It was just before Christmas and Michelle Phan was worried the present she had spent months choosing for her sister, Crystal, wouldn’t make the cut. Although the sisters share a father and were born exactly 11 years apart, they didn’t grow up together and only got to know each other last year.
“It’s weird,” Phan told InsideEdition.com as she showed off the elaborate, hand-painted animation cel she had created for Crystal. “It’s like I have a twin 11 years late. That’s how it feels.”
Phan transformed a dilapidated warehouse into her Culver City, California office. It has an open layout and a fully-stocked kitchen, complete with Rice Krispies Treats and Cheetos. On that December day, three dozen Krispy Kreme doughnuts left over from a colleague’s eating contest sat on the counter and a curated playlist from her Thematic music platform echoed through the space.
Phan herself has undergone a transformation, too. The 32-year-old beauty guru recently rejoined YouTube after a three-year hiatus. In September 2019, she posted a video to the site of her playing with her cat followed by a behind-the-scenes look at a shoot for her company, Em Cosmetics. The video was simply titled, “Hello :).”
“I didn’t plan on it,” she explained of her impromptu return to YouTube, where she built an empire of nearly 9 million subscribers as one of the platform’s original beauty influencers. She had just been filming herself for fun when she decided to sit down and edit the video.
“I love editing. It’s my therapy,” she explained. “As I was editing it, I thought to myself, ‘This is cute. Maybe I should upload this.’”
The response was instant, unexpected and enormous.
“I honestly didn’t think anyone would watch it,” Phan said. “Millions of people were so happy that I came back. That was when I realized, ‘Flood gates are open. I guess I’m back. I’m just going to have fun now.’ That’s what I’ve been doing."
But gone from Phan’s YouTube videos are the intense pre-production planning sessions, professional camera angles, substantial crew and brand sponsorships, she said. Now, “I’m just showing my life and things that I’m really interested in,” she explained.
Phan first joined YouTube in 2006 and posted her first makeup tutorial the following year from her college dorm room.
At 22, she became Lancôme's official video makeup artist. In 2013, she launched her first makeup line, Em Cosmetics, with L’Oreal. Phan won the Icon Award at the 4th annual Streamy Awards in 2014, and quickly found herself in the pages of magazines like Nylon, Fashion and Forbes, which reported she was worth $500 million.
But it had its challenges, too.
“I signed certain contracts where I had to promote certain things," she said. "I started to feel like a walking billboard."
When Phan walked away from her channel in 2016, “It felt like I left my hometown. That's how it felt. I did miss my community, but I also felt that this is the only way where I can feel better about myself."
In fact, a considerable part of Phan’s time away from her channel was spent catching up on sleep.
“A lot of people don't realize YouTubers don't sleep. If a YouTuber is active, and they're actively uploading weekly, they don't sleep,” she explained.
The demands of the platform and the need to constantly shoot, edit and upload new content, can take their toll.
“It’s very stressful,” Phan said. “The online world was my office. That's how I felt. It's very draining.
“Every day you're thinking, you're brainstorming, ‘What's my next video?’ Then you're filming it," she continued. "Then you have to edit it. Sometimes you can get discouraged when you upload a video and it's not hitting the numbers that you want. You start thinking, ‘What can I do to get more views?’ That begins this obsession of compromising your own integrity to hit these numbers."
Phan was in Cannes, France for an event in 2016 when she made the decision to stop creating weekly videos.
“I remember I was eating and staring off at the water. I was thinking to myself, ‘Wow, Europeans know how to live. Americans, we work so hard,’” Phan said.
Single and without any children, she thought she should seize the opportunity “to just enjoy” and take a break to tune out the “noise” from all of her colleagues, peers, friends and even her family.
Quitting YouTube wasn’t the only option, but Phan knew “that was the only thing that would force me to really stop everything.”
She posted her last tutorial in July 2016. Almost a year later, in June 2017, she posted a video called “Why I Left,” thanking her YouTube fans for their 10 years of support and explaining that she would “return when I'm inspired to share new ideas.”
Meanwhile, Phan spent her time offline and traveling the world, including to places like Egypt, in an effort to “lower the volume.”
She took photos of her trips, but rather than having them serve as ways to promote her brand, the snapshots were mostly taken to capture moments she wanted to remember herself.
Phan said during the hiatus, she also met with a therapist who helped her push through what were “symptoms of depression.” Her mom, who left Vietnam after the war, had experienced post-traumatic stress disorder, she said. Both had felt the stigma around talking about their mental health.
“In the Asian community, mental health is still considered a stigma,” Phan explained. “I was taught to just bury my feelings. For the past 10 years, I just kept everything on the back burner and totally neglected it. It just started to bubble and boil over.”
Without a weekly YouTube video to worry about, Phan also threw herself into her business.
In 2017, Phan left her job at Ipsy and bought Em Cosmetics from L’Oreal. She is now its sole owner. She staffed up the brand in 2019, personally hiring each employee. It was the first time she was able to create her own team.
Before arriving at her office around 11 a.m. each day, Phan doesn’t check YouTube or Instagram, she said. Instead, she checks Bitcoin prices. As an investor, it’s fascinated her for years and she's also an investor in the cryptocurrency.
While no two days are the same, Phan blocks off Wednesdays to hold all of her meetings and makes sure they end around 6 p.m.
Phan relaxes by cooking and also makes time to watch Disney+ and other YouTubers, like Kathleen Lights and her sister-in-law, Promise Phan.
Back at her office in a glass-walled conference room, Phan showed off her new 2020 line and the renderings for new products she is preparing to launch.
They include the first iteration of an eyeshadow palette design, which she started developing as a prototype three years ago.
“They’re like pizza slices,” Phan explained of the shadows in the palette. “It was originally a mirror, but we wanted to turn it into a beautiful eyeshadow palette. It’s really stunning. It looks like Darth Vader, which is why we call it the Darth Vader compact.”
It’s a fitting concept for a YouTube beauty world Phan calls “the new Hollywood.”
“It's entertainment. People are very entertained by all the different personalities in the beauty space,” she said.
But is Michelle Phan caught up in the Hollywood mindset? Not so much. Now, she’s posting videos sporadically, whenever she feels like it. She’s making time for family, including Crystal, who gifted her a custom pair of Nike sneakers with a Sailor Moon design. And she’s prioritizing self-care in a digital world that often doesn’t.
“Coming back on, I feel like I’m a normal person,” Phan said with more than a little relief.