“That laptop changed my life,” says Michelle Phan.
She’s referring, of course, to the Apple laptop she and the other students in her class were given upon their arrival at Ringling College of Art and Design in 2007. They were the first class in Ringling history to receive them,and the computers were to be used, according to stipulations on the college’s website, “primarily for educational and scholarship activities.”
An illustration major at the time, Phan instead used that laptop to record, edit and post a makeup tutorial video to YouTube—then a brand-new platform just finding its footing—from her Ringling dorm room. Within a week it had garnered 40,000 views.
“I started a blog post about how to create an everyday makeup look, and I took step-by-step pictures and wrote out the instructions,” Phan explains. “But just before I hit publish, I thought to myself, ‘I think video format is better.’ I find that, especially with makeup, you learn better when you’re watching something as opposed to just [looking at] pictures.”
Fast forward to 2014, and those makeup videos—there’s now 250-plus—have made Phan the second most-subscribed-to woman on YouTube, with more than 4.6 million followers and 770 million views. She’s been featured in Vogue, Vanity Fair and Forbes, and these days, she’s also starring in commercials for Diet Dr. Pepper and YouTube. Last fall she even launched em michelle phan, a cosmetics line in partnership with L’Oreal.
And this past weekend, Phan—who left Ringling to work full-time on her YouTube channel after it took off—was in Sarasota to receive an honorary doctorate from the college at its graduation ceremonies—appropriate since, as she says, she considers herself an artist.
“I tell people I’m a multimedia artist,” she explains. “I can paint, because I learned everything here at Ringling, but I can also shoot and edit a video and run a business.”
And though that business began as a total passion project, one that Phan built entirely on her own, she says she knew she’d really hit on something, though, when Lancôme came calling in 2009.
“Two months before I made my first video, I applied for a job at the Lancôme counter but didn’t get it,” she says. “Then, two years later, I got an email from [a woman in PR at] Lancôme headquarters, saying that [the company] was spending so much money making YouTube videos and only getting 500 views, but that I was using their product and getting 500,000 views. She said, ‘I want to know how you did it and I want to know how we can work together.’ That was when I realized, ‘Wow, I made it big.’ It really was full circle.”
Phan attributes staying relevant online for seven years—“seven years is like dog years online!” she says—to remaining engaged with her subscribers. “People change,” she explains. “Two years ago, did you watch the same shows you’re watching now? You have to see what’s trending and what’s cool and stay on top of that. Don’t pigeonhole yourself with one way of thinking, and listen to your viewers.”
As for young women hoping to build their own media empires and become the next YouTube sensations, Phan has some unlikely advice: “Don’t be afraid to fail,” she says. “The more you fail, the more you know, ‘OK, I don’t need to do that’ or ‘I can’t do that, but maybe I can do this.’ It gives you better direction if you fail more. Just try.”