It’s 9:30 a.m. in the heart of downtown L.A. and Michelle Phan is grinning over several takeout boxes of fried chicken and a tray of pastries, a.k.a. her version of breakfast. Chocolate fudge and cherry-bacon donuts—ordered via app—arrive and are reminiscent of the rainbow-hued Quinceañera dresses in the windows peeking over Santee Alley. After polishing off a strawberry-sherbet-glazed treat, Phan steps onto the set for FASHION’s cover story and explains her unconventional modelling process: “When I’m doing a photo shoot, I like to reward myself by eating something bad.”
So much about the 29-year-old digital mogul/maven is unexpected. For starters, Phan has a post-spa, chill vibe that does not reflect the energy of a typical CEO—let alone someone who runs a company that Forbes estimated is worth more than half a billion dollars. Today, her tranquillity is partially due to the fact that she has just come back from a month-long creative sabbatical in Switzerland, where she hiked, built fires with friends and avoided her phone. This trip was filled with a few self-imposed rules: “No Instagram pics, no Snapchats, no tweets about any of it,” she says. “It. Was. Heaven.”
This timeout from the digital world might seem counterintuitive and out of character. After all, this is the woman behind Ipsy, a company she co-founded in 2012 that she says is now the world’s biggest online beauty community. Its success is built on sending out personalized makeup bags to subscribers, specifically next-generation beauty aficionados who are too weary, or shy, to deal with counter consultations. For that reason, Ipsy has become a library, and a guidance counsellor, for both the hardcore and beginner makeup lover. As Phan declares: “It reaches more than 30 million women around the world.” Phan denies that she is, in her words, “that much of a baller,” but she does insist that the value of Ipsy alone has people throwing out numbers as high as $800 million. “I think,” she corrects, “it’s worth more.” Then there is the question of the Boston-born beauty’s own makeup line, Em. It was an enterprise created with L’Oréal USA in 2013, but last year, in a ballsy executive move, Ipsy bought Em from the cosmetics giant. The parting was amicable enough, but the experience gave Phan a priceless lesson on the importance of autonomy. “I now have full creative control over Em,” she says proudly. “If you have a brand that is online, you have to be nimble, fluid and platform reactive,” she says. “You can’t wait for a phone call from the president to approve one tweet or change in plan when your business needs to shift immediately. It’s ineffective. Now I don’t have to ask for permission.”
Phan wasn’t always this self-assured. A little over a decade ago, she was working as a waitress in Tampa, Fla., because she could no longer afford her college tuition, so she had to drop out. She grew up in extremely underprivileged circumstances as her father gambled the household savings away and left her mother to be the sole breadwinner (Phan’s mom raised her by working countless hours at a nail salon). At times the family had to live off food stamps.
Phan was in high school when she began gaining popularity with a blog she wrote on Xanga.com, under the name Rice Bunny. Her circumstances began to change when she started doing makeup tutorials online. In 2006, she signed up for a YouTube account. Phan hit the viral jackpot when she filmed herself transforming into Barbie (64 million views) and Lady Gaga (53 million views). “I was making 10 cents a day with those videos in those days, making content for free and paying for everything out of pocket,” she recalls. “I waited until I was making $20 a day—which was roughly what I was making as a waitress—and then I quit my waitressing job after the economy crashed in the fall of 2009.” Today, Phan’s YouTube channel is a media colossus boasting more than 8.5 million subscribers—a number that’s greater than that of the combined YouTube channels of CNN, CBC, BBC and Fox News.
Although she is often compared to Martha Stewart and Oprah Winfrey, Phan’s empire has more in common with Jay Z’s. There is something rebellious and boss-like about Phan’s businesses that live up to her Vietnamese name, Tuyet Bang—which translates to “avalanche.” Her parents, who were born in Vietnam and fled the war to live in America, named her after this natural force, which foreshadowed her snowballing fame and sense of defiance.
For example, she believes the new wave of beauty and fashion consumers don’t buy into the smoke-and-mirrors effect of celebrity spokespeople anymore. “A study was done last year that showed that millennials get their beauty product recommendations from YouTubers and Instagrammers,” she says. “Usually I don’t care if an actress is a spokesperson or not. Millennials and Gen Z[ers] go to YouTube so they can see what the application process is and what shade is being used. It’s not CGI’d or Photoshopped.” Phan also believes today’s entertainment industry is in dire need of a makeover. “The traditional Hollywood industry needs to be disrupted right now,” she says. “Times are changing and we should not be following a strategy or a formula that worked before. There is so much more complexity in the human experience than prince and princess and good versus evil. The Internet breaks those rules,” she says, pointing out some of the problematic notions that are coming from social media. “Corporations are buying popularity and views and hashtags,” she says in a bewildered tone. “But you know what? You can’t fake engagement…. I can’t even hear about content buckets and editorial strategy and SEO anymore. It sounds so out of date. Engagement is more powerful and speaks to the importance of storytelling.”
Her imagination extends further than beauty, too. Phan’s self-penned, self-illustrated digital sci-fi fantasy comic book, called Helios : Femina, connects to her convictions. The project—free on webtoons.com—is about a young girl named Rhea who is in a David and Goliath-like battle to the finish. If a live-action deal were to happen, she’d want directors Ridley Scott or James Cameron and her dream star Zendaya, who Phan says “has the right look and she sings and she’s beautiful and represents—in my opinion—the beauty icon of the future.” Perhaps Phan is partial to the singer for more reasons than just her talent. “My boyfriend [of six years] is Swiss, German and Italian, so I know when we get married and have kids, they will also be mixed.” Oddly enough, Phan did not meet her partner, model Dominique Capraro, on Tinder or OkCupid. She was in a Paris café and he offered to translate the menu. “I looked up and knew he was the one,” she says. “It was that real.”
The cult of Phan has fuelled both adulation and imitation. But instead of resenting the latter, Phan supports it, which is how Ipsy Open Studios was born. This online and IRL resource allows Phan to mentor vloggers via Google Hangouts or through workshops at its Santa Monica-based studio (vloggers can take advantage of the studio’s equipment and shoot their own videos there as well). “I have this knowledge that I should be sharing with peers to help them,” she says. “I want to create an ecosystem that thrives on positivity, not competition. I tell a lot of my peers, ‘Don’t look at each other as rivals; this isn’t a competition.’”
And her aspirations don’t stop there. Phan is starting a musical community online, explaining that the idea came about after she settled a lawsuit brought on by dance label Ultra Records over usage rights. “I’m launching a platform that has music made for creators by other creators,” she says.
She feels her desire to evolve is not driven by greed or ambition, but rather by spirituality. “Most people believe in life and death as linear,” she says. “I think it goes in cycles, so I don’t see a beginning, middle and end—I see death as just another door. It could be a previous life or a next life, but I don’t believe we stop. Ever.”