Memory. • It's Halloween, and Michelle Phan is 5 years old. • Her classmates have come to school in glamorous princess costumes that cascade and billow. One girl, she remembers, is beautiful in a saffron Belle gown from Beauty and the Beast. • But Michelle's family is on food stamps. No princess dress for her. Instead, she finds a paper plate and a red lipstick. She smooshes a crimson nose center and sketches a face around it. • A lion. A strong cat. • She wears it like a mask. • The princesses laugh. For Michelle Phan, the stomach-pit pain that comes with inadequacy never quite goes away. But lessons last longer. • Now, she understands, she did what others couldn't. • "I made something out of nothing."
Michelle Phan is 22 now. She's a self-styled Internet celebrity, filming herself doing her own makeup, giving beauty tips. She edits on a MacBook Pro and posts the instructional videos on YouTube.
So . . . who watches that?
The 230,000 people who subscribe to her YouTube channel. The 18,000 who follow her on Twitter. The 6 million who have clicked on a single video where she demonstrates the eye makeup of pop star Lady Gaga. Other video bloggers have started spoofing her — a sure sign she's arrived.
She's a YouTube partner, which means she gets money for hosting advertisements on her channel. The money is enough to support herself and cover tuition at Ringling College of Art and Design in Sarasota — and art school isn't cheap.
Phan is a mother hen to a burgeoning crew of outlaw makeup tutors — "gurus," they're called, popping up in droves this year alone. Phan says she's different. She has been blogging since age 16 and casually made her first makeup video in May 2007 for friends.
It exploded, until . . .
"Two hundred thousand people want my advice," she said.
The videos are like candy. Watch one, and you must click on another title. Purple hazy look. Makeup for glasses. Egg mask facial. Stretch your shoes with ice. Double wing eyeliner.
She films huddled in her bathroom, sitting on her porch, smooching her cat, Mia. She goes undercover at drug stores to review makeup. She's brutally honest — if a product makes her break out or turn orange, she'll say so. She gets samples, but never takes money to endorse things, she said.
"I buy my own products. If I don't like it, I'm not going to show it."
Her voice has a metered, lullaby quality. Commenters call her the Bob Ross of makeup — you know, happy little trees, happy little clouds.
your voice is so calming (:
She has the build of a pixie. Her eyes are doe-like, lips pillowy, skin milky.
give me your skin
People compliment her every day.
This girl is Truly beautiful. Wow.
It took a long time for her to believe it.
• • •
Michelle Phan is 7.
Her father leaves the family for good.
Years before, he had fled Vietnam with Phan's mother during the war. In America, they had children. He worked in construction, she as a manicurist. Michelle grew up in her mother's beauty salon, painting flowers on clients' acrylic fingertips.
But her father had a secret.
He was gambling away the family's rent money, she said. They got evicted and moved again and again — Massachusetts, California, eventually Tampa, where they stayed for good after he left.
"I would live in one place, and remember packing up and getting in that van," she said, her eyes trailing. "When you know that you're the reason your family is suffering. . . . Having all that burden, all that guilt, you need to get away."
She hasn't heard from him. Does he know how well she's doing?
"If he's out there, maybe he'll be online and see me. I want him to come back. I want to take care of him."
• • •
In a video with 1.5 million views, Phan transforms her almond eyes into the big, round blinkers glorified in anime art.
You want your eyes to look like a cartoon, so it's all right to be a bit dramatic . . . lining your waterline with white will give you an appearance of larger-looking eyes.
Phan's own perceptions of beauty are diverse and changing — dark black skin with purple tones, snow white cheeks, prominent European noses.
It wasn't always that way.
"Western beauty is considered the dominant beauty in the world," she said. "Tall, blond, blue eyes. I always felt a little self-conscious because I wanted to be more Caucasian. I tried to get bigger eyes. . . . I would dress preppy."
She tried to blend in with bubbly girls — never mind that she loved action flicks and role-playing video games. At school, she'd feign interest in gossip and sneak eyeliner in her bag to change her look.
Her mother had none of it.
"She would yell at me," she said. "To me, (makeup) was like painting your face. It was art. I was fascinated. She told me not to. She said, 'You need to enjoy your natural beauty now.' But when you see yourself looking better, you don't want to go back."
Friendless, Phan resorted to her bedroom with a sketchbook. She'd draw Batman and the Little Mermaid, anime characters and video game heroes. She'd scribble doodles down the side of homework. She'd study color and shading and scale and perspective.
She stopped trying so hard to fit in. She didn't buy any more makeup until age 19. At school, she got a reputation as the "art girl."
She had an identity.
"Art saved me."
• • •
Michelle Phan is 18.
It's time to fess up.
Her mother, hard-working but poor, desperately wants Michelle to become a doctor. Medicine is prestigious. It's secure. It's the only logical way.
She studies dermatology at Tampa Bay Technical High School, but inside, she knows she won't be happy for life.
She explains art college to her mother, who is heartbroken. So Phan makes a promise.
"I will make this work."
• • •
At the beginning of 2009, Phan quit her job at a sushi restaurant to concentrate on her videos.
Her Web star power eventually garnered the attention of a Canadian business partner, who teamed with Phan, a doctor and a scientist to start a skin care line called IQQU Beauty International — sunscreen, moisturizer, masks and serums that sell for $33 to $48 a bottle. She's working with Seventeen magazine. She's helping launch a women's empowerment Web site. She has been contacted by television producers. She says a character in a new video game will be modeled after her.
"The Internet opens a lot of doors to those who are passionate," she said.
And of course, the videos.
Michelle Phan driving, talking to her dashboard about foundation.
Michelle Phan scrubbing her face with a tomato and sugar.
Michelle Phan cutting a sleazy guy's business card into a mascara stencil.
Michelle Phan drawing little black dots around her eyes.
Start from the outer corner and work your way in . . . Using Sephora's liquid eyeliner, do a few practice strokes on the back of your hand.
She transforms her bare face into a leopard.
A strong cat.
She looks into the camera, claws and roars.
Stephanie Hayes can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8857.