Make-up artist and beauty influencer Mei Pang talks to Tatler about fostering positivity online despite the negativity she has encountered there, and how her ongoing journey of sobriety has opened doors for her
What sets your soul on fire?
For Malaysian make-up artist Mei Pang, it’s the thrill of outdoing herself—whether that’s finding a new technique to create a beauty look, completing another yoga class or committing to one more day of sobriety.
“Sobriety saved my career,” Toronto-based Pang says. Her shaved head, praying mantises on each temple (plus a further plethora of matching tattoos) and razor-sharp eyeliner might lead one to assume she’s hardcore; a rebel. They’d be partly correct—she’s hardcore, but these days only about establishing her sense of self, fostering positivity online and maintaining her health to share and celebrate with others.
“I wake up at five in the morning, I do my make-up and I feel incredibly productive. And I do it with a clear head,” she says. “Professionally, I make the right decisions. I’m not swayed by anything. Whenever I show up to work, I’m doing it 100 per cent, and people can see that, and they appreciate it. That’s why I’ve had so many opportunities.”
The 26-year-old beauty influencer has an impressive combined following of more than 4 million across Instagram and TikTok. She has modelled for for Rihanna’s lingerie line Savage x Fenty, and even appeared as a guest judge on Canada’s Drag Race, a spinoff of the original RuPaul’s Drag Race. But this success has not come easily; when she first started as an influencer, she was dealing with the challenges of creating a platform for herself on YouTube and an unhealthy, unsustainable lifestyle involving too much alcohol.
“My tolerance was so high, I was drinking two bottles of wine a night—I was a party girl going way too hard. I knew that this was a problem, but I’d brush it off thinking, ‘I’m young, this is what I’m supposed to do’,” Pang says of her past habits. “I was an angry drunk, incredibly combative and mean, and I would get in fights with everybody. I didn’t really have good friends—at least, not any that would tolerate me, because I was so venomous. I had lot of unbridled anger that stemmed from not fitting in.”
Pang is referring to the otherness she felt as a third-culture kid growing up in a small town in Canada. “I was one of three Asian kids in my school. My parents were strict—I was the oldest child and they wanted me to be a doctor or lawyer, but they’d also shaped me to be as westernised as possible. Art was my first form of rebellion.”
She went to arts university for traditional drawing and painting—and also developed many of her make-up application techniques—but dropped out in her final year in 2015, partly due to the difficulties she faced with alcohol.
By 2019, Pang realised something had to change. But the decision to give up alcohol didn’t come overnight, and, ironically, was spurred by the idea of getting drunk. She says, “My birthday is August 28. On August 5, I decided I would stop drinking, so on the night of my party I [could] have a blackout rager. The day rolled around, and I didn’t even drink, because those three weeks were lovely, so I kept on going; and now here we are three years later.”
The reaction of people who followed her on YouTube was not entirely supportive, however. “I’d posted a video about being six months sober, and I was really struggling at that time,” she says about her first experiences discussing the topic online. “In the comments section, there were people being nice, but of course a ‘boo’ is ten times louder than a cheer. Some people said, ‘You’re a waste of space anyway, just keep on drinking,’ or ‘Alcohol isn’t even that bad,’ and I just thought, ‘Yeah, this is not good for my mental health.’”
She moved her focus away from the video platform, as she realised that she was better suited to and happier when creating the short-form videos favoured on Instagram and TikTok—particularly now she has found her niche: using unusual objects to create make-up looks, such as crumpling plastic bags to stamp floral shapes or using cling film to stamp red lipstick kisses over her eyelids.
Becoming sober and moving away from the negativity online has led Pang to a healthier mental space. “Emotionally I felt a lot lighter, less guilty. Vulnerability has been one of my greatest rewards; coming to terms with what I’ve done in the past, being open and talking about it [has helped me] come to grips with who I am.”
While Pang quickly found fulfilment in her work and started to realise the benefits to her mental health, not drinking and not meeting up with the friends she knew when she was drinking left her with a lot of free time. “I took a new puppy approach [with myself] where I needed to tire myself out so I wouldn’t make bad decisions by the end of the night, so I started working out,” she says.
“[When I was younger] I did competitive fighting: jujitsu, judo, taekwondo. I’ve always had that drive in me to do something physical. But I was starting from ground zero, and thought, ‘Okay, what can I do?’ My mum used to drag me to yoga classes and I thought it sounded easy breezy to start there.
“I went to the first yoga studio I found online, where I met Deanna DeCarlo, who is now my mentor. I was absolutely garbage. Everyone has to start somewhere, and what I quickly learnt is that no one no one else is watching you at these yoga studios. They’re only focused on themselves. So that gave me the motivation to keep on going.”
Pang realised her recognition that nobody in the class was interested in her progress could equally apply to her sobriety journey. “It’s not a competition; it’s a day-by-day process. Your journey is going to be different to everybody else’s, and that doesn’t make it invalid.”
This confidence in her career direction and belief in her life choices have spilt over into other areas of her life, including her relationship with her parents. Having once expected her to follow a more traditional path, they are now fully supportive, both of her work and her alternative appearance.
“My mum hated my tattoos [at first] and wanted to scrub them off with a sponge. Now she compliments strangers on their tattoos and tells them about mine,” Pang says. “And I’d hidden the fact I had no hair for two years, and finally revealed it to my dad when I pulled off my wig in a parking lot because it was so hot. The first thing he said to me was, ‘At least I can see your beautiful face now’.”
Pang is a big believer that self-expression and time are the keys to self-acceptance. “At the end of the day, all I have is me. I believe that if you’re happy and you’re not hurting anybody, eventually everyone else is going to be happy for you too.”
And while she has had plenty of negative experiences that might encourage others to abandon their digital presence, Pang wants to remain online to inspire others to feel comfortable in their own skin.
“I want to show people that there’s not one right way to do things. Take make-up: there’s the traditional, professional make-up and there’s a rule book, but I want to show people that there’s more than that,” she says.
As with Pang’s art, her sobriety journey has been a challenge, but regardless of difficulties, she’s continued to insist that she does things her own way.
“When it comes to my look, I just want to show people that it’s totally OK to try something different, to step out of your comfort zone. As my dad always says, ‘Try everything once: if it sticks, it sticks; if it doesn’t, at least you tried.’”