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The Unexpected Influence Of Tyler Oakley

With over 7.6 million subscribers, the YouTube star is an advocate, podcast personality, author and arguably one of the most powerful voices on the Internet. But he's just getting started.

When you meet a celebrity in real life, more often than not, they're not what you'd expect. But with Tyler Oakley, what you see onscreen is exactly what you get -- from his perfectly coifed hair to his contagious witch-like cackle which, upon hearing, makes it almost impossible not to smile. (You can watch a compilation video of the YouTuber's laugh for yourself; it has nearly 200,000 views.)

The 26-year-old is animated, thoughtful and extremely self-aware. By the end of our conversation, I'm half convinced that we're going to ditch his entourage to go grab chips and gauc from Chipotle up the street. After all, it feels like we've been friends forever. So it's not surprising that his 7.6 million subscribers feel the same way, too.

Since launching a YouTube channel eight years ago as a college freshman at Michigan State University, Oakley has built a loyal following, speaking to his viewers about sexuality, pop culture and much more. The LBGTQ activist was named one of TIME’s Most Influential People on the Internet, has interviewed First Lady Michelle Obama and this year co-hosted the Streamys (the Oscars of online video) with a fellow YouTube star and friend, Grace Helbig.

But pre-Internet fame, Oakley was just another teenager "crashing a car in front of his entire high school, in an Arby's uniform," which he details in his new book, "Binge." The prom king of YouTube sat down with MTV News, and spoke candidly about the process of writing "Binge," struggling with body image, what inspires him and the future of online video.

MTV: Congrats on “Binge”! How did you actually find time to work on this?

Tyler Oakley: Well, it was kind of one of those things that took priority whenever I wasn’t doing anything else. So when I was in a hotel room or when I was on a flight. It was one of those things where I knew that the sooner I get it done, the sooner it can actually come to fruition. Because with my own schedule, I make a video and I can upload it that day. I knew that at least with a book, it would take a process to get it all done.

Gavin Alaoen/MTV News

MTV: Did you have any special writing or editing rituals? 

Oakley: You know, one of the best moments of writing for me was -- do you know Mamrie Hart?

MTV: Of course!

Oakley: So Mamrie has an office that has no Internet. And as an Internet person, the Internet just distracts me all day, every day. Going to her office and just being in a different atmosphere where I wasn’t used to being on Twitter or I wasn’t used to editing, it kind of was like a new place for me to assign to writing. I would always go there and the best was when she was there, too and we’d have some beers. And it would be us bouncing ideas off each other or being like, “What’s the word for…?” So that was really kind of the only ritual I had.

But my favorite thing was, a writer will send their entire book to their editor when they’re done. Mine, I wanted that conversation to be ongoing every single day. I would send snippets to my editor all the time and be like, “What do you think of this?” So my favorite part of the whole process was getting emails every morning ‘cause he was on the East Coast and I was on the West Coast.

I’d wake up at 6 a.m. and already see emails from the East Coast team and be ready to work. Honestly, this is like the most fun I’ve ever had on working with something, just because after seven or eight years on YouTube, it just felt like a breath of fresh air in how to make content. And although I still love everything about YouTube, it was just kind of like a new little adventure.

MTV: Totally. Do you have any favorite writers that you drew inspiration from?

Oakley: Oh, for sure. David Sedaris. [He’s] able to make any type of story -- even the smallest detail -- to make a chapter from that. I kind of drew from that. Chelsea Handler -- kind of skewering her friends, but also making herself the biggest target ... Ellen DeGeneres, Tina Fey.

One of the biggest though, was Augusten Burroughs, who I love and [who helped me] find resolve in the kind of stories I didn’t think were happy enough to share. But kind of empowering [me] to share those and drawing from his book, “Dry.” It was really a huge inspiration for me. Josh Kilmer-Purcell. There’s a book called, “I Am Not Myself These Days.” It’s my favorite book of all time and that really inspired my favorite chapter, which is about a love story.

MTV: You recently tweeted, “Eight years ago, I was 18, no future plans, and for some reason, I registered a YouTube channel. Today I have the best job in the world.” What made you want to launch this channel eight years ago?

Oakley: Oh, God. Well, like I said, I was 18...

MTV: That seems so long ago. Eight years.

Oakley: I know! It was a whole different time in my life. I was a freshman in college and I don’t know why I registered it, but I remember discovering YouTube as a community. It was, like, Welcome Week at Michigan State University. I found a vlogger named William Sledd who talked about his life -- it was very minimal edits. It was one of those things where I discovered him and I was like, “Oh my God, I’m obsessed with him.”

I felt like I was friends with him. And he was a huge inspiration for why I made my first video. But then after that, I started to discover that it just wasn’t this one guy -- it was, like, all these people sharing their lives. So I kind of drew inspiration from those people and the early creators like Michael Buckley and Chris Crocker and LisaNova -- all these people who really pioneered YouTube in a way. Even from the beginning, going to conventions for the first time and waiting in line to meet those people, even to this day -- eight years later -- to be able to do that and be on the other side of the line, boggles my mind.

MTV: And you were so ahead of the game. We’re the same age and when we were in college, YouTube was a thing, but it wasn’t like...

Oakley and MTV: A thing. [Spoken at same time]

MTV: Right. It’s pretty brilliant that you were so invested from the get-go.

Oakley: I’m really fortunate and lucky because it’s so saturated right now. There are so many creators and that’s a great thing because you can find any type of voice and really relate to a lot of people who might resonate with you that you wouldn’t have found in traditional media.

But I was fortunate to kind of join early on -- to have stuck with it. A lot of people started and I was with a whole crop of people that kind of trailed off and began doing their own thing. I’m happy that I didn’t give up. Because a lot of people think, "You make your first video and bam!, you have this huge audience." It took me years and years and years.

MTV: Did you ever have a “holy sh-t” moment where you realized, “OK, more than just my friends and my mom are watching my videos”?

Oakley: I remember having 100 views on a video and being like, “I don’t have a hundred friends.” So that was a moment. Then in college when people would come up to me and say, “I’ve seen your videos.” That was weird and crazy. But there was a moment at a Michigan State football game where I was at the stadium and I found out that 75,000 people could fit in the stadium and I had more than 75,000 subscribers. To just visualize it -- because with the Internet and follower counts, you kind of get lost in the numbers and you really don’t think about what those numbers might mean. But then to see that was like, “Holy crap. This is something.”

MTV: What do you think you’d be doing if you weren’t making videos?

Oakley: I don’t know! I initially thought I was going to be a teacher. Maybe like an elementary teacher or something like that, which would be fun. Maybe someday. But if I weren’t making video right now, I’d definitely be running a fan account for YouTubers because I’m the biggest fan of all my friends. So regardless of my day job, I’d come home, and probably have like a Twitter account with one of my friends as my icon and be updating on their lives because I’m obsessed with #TeamInternet. Every day there’s a new something -- somebody announcing something, killin’ it in their own way.

MTV: I’m obsessed with #TeamInternet too, and while it seems like there are so many people who “get” it, there’s so many who don’t -- particularly the media.

Oakley: That’s fiiiine. We’re at this point where it’s like, not everyone has to get it.

MTV: But what’s interesting to me, is that I see and you see the cultural influence of YouTube and yet there still seems to be so much resistance in taking creators seriously. Why do you think that’s the case?

Oakley: I think the numbers speak for themselves. I think when my favorite creator can get as many views in one video with no production cost that a series finale might get on TV, I think that there’s maybe fear from traditional. But at the end of the day, I think traditional is trying to go more digital and digital is trying to go more traditional. We’re meeting in the middle. It’s an incredible time to be on both sides if you accept that there’s possibilities outside of what you’ve been doing. It’s only going to harm people who are afraid of the future and as long as you’re open to redefining what entertainment is, then you’re going to be fine.

MTV: And it seems like it’s more slowly evolving -- like the way the Streamys were covered this year versus last year.

Oakley: But it’s happening so quickly. Like the difference between five years ago and this year for a YouTube creator and the possibilities of what that could bring you, whether that’s a book or a movie, a this, a that, a whatever. It’s happening a lot quicker than I think a lot of different type of traditional media may have taken to catch on. And it’s hard to predict because, like, last year, I never would have predicted this year for myself so I can’t even imagine what this year will be. Not just for me, but for any digital creator.

MTV: Speaking of the Streamys, how was that?

Oakley: So cool. At the end of the day, everything is so -- I have to pinch myself. Grace [Helbig] has always been one of my favorite YouTubers. We made a collab video when both of us had less than 5,000 subscribers and it’s still online. It’s one of those things where I was just so proud to be on that stage with somebody who I respected so much and to look out into the audience and see all of my friends and to know that it was a moment that just wasn’t for us anymore. It was being broadcast on a channel that I grew up watching and there’s so many layers to how much it boggles my mind.

 

I didn’t go to school to be a presenter. I didn’t go to school to be an entertainer. Every day I pinch myself. That was one of those things that day where it wasn’t just the Streamys. It was also the day I saw my book for the first time. It was when I saw billboards of my face for the first time. It was also a day when I bought a copy of Seventeen magazine. It was one of those days that I’ll never forget and it seemed fitting that I vlogged the day and now it lives on my YouTube channel. Someday, I will show my husband and my kids that video and be like, “I was something once! Y’all can enjoy this!” [Laughs]

MTV: Bringing up the Seventeen cover, I was so excited to see it not just because it’s so major to see YouTubers on the cover of such an iconic magazine, but you guys [Tyler and Zoe Sugg] were just so candid and personal. I know that Zoe talked about her anxiety and you spoke about body image issues. You said that you hadn’t really talked about it in videos before. Why now?

Oakley: Well, I had made a video I think in like 2008 or something in my freshman dorm room kind of talking about it. But back then, I thought, “That’s so serious and I just want to be light-hearted.”

YouTube has always seemed like a place where I can be a goof and only in recent years have I realized the power of using that platform for social change and social good and trying to be conscious of what I can do. And I just had never really felt comfortable I guess, talking about body image or eating disorders or anything like that in video form because to me, it’s always like four-minute, five-minute snippets and I didn’t really know how I’d feel comfortable putting that into that medium. Even with the podcast, having 30 minutes to kind of dive into anything, I still didn’t feel like it was the right medium.

Now with the book, it really kind of took away the kind of insecurities about it and I had private moments with my writing where I was like, this is important -- realizing what it meant to me to get it out and what it can mean to somebody to take that in. There’s a snippet of that chapter in Seventeen magazine right now and the response to that has been so overwhelming, gracious, thankful and positive that I feel really comfortable sharing that now.

I’m still nervous for a couple other chapters -- I’m nervous for everyone to read the whole thing. But I feel good because whether you have one follower or a million, you still have a chance to positively impact people. And if sharing my perspective and what I had gone through with that helps someone, then that’s a good thing.

MTV: When you think of body-image issues, you usually think of teen girls and women. There’s not very many young males who are talking about this when, in fact, they’re a demographic who is struggling with it, too.  

Oakley: Right. Especially within the gay community, it’s a thing. And I think a lot of people sweep it under the rug. It’s one of those things where that type of issue doesn’t care who you are, what you look like. Even if you are somebody else’s “ideal” body, you can still go through those things. So I thought it was really important to talk about it. I’m happy I talked about it, even in a personal sense. Bare minimum, it helped me.

MTV: Also in “Binge,” you wrote about experiencing a past abusive relationship. What advice would you give to a young person who thinks they might be caught up in something that’s unhealthy?

Oakley: Take care of you. You are so important. You are worthy of healthy love.

MTV: Moving on to a lighter topic, in terms of dating...

Oakley: Oh, God. [Laughs]

MTV: Do you think dating has become easier or more difficult in light of YouTube fame?

Oakley: It’s complicated. It’s one of those things where, like, imagine going into a date and you don’t know what they know about you. Nowadays, everyone Googles everyone they’re about to go on a date with and tries to figure out all the things and see the profile pictures. But imagine having the last eight years well documented and accessible to somebody. 

Obviously, I’m very lucky to have the platforms and opportunities that I have, but it does complicate. But it’s also not the worst thing.

MTV: It’s a Catch-22.

Oakley: It is what it is. I accept it. I don’t resent it in any capacity, but it does complicate things.

MTV: Is there a video that you look back on and cringe?

Oakley: Every video [laughs]. There are a few videos from maybe [age] 18, 19 -- like I said, eight years later, I’m a different human. I try to not “private” too much ‘cause I’m like, “It’s part of the journey.” If people wanna watch it, they can. But there are some things where I’m like, “OK, that does not need to be on the Internet anymore,” and I'll private some things. Yeah, I’ll cringe. I’ll cringe at this week’s video I’m sure.

MTV: It’s cool that you have this time capsule so when you’re like, 80...

Oakley: Yeah! It’s incredible to be able to go back and see what I was up to any time in the past eight years, any week. It’s awesome. There was never a thought of that’s what it’s going to be, but now I treat it like a diary because that’s what it started out as -- and to be able to look back in the same way that you could look through your high school diary and see all these scribblings, I have the same thing now. It’s just a different format.

MTV: What’s the one video you’re most proud of?

Oakley: I made a video last year. We had just raised a lot of money for an organization called The Trevor Project. It’s a nonprofit that focuses on LGBTQ youth and suicide prevention for them. So I made a video -- it was kind of a day-in-the-life video -- of me going to their annual benefit called Trevor Live, where they actually honored me and my community for what we had done for them. So that was a really cool video that we included. My parents were in the audience for that award show. It was really special and personal.

MTV: With the 2016 election right around the corner, what’s one issue surrounding or pertaining to young people that you’d like to see addressed by candidates?

Oakley: A million things. Climate is so important and making sure that we aren’t ignoring [it] and making sure we’re not redirecting to other issues that aren’t important. Because that’s been such a common theme for as long as I can remember -- talking about things that I’m just like, “Why are we still arguing about this when there are issues that will actually impact the world?” So just making sure the conversations are about topics that are important. I’m glad that we have same-sex marriage now, but can you believe we argued about that for so long? What a waste of everyone’s time.

MTV: Last question. Do you ever feel the pressure of being a role model as a person that so many look up to? Do you ever just want to take a break and step back?

Oakley: I think that it’s really important to step back and to take breaks as a digital creator because every other kind of platform is kind of set up to have seasons or time off or at least a barrier between creator and consumer. You have these set-up boundaries. So right now, I really think digital creators are creating their own boundaries.

As far as pressure goes, I think it kind of really used to bug me. Not bug me, but [it would] be on the forefront of my mind in a negative way. But now I kind of approach it as an opportunity to have growth in front of people so that they can see that and learn something. If I mess up, they can learn from that. But it’s also an opportunity to positively impact people.

Even if I never registered my YouTube channel with the intention of being a role model, if I am that for somebody, I can’t help it. So I need to be conscious of it and realize that influence can be used for good or bad, and just try to do my best. I can only try to do my best.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

"Binge" hits stores on Oct. 20. You can order your copy here.