The Stunning Transformation Of Michelle Phan

Michelle Phan was a beauty vlogger long before the likes of James Charles and Tati Westbrook built their respective followings on YouTube. She began her YouTube channel in 2006 — just a year after YouTube itself launched. As such, Phan has been labeled the "First YouTuber," according to Biography. In a little over a decade, Phan's success amounted to a "personal net worth of about $50 million."

Although she was dubbed the "Beyoncé of the beauty-vlogging world," Phan chose to walk away from the spotlight — including YouTube — in 2017. Phan's 2 million followers on Instagram have been able to keep up with her, at least somewhat, in the meantime. Still, it was a shock when Phan uploaded a YouTube video (her first in two years) in September 2019. Rightfully, the beauty community was shooketh by her return. "Only Michelle Phan — the creator — the big bang — of the beauty community can save us," beauty vlogger Thomas Halbert tweeted. But just how did Phan become a figurehead of both the beauty and YouTube communities? This is her stunning transformation.

From Tuyet Bang to Michelle Phan

We know her best as Michelle Phan, but the beauty vlogger's Vietnamese name is Tuyet Bang, which translates to mean "avalanche." According to a 2016 Nylon profile of Phan, the vlogger's father "believed that when an accumulation of snow begins to move, the force is unstoppable." The article continued, "The name is apt, as Phan is now a global girl-power makeup guru and new-media mogul with over eight million YouTube subscribers." In an earlier interview with Glamour, Phan said her father chose the name because of his daughter's "nonstop energy." Phan continued, saying, "I took a lot from him, like being a risk taker." 

Although Phan was born and raised in the United States, both of her parents grew up in Vietnam. "Their families were like the Montagues and the Capulets — [my father] was from northern Vietnam, [my mother] was from the central countryside, yet they ran off together," Phan explained.

Michelle Phan had a troubled childhood

Michelle Phan would eventually become the beauty vlogger we all know and love, but her childhood was less than ideal. "You wouldn't exactly call my childhood stable," Phan revealed to Glamour. "When I was growing up, my father constantly gambled away our rent money. Every few months we'd get evicted and move." One night after a particularly "big loss," Phan said her father didn't come home. She would not see him again for over a decade.

Phan's mother remarried, and, although the relationship seemed like a good thing at first, her new husband quickly became possessive. "He ran the house like a dictator," Phan told Nylon. Some time after her half-sister Christine was born, Phan's mother left him. "Eventually, the four of us [Phan, her mother, her brother, and her half-sister] moved out, and at age 17, I started working as a hostess to supplement my mom's income as a nail technician in a salon," she explained to Glamour. "We could barely pay rent, and we had no furniture; I slept on the floor, my clothes in a basket beside me."

Michelle Phan would "cosplay" to fit in at school

To avoid her home life, Michelle Phan would often stay late after school. But there she faced bullying. Phan shared that she'd walk down school hallways and other students would yell racist things at her. "It made me insecure about my nationality and race," she told Nylon. "It was really hurtful." That bullying would continue all throughout high school, but she continued to try to fit in. 

At times, she'd attempt to look more Caucasian and would dress preppier. Other times, she asked African-American girls to cornrow her hair or she would put baby oil in her hair like her Latina peers. "I didn't really have a defined style," Phan told the publication. "I didn't know what my culture or aesthetic was, so I would cosplay to feel part of theirs. I was hiding the true me."

Phan also felt pressure to lose weight. "I did go through a moment where I didn't eat a lot because I wanted to be skinny. I don't know if you'd call it an eating disorder — I would at least eat dinner," she explained. "It was around the time of 'thinspiration.'" 

Beauty magazines had an impact on Michelle Phan

In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Michelle Phan reminisced about her mom's job at a nail salon. After school, Phan said she would come to help out, and, while there, she'd also page through the magazines. "I would read all these beauty magazines and I was a sponge. I was absorbing all of the information and facts," she explained. Little could Phan have imagined that she would one day grace the covers of beauty magazines herself.

However, it wasn't just the beauty magazines at the salon that were inspiring Phan. "I wanted to be like my mother," the vlogger revealed in a YouTube video. "She didn't wear a cape or shoot lasers out of her eyes; she was someone who wore a smile and made people more beautiful." Even more than that, though, Phan said her mom made her customers "feel beautiful." 

Michelle Phan didn't really wear makeup until she was 19

On her YouTube channel, Michelle Phan has used makeup to create all sorts of looks — we're talking everything from "Gothic Lolita Doll" to "Snow White." While Phan could use makeup to transform herself into practically anyone, makeup was not part of her high school "cosplay." 

Other than lip gloss and mascara, Phan didn't experiment with makeup until she was 19 years old. This was because her mom thought Phan should embrace her natural beauty. Her mom also believed in always looking presentable. "I was taught to dress nice, to show everyone around you that you care," Phan told Nylon. "Even though we had no money, my mother believed in looking good," she continued.

Her decision to dress nicely in college led to bullying once more. "I guess in art school, it was cool to look broke. If you dressed up, you were trying too hard," Phan revealed. "But when you come from nothing, it's the last thing you want to look like."

Michelle Phan was essentially a YouTuber before YouTube existed

Michelle Phan launched her YouTube channel while attending Ringling College of Art and Design in 2006. Her first video, "Natural Looking Makeup Tutorial," was actually a repost of a tutorial she'd first uploaded to her Xanga blog. Ah, the good ol' days. Before she shared the vlog to YouTube, though, it was already a hit on the blogging site. In just one week, it had been viewed 40,000 times. That may not sound like a lot today, but, being as it was in the mid-aughts, it was impressive. 

"Back then, it wasn't as easy as it is [now] to instantly share or retweet anything that you found online," Phan explained to Cosmopolitan. "You would have to copy and paste a link, and post it to Facebook." Phan hadn't intended to grow a huge following, but that's exactly what happened. By 2015, Phan had amassed over a billion views on her videos and 7.7 million subscribers on YouTube.

Michelle Phan was all about skincare from the beginning

In 2018, the skincare industry grew by 13 percent whereas makeup only experienced a one percent increase, according to the NPD Group. Stephan Kanlian, professor and chair of the Fashion Institute of Technology's Master of Professional Studies program, told CNN Business that it was "the first time in a very long time" that skincare had surpassed makeup.

Although many of us may have only recently jumped aboard the skincare bandwagon, Michelle Phan has long been a believer. In her very first YouTube video, she advised viewers to begin their makeup routine with a cleansed, toned, and moisturized face. "You get better, natural-looking results when applying makeup on a clean face," she revealed.

In an interview with The Wall Street Journal in 2012, she revealed some of her top beauty tips. "The number one is to drink water," she advised. Dermatologists agree that upping your water intake can lead to skin benefits. Second only to water is sun protection, according to Phan. "Sunscreen is really important, especially now," she revealed. "Not just because it's going to reduce wrinkles and brown spots and so forth, but also for your health too."

Michelle Phan believes makeup is a "weapon"

Michelle Phan didn't use makeup to hide once she became an adult. "Makeup is not a mask that covers up your beauty, it's a weapon that helps you express who you are from the inside," Forbes quoted the beauty vlogger as saying at the publication's 30 Under 30 summit in Philadelphia, Penn. 

It's true that Phan could teach you how to apply liquid eyeliner like a pro, but her beauty tips have always been about much more than the makeup itself. In fact, one of her top beauty tips has nothing to do with products of any sort. "Honestly, just smile," she revealed in an interview with The Wall Street Journal. "And I really feel like a smile brings out your inner happiness and you're just expressing it to the world," she continued. Phan added that she believes "happiness is beauty" and that a smile will serve you well even "if all else fails."

Michelle Phan founded and left Ipsy

In 2011, Michelle Phan co-founded the company Ipsy, a subscription service that provides samples of beauty products for a set fee each month. And success quickly followed. "We have over 100,000 new Glam Bag subscribers joining every month, and this growth has been completely organic with no marketing or PR spend," Ipsy CEO Marcelo Cambero told Entrepreneur in 2015. That same year, Ipsy had over a million subscribers.

Later that year, Ipsy was valued at $500 million. "I didn't have a roadmap," Phan admitted at Forbes' 30 Under 30 Summit in 2015 (via Forbes), "I just did it because it was meaningful to me and I wanted to disrupt the beauty industry." She certainly succeeded.

However, Phan decided to leave Ipsy in September 2017. Jennifer Goldfarb, the subscription service's co-founder and president, acknowledged Phan as "the original creator" who "inspired a generation" when speaking to Racked, but it was clear that Ipsy would continue on without its founder.

Michelle Phan learned some hard lessons

While some may look to Michelle Phan as her generation's rags-to-riches story, Phan's success hasn't been without struggle. Even though Ipsy was thriving, Phan's line of makeup — Em Cosmetics — which launched with L'Oréal in 2013 "flopped," in Phan's own words. "I had Reddit forums dedicated to hating on it. I was bullied. I hate using that word because everyone is bullied, but I was digitally bullied," she wrote in an article for Teen Vogue in 2017.

She chose not to clap back at consumers who were calling her formulas cheap. "I could have said a lot of things, but the thing about the internet is that you cannot have a legitimate [argument] with someone online and win," she continued. And, well, she's not wrong. Instead, she decided to detox from social media, and she took a total online hiatus. As her fans surely remember, Phan went radio silent.

Michelle Phan no longer wanted to be a "product"

Nearly two months after penning an article about her "social media detox" for Teen Vogue, Michelle Phan returned to YouTube in June 2017 with a more in-depth explanation aout why she took a break. "Once, I was a girl with dreams who eventually became a product: smiling, selling, and selling," she explained. "Who I was on camera and who I was in real life began to feel like strangers. Money can bring out the worst in people — and I was no exception." She further explained that she was struggling with depression. "I wanted to be forgotten," she said, "so I began posting less online." 

Phan went through her YouTube channel and purged a lot of her videos and then changed her profile picture to a black box — all of which worried her fans. "People literally thought I was dead," she told Racked. In reality, Phan was reinventing her life and herself.

Michelle Phan lived life offline

After Michelle Phan decided to step away from everything, she took nine months to travel everywhere from Egypt to Europe in an effort to, as she explained to Racked, "heal" and "reflect." Phan recalled packing her "whole life" in "one piece of luggage" and leaving without saying a word to anyone — including even her business partners. 

First, she flew to Switzerland. "It was so quiet that I could hear my thoughts at night," she recalled in an article for Teen Vogue. During her nine months aboard, Phan reconnected with nature. "Nature healed me," she professed. "Nature reminded me that everything we've built around our world that we have today doesn't really matter." When Phan eventually returned to Los Angeles, Calif., she said nothing had really changed — even the digital scene — but she came back a different person. She promised her fans, "I am not gone, guys. I'm stronger than ever."

Although Phan didn't share specifics, she said she'd returned from traveling with a renewed sense of self and clarity. She had plans of breaking into "other industries." It may have been vague, but, for longtime Phan fans, it also sounded exciting and promising.

Michelle Phan is still working in the beauty industry

Em Cosmetics may not have been successful under L'Oréal's control, but Michelle Phan didn't give up. After her line failed, she bought it back from L'Oréal via Ipsy in late 2015, and, in April 2017, she launched Em Cosmetics once again.

Although Phan was disappointed that Em Cosmetics didn't take off the first time around, she told Racked, "It was through that failure that I started to get more interested in the business aspect of everything." While Phan was no longer on a digital detox, she didn't return to posting makeup tutorials on YouTube. Instead, she focused on working on her cosmetic label.

"After speaking to Phan for an hour," wrote Racked's Cheryl Wischhover, "I noticed her palpable sense of relief about the decision to move behind the scenes and away from being in front of the camera." Phan herself expressed her discomfort around fame. "Getting recognized in real life is always weird, because you never know when it's gonna happen," she said. "I can't even tell you how many times I had to take pictures with people in the bathroom. It's the most awkward thing."

Michelle Phan returned to YouTube

For years, we've been able to watch Michelle Phan transform in front of our very eyes, thanks to YouTube. Phan's decision to move behind the scenes may mean we're not privy to her everyday life, but the beauty guru continues to transform all the same. "Em [Cosmetics] is going to be an introduction of my evolution," she revealed to Teen Vogue. "Because I've been evolving since I was that 15-year-old on Xanga. I'm changing, and I want to show people that it's okay to change and to grow."

Em Cosmetics has even brought Phan back to YouTube. In a short vlog simply titled "Hello :)" posted in September 2019, Phan showed her face on YouTube for the first time in years. Looking as radiant as ever, she showed viewers a behind-the-scenes glimpse at Em Cosmetics and an upcoming product: Morning Dew Crystal Lip Gloss. According to the brand, it's "a crystal-clear gloss that gives you high shine without the sticky texture."

Fans were thrilled about Phan's return to YouTube. "I just watched 3 minutes of pure ad and I'm somehow not mad at it??" one viewer joked. We hope to see more videos from Phan in the future!