Inside the dizzying world of Lilly Singh, Toronto's accidental megastar
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In the past few years, the platform has emerged as the preferred video source among the 13 to 24 demographic. In a recent study of American teens, 85 per cent of participants named YouTube as their number one choice for video, with Netflix and cable coming in second and third.
Most respondents said they check out YouTube as soon as they wake up, and continue watching off and on late into the night.
And, while the production values are evolving by the minute, the platform still retains an indie spirit. The personalities tap into a plaintive desire for authenticity: It can be a lucrative formula. When I asked Singh if the number was accurate, she played dumb, claiming she had no idea how much she made. She has leveraged her YouTube fame into a multi-pronged empire, bagging sponsorship deals with brands like Coke and Toyota.
You can buy Superwoman-branded T-shirts, hoodies and trucker hats on her website. Inshe capitalized on her massive fan base and embarked on a worldwide comedy tour, selling out stadiums in Mumbai, Sydney and Singapore. And her coterie of famous friends keeps growing: She became a star in reverse.
In the centre of the kitchen is a vintage popcorn machine covered in rainbow stripes and the Superwoman logo. She got her friend, a YouTube star named Mr. Humble is a year-old former Rexdale elementary school teacher who earned minor YouTube fame for his rap-inflected spoken word poetry in the late s, before Lilly even joined the platform. They have a brother-sister vibe: Her favourite souvenir from back home is a large piece by the artist Inkquisitive that features soulful illustrations of Drake drawn overtop the CN Tower.
Singh, like any law-abiding Torontonian, is a devout Drake fan. She finally got the opportunity to meet him last September, backstage at his concert in L. In the Instagram photo, Singh wore a trucker hat, closed her eyes and clasped her hands in mock prayer, while Drake made his signature 6 hand signal.
She possesses a cartoon beauty, with giant eyes that look like a Snapchat filter and elastic, expressive features that are ideally suited to Internet vaudeville. When she sits, she leans forward, shifting her shoulders and splaying her legs like a manspreader on the subway.
Most of her videos begin: Insiders know the S has a double meaning: Singh has lived out the classic second-generation Canadian success story. Her father, Sukhwinder, and her mother, Malwinder, grew up in the Punjabi region of India, where they were paired in an arranged marriage.
MY PARENTS REACT TO ME KISSING A GIRL
Sukhwinder came to Canada in and found jobs as a factory worker, cab driver and furniture salesman, finally earning enough money for his wife to immigrate here in Malwinder worked at a company that produced CDs and cassettes. Their elder daughter, Tina, was born in ; Lilly followed six years later. Singh has been honing her tomboy shtick since she was a kid.
In Grade 3, she developed a pathological obsession with The Rock, back when he was still a wrestler. She kept a life-size cut-out of him in her bedroom, plastered her walls with posters and dressed up as him at a school fashion show. Here, six of her favourite characters: Her sister recalls that, when Lilly was eight, she would carry around camcorders for days, recording her every move, reciting monologues, acting out skits—basically, what she does now.
It was around that time that Singh discovered bhangra, the elaborately costumed, beat-heavy Punjabi dance form that closes out every Bollywood musical. Inwhen she started studying psychology at York University, she became president of her bhangra club. Soon, the group was hired to dance at Indian weddings, and Singh was spending more time choreographing shows and designing marketing materials than studying. Her parents had so far exhibited saintly tolerance for her predilections, but, when it came to dancing in public, they balked.
Ultimately, they just let me do it, because I was going to do it anyway. Tina now runs an occupational therapy practice. Singh found herself in a desperate funk. She spent two or three hours a day at the Gursikh Sabha, a baroquely furnished temple in Scarborough. I was always the only kid with a whole bunch of elderly people. Marbles, whose real name is Jenna Mourey, had recently started her own YouTube channel, where she offered sexed-up satire spoofing the Paris Hilton generation.
It bore no resemblance to the manic sketches she does now. The clip was a piece of earnest spoken word poetry about her connection to her temple, encouraging more young people to spend time volunteering in spiritual places. She shared the clip on Facebook and watched it rack up 70 views. She believes in God, but adheres to no formal religion. As she got more comfortable in front of the camera, she set about establishing her brand of self-deprecating observational comedy, which at first catered specifically to second-generation South Asian teens.
In between shooting skits and working a series of dead-end jobs, she learned how to light her videos, what kind of camera equipment to use, how to make graphics and sound effects—and she found most of this on YouTube how-to channels. Within six months, she had more than a thousand subscribers. Gradually, her funk lifted. BySingh had amassed several thousand subscribers, and other YouTubers took notice. A creator named Allen Buckle, who went by Fluffee Talks, reached out to Singh and asked her to meet at his home.
Buckle was a year-old comedian from Toronto who wore a black beanie and aggregated bizarro news stories from around the globe. At the time, he had aboutsubscribers. She sat in his living room and sipped a glass of water. Sukhwinder struck a deal: Singh readily agreed and got to work formalizing her brand.
She committed to a regular posting schedule and bought her first professional camera: Her popularity was spreading rapidly throughout the South Asian community. People would stop her at the grocery store, at the mall, at the movies and ask: Singh with her parents, Sukhwinder and Malwinder right at the L.
Advertisers would negotiate with YouTube, then YouTube would typically take 45 per cent of the ad revenue and let creators pocket the rest. At first, the company selected which users would be able to monetize their accounts. Most people had to wait months or years before they were chosen, but Singh got an email from the YouTube brass after she posted her third video, a guide to help brown guys decode the behaviour of brown girls.
InYouTube enabled any user to activate advertising. Since then, the number of ad-supported YouTube channels has ballooned from roughly 10, to more than three million. Advertisers pay a set rate for every thousand views.
Seismic success is exceedingly rare. Many users—the hobbyists, whose views are in the thousands rather than the millions—might only earn a few hundred dollars a year. Well, yeah, I wrote my verses. In terms of writing, Humble wrote his verses as well as the hook, which is the best part of the song.
In terms of workload, I do feel at times, he did more work than me. I think when you look at this holistically; in the long term you're going to see all of the exposure the track garnered came from Superwoman. At this point she doesn't have to do anything but tweet the track once released, and it picks up. That's a result of three years of groundwork, which I think is incredible.
A Conversation With YouTube Stars Humble the Poet and Superwoman #Leh | HuffPost Canada
The analogy I think is that she's the gun and I'm the bullet. We'll constantly be looking at what we both can bring to the table where she excels in certain departments and I excel in others. What did each of you bring to the collaboration? I think I brought the experience; Superwoman is a ridiculously talented content creator who posts constantly, although the medium is extremely different. If one of her videos doesn't get a lot of views, she can redeem herself in the next.
There's just not as much pressure in YouTube production as when you're releasing a musical track. In music, you put out a song and it's going to get played over and over and over again, so you have to make sure it is everything it can be.
I know the video platform so so so well. I know the perfect mixture of how comedic a piece has to be, what the video has to be like, what the song has to sound like, to make it successful.
There was no head butting. She knew what her fans were going to like and we worked from there. We were able to look at the context. It really felt like the labor was perfectly divided. This project is unique. There were no record producers, radio stations, anything that supports you in a traditional way yet it was very successful. Do you think there's a new model coming into being in terms of artistic production?
A Conversation With YouTube Stars Humble the Poet and Superwoman #Leh
Independent content these days can be more successful than previously because of the power of social media. However, there are still systems in place to make sure independent artists don't get as far as signed ones.
I was confident because of my past experiences with everything that I do, we would be able to tweet radio stations and they would get bombarded with tweets to play our song, but clearly, it doesn't work like that. You still need x amount of money, x amount of people behind you and a record label to have your song on the radio, in North America at least. And we've been into countless meetings where they've told us that it doesn't matter how many hits you get, if you're not with a record label, radio will not play your song.
In other parts of the world, we have been on mainstream radio stations. This track has been overwhelming all over the world, and even with my colleagues in the YouTube community, they've really showed their support and have shared it.
But there are definitely some obstacles in terms of the traditional. Of course if you said this 20 years ago, you had none of the resources we do today to distribute your song. If you wanted to have the world hear your music, you could only play at smaller clubs and salons. Internet became that equalizer.
But still, a lot of us tech folks lose sight of how powerful traditional media still is. Our generation still places a higher value on television than on YouTube. The next generation, 13 - 14 now, they don't care, I don't think they see the difference. There's still a lot of places, especially in the States, that haven't caught up yet, they're still paper and pen, listening to the radio, buying CDs.
So that's something we didn't even take into consideration. I mean we can do it, but for us to successfully do it, that means we'd have to dedicate ourselves to this full time.
We created "Leh" by dedicating the last six weeks to work. We're kind of at that crossroads where if we wanted to break through the next boundary something else in our lives would have to suffer. We're now able to connect with the outside world without being there, which only makes connecting in any human way more difficult. How do you manage to make your connection with your audience so affecting?
I first started making videos by playing the Indian girl and now I realize you don't have to do that. The reason "Leh" is so successful is because it doesn't speak to a niche market, I mean Humble wears a turban but he doesn't just speak to Sikh people. All the concepts in "Leh" are extremely universal. People will have an emotional attachment to it because it applies to them. That's how I make my content as well.
I mean, I can make a video called "Indian Girls on their Period" and immediately Indian girls will be like I connect to this so much and other girls will say this doesn't apply to me. But we all get our period in the same way, and if you just take out the word Indian, suddenly those same people who thought it doesn't apply love it. I still think comedy is the go-to way of connecting. The best way to disagree with a point is by showing the humor in agreeing to it.
I once had the idea that rather than make a music video directed to the first world where people rap about nice cars, what if I made a video in the third world boasting about having running water or a working toilet or two parents, right? I'm doing the same thing any other rapper would do: I'm drawing attention to what other people in the world don't have by putting it into another context for people.
Then there's the emotional aspect. You see all those dove commercials making girls feel beautiful and talking about insecurities, it tugs on an emotional artery.