Michelle Phan talks about Youtube success, branding and going mainstream

The YouTube guru talks tutorials for guys, Google Glass, and next steps for her makeup line.

When I walked up to an event space on 10th Avenue in NYC on Thursday, I was greeted by the ear-shattering shrieks of dozens of teenage girls. Who was here? Taylor Swift? One Direction? Kate Middleton? Nope. Out walked the tiny, beautifully made-up Michelle Phan, the undisputed godmother of YouTube beauty vloggers. Her adoring fans greeted her like royalty.

YouTube brought three of its most popular vloggers -- Phan, Bethany Mota, and Rosanna Pansino -- out to meet the press and some lucky superfans as part of its new advertising push. You've likely seen their smiling faces plastered all over the subway, buses and even in magazines. While these ladies are basically the Angelina Jolies of YouTube, much of the offline (and yes, adult) world has no idea who they are. YouTube hopes to change that with this new marketing blitz.

I caught up with Phan -- who has 6.2 million subscribers, her own makeup line and a book coming out this fall -- at the event. According to YouTube, 75+ hours of new beauty content is uploaded per day. In that kind of crowded space, how do new would-be vloggers stand out? Phan opined on that, and also dished on her most surprising tutorial requests and what it's like to use Google Glass.

How do you make yourself stand out in the crowded beauty vlogging space?

Instead of thinking about how do I make myself stand out, you have to ask yourself, “What’s my message and vision and brand identity?" You have to treat your channel like a brand. Picking your user name carefully and branding yourself is the first step in the journey. How will people identify you? The reason so many people get lost is because they’re trying to do what everyone else is doing. You’ve got to do things that are different for you to stand out. I would say my last tip is investing in good lighting. It’s key. You can film with an iPhone or a webcam, but if the lighting is really good it doesn’t matter. I learned by trial and error. I do believe it’s important for a creator to know how to edit. That shows your [video] style. Get the editing down before you pass it off - get to know your style.

What's your most requested tutorial from fans that you haven’t done yet?

I’ve been getting a lot of people asking if I could do a teenage makeup tutorial. And I thought, that’s weird. Don’t wear anything, just wear lip balm! But that’s been my top most-requested. Another one is a lot of guys want a makeup tutorial for guys so they don’t look like they’re wearing makeup, but they want to look more awake. I’m probably going to use my boyfriend [laughs].

Have you ever tried a Google Glass tutorial?

I actually shot a whole day with my Google Glass. I haven’t uploaded the video yet, but I did a "day in the life" from my point of view. I think it would only work as a tutorial if you were putting makeup on someone else. If you do it to yourself you’d just see a bunch of sticks and pencils stabbing at your eye. It will look like a horror movie instead of a makeup tutorial! [laughs]

You have a huge fan base, but there is still a huge group of people who don’t know who you are. How do you feel about this new campaign YouTube launched to introduce you to the mainstream?

I can go mainstream, but I’m still editing and filming my own videos. I know my true followers are happy for me, though. "Yeah she’s on TV because she deserves it.” I’ve been underground and I actually chose to stay underground and not go in the mainstream because I knew it was important for me to have this strong relationship and bond with my followers.
Photo: Getty Photo: Getty

Have you been offered reality TV or anything?

Yes, yes. I’m very selective about my branding. I want to have branding that’s strong and has longevity. If the TV show is right and fits with my brand and my vision, absolutely. I’m always open to trying new things, but I’m selective about what I do. Even with my makeup line, so many people approached me. But I chose L'Oreal because it's one of the most trusted beauty companies in the world.

Speaking of your makeup line, where are you taking it next?

We’re already working on 2015 products. When we first started, it was all about developing the base products like foundation, eyeshadows, lipsticks. Now I can finally start creating specialty products which are unique. I want to start creating products that are not even in makeup lines now, that don’t exist. I want to create something for brows because I know big brows are in. That’s a hint!

Have you picked up more followers since the campaign started?

I’ve seen a jump, yeah, but I still need to see all the analytics because I think it takes a few weeks. I’m actually really interested to see if mainstream advertising actually helps with digital content, because they’ve never done that before. Usually it’s the other way around. You go online and you try to get people to watch TV or buy CDs. This is going in the mainstream media and telling people to watch a YouTube video. That’s really groundbreaking.


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