Michelle Phan surprised her millions of fans by telling Glamour about the very unglamorous conditions under which she and her family had been living before she found her calling as an online beauty maven.
Phan’s 4.5 million YouTube followers will be shocked to learn that the woman they’ve come to see as a beauty and style guru was struggling to save her broken family from a string of evictions right up until the day her first YouTube beauty video. That’s because until now Phan had created an entirely different persona than the one she revealed last week to a Glamour magazine writer.
“Seven years ago, in my first semester at college, the professors handed out MacBook Pros,” Phan recounts. “With mine I filmed a seven-minute tutorial on “natural makeup”—just me, my laptop, and a cup of coffee. When, a week later, it clocked 40,000 Web views, I knew people were connecting with it, so I kept going. That moment changed my life.
“At the time, I was keeping a personal blog in which I depicted myself as the girl I wanted to be, with money and a great family. But it was all a veneer. In reality my life was hard, and I was struggling with insecurities I’d had for years.”
She reveals that throughout her childhood her family suffered the consequences of her father’s gambling habit, including being evicted from their apartments every few months.
“My brother and I never had the same beds for long, or even the same tree outside to swing on,” she recalls. “Then one night after a big loss, my father just disappeared. It was more than 10 years before I saw him again.”
Phan was devasted because, despite everything, she and her father had been close. She still treasures the memories of that warm relationship. Her mother eventually remarried, but that didn’t end the family’s struggles. She and her two siblings left her stepfather because they couldn’t take his controlling ways. Phan began working as a waitress to supplement her mother’s earnings as a technician at a nail salon. They struggled to pay the rent each month. Phan slept on the floor and kept her clothes in a basket next to where she slept.
The family’s struggle to survive made it difficult for Phan to have a normal social life. With no friends and being targeted by racist schoolmates, she began developing her drawing skills and reading. One of her creations was the kind of superhero she longed to become — one with the power to save her family from its grinding financial struggles.
She wanted to attend the Ringling College of Art and Design in Florida but the $12,00 tuition was far more than her family could afford. Her mother paid the first semester’s tuition with the money Phan’s aunts and uncles had scraped together to buy the family some furniture.
“I promised her I would find a way to take care of the family,” Phan recalls. “I just never imagined it would be through YouTube.”
It didn’t take long for Phan’s share of the ad revenues from her YouTube makeup tutorials to match what she was earning as a waitress. By 2012, four years after her first video was posted, she was offered $1 million by Google to create 20 hours of content. Soon after that came an even bigger payday when Lancôme offered Phan her own makeup line called Em after the Vietnamese word for little sister or sweetie.
“I called my mom, who was giving someone a pedicure,” she recalls of that day. “Today is the last day you’re doing that,” she told her mother. “I don’t want you to go to work tomorrow.”
“As I told her about the project, we sobbed together uncontrollably,” says Phan.
Her struggles and ultimate triumph has instilled in Phan an ironclad philosophy of life which she seeks to impart in all her productions.
“Even though makeup can change the way you look, I want everyone watching my videos to know perfection doesn’t exist,” she says. “That’s why I show my face without products — pimples included — and that’s why I’m sharing this story. If I’d had a more normal childhood, I would probably be living quietly somewhere as a children’s-book illustrator. But my life hasn’t been perfect, and look where I am today.”