The Makeup of Michelle Phan

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The Makeup of Michelle Phan

High fashion and makeup go together. When you think of famous labels like Prada, Chanel and Gucci, glossy models like Kate Moss and Gisele Bundchen come to mind. But it takes make-up artists like Bobbi Brown, Pat McGrath and Gucci Westman to make those flawless faces look even better — to make them chic and glamorous.

Top makeup artists spend years developing a portfolio of work, showcasing their technical mastery and creative eye. They have to make contacts with key photographers, designers and editors, who hire them for advertisements and magazine editorials. If they’re particularly powerful, they become creative directors at major makeup companies like Revlon and Cover Girl, among a host of drug and department store staples, advising on key trends to help them connect with audiences.

That glamorous world isn’t blush and go — it’s a hard world to break into. But newcomer Michelle Phan is breaking into that exclusive industry through a different path, by harnessing the growing might of YouTube, the world’s most democratic media platform to bring beauty to the masses — with passion and a dollop of adorability.

A Different Kind of Makeup Artist

Michelle is, in some ways, a typical immigrant success story. Born in 1987, to Vietnamese parents who divorced when she was a child, her mother uprooted her from Boston to California and then Tampa, Fla. As a teenager, inspired, in part by her mother’s career as a nail technician, she chose a degree in illustration at Ringling College of Art and Design in Sarasota, Fla., and then later at Massachusetts College of Art and Design.

In 2006, during the rise of blogging, she started writing posts about makeup — with step-by-step pictures and directions, according to the Tampa Bay Times. But she quickly realized the format didn’t get her point across.

Then it hit her: why not just film it?

“My subscribers asked for a makeup tutorial and I made it for them,” she told The Insider. “So, I took out my MacBook Pro and I filmed my first video and uploaded it on YouTube, and within the first week it got 40,000 views.”

Since then, Phan has directed, produced and starred in over 220 videos, seen by over 600 million visitors, with six million hits, making her the number-one “Beauty Guru” on and 19th-rated overall channel on YouTube.

That success came from old-fashioned sweat equity, and a bit of viral marketing, as she built her reputation on social media. Unlike her contemporaries, who relied on celebrity endorsement for fame, she grew a loyal fan base first, garnering a passionate two million subscriber base so large that she couldn’t be ignored.

“I’m homemade,” she told AllThingsD. “And my viewers love that about me and they get inspired and do it themselves.”

For makeup aficionados, her cheerful DIY quality — hard to copy, impossible to fake and all-around irresistible — is one trait that sets her apart. The 26-year-old is young, but she comes across as knowledgeable. While she offers simple remedies like lemon and sugar facials, for example, she’s just as in touch with high-end commercial products, making even the most difficult techniques accessible to the average girl.

Her most popular tutorials, which range from “Aspirin Mask” for acne and the adventurous “Seductive Vampire” to practical “Makeup for Glasses” and “Lady Gaga ‘Poker Face’,” have a bit of something for everyone. To show how cosmetics is fun, she gives glimpses into special makeup effects and transformations, like when she struck a playful chord turning into Barbie and Japanese anime hit Sailor Moon, complete with pupil-enlarging contact lenses.

Without YouTube, Phan — lacking New York or Paris connections in the closed-off world of high fashion — would’ve likely become a department store makeup artist. She may have been a salesperson, done makeup for local shoots or weddings or pursued the passion as a hobby. But through the Internet, she can broadcast her appeal to a large audience and amplify that reach to an unprecedented degree.

The YouTube Connection

Phan began posting video tutorials in 2007, when YouTube was in its infancy. The site helped her develop a very direct and intimate connection to an audience hungry for step-by-step information — directions they could use and experiment with in the privacy of their own home. And as YouTube’s influence grew, so did hers.

YouTube was born on April 23, 2005, when its founders uploaded a brief video at San Diego Zoo. The site, fueled in large part by amateur videos of cute babies and kittens, skyrocketed and a year later, with an estimated 50 million users, Google bought it for $1.7 billion.

Today, it boasts more than one billion visitors watching over six billion hours of footage each month. In fact, 100 hours of video are uploaded each minute, according to YouTube. In the music industry, the site outpaces traditional methods — two-in-three teenagers say they listen to and discover songs on YouTube over radio and even iTunes. But Google was losing money on it until 2010, when it opened its advertising platform.

That single move opened up a revenue source for countless Internet celebrities, like singer Justin Bieber, model Kate Upton and, of course, Phan, to emerge. Modern-day stars online and off use its revolutionary reach to not just catapult them to fame and fortune, but generate substantial sums on the way up. Part of that reason is the disruptive changes it’s had on shifting advertising from traditional channels like agents, record labels or institutions — like Hollywood and New York’s fashion scene — to that new breed of Internet stars. With YouTube, Phan was able to create her own road to stardom — one that veered from the established trajectory in the high-fashion arena, where the surest path to success was down the runway of a top designer’s show.

“Brands and talent are using YouTube to create direct-to-consumer relationships,” Elisabeth Murdoch, CEO of Shine and daughter of News Corp. media titan Rupert Murdoch, told the Guardian. “Phan is the world’s most popular make-up expert, with over 600 million views. That’s equivalent to a global Olympic audience generated by a 22-year-old putting on Lady Gaga makeup.”

YouTube’s huge influence over music and movies, among other forms of media, is positioning it as a broadcasting network in its own right. The combination of immediacy and intimacy with a worldwide audience is turning it into a compelling entertainment and media source, one that doesn’t need traditional media investment to attract ads and viewers.

A Perfect Match

In some ways, Phan was perfect for the medium of Internet video, where immediacy trumps polish. While her tutorials lacked the refinement of traditional television, they had a cheerful and optimistic tone and ethereal production style to them — featuring on-camera and voice over instruction with music and inspirational text subtitles. Her videos felt like a chat with friends, rather advice from an expert, common in TV and print, where you’d be talked down to.

The Internet’s intimacy framed an earnest manner, so she doesn’t sound corny when she says lives can be changed with a single tube of lipstick — or that women have stronger careers, futures and better self-esteem when they feel confident and beautiful.

YouTube helped her foster an immediate connection to her audience. Its commenting system alone gives her a direct channel to engage with her followers — asking questions and seeking suggestions and adapting her content. That democratic quality of YouTube — all you need is a webcam and an Internet connection — was an ideal match to her democratic philosophy on life: teach women how to be glamorous.

While her career started with YouTube, her opportunities are growing beyond it. In 2010, Lancome hired her to create makeup videos to highlight its products, while Brides Magazine signed her as a video blogger for its site. Not to be outdone, YouTube even tapped her to help produce content for its “For All Women Network,” or FAWN, premium channel. And Glamhouse teamed up with her to create a line of jewelry, called “Ever Eden.”

She’s also moved to Los Angeles to co-found a subscription-based makeup start-up, called Ipsy.” “My fans may feel alienated because the products I’m using may be too expensive,” she told AllThingsD. But the small samples, available for a $10 monthly fee, can be relatively affordable.

As her career skyrockets and she explores new avenues, she still keeps an eye, and her attention, on the source of her success: the audience YouTube helped her find and develop. She hasn’t forgot her humble roots, telling Seventeen magazine that Wet’ N’ Wild eyeliners is always a staple in her purse because they’re “amazing and they’re like 99 cents.” As she became an online sensation, she also kept her feet very much rooted in her broader offline community as well. In 2009, for example, she helped organize a fashion show that raised $21,000 to help pay for the hospital fees of an 18-year-old Vietnamese woman who was brutally assulted in her former town of Tampa.

But taking a breath to look back on her amazingly short, but packed, career to date, she told The Insider her financial success helped her realize a lifelong goal to help ease her mother into retirement. “My biggest dream was to help my mom stop working and retire and I was able to do that last year,” she said. “I think my ultimate career goal has already been achieved which was just inspire young girls to feel better about themselves, whether it’s through makeup or whether it’s through just dreaming or being inspired to chase their dreams.”

Still, Michelle Phan’s story is more than an inspiring tale about staying true to your dreams. It’s also a lesson about success in the digital age — and tools like YouTube, and a lot of fortitude, can just help you not just get there, but become part of the narrative.

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