Michelle Phan: Why I Had To Leave Everything & Start Over

Update: After nearly 10 months, Michelle Phan has finally returned to YouTube with her first new video. The animated film, illustrated and narrated by Phan herself, further explains why she disappeared for a year — and what her plans are next, including re-launching Em Cosmetics and creating her first comic, Helios: Femina. For more of Phan's words on success, her digital detox, and why she had to leave everything to find herself again, read her exclusive essay for Refinery29 below.
This story was originally published April 11, 2017.
Michelle Phan, who got her start on YouTube, is now the founder of ipsy, and the recently re-launched EM Cosmetics. The following was told to Cat Quinn and edited for length and clarity.
Beauty Beginnings
Makeup was always a part of my life since I was a child growing up in a nail salon. My mother worked there and I would pick up the phone. "San Francisco Nails, how may I help you?" I was always surrounded by magazines, makeup, and colors. But my mom wanted me to become a doctor because, "You're not going to make money if you become a makeup artist," she would say. I spent my whole life prepping myself to become a doctor and then at the last minute when I was filling out college forms, I decided to fill out an art application instead. And I got accepted. I told my mom "I'm going to do art school." She was really disappointed.
But art school was my world and how I really got into makeup. Before the Internet became what it is today, I learned my makeup tips from books by Kevyn Aucoin, Laura Mercier, and Bobbi Brown. I didn't have any money, so I would go to Barnes and Noble and those were my beauty tutorials before YouTube. I fell in love with how Kevyn Aucoin was able to take Martha Stewart and turn her into someone else. Then, of course, YouTube came along and I applied everything that inspired me into what I do today.
Video Girl
I uploaded my first YouTube video for fun — but I'm not going to lie and say there wasn't a strategy behind it. I thought that if I could build a sense of influence and have a following, maybe when I was doing job interviews, they might hire me over someone who didn't. So I saw it as a competitive advantage — but never in a million years did I think that it would be like this. If I did, I probably would've made a lot of changes early on because I made a lot of mistakes. Everything was accidental and I had to learn on the way.
I felt a lot of anxiety because it's the Internet — things go obsolete very fast. Before Myspace, it was Friendster, and then after Myspace, it was Facebook. These social media platforms are like really hot clubs; and it's hot for a time period and then people move on to another club. I knew I had a short window. I'm not a fan of ageism, but I thought to myself, "I work in beauty. There's no way that after 25, I'm going to be as relevant. I'm going to be replaced by someone younger, hotter, and more popular."

My whole life was just working. I didn't go out, I didn't have a social life. I knew that if I wanted this, I would have to sacrifice something.

So that's why I hustled so hard. I thought, if I work hard when I'm young, in the long term it's going to pay off. So I just worked. I was developing ipsy and a palette with Lancôme and still uploading and editing two videos a week. My whole life was just working. I didn't go out, I didn't have a social life. I knew that if I wanted this, I would have to sacrifice something.
End Of The Line
Then, after the success of the Lancôme partnership, L'Oréal came to me to launch EM Cosmetics in 2013. They figured, "You know, let's just take a chance and try this out." We started with 200 products, and I had a lot of control over the colors and concept, but was limited when it came to the business decisions.
Looking back, the price point was too high for the demographic we were trying to reach — which were my followers in college and high school. And we didn't have that happy ending we all anticipated. But, we both learned something from it. At the end of the day, if you learn something from it, and you can evolve from that, I think that's a success in its own right.
But at that time, when the brand did fail, I was really sad. Because it was three years of my life that I gave and could never take back. I traveled a lot, I was never at home, I never saw my family. And then it failed just like that.
In 2015, my company ipsy raised 100 million, and I decided to buy EM Cosmetics back. I wanted freedom. I think that's the most important thing. When you have your own sense of freedom, you get to call the shots. You can control where you want your company to go, your business to go, and that was something I didn't know. I went to art school; I didn't go to business school. And now looking back, I realize, "Wow, I could've done things differently."
Digital Detox
You can see through my timeline, 10 years of filming and producing and replying to comments, it's just a nonstop Internet shop. It never closes — it's 24 hours, like a hospital. I started getting so much anxiety whenever I heard the little "ding" message on my phone. That was when I realized, I don't think this is healthy. So I did small things at first, like I would remove the charger on my laptop and if my laptop died, I died with it. I would take a break and relax, sleep, or do something that wasn't fully online.
Photo: Courtesy of Michelle Phan and Em Cosmetics.
Then I started unplugging over entire weekends. And when that wasn't enough, I had to give myself a mini intervention. I just couldn't get away. And I was really sad and felt like I might be depressed. So, I went online and took an, "Are You Depressed?" quiz. The first one said, "You are severely depressed." And then I opened up more tabs, and took 10 different quizzes, and got the same results. And that was a wakeup call for me. I can't do this. I can't just be this entrepreneur business woman, go 100% all the time, fast, fast, fast, fast, fast, and not mentally break down in some way.
And I figured, You know what? I made good money with what I did with Ipsy, I'm happy with where my channel is, I achieved everything I wanted to. Why do I feel like I need to achieve more? That was when I decided to pack my life into a small suitcase, and I literally just left. I bought a one-way ticket to Switzerland. I even had contracts where my team still needed me. But I had to go.
I didn't have a plan; I just made up my trip as I went along. I went to Switzerland, Egypt, Amsterdam, and China. Finally, I could hear my own thoughts, and that was life-changing for me. We live in this world where we're so connected, we don't even give ourselves time to connect with ourselves. I just had my thoughts, nature, and the stars — no WiFi or anything— and that transformed me. It kind of rooted me again, anchored me back to reality. And in a weird way, time moved by slower. It was beautiful. I would just look at the stars and realize, Wow we're floating in this hyper-fluid of space, and all my problems and worries I had were so small.

I can't do this. I can't just be this entrepreneur business woman, go 100% all the time, fast, fast, fast, fast, fast, and not mentally break down in some way.

But people literally thought I had died. "Where are you Michelle? Are you ok?" They thought something was wrong with me. But I just needed a break. It was a way to show my followers that even someone like me needs a break; the pressure of being "on" all the time is not realistic.
And that seven-month break gave me so much peace and clarity on where to refocus my attention. I realized that my previous goals and aspirations were, in a way, determined by people in my life, like my mom, and my family, and my friends. And recognizing that gave me the power to take control back and decide, What do I really want for myself?
Looking Ahead
Photo: Courtesy of Michelle Phan and Em Cosmetics.
When I took away that pressure of expectation and staying busy and I realized what I wanted for myself, I found so much freedom. I'm not dwelling on the past; I'm focusing on today, the present, which is why I'm so excited to relaunch my new brand.
The most important, for me, was controlling the narrative of innovation that I'll be focusing on. Even though we're launching a lip cream and eyeliners — they're not revolutionary categories — I'm able to apply my knowledge of art. The pens are inspired by the same pens I use to draw comics. And the colors are real paint colors that you would use for watercolors. My soul is in it and it's something I'm truly invested in it. It's a company thats really mine. And, this time around, failure doesn't scare me anymore. I'm like Jon Snow: I'm not afraid of dying again.
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