Meet the girl who wants to be the Michelle Phan of China

Maggie Fu in her home studio (photo by Catherine Lai)
Maggie Fu in her home studio (by Catherine Lai)

Maggie Fu’s ambition to be China’s Michelle Phan started with a case of FOMO.

“All my friends were online. If you weren’t posting stuff, it was like you disappeared,” said Fu. That’s why she started blogging at the age of 13 and continued when she started working as a makeup artist and model at 16.

With contracts from Youku Tudou and Weibo, not to mention sponsorship from numerous beauty and fashion brands including Tom Ford and Estée Lauder, Maggie Fu now has almost 90,000 followers on Weibo. Her success so far can be attributed to three things: building a community, a unique brand identity and an uncanny ability to predict what the next big media trend will be.

A professional makeup artist and model who has worked for GQ, Vogue, and put makeup on famous Chinese actress Zhao Wei, Fu amassed a sizable online following inadvertently by posting about her magazine shoots on her blog.

“Everything up until a year ago was very unintentional, it happened naturally because of who she was and her own personal motivations and who she knew and stuff like that,” says Elijah Whaley, Fu’s boyfriend and business partner.

Fu and Whaley, a professional video producer and digital marketer, paired up to build the brand (called Melilim Fu) and make instructional makeup videos in September, with an eventual goal to turn their brand into a makeup label.

Fu and Whaley on set for one of their videos (by Catherine Lai)
Fu and Whaley on set for one of their videos (by Catherine Lai)

When asked about Michelle Phan, the Youtube makeup guru who built a USD 500 million company, Fu’s reaction was immediate: “No, there’s no one like that in China. I want to do that.”

Fu’s FOMO turned into a well-honed ability to predict the next big media trend. Much like how Michelle Phan predicted that Youtube would be the next television, Fu has moved from one online medium to another since her first blog.

When she starting working in a traditional offline medium – magazines – she already knew it was dying.

“At that moment I was thinking, okay, magazines will die, what’s the next thing?”

Fu would go from blogging to microblogging to videos, mobile apps, and live-broadcasting. As a blogger, she figured out that building a close connection with her audience was crucial. “I don’t think of myself as a blogger, I’m a friend,” she says.

Fu’s theory is that Weibo users keep following her, even after several years of little activity, because they’re interested in the details she posts about her life. One could go one step further to add that they’re interested in her as someone in the fashion and beauty industry. Her first paid-post sponsor was Puma, who paid her to post pictures from their party on her Weibo account. At the time, she had 30,000 followers on Weibo.

According to a survey conducted by Fu and Whaley in September, most of her followers are girls in China under 25 with only about 6 months of makeup experience. They are open to new brands and spend a huge portion of their income on makeup. Seeing an opportunity, they decided to expand from Weibo to instructional videos on Youku.

Even though Youku Tudou has pledged RMB 10 billion (USD 1.5 billion) to support its own content and user generated content in the next three years, Whaley says the platform is still not very good at encouraging people to upload videos. “It’s not like Youtube where you press the monetization button, so it’s pretty discouraging to content producers.” Instead, Fu depends on product sponsorship and native advertising.

“Everything in the videos, from contact lenses to clothes, are sponsored,” says Whaley. However, Fu stresses that she only puts stuff she likes on Weibo and in her videos to stay true to her fans.

Fu (top) on the How2 app (screenshot from How2)
Fu (top) on the How2 app (screenshot from How2)

Ahead of the curve as usual, Fu is also taking on the new trend of mobile device videos. She’s on Miaopai, a popular app that makes 10-second videos, and Weibo’s live-streaming app. She also signed a contract with Tudou last month to appear on their new app How2, a fashion app for instructional videos that will eventually combine with e-commerce, a step in the right direction for a potential makeup empire.

“Right now, China does not have its own style,” says Fu. She says she wants to help create a style of makeup unique to China. For example, one of her very first videos was a video showing Chinese girls how to apply grey tone makeup, something that’s not supposed to work on Chinese skin tones. She also spoke at a live event hosted by Sina about how pale skin, the Chinese ideal, is not necessarily the most beautiful skin color. Looking at Fu’s work on How2, it’s clear that her style is a bold deviation from the other wide-eyed, pale-faced ingenues doing makeup videos.

Couple her unique style with a very receptive market in China, and Fu may just have a chance of creating a makeup empire.

China is now experiencing a scarcity in quality video content. With an online video market worth about RMB 37 billion in 2015, a beauty industry worth RMB 40 billion by 2019, and big makeup brands clamoring to get into China, Fu is getting into the field at the right time.

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