YouTube is the entertainment industry's great equalizer.
Someone like Lilly Singh can start out making grainy how-to videos in her parents' basement, and end up making the rounds on late night shows soon after. YouTube removes a lot of the traditional barriers to stardom: "There's no casting director monitoring the upload button. Anyone has the opportunity to post the exact same video online. It's equal opportunity in that sense," Singh says.
On YouTube, the space between creator and viewer shrinks. And that means voices left out of traditional narratives can find support and success. The trans community has a strong YouTube fan base, as do religious family vloggers.
Those marginalized voices have thrived. If YouTube is entertainment gone open-source, the result is incredibly globalized. The top five most successful accounts are all international, and many of the top 20 are young people of color. One of them is Singh, or as she’s known on YouTube, Superwoman.
Singh is smart and funny and unapologetically herself. Her 11 million subscribers have followed both her sketch comedy and her intimate daily vlogs for almost a decade. She writes skits, performs raps and satirizes her family. She doesn’t fit into a typical niche the way a movie star might.
Her talents are as diverse as she is.
In many ways, Singh is among the new celebrities who have made a career of being themselves. But while her brand may be mainstream, her YouTube channel still offers unique representation, particularly for women of color. Singh grew up in Toronto as the child of two Punjabi immigrants. She’s also a Sikh.
She wears her hair long, and her culture (both Canadian and Punjabi) is embedded seamlessly in her videos. Singh, from a part of Toronto where she didn’t feel out of place but didn’t fit either, speaks openly about her battle with depression. Her brand seems effortlessly multicultural.
"Everyone wants to be represented," Singh says, "and representation is important. But ... there's not a universal solve." In fact, Singh's brand of representation is quite different. She bucks a lot of stereotypes. Her comedy is physical, sometimes crude, and often comes at her parents’ expense. That's a big deal for many kids of immigrants as they navigate bridging cultures at home.
Lilly Singh/ Instagram
That doesn't mean it's always easy. "Ninety percent of my job is psychological and 10 percent is actual entertainment," she says. A lot of the psychological stuff has to do with making the shift from YouTube star to mainstream entertainer. Because while YouTube may have launched a generation of diverse stars, Singh would be the first one to "make" it in the mainstream.
As Singh begins to make the transition, she has noticed a lot of differences: Hollywood culture "is very old school," she says. Already a star by any standard, Singh must still go on four or five auditions for a show that may not ever exist.
"I feel like I'm living a split life, because in the digital space people consider me a star, but then I go into auditions and they'll be like 'sorry, what was your name again?'"
YouTube and other social media platforms have created a generation of diverse young stars, but then with a tremendous multiplatform following, and a sold out globe tour, in some ways Singh is starting over.
"I feel like I'm living this split life, trying to climb two different ladders and I'm on very different rungs on each ladder," Singh says.
As Lilly moves between the tradiional and digital spaces, she is charting new territory, and perhaps even creating a new brand of celebrity. A much more diverse one.