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Michelle Phan greets her fans at Generation Beauty
Michelle Phan greets her fans at Generation Beauty
Image: Ipsy

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I Went to Michelle Phan's Beauty Conference and All I Got Was a New Face

Inside Generation Beauty

I assessed my plunder while I waited for the train home: nine lip pencils, six dry shampoos, five nail polishes, four perfumes, three vaguely empowering statement canvas bags ("Be Fierce, Be Free, Be Fearless," commanded one; "I Came, I Saw, I Contoured," spat back another), two mascaras, one activated charcoal cleanser that is probably just Cetaphil with some rocks in it.

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This count doesn’t include the updo I’d gotten that morning, the showy gold manicure, and the full face of makeup (deep brown powder slashed lines into my broad, full face in attempt to chisel it into a pretty little triangle; eyeliner dug so aggressively into my waterline that I couldn’t get my contact lenses in for a full three days afterward). "Pretty good," I thought: When I walked in, I had a bare face and absolutely none of this useless booty that will accumulate in my medicine cabinet until I move in a few months and end up dumping it all in the trash.


Image: Ipsy

I was on my way home from Generation Beauty, a makeup expo held at the 75,000 square foot event space in Midtown Manhattan known as Pier 92. Ipsy, a company founded by YouTube makeup sensation Michelle Phan, played host to Generation Beauty, or #GenBeauty, as dozens of white-and-pink wall hangings begged me to call it (I refused). Ipsy is a subscription-based beauty service in which customers can order a specially curated $10 "Glam Bag" filled with makeup samples each month. Ipsy raised $100 million dollars in funding this year, which is a heck of a lot more than competitor Birchbox’s $60 million. For the first time, Ipsy expanded Generation Beauty from its homebase in Los Angeles to New York, bringing its celebration of all things sample-sized to the East Coast.

I’m no Pollyanna when it comes to beauty (I’m a girl who once got kicked off of MakeupAlley for solicitation; at one point I was so consumed with buying skincare products that I considered it a near-impossible challenge not to buy liquids for a month), but this was my first expo. I expected the long lines and the continuous Jason Derulo jams, but I wasn’t expecting quite so much tiny refuse. Tester bottles and miniature vials and sample squeezy tubes littered the booths at Generation Beauty, and the human-sized humans were going nuts over them. For a moment I was taken aback by the irresolution of the human spirit in the face of capitalism, by how people were willing to wait in line for hours for two fluid ounces of foundation. And then I saw how pretty the packaging was, and dove straight into those shallow waters, holding my breath.

Tester bottles and miniature vials and sample squeezy tubes littered the booths at Generation Beauty, and the human-sized humans were going nuts over them.

In the adjacent harbor, the west decks of three enormous commercial cruise ships faced the expo’s untinted windows. Fuck the sunset, I imagine the tourists relaxing on their sea-faring vacations saying to each other, chucking their sunglasses off the deck. This hot pink mess, reeking of Elizabeth and James’ Nirvana Black and melted hair, was the real spectacle. Hand me those binoculars, Tad, I imagine a cruise mistress in athleisure saying to her cruise mister, I think I’ve spotted a Michelle Phan just beyond the railings.

The bodies of women and children were everywhere, regulated by lines and loudspeakers and Ipsy employees offering tight, toothless smiles while murmuring into Bluetooth headsets. Most of those bodies looked like mine: faces young but unremarkable, wishing they’d worn heavier sweaters, hoping to stay afloat in their careers or dating lives via poreless skin and highlighting tricks. A six-year-old in a Frozen tee watched intently as I got the dark circles buffed out from under my eyes at It Cosmetics. She must have been worried she would end up like me, and soon. Nobody was there to be seen. Mostly, people were there for the free stuff: a lip treatment from Bliss, a wristband from Makeup Forever, the momentary thrill of sticking our painted digits into the mani cam at the Formula X booth.

Though the YouTube stars walking around were there to be seen, for sure. Ipsy keeps a cast of vlog-famous makeup artists like Chrisspy, Jaleesa Moses, and Desi Perkins on retainer to curate signature Glam Bags and represent the brand at events like this one. About every 15 minutes, a PA system alerted attendees that a specific YouTuber would be holding court at a specific booth for a finite amount of time. Just like that, the wave of sulfate-pickled bodies would drop whatever they were doing (waiting in line, Snapchatting), and pivot and elbow their way to forming an orderly queue.


Image: Claire Carusillo

YouTubers walked regally through their crowds of devotees. The only experience I can compare it to is a character breakfast at Disney World. The whole scenario was a mini-trip to a fantasy world, except the mini bottles of shampoo were given away for free rather than stolen from the hotel bathroom. Instead of Mickey Mouse pancakes and an autograph from Cinderella, Generation Beauty attendees got a limp hand massage at the Moroccan Oil booth and a selfie with makeup artist Patrick Starrr. The whole thing gave me a stress rash, but it’s also possible that was from the 12 pounds of makeup I’d begged to have professionally spackled onto my face.

At one point, I was ushered into a subterranean green room. I sat down with Ipsy makeup artist and YouTuber Christen Dominique. I was not familiar with her when we began, but after talking with her for five minutes, I became obsessed. I’ve since watched her "The Power of Makeup" video — half eyebrow guide, half self-empowerment manifesto — five times. She told me that a girl was so overwhelmed when meeting her the day before that she cried. "It’s crazy how you can touch people by just showing them how to do something," Christen told me.

I understand this crying girl, how overcome she was by a beautiful person on a screen. When I was 13, I was so preoccupied with Mischa Barton’s beauty on The OC that it hurt my feelings. It burned. I was so enamored of Miley Cyrus’s early work in a blonde Hannah Montana wig that I continue to defend most of her decisions to this day, even though it’s irresponsible to do so. The first time I saw Rihanna in the "Unfaithful" video, I remember thinking I need to look just like her. I still try; I never will.

I keep buying beauty products that claim to work miracles. I hoard makeup samples that don’t match my skin tone, just in case. I still watch YouTube makeup tutorials daily, trusting the hosts at the helm will steer me somewhere more beautiful than this. Ipsy is a $500 million empire built on a foundation of sample sized plastic bottles. Generation Beauty is a conference devoted to the enormous group of millennial girls who believe in the potential of the pliable, the changeable, even the expendable.


Image: Ipsy

As soon as I got home, I scrubbed the makeover off my face and saw its contents swirl down the sink in a chalky brown vortex. Despite the pounds of product that took up residence on my face for a few hours, I looked the same. But I could always attempt it again tomorrow. And like the mini nude lip pencil in my swag bag, I’m so glad I tried it.

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