Beauty tutorial maven Michelle Phan, 27, baking impresario Rosanna Pansino, 29, and fashion and lifestyle guru Bethany Mota, 19, hardly need an introduction. The three women were the first YouTube stars featured in the video service's 2014 marketing push (for which PHD and Essence won a Media Plan of the Year), which introduced the online personalities to the offline public. Since the campaign, their careers have skyrocketed, proving that YouTube has become a magnet for innovative entertainment and creative talent that brands need to back. We caught up with the three women to find out about their humble beginnings and where they are today.
How did it all begin for you?
Michelle Phan: I had a blog and was documenting my life as a college student in an art school. I had a few comments left by a few girls asking if I could do a tutorial on how I did my makeup. I didn't think my makeup was all that special, but I try my best to share whatever I can with my viewers. It made more sense to film the makeup tutorial because the process of makeup is so beautiful; it's like watching someone paint. I uploaded my first video, not expecting anyone else to watch it except for those girls. Within the first week, it got over 40,000 views. (For more on how Phan got started, click here.)
Rosanna Pansino: I moved to L.A. I wasn't really sure what I wanted to do, but I really like the entertainment industry. I started to make videos on YouTube to get more comfortable being in front of the camera. The first video I filmed was with my sister. We decided that we were going to blog us volunteering for Earth Day back in Seattle. It was just really fun, and I fell in love with being creative and creating my own content. Baking has always been one of my many hobbies. After I uploaded my first baking tutorial video, I got a really positive response from the online community, and they started to demand more videos like that.
I had been cyberbullied, which is funny that eventually I decided to kind of pursue this. Then I started watching YouTube videos and saw girls my age who were talking about beauty and fashion. At this point in my life, I felt like I didn't really have a voice. I saw all of these women who were using their voices to speak to people all around the world. Eventually I decided to make my own . Growing up, I was always a very shy girl. I didn't want anyone in my house to know that I was filming videos, except my mom. I didn't want my dad or my sister to find out because I knew they'd make fun of me. All I remember is, when filming my first video, I was basically whispering. That was my goal, to make sure no one heard me.
And, now you've all literally become the faces of YouTube premium content. Are you ever surprised at how big your following has gotten?
Mota: It shocks me every day! Four years ago, I was at a mall, and I heard this girl calling my name. She ran to me, and I got really freaked out. I'm like, wait, I don't know this girl–what's going on? Reading comments, people saying "I love your videos," it's awesome, but seeing them in person, it's just completely different. It's like, wow, there's actual real people who watch my videos.
Phan: I'm used to everything digital–the pictures, the avatars of the person, the profiles–so when I get to see someone in the flesh, it's really nice. [In the beginning], I was very secretive about my channel. My roommate didn't even know I had a YouTube channel. I was scared that people would think I was weird or vain, but I just had this passion to teach, and it was a little side hobby that I had. I was really shocked that anyone outside of the YouTube space would recognize me in real life.
I'm sure it only got crazier once the YouTube national campaign rolled out earlier this year.
Pansino: I didn't really know what it was until they rolled it out completely. I stayed up to watch the very first airing of the TV commercial, and I was so excited that I started rolling on the floor. It was so funny [to me]. When we were in New York and going to the different interviews, I saw a few of the billboards and it was just unreal.
Phan: I just finished shooting my other national commercial for Diet Dr Pepper, so I was thinking to myself, I could have two commercials running at the same time. That's awesome! I saw the commercial run, and it was really surreal and cool too because they used a lot of my videos. It just felt very familiar and really satisfying.
Mota: I remember when I went to Brandcast in New York, I got into a taxi cab and I heard my voice. I thought my mom was watching a video of me, but it was actually on a little TV screen in the cab. It's really something that I never thought would happen. I never thought I'd be on billboards.
Phan: I think it was just incredible that YouTube chose three girls to launch this campaign. That's really powerful because you really see how YouTube, or just the digital platform in general, has opened so many doors for working women everywhere, and now they have another path to take in their career.
So does this open the door for other opportunities?
Mota: I've gotten to have my own clothing line [for Aéropostale], which is insane. That's been a big dream of mine growing up. Seeing my viewers wear my clothes and wear the things that I design, you never think that's going to happen. Being on Dancing With the Stars has happened through my YouTube channel.
Phan: It's been very easy to travel. It's a great way for me to connect with my international audience and also for me to learn about new cultures. I'm getting opportunities that I probably would've never been able to have gotten if I took the more traditional route–like sponsorship deals, having my own makeup line with L'Oréal and starting my own [beauty sample service and community] Ipsy.
Pansino: My favorite memory from this year was meeting [a cancer patient named] Angelina through the Make-A-Wish Foundation. We decorated Star Wars cookies together for a day. I never thought that a kid would want to spend a day with me for their wish. I started crying at the end of the day. It was such a moving experience.
You all seem adamant about never leaving YouTube. What is it about being a YouTube creator that you love?
Phan: You're in control of how people perceive and see you. I can't say the same for traditional media because you have other people who are editing you–producers and other people who have the final say. Your YouTube channel is your show. I think it's a wonderful platform for anyone who wants to have stronger creative control over their content, their message, their vision and their branding.
Mota: There's no audition process. Anyone can make a YouTube channel. We're our own producers, our own directors. We can come up with the ideas and make it real life.
There must be things that you think can be improved on.
Phan: A lot of my friends, when they were starting on YouTube, they don't even know where to begin. Maybe if YouTube had some sort of class, a mentoring program that's accessible for everyone. Right now, you have to reach a certain amount of subscribers to enter into it, but I think this should be free for everyone who wants to learn.
Pansino: I just hope that YouTube continues to support their creators however they can.
Mota: Maybe just other ways to interact with the audience. They've already done that with the comments and video responses, so it's already very interactive.
What advice do you have for up-and-coming YouTubers?
Phan: Before you start, you have to have a vision [or] you're just going to burn out. Ask yourself why you want to start your YouTube channel. You see these hate comments, and you get so much despair from it. Why you are doing it is going to help drive you to continue.
Pansino: Even if your equipment isn't the best or you're not the best editor, if you're passionate about it, I think that viewers will see that and respond to that.
Mota: When you upload a video, don't just walk away from the computer. Respond to comments and tweets, and use all social media. That's what's most important about YouTube. Take advantage of letting your audience know who you are.