. “I wasn’t even planning on dropping a new video, but yesterday moon was in Aries and I was feeling spontaneous as hell. Anyways. Hi!” she tweeted.
For a digitally deceased person, Phan looks very glowy in the flesh. We’re sitting together at a conference room at her PR agency’s office, picking at egg tarts. Her makeup is remarkably minimal — no foundation (she hasn’t worn it in two years), two slim lines of eyeliner — which surprises me, since I’ve watched her use beauty products to transform herself into Daenerys Targaryen. (Four million other people, by the way, also watched that video.) While many beauty YouTubers narrate their videos with the upspeak tones of your most excitable friend, with lots of “likes” and “Oh My Gods,” Phan’s voice still has the same zen, measured tone that gave her videos a knowledgeable-older-sister quality.
Of her recent return to YouTube, she says, “As a creator, I’m always filming and documenting the world around me. I film a lot of personal vlogs for myself that I never share, but I decided to post this one for fun. After two years of reflecting and recharging, it felt like a good time to create and share again.”
But she has no interest in going back to the old days. “I missed out on a lot,” Phan says matter-of-factly. She traveled constantly, but doesn’t remember half of it. “I was burnt out. I was just tired. I accomplished everything I could ever want — even more so! I didn’t come onto YouTube to become a star. But I believed I was the shit, when I’m just another drop in the bucket in this existence.” Part of what she’d accomplished was money; in 2018, Ipsy, a beauty subscription service, was valued at $500 million, while her channel earned $60,000 a month at its peak.
In many ways, Phan was the first to make money as an influencer — an economy that NPR estimates will reach $10 billion by 2020. When I call her “the world’s first influencer,” she doesn’t correct me. “She was the first to model how this could be an occupation and career,” says Emily Hund, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania specializing in the influencer industry and social-media consumer culture (that there is someone at an Ivy League university studying influencing shows how far it has come as a career.) An entire generation of people probably wouldn’t have jobs without Phan. James Charles wouldn’t exist. In 2015, “influencer” appeared 55,000 times in search results on LinkedIn. Now, it appears more than 255,000 times.
“I was at the height of the party. And that’s when you want to leave,” Phan says of the digital-influencer space. In her YouTube heyday, beauty vloggers were more creators than influencers, she reminisces. “I remember eight years ago, before L’Oreal bought NYX, they make this jumbo white pencil called Milk pencil. There was a hack discovered on YouTube where you could melt it with a blow dryer to become a primer. That was dope! You don’t see stuff like that as much, because everyone’s being sent PR boxes. It’s not necessarily bad. It is lazier, yes, but in a sense, that journalistic, democratic approach is now missing.”
But Phan is still interested in beauty. “The shallow truth is that I still want to look good! I want to age aesthetically. I don’t like using the term ‘gracefully,’ because what does that even mean? I’ll do treatments to look younger, of course! There are some things you can do stimulate collagen growth, therapies, or certain fillers.” But she’s also exploring her interests in other non-beauty subjects areas like astrology and cryptocurrency.
She spent all of last year slowly hiring a team for Em, her makeup brand that she bought back from L’Oreal, and her last interview question for prospective hires is their astrology sign. “I wanted a very nice, diverse, astrological place. If I have a team of water signs, it’s going to be too emotional, too volatile. Or if I have too many earth signs, it will be too grounded. If I have too many fire signs, it will be too volatile, everyone will be competing.”
“I’m an Aries and Sagittarius rising, so I need spontaneity or else I just become really bored,” says Phan. And of all places, she’s found that constant stimulation in the world of bitcoin and blockchains. “I’m actually more excited about Bitcoin than I was when I first discovered YouTube.”
In the past few years, Phan has become a bitcoin evangelist and been buying up the digital currency. She’s an investor in Quarters, a cryptocurrency gaming company run by an ambitious 12-year-old who was frustrated when coins he’d earned in a video game went to waste. She’s appeared on podcasts about Bitcoin and even co-hosted one that featured Andrew Yang. She believes that every entrepreneur should invest in Bitcoin. “It’s probably the most important investment you can ever make in your life,” she says, seriously and without hyperbole.
But, I say, Bitcoin isn’t easy to exchange for services. I can’t go into a matcha cafe right now and buy a drink with it. “For now,” she counters. “That was the same with the internet, too. Remember when there was only internet cafes? And now we have the internet on our phones.”
The path from beauty to Bitcoin might not seem connected, but there are commonalities. “I am a lover of decentralization,” Phan says. “YouTube is decentralized, in the sense that anyone can have a channel, have their own network, and make their own content.” In the same way, Bitcoin isn’t truly owned by anyone. “It’s not run by any higher authority power. It’s not a company. There are no board members. For the first time in history, you can be your own bank. We’ve never had that before.”
Although Phan isn’t planning on resuming her vlogger career, she still possesses an innate urge to share. When she was a young girl, she dreamed of saving the world. When she was a vlogger, she dreamed of making enough so that her mother could retire. (She did.) Now that she’s here, in this place, she tells me, “I realize I can’t save the world. But I can save myself, and when I show people how I saved myself, and I share how I did it, that can save them, too.” This is an optimist’s view of influencing: helping others by posting about yourself.
I ask Phan how she saved herself, what that actually looks like. “It’s all about applying little tips into people’s lives. Everyone’s been making this moon tea I showed on my Instagram. People are responding to it like, ‘It’s the most comforting tea! I’ve never liked Earl Grey tea but you changed my life!’ And to me it’s just my favorite tea, but that’s the beautiful thing about the Internet. You can share things, and those things can really change someone’s life. I miss that.”
Can a tea really make a difference in someone’s life, though? Later, I go on Phan’s Instagram to look up the recipe (which she’d saved as a highlight, along with two other ones about bitcoin). Done her way, the tea bag is steeped in about a quartercupof milk before you add water and a sweetener of your choosing. This method warms the milk up, making the tea smoother, more blended, and free of that occasionally bitter taste associated with bergamot. I’m not sure it saved me, but it’s definitely better.