It’s 12:33 a.m., and in the back of an undisclosed beauty retailer, Refinery29’s Mi-Anne Chan dives feet first into a large dumpster. Equipped with rubber gloves, Dr. Martens boots and a headlamp around her silvery blue hair, Chan is greeted with mountains of plastic bags filled with unopened beauty products. How did the New York beauty writer end up digging through trash in New Jersey? Just lucky, I guess.
Although sustainability and diversity have been her lifelong passions, Chan was never interested in beauty, let alone considered a career in it. But for five seasons, Chan has been the host for Refinery29’s YouTube series “Beauty with Mi,” for which she explores bizarre beauty trends, like her latest video about dumpster diving for makeup. As the associate producer and beauty writer for the digital media platform that empowers women through fashion, entertainment and makeup, she is the cool-girl gatekeeper of makeup and skincare. Through her numerous articles and videos, she discusses issues from why brands should produce sustainable product packaging to expanding foundation shades for all skin colors.
“Beauty is fun; you shouldn’t take it too seriously,” says Chan. “On the flip side of that, there are a lot of serious things, like making sure that everyone is represented. That’s why I love covering beauty so much because there are so many different ways you can go.”
Born in Alameda, California, Chan was raised by her Singaporean Chinese mother and father, along with her younger sister Leanne. As a woman who grew up Asian American, she understands the importance of emphasizing diversity. “A lot of brands out there forget about South Asians and the fact that there are Asians with deeper skin tones,” Chan says. “That’s how a lot of people might have seen Asians in the past—that Asian only means Chinese or Japanese. Being Asian you can be from India. You can be from the Philippines. We have a bit to go in terms of accurate representation there, but I do think the industry is changing in a really awesome way.”
Googling for solutions for her teen acne led Chan to makeup, which meant binge-watching lots of YouTube videos. “I started getting into makeup when I was 18 [years old] because of YouTube,” says Chan. “A friend introduced me to Ingrid Nilsen’s videos, a makeup YouTuber who at the time was hosting missglamourazzi. I didn’t wear any makeup at the time, but started devouring a lot of videos—the originals like Michelle Phan, Ingrid Nilsen and Tanya Burr. It kind of snowballed from there, and it became a really fun way to connect with people in the beauty community.”
Chan describes her current beauty look as “fresh with pops of color and graphic shapes” inspired by makeup artists like Pat McGrath. It can be hard to believe that this color chameleon wasn’t into beauty her whole life. “The first look I tried I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s so crazy!’” Chan says. “I didn’t get into color until two to three years ago, which I think is surprising to people considering how much color I wear now.”
Chan entered New York University to pursue a degree in international politics, but took a leap of faith and applied for a beauty internship at “W Magazine.” In spite of her lack of journalism experience, her passion and YouTube-administered self-education helped her land the position. “In the interview, I knew a lot about beauty, but I [had] tried virtually nothing because I had no money to buy anything,” says Chan. “But I had a lot of knowledge about it based on what I read and what I watched on YouTube. And she hired me. It was the beginning of everything.”
That internship encouraged Chan to switch her major to journalism, and she began freelancing for publications like “The Cut” and “Teen Vogue.” After many fruitless job applications, she managed to land her dream job at Refinery29. “[The producer] put me on [the beauty team] because I was the only one that liked YouTube videos,” Chan says.
Her passion also helped her get her own beauty series. “One day, one of the producers who was doing YouTube at the time overheard me on set talking about liquid lipsticks to someone, and she said, ‘I really want you to have a YouTube show where you’re talking about makeup in that exciting way that you do,’” says Chan.
Combining the congeniality of a beauty influencer with the knowledge and industry connections only a beauty editor can possess, her series “Beauty with Mi” welcomes people of all backgrounds to the world of makeup and skincare. “I like doing the reviews and the talking that’s more YouTube-y,” says Chan. “But I also have a journalism background, so I love doing stories that have more purpose and education to them.”
As the tastemaker of all things beauty, she continues fighting for social justice issues through her fun and informative videos and articles promoting diversity, and advocating for environmentally sustainable practices in the industry. “I would love to get to a place where every brand has a shade for everyone,” Chan says. “Where diversity isn’t even a ‘hot conversation’—it’s just the norm. I think that we’re getting there slowly, but surely.”
This article appeared in Character Media’s May 2019 issue. Subscribe here.