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Is YouTube Star Michelle Phan the Next Oprah?

Is YouTube Star Michelle Phan the Next Oprah?

By Megan Angelo

YouTube beauty queen Michelle Phan announced [this week] that she’s launching Icon, a full-on network of beauty, lifestyle and entertainment content—think glossy, glowy Phan disciples showing you crunch tutorials, layered desserts, and smoky eyes. Here’s a preview of the U.K. content (U.K. and U.S. channels debut today—affiliates for Europe and Asia will follow later this year).

YouTube is the main streaming home of Icon content, but you’ll also be able to watch on your phone (via apps for iPhone and Android) and TV (via Roku). In other words, it’s basically a worldwide takeover—and the move that more or less secures Phan’s future as Oprah’s successor.

I know that’s a bold claim—she’s not even an entertainment figure, really. But Phan—whom we profiled in 2013, as her makeup line Em hit stores—just has the Oprah gene. She’s an honest everywoman, an ambitious self-starter. But, more important, she has a high-octane ability to draw people in, no matter what she’s talking about. You want to listen to her, heed her advice, buy what she buys. That’s what earned her billions of YouTube faithful.

You thought it was the beauty tutorials? No. I mean, those are great. She’s single-handedly saved the world from sloppy cat-eyes. But if you need proof that Phan’s appeal goes way beyond highlighter placement, let me offer a firsthand testimonial: I have never tried one of her looks. But I watch her videos all the time.

Why? Because her voice is soothing. Because I find the sight of her applying blush to be a sort of visual lullaby. Because I like that she talks about natural beauty and positive vibes and because if she taught a yoga class, I would just go to the yoga class to experience all of this, but she doesn’t—so I watch her makeup videos. And now, because she has put her stamp of approval on them, I will watch the Icon talent's cooking videos. And outfit videos. And fitness videos. See? She’s already crowning her very own court of Iyanla Vanzants, Rachael Rays, and Dr. Phils. 

When Oprah was 27, she was still five years away from launching the syndicated talk show that started it all; she was cohosting the six o’clock news in Baltimore. At 27, Phan has already assembled an army of fans. She has already turned herself into a brand, launching Birchbox competitor Ipsy and putting her name on her L’Oreal-backed line of products, Em-Cosmetics. (By the way, even those manage to impart some of Phan’s aspirational energy—I sort of must have the $49 Career Life palette just because the website copy says it’ll “get me ready for the corner office.” And when Phan says that, I believe her.) She’s already written a hot book that extends the “it’s about beauty, but it’s really about confidence” thing: Make-Up, which came out in October and is still on the New York Times best-seller list. And now, she’s doing what Oprah didn’t do until just a few years ago: She’s launching a legitimate network.

 

Sure, it takes more brick and mortar, logistics, and money to launch a television network—I’m not disputing that Phan already wields more fame and financial capital than the living legend behind OWN. But the point is this: Oprah rode the rise of a medium—television—to massive personal success. Phan’s blowing-up period has been timed similarly to the spread of online video. We still see television as the be-all and end-all to stardom, but Phan wouldn’t be as powerful if she took her act to TV. She has chosen to grow with a growing medium, to predict what people want from it, and to harness its potential faster and more savvily than her competitors. She is 2.0, in every sense of the term.

And I believe that this is just the start of her winning persona dwarfing her finesse with an angled brush. No one remembers that Oprah’s first show was about “how to marry the man of your choice,” but if you look back at those first seconds of her program, you’ll see that she already had her trademark bellow and dry humor down pat. (Click to 1:05 below.)

Someday, everyone will have forgotten that Michelle Phan started as a makeup expert. We’ll know her as the kind, intelligent, inclusive guru we check in with weekly for guidance on everything from what to read to how to find peace. Our daughters will know her as the woman their mom and her friends are always talking about, one of the few famous people over 40 they actually know the first and last names of. Unless, of course, by then, she’s just going by Michelle.