By Julia Emmanuele
Updated January 06, 2016 03:05 PM
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Credit: Felisha Tolentino/Nylon

It’s hard to imagine that anyone doesn’t want to be Michelle Phan‘s best friend, but before the YouTube superstar and beauty mogul found the video sharing site, she struggled to find a place amongst her peers.

In the February issue of NYLON magazine, Phan reveals that being one of the few Asian students at her school in Tampa, Florida, opened her up to harassment from other students. “I would walk down the hallway, and they would yell, ‘Ching Chong, Ching Chong!’ It made me insecure about my nationality and race. It was really hurtful,” she says in the magazine’s cover story. “I eventually realized that they were just words, and that I could go into my happy place in my head and occupy my thoughts with my passions, like drawing and creating.”

Though she was bullied constantly from the time she was in first grade through her college years, the isolation allowed Phan, now 28, to experiment with her style. In order to fit in, she would ask African-American girls in her school to braid her hair into cornrows, learned to style it with baby oil from her Latina friends and would often dress preppy to fit in with the Caucasian students.

“I didn’t really have a defined style. I didn’t know what my culture or aesthetic was, so I would cosplay to feel part of theirs. I was hiding the true me.”

Unfortunately, even graduating from high school didn’t provide Phan with a respite from the teasing. Her fellow students at Ringling College of Art and Design often made fun of her for dressing up for class – “I was taught to dress nice, to show everyone around you that you care. I was brought up that way. Even though we had no money, my mother believed in looking good,” she shares – and after her makeup tutorials had become a hit online, a classmate played one of them in the background at a large party, mocking Phan’s new hobby.

“I thought by then I could get away from it,” she says, explaining that the other kids “were all laughing at me as I put concealer around my eyes in the video. They kept making references to Silence of the Lambs. I was so hurt I left the party in tears and told myself I would never go back.”

The joke’s on them: in 2009, Lancôme reached out to Phan and made her a brand ambassador, which turned out to be the first step in building her empire. Since then, Phan has founded the makeup subscription service ipsy, launched her own makeup collection, written a comic book and recently founded the ICON Network, a multi-media platform dedicated to beauty, lifestyle and entertainment content.

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Oh, and she mentors up-and-coming content creators in her Open Studios space.

Still, Phan credits her real-life struggles for helping to push her toward pursuing her passions and achieving her dreams.

“Sometimes you have to suffer to learn something,” Phan says. “I became a stronger person because of it. I accept what the universe gives me, even if it’s bad.

“I will turn it into something else. I always do.”