Michelle Phan: The YouTube beauty guru
"Can you write out my sister's name and give a shoutout in a video?" he asked.
The young man had waited in line for an hour to meet YouTube beauty guru Michelle Phan to request this favor. Only, he lied.
"Well, it's not just for my sister," he admitted.
Every morning, his mother would apply her perfect red lipstick, brush a dramatic smoky eye and spray a mist of perfume around herself. Then she'd leave for the day. It was her ritual.
But chemotherapy had weakened her to the point she couldn't even lift her arms to apply eyeshadow.
The young man explained that he found Michelle's videos and taught himself how to use makeup. He then went to his mother's bedside and painted that eyeshadow and lipstick on her face, just so she could feel beautiful.
On the verge of tears, he told Michelle, "I'm pretty sure she would have been thankful for you."
Michelle Phan, 26, isn't a philanthropist, but she's forged lip gloss and camera equipment into a devoted lifestyle cortege 100 countries strong.
Her acclaimed makeup tutorial YouTube channel has inspired and educated fans since 2007. Did we mention she has 4.6 million of them?
It didn't take her long to become the second most-subscribed-to female on YouTube, ahead of Taylor Swift and Lady Gaga. A week after she uploaded her first makeup tutorial - a simple cat eye with nude lipstick - the video had earned 40,000 views. It now logs 10.1 million.
"If you want to immerse yourself in her videos, you have enough to keep you busy - Michelle has more hours of content than eight feature-length films," says YouTube Communications and Public Affairs Associate Gina Shalavi. Users watch more than 120 million how-to and beauty videos every day on YouTube. Makeup videos are now the most frequently searched how-to content on the platform.
As one of five original YouTube beauty gurus - and the most successful, by far - Phan has played a colossal role in that growth.
She partnered with YouTube in 2012 to launch FAWN (For All Women Network), a multi-channel women's lifestyle network in which guest gurus produce videos about makeup, DIY, cooking, fitness, fashion and careers. More than 4.6 million people subscribe to the channel, which hosts 450 videos. (Pro tip: According to Phan, a fancy FAWN relaunch is in the works.)
"Success is like a lightning bolt. It'll strike you when you least expect it, and you just have to keep the momentum up."
"You have to strike when the iron is hot. So for me, I just kept striking and striking to polish out the sword that I was making."
Phan sits tall for her short stature, poised on the edge of her chair, her hands open on a conference table. She's sporty in a crisp white blouse, architectural black shorts and Balenciaga-esque heels in green and yellow - her signature "pop of color." Her white nail polish is edged in black lines. On a few nails, she painted the letters "em," advertising her new eponymous makeup line, released August 15 in New York's trending Meatpacking District.
Many of Em's products are a nod to Phan's background. The Chiaroscuro contour and highlighting stick alludes to her time as an art student; and the massive makeup cornucopia known as Life Pallette(right) was inspired by tablets - the eyeshadows and blushes pop out and move like apps.
Emcosmetics.com isn't a static ecommerce platform, either. After purchase, the site encourages users to upload videos of their own "looks" and share them with one another, effectively creating a mini-network of consumers.
"They're going to feel like they really have sisters online who they can connect with," says Phan. "Girls [with] fair skin with acne, they're gonna be grouped together."
Two years ago Phan dubbed her Em team members part of "Project Sister," a gooey marketing alias, yes, but that's her brand. Every facet oozes more warm charm than Lassie. And, frankly, it's very enchanting.
"Every video I've made has an inspirational message behind it," she says. "Since day one I thought, 'Okay, I want my audience to be like Disney members.' So if that's the case, I have to keep everything rated G."
Her not-so-secret sauce? Storytelling. Every video revolves around a trend - zombies, back-to-school or even a person, like Taylor Swift - check out the video below.
Rarely does Phan discuss herself in videos, but she occasionally releases personal updatesabout her new hair or exercise regimen. You'll have to dig a little deeper to find more intimate details, however. A dedicated Xanga user before her YouTube success, Phan sometimes publishes anecdotes on her blog. In a 2011 post, Phan discusses her refusal to wear tampons ("ewww, I know, I know!").
Despite expanding her brand to lifestyles beyond her own, Phan's business still revolves around family. Her boyfriend Dom co-starred in a few videos. This video titled "My Boyfriend Does My Makeup" has had over 2 million views.
Growing up, Phan says her mother encouraged her to choose a career in medicine and was devastated when she decided she wanted to pursue art.
Soon after that conversation, Phan enrolled at Sarasota, Fla.'s Ringling College of Art and Design. She applied to work as a sales associate at a Lancome counter. She was turned down because of her lack of experience.
"Even though that door closed on me, there was another window that I was able to crawl though," she says. "And it was YouTube."
In 2010, three years after her first makeup tutorial went viral, Lancome hired Phan as its first official video makeup artist.
Hundreds of makeup and lifestyle brands followed suit, sending Phan products to incorporate into her videos, in front of a guaranteed audience of millions. (She now keeps all those items in labeled bins - cream foundation, liquid foundation, powder foundation, BB cream foundation - and then offloads them to eager interns at the end of the year. Tom Ford lipstick? "Just take it! I don't need it.")
It's only natural to wonder that, with the launch of her makeup line, Phan will plug her own products in place of using third-party brands like Revlon and Urban Decay as she has in the past. But she reassures followers that she'll maintain a strict "journalistic approach" by continuing to review and recommend brands other than Em.
It's easy to jump on the Michelle Phan bandwagon. Everything she touches seems to turn to liquid gold (eyeliner). Phan not only participates in trends; she inspires new ones.
Of her 5 million-strong army, 98% of whom go online every day, her largest and most-dedicated fan base resides in Asia. She is the No. 1 most-watched YouTube channel in Japan. Phan obsesses over Asian cultural practices. She pores over comments and asks the community about makeup trends in Korea, Japan, Vietnam, China, etc.
In Korea, for example, young women crave doughy, kewpie eyes that appear as if they're always smiling. Phan spotted the "puffy eye" phenomenon and created a video to teach fans how to accomplish the unique look.
"Half of the viewers in the states thought I was crazy. Who in their right mind wants puffy eyes?" she says. Her Asian viewers, however? "My puffy eyes are trendy, so I don't have to worry about them. I can just stay up all night!" (If you thought makeup was staid, check out the comments on that video.)
"I don't want to make videos where people are always happy and they're agreeing. It's boring! Do something where people can talk about it," she says. "Maybe one girl didn't know about puffy eyes. Maybe she Googled it and [now] she's learning about K-Pop."
For the most part, you can tell viewers inherently trust Phan and require her help.
"She's her fans' biggest fan," says Bing Chen, YouTube global creator of development and management program manager. "Michelle's new makeup line Em means 'you' in Vietnamese [...] She's not just a celebrity to her fans - she's a friend, too."
Phan still manages her own community communication, reviewing and replying to YouTube and Instagram comments, Facebook posts and tweets herself.
"No one does it better than me because I've known them for six years," says Phan.
On the other hand, Phan feels pressured to offload some responsibility, what with three additional businesses besides her original YouTube presence.
In the end, it's community empowerment that will keep Phan sane. She says her next move is to incorporate other people's inspiring stories, similar to Oprah. And the more people she mentors, the more her brand will branch out and evolve organically, blissfully beyond her control.
"Believe me, I'm happy. I've done what I want to do," says Phan. "My next goal is to be the fairy godmother. I had my Cinderella moment. Now I want to make other people's dreams come true."