Lilly Singh is apologetic. Her flight from Toronto to L.A. was “super-delayed,” she says, and the high-altitude journey has given her a clogged ear. But in spite of the fatigue and discomfort, the 27-year-old YouTube star is still game to discuss her career with VideoInk.
“Nothing makes me happier,” Singh deadpans. “This is the ideal situation.”
The statement is tongue-in-cheek, but the good cheer and enthusiasm seem genuine. After all, with the kind of year Singh has had, talking business is a feel-good proposition.
Singh was ranked #8 on Forbes list of “The World’s Top-Earning YouTube Stars 2015,” released in October, with an estimated $2.5 million in earnings. In its five years online, her channel “IISuperwomanII” has racked up more than 7.43 million subscribers and a billion views with videos such as “How Girls Get Ready,” “If Boys Got Their Period” and her “My Parents React” series, which use comedy as vehicles for social commentary.
In spite of her success, Singh continues to deal with the same suffocating reality faced by other creators on the platform: to grow and maintain a fan base, videos need to be posted on a regular basis — no less than once a week, according to conventional wisdom.
While some big name YouTubers have hired production staff and, in the case of Meghan Camarena, switched to a seasonal model in which three months of daily content is shot over the course of a week, Singh continues to shoot, edit and post her own videos — many of which have her playing more than one character — fresh, every Monday and Thursday.
“I have over 400 videos, and maybe like 10 or 12 of them someone else has edited and shot,” Singh says. “I have always attempted to make my videos in advance, but for me it doesn’t work because I don’t have that advance [time] that people speak of. I’m always doing so many things. I do definitely overwork myself. But on Mondays and Thursdays when I wake up, I have my dedicated time that I know I’ll have to do video, so I have a mentality where I’m like, ‘What needs to be done right now?’ But I haven’t found a magical trick that allows me to get in the proper hours of sleep and still post videos and still do everything. And I envy people who have.”
Close to a million of Singh’s subscribers have been added over the last three months, since YouTube made her one of the featured creators in a global marketing campaign that had her face gracing billboards, taxis, subways and TV ads from New York to Australia.
“I went to Times Square and saw my face on a billboard,” says Singh, who was born in Toronto to parents who emigrated from India. “I was like, ‘Oh, my God. It’s so cool.’ I have a million tourist pictures there. And to see my face in Australia and America and all these other places was super overwhelming, and not only career-wise, but also to have people seeing a woman of color and being like, ‘This is normal. This is how it should be,’ was super cool for a personal point of view, as well.”
Although Singh’s videos explore universal subjects such as menstruation, annoying people and the battle of the sexes, it’s impossible not to view her work and her success in the context of her cultural background. It clearly means something to the South Asian fans who turn out in large numbers for appearances at events like YouTube’s Fan Meetup in New York last April and her 27-date “A Trip to Unicorn Island” summer tour.
There have been a growing number of social media influencer-driven live events in recent years such as DigiTour, but they’ve been confined largely to North America. Singh took her “A Trip to Unicorn Island” tour — which featured mix of sketches, motivational speeches and musical performances (with an 8-person dance troupe) — to such far-flung locales such as India, Singapore and Trinidad.
“I’m an analytic nerd, so I know where most of my subscribers are,” Singh says. “I said, I have to go to Trinidad,’ even though that’s difficult to see because the population is so small. I just knew I had a lot of audience there, and it turned about to be my biggest shows.”
Singh says the audiences were enthusiastic wherever she went, but their fervor in manifested itself in different ways.
“In India, there was the most amount of people crying in the audience, because they’re so overwhelmed,” Singh says. “In places like Trinidad, they just love to party, so during my music set, they’re all up dancing and the energy is so intense. And every time I’ve ever landed in Singapore, I’ve been fearful that I’m going to shut down the airport because they’re so intense about wanting to be get any glimpse of me.”
Singh’s popularity with South Asian fans in the U.S. can be attributed to the fact that there are very few people like her — and them — to identify with in the media. There is no shortage of Indian faces in the media in India, which churns out as many as 1,600 homegrown movie annually, far outpacing film production in the U.S. But Singh says YouTube is a different matter.
“They have a huge fan base for anything YouTube-related, and I think they don’t have a lot of people who look like them on YouTube,” Singh explains. “Also, sometimes in the digital space and the traditional space there’s a lack of outspoken females. So especially for Indian girls seeing me talk about relationships and dating and periods and kissing and all these things, it’s like, ‘Oh, my God. Yes! These are all the things that happen, but no one ever looks like us and talks about them.’”
Another even more delicate topic is central to Singh’s work and persona: depression. She has said that she created her YouTube channel to help her and others deal with depression, and the subject is central theme to both her “A Trip to Unicorn Island” live show and the documentary about the tour, produced by Astronauts Wanted, scheduled to be released on YouTube Red in early 2016.
“I like to think it was an uplifting, comedic positive show,” Singh says, “but it does start with me being honest and very straightforward and saying, ‘Hey, five years ago I went through a depression, and I got out of it discovering a place called Unicorn Island, and I want to take you on that trip now.’ Unicorn Island is a synonym for my happy place. But it was really interesting to see that through the chaos and pressures of a tour, I was myself feeling like, oh, man, I’m getting beat down a little bit, I’m feeling negative thoughts again. So it’s kind of like that battle resurfaced during the tour.”
In March, Singh starred as a secret agent in the short-form series “Lana Steele: Makeup Spy,” sponsored by Bobbi Brown Makeup, and she says she’s interested in finding acting roles in traditional movies and television, which will be easier now since she moved to Los Angeles from her hometown in Toronto at the beginning of December.
But Singh says she has no interest in forsaking YouTube, the platform that brought her fame and acclaim, for film, TV or competing platforms such as Intagram, Facebook or Twitter.
“I can truly say that I use social media a lot, but YouTube is where my community is, that’s what I’m trying to grow,” says Singh. “It would be ridiculous to try to drive traffic somewhere else and start putting my videos somewhere else. I’m still very excited by YouTube, because YouTube keeps innovating itself and keeping up with the times, whether it’s YouTube Red or through marketing campaigns. And my relationship with them is so great, so I don’t feel the need to go elsewhere.”