Here’s the thing about success. You can be an online phenom with more than 11 million YouTube subscribers; have a gaggle of William Morris agents working their Beverly Hills phones to score you parts in TV shows and movies; get ready to launch your very first book, an advice guide called How to Be a Bawse which features dozens of photos of you looking very boss – er, bawse-like; and be BFFs with your childhood hero, Dwayne (the Rock) Johnson.
But when your extended family is flying in from Toronto to spend a week in the shiny new L.A. house you bought a few months ago, and you’re a certain kind of daughter and sister and aunt, it’s just a fact that you’re going to be up until 6 a.m. unpacking boxes, assembling furniture, child-proofing drawers and mopping like the control freak you are. (Mind you, a video editor who works for a company that manages some of your YouTube business affairs will help you mop until you both pass out from exhaustion; but still.)
And so Lilly Singh, a Scarborough-born 28-year-old known to her online fans as Superwoman, looks anything but super on this blue-sky L.A. morning as she pads down the stairs in a sweatshirt and jeans, nestles her small frame into a living room chair, and takes a bite of an egg-and-spinach breakfast wrap Postmated here moments ago.
“You’re meeting Sleepy Morning Lilly,” she murmurs sheepishly, adding later, “You’re also seeing me without my eyebrows filled in.” (She’s even missing her trademark nose ring.)
The family visit is just one of many pressing commitments Singh is juggling.
At the end of the month, she’ll embark on a 12-country, 34-date promotional tour for How to Be a Bawse (subtitle: A Guide to Conquering Life), bringing a one-hour show of “stand-up mixed with inspirational, motivational stuff” she’s calling “a comedic TED Talk” to her sometimes-screaming fans.
For almost five years now, those fans been eating up Singh’s twice-weekly videos: energetic jump-cut observational monologues delivered straight to camera ( Types of Kids at School, Types of People on Instagram, Annoying People in Public Washrooms), send-ups of pop culture and gender stereotypes (What Clubbing Is Actually Like, If Boys Got Their Period) and skits trafficking in gentle racial humour (The Difference Between Brown and White Girls) featuring Singh playing a bevy of characters loosely drawn from her life as a child of Punjabi immigrants growing up on the outskirts of Toronto. (She also makes less polished behind-the-scenes daily diary videos, where everybody can see her without her eyebrows filled in.)
Some of Singh’s most popular videos include fictional versions of her parents – wannabe-player dad Manjeet and prim, tea-drinking mom Paramjeet – reacting with slowly growing horror as they watch, say, a sex-spackled Ariana Grande music video.
All told, Singh has racked up more than two billion views on YouTube, prodding some to wonder if her success might hold lessons for Canada’s cultural industries on how to ride the current wave of technological disruption rather than be swamped by it.
Part of Singh’s appeal is that her medium is the message: She embodies the DIY empowerment ethos of YouTube and has found a worldwide kinship storming the gates of legacy media from the basement of her parents’ home in Markham, Ont. In conversation, though, she reveals an old-school morality and a surprising skepticism of the very platforms that facilitated her rise. Now, Singh is trying to navigate the tricky path to a genuine mainstream breakthrough, even as she wades further into the fraught territories of politics and advocacy.
If Singh is still in first gear here in her bright living room at 8:30 a.m., her TeamSuper industrial machine reached cruising speed some time ago. Behind her, a house painter with a hollow-cheeked Jackson Pollock mien and an embryonic man-bun stares coldly at a pair of fat vertical yellow stripes on the opposite wall. At the breakfast bar, just past the Ping-Pong table which dominates this main room, her bright-eyed personal assistant Kyle, and Misako, a social-media brand manager who recently joined the team, are quietly riding matching MacBooks. About half an hour earlier, they had posted a handful of videos from Singh and other celebrities (Charlize Theron, Lele Pons, Winnie Harlow) kicking off something called the Bra Toss Challenge, a mash-up of slacktivist feminism and the Ice Bucket Challenge in which high-profile women throw a bra at the camera in support of someone they admire and then call on another to do the same.
It’s the latest undertaking for Singh’s #GirlLove project, which aims to end what she calls “girl-on-girl hate.”
“It’s always such an interesting topic, because it’s so controversial. And I don’t think it needs to be,” she says. “Women are scared to use the word ‘feminism’ and identify as feminists.”
Singh had spent the previous afternoon mentoring a few female YouTube creators at YouTube Space LA, a former airplane hangar in the Playa Vista neighbourhood that is now a showpiece of the new economy. Decades ago, during a different era of American innovation, the building was part of Howard Hughes’s private airport; he constructed his Spruce Goose in a cavernous hangar across the road.
In 2013, in an effort to instill a higher level of professionalism among its creators, the Google-owned video service turned the place into a collection of soundstages and edit suites done up in corrugated metal and lacquered wood and Silicon Valley lifestyle clichés. So there’s always a charging station available for your Chevy Volt or (in Singh’s case) Tesla Model S, the unisex washrooms use recycled water, a smiling barista will froth you up a free matcha latte and a foosball table in the airy reception area awaits creators needing to break their writer’s block.
In one of the smaller studios, Singh sat on a red couch the colour of YouTube’s logo, chatting with a musical lesbian couple known as BriaAndChrissy, sharing advice on life and love and positivity like a latter-day Oprah. She told a story about how the collapse of a relationship had prompted a personal reckoning. “I do believe truly now that, to be part of a ‘complete two,’ you need to be part of a ‘complete one,’” she said, as Bria and Chrissy nodded intently. “The best version of yourself is when you’re happy, and you’re going to be happy when you’re yourself.”
Later, Chrissy spoke of the thrill of working with Singh. “We’ve always had so much admiration and respect for any female creator who can gain traction and success, especially someone who is doing something different than stereotypically female norms,” she said during a brief chat in the parking lot. “Instead of doing, you know, makeup and beauty – which is all great, but it’s society’s expectation for women to do that – Lilly is doing comedy and empowerment. To get to spend time with her today, to see just how humble and kind and supportive and uplifting she is, it seems like she’s living the GirlLove platform thing every day of her life.”
Singh’s positivity is conscious and hard-won: She began making YouTube videos as a way out of a deep depression. In 2011, after following in the academic footsteps of her older sister to earn a psychology degree from Toronto’s York University, she was in the midst of applying for a master’s program in counselling when she decided she just couldn’t go through with it. She’d already made a handful of videos, and though they were rough around the edges, the process had lifted her spirits. So she informed her parents that, rather than go to graduate school, she wanted to make funny videos for the Internet.
This was not in their wheelhouse. “They were both immigrants. My dad came here first, sent for my mom, had to work the three jobs. I have pictures of my dad, like, posing with his first refrigerator, being like: ‘Electricity! Refrigerator!’” she says, laughing. (They currently manage a territory of gas stations in the north end of Toronto.)
They gave her one year to make it happen. “I lived at my parents’ house, didn’t have to pay any rent, didn’t have to pay for any bills,” she says, adding: “Indian parents don’t make their kids pay for things.”
Singh soon found her voice, drawing on her upbringing to produce videos such as Sh*t Punjabi Mothers Say, How to Be the Perfect Brown Person and – in a hint of the gender politics that would become a mainstay of her humour and advocacy work – a slap-down of underminers called Girls Are Haters!
“YouTube for me is more than a platform, it is literally that thing that helped me when I was sad,” she says. “It doesn’t make sense, because it’s just a bunch of [programming] script, but I have an emotional connection to that.”
If you were going to engineer a symbol of the new global culture (which, despite some ugly high-profile eruptions of nationalism, remains strong), you could do worse than a street-smart Indian-Canadian millennial woman with respect for tradition, a disruptor’s digital savvy, polished confessional authenticity and few firm lines between her professional and personal life.
Singh’s climb has been impressive, jumping from one million subscribers in August, 2013, to five million in January, 2015; eight million last spring; and, this week, more than 11.25 million. By some measures, that puts her in the top 75 YouTube channels – a few notches below Selena Gomez, Beyoncé and BuzzFeed, but a good distance above Demi Lovato and The Late Late Show with James Corden.
Still, YouTube advertising is a game of tight margins. (And tighter secrets: The company does not publicly discuss the terms of its deals and prefers that creators stay mum on the matter, too.) Many creators reportedly earn CPMs – an industry term referring to the rate advertisers pay to reach 1,000 viewers – in the $2 to $4 range. (U.S. broadcast network TV fetches 10 times that.) Back-of-the-envelope math suggests Singh is likely making about $2-million annually from the ads on her videos.
Like many YouTube creators, she is also in the business of being a “digital influencer,” signing promotional deals with marketers such as Coca-Cola Canada and the cosmetics label Smashbox, which last spring released a deep-red liquid lipstick dubbed “Bawse.” (Her deal with Skittles Canada includes a lifetime supply of the chewy candy; she pulls open a kitchen drawer to reveal about 30 oversized packages, in an array of four flavours.)
And in early 2015, she orchestrated a 26-city tour to bring A Trip to Unicorn Island – a live stage show preaching positivity and empowerment through dance, music, comedy and earnest you-can-do-it-girl monologues – to fans in India, Dubai, Australia, Europe and North America. A documentary of the tour premiered on YouTube’s Red subscription service last year.
Success begets success, and Singh has lately attracted increasingly big names to co-star in her videos, including Seth Rogen and James Franco, Selena Gomez, Kunal Nayyar and The Rock. She interviewed Michelle Obama and Malala Yousafzai about the importance of girls’ education, and last month talked with Bill Gates about development issues.
So why, if she could become a global superstar while working out of a Toronto suburb, did Singh need to move to Los Angeles in the fall of 2015? (She rented a loft for a year before finding this dream home.) As the Canadian government looks to overhaul the antiquated system of laws, regulations and incentives that helped create our domestic media industry, is there something it could do to keep creators like her at home?
“Do they have a way to stop winter yet?” Singh asks. (She’s only half-kidding: “I can’t express to you how much I dislike being cold,” she says. “I’m a different human being solely because of the weather. I’m, like, four times more productive in L.A. than I would be in Toronto.”)
Eventually, Singh offers a real answer which is both promising and disheartening. “My content specifically is what it is, and my brand is what it is because I am from Canada,” she notes.
“A lot of my success comes from this large idea of being multicultural: the very cultured parents that are on my channel, a lot of the cultural jokes I make – the fact that I can relate to such a vast array of people by making different language jokes and different dialect jokes – that’s a huge reason for my success, and that solely comes from Toronto and Canada. And so if I didn’t start in Canada, would I be as big as I am now? I don’t think so.”
“Having said that, if I stayed in Canada, would I be as big as I am now?” She smiles benevolently, as if trying to let down a boyfriend gently, but firmly. “I don’t think so.”
She continues: “It really did pain me to move to L.A., and I wish I could have stayed in Toronto, but it was getting to a point where, two or three times a month, I’d have to fly to L.A. to do something, or I’d be missing some opportunities to do something, because they’re like, ‘Oh! You need a visa. We’ll just find someone else.’”
Singh has landed a few bit parts in films, including last summer’s Bad Moms and Ice Age: Collision Course, but digital celebrity doesn’t count for much in this town. “I think Hollywood is just slow to catch on to change,” she says. In How to Be a Bawse, she notes that, two days after the splashy premiere of her Unicorn Island doc at the iconic TCL (née Grauman’s) Chinese Theatre last year, she turned up for an audition where the casting director didn’t seem to have heard of her.
But one of the overriding themes of Bawse – a motivational handbook stuffed with business, social and relationship advice imparted with the snappy humour and giddy whimsy that animates Singh’s videos – is that you need to check your ego at the door. “My secret to success is exactly what most people don’t want to hear: It’s a ton of hard work,” she writes.
In fact, there is a surprising touch of the old-fashioned scold threaded through the book. Singh repeatedly counsels her readers to free themselves from their phones, at one point noting acidly that “social media has made it easy to feel special for no reason at all.” She struggles with the promiscuities and solipsism enabled by the very tools that brought her to the world’s attention, typified by a moment in the Unicorn Island doc when a Dubai fan rushes the stage as Singh is deep in an earnest monologue, and then proceeds to take a selfie while the star looks on, quietly seething.
“It happens all the time, in smaller ways,” Singh says. “I will be on the street and sometimes a fan will come up to me – just interrupt me, if I’m eating, whatever. I will shut it down sometimes.” And yet, she says, “I have a career that my fans made. It’s not that I auditioned for YouTube, or a record label came up to me and said, ‘Yes, we will sign you now.’ It’s literally: People watched my videos. So I try to remember that when those situations happen. But I don’t like to encourage people to be entitled.”
It must be hard, though, for fans to resist feeling a kind of protective affection when they encounter Singh in person: After all, she has shared some very dark moments. In Bawse, she writes of the lacerating self-doubt of her early 20s, of being “depressed and wanting to end my life.” When, during her Unicorn Island show, she declared in what amounted to a war cry, “Happiness is the only thing worth fighting for in your life!” there was a whiff of the reformed smoker working feverishly to keep the cravings at bay.
Many fans can apparently relate: In the opening moments of the doc, a teenaged girl says Singh is “showing millions of girls around the world, anyone can get out of depression.”
But while the sentiment may be commendable – and the comment sections on the videos where Singh shares her stories of depression are filled with gratitude – it is also a potentially dangerous notion to float. Not everyone can simply pull themselves out of depression by sheer force of will, as Singh suggests she did.
She acknowledges that she was never clinically diagnosed. “I’m saying I was ‘depressed,’ based off me being a psychology student and having to study depression for so long, understanding that I was not in a healthy mind-state,” she says. She insists that “my through-line is always: To talk to someone. If you feel depressed, seek help, talk to someone. Because I’m not a doctor, I’m not a psychiatrist, and I would never tell someone that’s depressed: ‘Just be positive!’ Because someone could be way more depressed than I was, or differently depressed than I was.”
Most of her self-doubt has disappeared, but Singh acknowledges that some hard questions remain. In the final pages of How to Be a Bawse, she recalls being 19 years old and fearing she would never make much of her life.
So: Now what? How does someone recalibrate when they surpass their own dreams?
“When I first started YouTube it was about – ‘Oh, I got 70 views!’ ‘Now I got 100!’” she notes. “‘Now [this], now [that], now – let’s go on a tour!’ There’s always been a natural progression. So it doesn’t feel unusual. But it definitely does feel confusing sometimes.” She quotes a lyric: “‘Success is the most addictive drug.’”
“Sometimes I do fear that, if I’m being honest. I feel like, will there ever be a point in my life where I’m like, ‘That’s great. I have accomplished what I want to accomplish, I’m gonna hang up now’? I don’t know if that’s a thing.
“I think once you get successful and you love what you do so much and get opportunities – I think that’s why movie stars continue to make so many movies. It’s because success is the most addictive drug, you get addicted to this idea that: ‘No, I want more. I want more experiences. I want more of this.’ Because your time is limited on this planet. So that is a real fear for me. And I haven’t figured that one out yet.”
Lilly Singh appears at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto on April 5. For other tour dates, see lillysinghbook.com.