The real reason Michelle Phan left YouTube

Michelle Phan was one of the first, and by far one of the most successful, YouTube beauty gurus on the planet. At her peak, she boasted 8.9 million subscribers and 1.1 billion views — with her famous 2009 Barbie tutorial garnering 67 million views alone. Her YouTube popularity led to a collaboration with Lancôme, a ton of press, and a $100 million makeup brand with Ipsy (which she later left when it was valued at a whopping $500 million).

And then she was gone. Literally, she packed a bag, ditched the internet, and left the country.

Phan joked to Racked that her millions of followers "actually thought [she] was dead." She even left her coworkers at her booming business behind when she pulled her physical and digital disappearing act. Why did she go black, and where did she go? 

We'll reveal the real reasons Phan left YouTube, and fill you in on what she discovered after her shocking exit.

Her first makeup line was poorly received

Likely the biggest reason for Phan's disappearance, whether or not she may admit it, was how poorly her makeup line, Em, was received following its 2013 launch. 

Users in one forum complained that eye shadows in one palette lacked pigment and made a chalky mess in their makeup kits. Many also complained about the price point. Em was marketed as a luxury brand but reportedly didn't come close to delivering even drugstore-level results. Sources told Women's Wear Daily that Em never made it past the startup phase because the prices on the items were too high for Phan's young fanbase.

"I was really hurt when the brand didn't take off. It just sucked," Phan told Racked. "It was three years of my life gone, just like that. But I learned a lot from that and I think it was really important for me to fail. It was through that failure that I started to get more interested in the business aspect of everything."

She took a decidedly lower-key approach to Em's relaunch in 2017, selling just eyeliner and liquid lipsticks. So far, those products have fared much better in reviews.

She went 'borderline crazy'

The biggest reason Phan publicly states for leaving YouTube was the toll her fame had taken on her mental health. The pressures of running her channel, her cosmetics line, and simply existing got to be a bit too much for her.

"I peaced out because I think I was going through depression. I don't know because I didn't go to a hospital or anything or get diagnosed, but I was taking a few quizzes online and I felt really sad every day," Phan told Racked in 2017. "I was waking up feeling so broken. I didn't know why." She also wrote in an essay for Teen Vogue that she believed she was going "borderline crazy" and suffered from severe anxiety, in part from living in noisy Los Angeles "with all the honking." 

Again, it's important to note that Phan said she has never been diagnosed with any conditions or disorders, but it's certainly commendable that she's been candid about her personal struggles.

Where in the world is Michelle Phan?

When Phan went dark on YouTube, she also went away from her Los Angeles home far, far away. She told Refinery29, "I decided to pack my life into a small suitcase, and I literally just left," she said. "I bought a one-way ticket to Switzerland. I even had contracts where my team still needed me. But I had to go."

After Switzerland, Phan also visited Egypt, China, and the Netherlands in an effort to clear her head.

"Finally, I could hear my own thoughts, and that was life-changing for me," she said. "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."

She hated being recognized

Through her use of makeup on her YouTube channel, Phan became one of the most recognizable beauty gurus on the planet, but that doesn't mean she was happy about it. In an essay for Teen Vogue, she said she never intended for her own face to become famous. Makeup was supposed to be a means to explore different sides of herself and transform into something or someone new. However, Phan's ubiquity among beauty channels and blogs made her the face of YouTube beauty experts for years.

"Getting recognized in real life is always weird, because you never know when it's gonna happen," she told Racked. "I can't even tell you how many times I had to take pictures with people in the bathroom. It's the most awkward thing." 

Phan also claimed online trolls who tormented her in comments sections would show up at events with gifts for her, which rightfully freaked her out; even her mother would get recognized by strangers.

She felt like she sold out

Phan has been open about how much her parents struggled when she was growing up. Her father supposedly gambled away most of the family money, and her mother worked in a nail salon and relied on food stamps to get by.

"Who I was on camera and who I was in real life began to feel like strangers … I felt like somewhere along this journey, I lost myself," Phan said in a video explaining her exit. She said that her online persona was much different than her real life identity, and that she felt trapped by her own vanity. Her social media was a carefully curated look at Michelle Phan the brand, not Michelle Phan the individual. That took a toll on her psyche.

Phan said that during one of many sleepless nights, she watched one of her earlier YouTube clips and was shocked at how much she'd changed. "I've grown to learn how money can buy many things, like peace of mind, comfort, status," she said. "Anything but happiness."

She got slapped with a lawsuit

Phan was sued in July 2014 for using unlicensed music in the background of her YouTube videos — and it wasn't just some no-name jingle singers filing the lawsuits. It was Ultra Records, the label behind Calvin Harris, Kaskade, and Deadmau5.

According to The Hollywood Reporter, Phan claimed that she reached out to Ultra Records for permission to use Kaskade's songs in her videos in exchange for a purchase link and that the label agreed. She also said that the label agreed to dismiss any copyright claims found through YouTube's "Content ID System."

Ultra Records sang a different tune, arguing that Phan profited from using their music without paying them for it, alleging Phan "embarked on a wholesale infringement of Plaintiffs' musical compositions and recordings." They settled out of court about a year later, but the impact of the lawsuit stayed with Phan.

"I didn't know anything about the business world … You can't trust everyone you meet right off the bat. Even if they seem genuine, like they want to help you," she wrote in Teen Vogue. "…If you feel like your gut is telling you this person seems a little off or this deal seems kinda sketchy, listen to that intuition and lawyer up. Always lawyer up. Before even getting a manager, get a lawyer."

She went on a social media detox

Michelle Phan didn't just disappear from YouTube — she also went dark on all of her other social media platforms in an effort to rediscover herself and reinvent her brand. 

She described feeling "digitally bullied," telling Teen Vogue that you can never have a "legitimate argument" online and win. "When Em Cosmetics, launched with L'Oréal, flopped, I was trolled so hard online. I had Reddit forums dedicated to hating on it," she wrote. "And I never argued with anyone, even if they said something that was not right…"  

Phan decided to cut off social media cold turkey and travel the world. "It was a digital detox. I reconnected myself back to nature. Nature healed me. Nature reminded me that everything we've built around our world that we have today doesn't really matter," she wrote. "So all these problems that we put into ourselves — the anxiety and stress — are really influenced by outsides sources. But we have the power to choose whether we want them to influence us … And I had to recognize that by reflecting — and how can you reflect when you're always stressed. You can't."

She hardly wears makeup anymore

If Michelle Phan returned to YouTube for makeup tutorials at this point in her life, it would be a bit disingenuous, because these days, the only makeup she really uses is eyeliner and lipstick. She told Allure in April 2017, "I don't even cover up my under-eye circles. I think it looks cooler and more real."

She quit wearing eyeshadow because it caused irritation on her eyelids, and she says that she stopped wearing foundation entirely and only spot-conceals blemishes as necessary. "When I first stopped wearing it, my skin got really bad and I experienced a lot of breakouts," she admitted "But after a while it finally balanced out and now I don't even have to wear a ton of concealer."

Phan said she started using makeup in her teens because she didn't feel attractive without it. By her twenties, she was using it to experiment creatively. Now, she doesn't need it for either of those reasons. "I'm different. I'm changing. I'm more simplified," she said. "I know the type of eyeliner I need to wear to look the way I want to look. So things have become more refined, and I think that's how my perspective on beauty in general has changed — it's become more refined."