A Top YouTube Beauty Guru Has an Ugly History of Peddling Pseudoscience Bullshit

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Over the past few years, and particularly at the height of the pandemic, beauty and wellness influencers have been pivoting en masse from posting generic skincare and athleisure spon con to actively spreading misinformation and conspiracy theories. One person who may have joined this category is Michelle Phan, the OG YouTube beauty guru with 8.8 million subscribers who posted some concerning Instagram stories over the weekend that seem to highlight her gradual pivot to the spreading misinformation.

After a high-profile hiatus in 2015, Phan returned to YouTube with a splash in 2019, continuing to make soft-spoken beauty tutorials featuring diaphanous, ethereal makeup. Over the past few years, Phan has pivoted somewhat away from product recommendations and tutorials, instead peddling crypto and posting about Bitcoin conferences. Yet her most recent Instagram stories indicates that she may be further down the rabbit hole of pseudoscience than previously thought.

On Sunday, Phan, who did not return multiple requests for comment through a representative, posted a series of Instagram stories about a spiritual retreat she was attending in San Diego. “I can’t even begin to articulate how incredibly life-changing today was. I’m still processing all the miracles I witnessed…and the miracle I became today,” she wrote, saying she had felt the power of “Divine Love” through “intentional mediation [sic] with breath work.” She went on to say that she “saw angels” and “healed a man who had been in a wheelchair for years”: “He’s not only walking now, but dancing with joy,” she wrote.

Phan noted that the retreat she had attended entailed her getting four hours of sleep per day, waking up at 3 a.m. to meditate for five hours straight without bathroom breaks, concluding with a screengrab of her alarm set for 4 a.m. to do “body electric meditation.” “I am the universe experiencing itself, and I feel Love because I am Love,” she said.

Phan’s posts were concerning to her fans, who did not understand why she was promoting a meditation retreat that involved intense sleep deprivation and claims of spiritual healing. Some accused her of having undergone a mental breakdown, or of having joined a cult. But in truth, Phan’s endorsement seems to be only one small part of a long-term shift she has been making toward promoting questionable individuals and beliefs on her platform.

As she later clarified in a follow-up post, the retreat Phan attended was a $1,999 San Diego workshop aimed at immersing attendees into a “new model of consciousness [to] discover the signs and shifts that demonstrate your successful connection to the quantum field — and deepen your understanding of how the mind creates a new reality.” The retreat was hosted by Dr. Joe Dispenza, an immensely popular influencer with 2.1 million followers on Instagram who touts himself as a “New York Times best selling author” and “researcher of epigenetics, quantum physics, and neuroscience.” On his page, Dispenza espouses various breathing exercises and meditations in order to “connect to the quantum field [and] synchronize your energy with its vibration.”

Dispenza is not a neuroscientist at all; he is a chiropractor who is licensed by a school that lost accreditation in 2002 for its subpar teaching methods, according to Derek Beres, a journalist and cohost of the podcast Conspirituality. Dispenza was previously the in-house chiropractor and master teacher for Ramtha’s School of Enlightenment led by JZ Knight, a spiritual leader who has claimed to be clairvoyant and telepathic and has also claimed to channel the ancient, 35-000-year-old Lemurian warrior Ramtha. Ramtha has attracted attention from none other than the Southern Poverty Law Center for espousing homophobic and anti-Semitic views.

Dispenza has claimed to have healed himself after a cycling accident in the 1980s, and promotes the idea that one can cure any illness through the power of thought, touting on his website how his teachings have cured paralyzed people and people with terminal cancer; in his workshops, he has also told women who struggle with infertility that they can get pregnant by “tun[ing] into” positive energy. These teachings have reportedly led to material harm to ailing people, according to a woman interviewed on Conspirituality, who alleges that her husband died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 45, at one point contemplating stopping chemotherapy due to his belief that Dispenza’s meditation tactics could potentially be more effective.

Joe Dispenza at a convention in Dublin, Jan. 9, 2020. Artur Widak/NurPhoto/Getty Images
Phan’s significance in the beauty world and in the influencer ecosystem at large is difficult to overstate. “She’s just like one of the original beauty influencers that really made it and her brand/legacy is still well regarded,” says one beauty content creator, who did not wish to be named due to Phan’s standing in the industry. “She was named 30 under 30 [in Forbes] before social media was a thing like it is now. I think [her success was evidence] of, ‘oh wow, you really can make a career from this.'”
Phan has a history of promoting woo-woo nonsense and misinformation. In the early 2010s, she received backlash after posting videos advocating for exfoliating with (unused) cat litter and using lemon juice, which has been linked to chemical burns, in a facial scrub; a bizarre story she told on her blog in 2010, in which she credited seeing two men eating chicken and rice as a “sign from God” that saved her from being murdered by a homeless man, has achieved almost legendary status in her fandom. Yet despite occasional questions raised by fans about her expertise, prior to her stepping away from YouTube in 2015, she had built a $500 million brand largely as a result of building her beauty product subscription company, Ipsy. She then took an almost four-year hiatus, which she later explained was largely due to burnout.
Upon returning to the public eye in 2019, Phan was featured in a splashy profile in the Cut, in which she documented her strategy for hiring employees for her brand, Em Cosmetics, by asking them about their astrological signs. “I wanted a very nice, diverse, astrological place. If I have a team of water signs, it’s going to be too emotional, too volatile. Or if I have too many earth signs, it will be too grounded. If I have too many fire signs, it will be too volatile, everyone will be competing,” she said in the piece.
In February 2020, at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic and about a year after she returned to YouTube, Phan posted a photo of her essential oil burner on Instagram with the caption, “Our first point of contact for viruses is our nose. If you are burning antiviral essential oils around you this will kill off the virus before it enters your system. Tea tree, Lavender, Clove Bud, Lemon, Ravensara, and Eucalyptus Globulus.” When professional dermatologist Dr. Sandra Lee, aka Dr. Pimple Popper, correctly pointed out on Twitter that essential oils cannot prevent the transmission of viruses, Phan apologized, but then appeared to double down in later posts:

“I used to be a skeptic, until my limited options lead me to giving alternative medicine a try,” she wrote on her Stories. “The moral of the story isn’t to discredit modern medicine, science or any industries. The point I’m making is, we don’t know everything. In the name of science, we should always question everything in pursuit of truth. Even if it goes against what you know and believe. So, if you wanna use essential oils. Use crystals. Do soundbaths. DO YOU.”

Over the past year, Phan has been gradually pivoting from wellness and beauty vlogging to Bitcoin and cryptocurrency, investing in the online Bitcoin rewards platform Lolli (which she regularly promotes on YouTube and Twitter) and encouraging her followers to buy Bitcoin. Phan’s interest in cryptocurrency has also led to her posting about achieving “self-sovereignty” through “money as energy,” and her having some unlikely bedfellows: in April, for instance, she retweeted far-right shill and Pizzagate promoter Mike Cernovich’s praise of Tesla CEO Elon Musk.

It’s a move that has puzzled her fans, with many wondering the appropriateness of Phan using her platform to promote cryptocurrency. “As with most things Michelle Phan, this seems like another gimmick largely centered on drumming up customers during the pandemic,” one follower wrote on Reddit. As another fan put it to me, “I am looking for product recs and tutorials, not weird finance zealotry.” And with her latest Instagram posts, Phan’s promotion of spiritual pseudoscience marks just another bizarre and unexpected turn in her lengthy career trajectory.