From Teen Runaway to TV Celebrity: 8 Personal Branding Lessons
If you're into fashion, you've probably heard of Jeannie Mai. She rose to fame as the sassy host of The Style Network's Emmy-award winning show How Do I Look? and is currently a co-host of daytime talk show The Real. She's also a frequent correspondent for the Today Show and Entertainment Tonight, and is a frequent red carpet host.
She's done an exceptional job with her personal branding, dubbing herself a "wearapist" -- stemming from her idea that style and wardrobe can affect a woman's confidence and mood -- and amassing an online following of over 1 million followers. Her cheeky persona and passion for women's empowerment has landed her numerous spokesperson gigs with brands like Avon, Limited, Microsoft, and Ford. Last year she was honored by Ciroc, Variety and Women's Wear Daily as one of their 2016 Women of Empowerment. Recently she's stepped behind the camera to start producing. Her passion project Stopping Traffic, a documentary on the pervasive reach of sex trafficking to children all over the world, including in the United States, releases this month.
After reading the accomplishments above, you'd think Mai probably started working in fashion and television in her teens, right? Wrong. In her teens, Mai actually ran away from her home in San Jose to pursue a career as a makeup artist. By 18, she was traveling the world working with celebrities such as Jennifer Aniston, Sarah Jessica Parker, Christina Aguilera and Alicia Keys.
She built her makeup career from scratch, and landed her first TV gig on a local news station by pitching herself and her fashion segment to producers to fill air time that was used to show the temperature and scenic B-roll. There was no agent, no auditions, just an entrepreneurial eye for opportunity and the hustle it takes to transition from behind-the-scenes makeup artist to on-screen personality. She also had the grit and determination to keep building her brand until she finally received her first primetime hosting role in 2005, eight years later.
I was able to chat with Mai recently in Hollywood, and I learned eight powerful lessons on building a celebrity personal brand from our conversation.
Stay on the lookout for new opportunities.
The story of how Mai got her big break in the makeup industry explains what she says would be "Mai number one tip." Always be intentional with your time and conversations, open to the next big opportunity.
"When you're in influential circles, whether it's a members-only club or first-class, or business-class seats, always connect with the people around you because there's a reason why they're there," she said. "You definitely want to learn about people's story, find out how, why they're there, because you never know. They could be someone instrumental to your path." She shared that she happened to be working on face charts, sketches of makeup on various faces, and in the seat next to her was Frank Toskan, the founder of MAC Cosmetics.
She credits some of her drive to her Vietnamese mother, who instilled in her a sense of duty, to show Americans "what Vietnamese pride means." she continued. "I've always had the idea of, Where's my opening? Like a radar, Who's the person I should connect with? What should I be doing with the extra 10 minutes I have right now with my time?"
Decide what your personal brand is going to be.
Mai explained a key point for influencers, contractors and consultants, no matter your industry: Be careful not to morph yourself to fit the mold of the job. One day Mai was talking about toothpaste, the next she was standing next to a new car in a skimpy skirt, and quickly she stopped to ask herself, Who am I? Am I just gonna take any job?
She recommends, quoting her best friend Jarrod Blandino, that you "own your pretty." Great, but what does that really mean?
"There's something pretty about you. What is that about you? Is it the way you care about people? Is it the way that you make people laugh? Is it the way you can do a funny dance? Whatever it is, that's just pretty about you because it's just who you are, and you gotta own that."Once she defined and leaned into herself, the phones started ringing. I think she gives a great personal branding example -- take note of how you could similarly sum yourself up in a few sentences: The girl who's absolutely a little to the left, that's going to tell you way too much, that has a potty mouth. The girl who only cares about women, and really wants to know your story and what you've been through. The girl that can really make you look fly with drugstore makeup, that has a great sense of style and can also make your body type look banging down any walkway, runway, streetway. -- Suddenly, brands wanted that girl, she explained.
The real test is when you start turning down great opportunities that aren't you, she said, "because then you become your brand."
Obviously, if you're reading about growing your personal brand, you have social media accounts, which she believes are the number one way to promote yourself and your projects. Her advice to use social platforms effectively? Quit trying to force it.
"All you have to be is authentic. Like when you're ugly, let that show. Let the camera roll. When you said something and messed up, roll on that. If you have a fierce opinion that maybe people aren't gonna agree with, hi, we want to hear it."
Know where you want to go.
I find that in success and personal development content, there is a huge focus on how to finally land a big break, and rightfully so. But, many who have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity also become one-hit-wonders. I wanted to know, how did she go from that encounter on the plane to a massive TV celebrity? How does one maximize that kind of opportunity?
"You should already, before [your big break], have a plan. What is your plan with where you want to go? ... I knew that there was a bigger platform where I wanted to empower women. I wanted to build into women, and with makeup, that's the perfect avenue to kind of get one-on-one with women, but I also needed to project it larger. So I knew TV, or some type of spokesperson work, was the next route because that's the best way to amplify my little talent."
You could be sitting next to a major director or a major multibillionaire who could fund your company, but are you prepared? Is your elevator pitch pitched out? Is your skillset great? Is what you're pitching even bomb? Have all those prepared, and that will be ready for you when you have the opportunity."
Don't forget to be the best where you currently are.
Mai shared with me that she worked very hard to become one of the best in the makeup biz, even though her long-term sights were set on television.
"I worked on makeup so hard, you guys, like makeup is not, I mean it's an artistic talent, but it's also, you have a palate that changes every single day. Your template is like everybody's different faces, ethnicities, skins," she recalled. "I just stayed at a counter and I just beat everybody as much as possible, the makeup beat. So that when the opportunity came, that I would run into Alicia Keys or Cyndi Lauper, I knew how to get it down."
Don't focus only on what you want.
One has to stand out as a makeup artist, Mai explained, so she tried to give each client a signature "Jeannie moment" that they wouldn't get from anyone else. It was always more about what she could bring to the client than what she could get. The same mentality landed her that first television gig. She was working at KTSF in the Bay Area as an intern, so she could learn the ropes of television.
"I didn't look at what I needed, I look at what I can bring ... what I know about news stations or about any company is that they want more money. Everybody needs more money," she explained. "So I said, 'I have a secret that all women would want to know. All you need to do is give me a portion of the time that I can teach women how to do that, and you would, first of all, stop boring everybody with this weird free space you have, and number two, why don't I, as I do that, tell women where they can shop the makeup, where they can go and get things for maybe a discount code, because the brands will pay you for that time on there.' So I was literally creating a live commercial."
Don't sweat the rejection.
Rejection doesn't just apply to those in entertainment. I believe rejection should be a daily part of life for anyone trying to build something meaningful. Rejections from potential clients, speaking gigs, writing gigs, sponsorships, etc. If you aren't getting rejected, you're not putting yourself and your business out there. One of Mai's only regrets is spending too much time lamenting over things that didn't work out.
"Don't waste time," she advises. "Time is money, time is precious and time is valuable. Don't waste time sitting there about a broken relationship or a lost job for longer than you need. Like, get the Ben and Jerry's out, do your thing, and then throw on some spanks and some lashes .... Go do something to fill you."
Don't forget yourself.
Mai is probably most proud of her drive. She loves living with purpose, creating and following her vision boards, reading empowering quotes, etc. Like most of my guests she also has what I call a "gractice" -- an intentional daily gratitude practice. She works on keeping her tank full so she can continue to pour out on her blog, social accounts, YouTube channel and various television productions.
"Feed you, feed you first. You gotta be first. I don't care if you have a husband, I don't care if you have kids -- you come first. You feed yourself, and then you feed the next."
Do give your platform over to others.
Once you build an amazing career like Mai has, you can start to dive into your passion projects and give your platform over to others. Many of my guests partner with causes and organizations in order to give back via their personal brand. Mai's latest project, Stopping Traffic, is a very personal one. A few years ago Mai began to notice a friend from her hometown in Vietnam acting differently on social media. It turns out the 14-year-old had been sold to a brothel to pay off a family debt. She explained that human traffic is the third largest trade in the world, exceeded only by weapons and drugs.
"My goal is to promote the voice of trafficking so we can teach what is happening -- at this very moment, that a child is being sold every single second, somewhere in the world. I just read of two cases that happened right here in Los Angeles about eight hours ago, and so it's constant. These people don't have a voice to use and they also don't have access to help. So to find out how you can help stop traffic, use your voice and also just be aware of the brands we consume." she shared, adding, "Go to stoppingtraffic.com. That's a start."
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