It’s impossible to discuss the evolution of YouTube without talking about Michelle Phan. She’s the blueprint for every professional content creator, not just the beauty vloggers. Her career demonstrates how digital media can disrupt industries even beyond the tech world, and how creators can keep innovating over the years. 

Michelle had been a blogger since she was 15, posting tutorials and discussing makeup on sites like Xanga. When she was 20, a new video website popped up on the adolescent web. Then, in 2007, YouTube was more known for pirated SNL clips than original content. Michelle’s makeup tutorials, which rapidly gained popularity, helped build the site into the social media platform that it is now. Especially in the realm of beauty, social media has broken down barriers between the consumer and the marketplace. Before, you could only get makeup advice from a salesperson at the beauty counter, a paid celebrity spokesperson, or plain old advertisements in women’s magazines. 

With social media, anyone could post their opinions on products for a global audience. This effectively busted the kneecaps of cosmetic PR.  

After a successful brand deal with Lancôme, Michelle became their official video makeup artist and one of the first real beauty influencers

Michelle Phan as pioneer

Michelle was at the forefront of the first generation of beauty vloggers, disrupting and then re-setting industry standards. For example, she was the first creator that a major beauty company ever sponsored. After featuring their products in a video, and after those products very quickly sold out, legacy brand Lancôme made Michelle their official video makeup-artist. Brand deals with influencers now have almost completely replaced traditional advertising in the beauty world. This was the very start. Between sponsorships and the new Adsense program, Michelle was able to make YouTube her full-time job. She even branched out into new ventures while supporting her family.

Michelle co-founded MyGlam in 2011, which was later renamed ipsy. She also launched em cosmetics in 2013 as a L’Oreal subsidiary. It was the clear next-step for the most popular makeup artist on the internet. Michelle obviously knew the power of influencer marketing; ipsy’s focus was based on forming relationships with YouTubers, with the tiniest budget for traditional ads. Building up that network of creators with projects like a co-working space and an annual beauty convention made the company very successful, even if Michelle left in 2017. 

Creative problem solving

Michelle Phan’s other prominent, if lesser-known venture also emerged from personal experience. In 2014, Ultra Records sued Michelle for millions of dollars in copyright infringement. They claimed she had no right to use their music in the background of her videos, even as Michelle argued she had personal relationships with musicians and producers. This suit was eventually settled out of court. The terms haven’t been made public, but Michelle has spoken out about the financial and emotional hardships this caused her.

Michelle now runs a 24/7 radio stream on her YouTube channel to highlight music available on Thematic.

Yet she took those struggles and founded Thematic, a platform to connect musicians with video-makers. The company’s goal is to widen the fanbases of new musicians while providing creators with rights-cleared jams for videos. On her channel, Michelle runs a 24/7 radio of artists curated from Thematic to promote the service. Complete with an animated Michelle at a vanity table, this livestream signaled her return to the platform in 2019 after a long hiatus. The Ultra Records suit was a big cause of her needing a break, but work overtaking her personal life and the strain of running multiple companies also made it necessary. 

Time to refocus

After a normal tutorial on hair removal, Michelle disappeared from the internet in 2016. She returned briefly in 2017, with an illustrated explanation of why she had to leave the site. This break gave her space to rest from the breakneck pace of digital media, as well as travel and return to her artistic inspirations. As a longtime watcher of Michelle Phan, this rejuvenation is perhaps most apparent in the revival of em cosmetics. When they passed out free samples at VidCon a few years ago for the initial launch, the products were the same quality as any mass-market makeup brand. It was like L’Oreal just packaged their normal eyeshadows with Michelle Phan’s name on top. Also, the massive array of products lacked the personal touch that Michelle brought to her videos. 

She bought back em cosmetics from L’Oreal in 2017, and is now the true leader. She drew from her studies in design and art history to totally overhaul the product line. Each new product is now carefully imagined and tested by Michelle and introduced in pieces as opposed to the flood of pigment from the early em.

Michelle Phan today

Now, Michelle’s videos are the videos of someone who does not rely on YouTube for her main source of income. Gone are the biweekly uploads and soundstages. Her videos still demonstrate a great knowledge of lighting, camera angles, audio and editing, but they’re so much more relaxed. Her audience is overjoyed to see her back, taking care of herself, and producing content that really showcases her vision. 

Even after a long break, Michelle’s fans are still eager to engage with her content. Many have expressed joy at her healthy return.

A scroll up Michelle’s channel is like a time-lapse of YouTube itself: webcam footage clips into high-definition clickbait. Michelle Phan has settled into something soft and smart, and one can only hope she’s set another trend for YouTube to follow.