Four tidbits on YouTube star Michelle Phan even fans won't know

Backed by 7.6 million followers on YouTube, the beauty guru's empire is so diverse even people least likely to watch her Barbie makeup transformation know her name. The online star still has a few secrets.

Joan E. Solsman Former Senior Reporter
Joan E. Solsman was CNET's senior media reporter, covering the intersection of entertainment and technology. She's reported from locations spanning from Disneyland to Serbian refugee camps, and she previously wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal. She bikes to get almost everywhere and has been doored only once.
Expertise Streaming video, film, television and music; virtual, augmented and mixed reality; deep fakes and synthetic media; content moderation and misinformation online Credentials
  • Three Folio Eddie award wins: 2018 science & technology writing (Cartoon bunnies are hacking your brain), 2021 analysis (Deepfakes' election threat isn't what you'd think) and 2022 culture article (Apple's CODA Takes You Into an Inner World of Sign)
Joan E. Solsman
4 min read

Michelle Phan is one of the the most-watched women on YouTube. Mark Von Holden

For someone best-known for transforming herself with makeup, Michelle Phan may be the most recognizable face to spring from YouTube.

Chalk it up to entrepreneurial moxie. More than any other YouTube star, Phan has parlayed her passionate online video following into a multifaceted businesses.

Over seven years, her beauty how-to videos catapulted Phan's YouTube channel to 7.6 million subscribers. In one of the most effective illustrations of the power of online media, Phan steered that influence into a growing empire, with a L'Oreal cosmetics line, a book of makeup advice, a music label, partnerships with Lancome cosmetics and media giant Endemol, and e-commerce startup Ipsy running at a rate of $120 million in annual sales.

People unfamiliar with her Barbie transformation tutorial (59 million views and counting) will still recognize parts of her story as classically American. Her mother, a Vietnamese immigrant, came to the US not speaking English and with no more than $20 in her pocket. Despite her mother's aspirations for her daughter to become a doctor, Phan gravitated instead to art school, promising her mom she would find a way to take care of her even if she followed her own path.

Her mother eventually got her wish to have a doctor in the family: Ringling College of Art and Design, where Phan was studying when she first began her YouTube how-tos, awarded her an honorary doctorate last year.

"That doctorate degree was really for my mom," she said in a 40-minute interview.

Phan spoke about her start on YouTube as an art student and what she's working on for the future. Here are four things even Phan's most rabid follower still may not know.

To learn more about Phan and how YouTubers like her are converging into media's mainstream, read "Generation YouTube" in the spring edition of CNET magazine.

Phan's YouTube videos have been viewed more than 1 billion times. Stefanie Keenan Photography

The first time she was recognized by a stranger was, appropriately, in a Sephora beauty shop.
Phan started posting how-to videos on YouTube in 2007 while she was in college, after readers of her beauty blog asked for tips on how to apply makeup. She was still in college when those videos led to the first time a stranger recognized her in public. Naturally, it was in a Sephora store.

"She told me she was a fan, and then she was asking, 'Do you think my foundation is right?'" Phan said, laughing. "It really felt like I was connecting with an old best friend."

Her hopes to possibly land a job at Pixar or Dreamworks kept her posting on YouTube when professors doubted her.
Phan's YouTube presence eventually became her career in beauty and media, but it wasn't the job she originally imagined she would land with her videos.

"I understood this was great marketing ploy for my portfolio as an artist," she said.

When professors asked her why she was wasting her time on YouTube, Phan would answer that it would give her portfolio a leg up when someone at Dreamworks or Pixar was hiring, she said.

"If they're comparing my portfolio with someone else's, and we have the same art skills but I have more followers, most likely they're going to choose me, because influence is power," she said. "I don't regret any decisions I made when I was sneaking off in class and commenting to my followers on YouTube."

If her mother hadn't encouraged her to become a doctor, she might have never started video blogging.
In a twist of timing, Phan credits her mother's push to study medicine for her first video.

Phan originally followed her mother's wish by planning to enter a medical program before making a last-minute switch to art. That change-up meant she had to sit out from college for a year because she was too late to enroll.

When she able to sign up the following year, it was the first that her college gave Macbook Pro computers to every freshman.

"Had I gone the year I was supposed to go, I would have never gotten my laptop, and I probably would have never shot my first video," she said.

Phan's e-commerce startup Ipsy recently hit 1 million paid members. Michelle Phan

Someday, fans might be able to join Phan in virtual reality.
Like any budding mogul, Phan has several projects in the offing. She's developing two apps, one for easy video and photo editing and another for fans to follow her life. She's launching a network of beauty and lifestyle channels, enlisting 20 to 30 other video makers like herself to contribute premium content.

A project most likely to excite her fanbase?

"I've been heavily investing a lot of my time in 360-degree video, VR and 3D printing," she said. "It's in development mode."

Last week, YouTube introduced the ability to upload 360-degree video, clips made with special cameras that capture everything around the shooter. With virtual reality creeping into the mainstream consumer market through efforts like Google's Cardboard and Oculus, which Facebook bought last year for $2 billion, Phan's interest in 360-degree video and VR open the possibility of a future video that puts the viewer in same room.

"I continue to look forward to see what's going to be the next place to explore," she said. "It's what I love doing most."

CORRECTED at 8:31 a.m. PT on March 26: Phan is one of the most watched women on YouTube but not No. 1.