Michelle Phan Discusses Ageism and Her Rise to the Top

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“I’ve dealt with a lot of people who second-guessed me, who undermined me because of my age. Ageism is broken because of the internet,” said Michelle Phan who has built a beauty media empire on Instagram.

The daughter of a Vietnamese immigrant, Michelle Phan is now able to take care of her mother. She said, “I was very motivated at a young age to find a better life, for my mom’s sake. She wanted me to be a doctor, but I didn’t see myself in that future. I promised her that I would take care of her, but that I would still pursue what I loved.” Now her company is worth over 500 million dollars, ensuring that she and her mother are set for life, and her interview is featured among TIME Firsts, which is a collection that features 46 groundbreaking women.

Michelle Phan discussed how social media really changed the game for her in regards to her career in beauty. She said, “Access to beauty knowledge was so inaccessible. So I started to make these beauty videos not thinking people would watch them. And they did, they caught on. The more I was able to upload and produce, the more I understood that I think I can make a business out of this.”

She talked about her experience breaking into the industry and said, “I got this really amazing offer from a big beauty brand. When they told me how much money I was going to be making, it was so big—as much as a doctor would have made.”

Gleefully, she continued, “The first person I wanted to tell was my mother. She’s the reason I work so hard, and she inspires me so much. I said, ‘What are you doing?’ She said, ‘Oh, I’m still at work, I’m doing someone’s pedicure.”  She continued, “I told her that it would be the last time she would ever have to do anyone’s pedicure and she wouldn’t have to work the next day because I would take care of her. We both started crying. It was a moment that I’ll never forget. I want more people to have moments like that.”

The beauty guru certainly was not the only woman who had difficulty navigating the world of fashion early in their adult career. Most models are at least 5 feet and 8 inches tall, and under a size 4. If you are over the age of 20, it is nearly impossible to find work as a model.

Zara has released a collection called ‘Timeless’ featuring women all over the age of 40. Malgosia Bela, who is featured in the collection, said, “I prefer myself so much better now than ten years ago or 20 years ago.” She continued, “Obviously it would be nice not to get old and ugly, but the mental process is only for the better. So, it’s a paradox: more confidence, and you are getting old. But it’s . . . I kind of like it.”

Isabella Rossellini, despite being featured on Vogue and having been a long time spokesperson for Lancôme, had difficulty getting work outside of her friend group as she aged. She stated, “In two or three photo-shoots, I had the cover of Vogue and my career exploded.” She continued, “But I didn’t know that ageism was rampant in fashion.” She went on, “No one asked me how old I was at the beginning, and when they found out: ‘Argh!” she exclaimed while waving her arms, mocking the people who asked her age before stating, “They were horrified.”

As the fashion industry wakes up and realizes the need to display a diverse populous of women, we will only continue to hear more and more wonderful stories.

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