By Elizabeth de Luna
The first time I saw Liza Koshy, she was yelling about cheese balls. I was sitting in my college dorm, scrolling through Vine when a low-lit, six-second clip of her leaning against her bedroom wall, hugging a clear plastic tub of orange puffs, made me laugh so hard I snorted. That was on October 20, 2013, just a few months after she opened her account on the fledgling app to amuse her friends with silly videos. When I tell Koshy about the cheese balls Vine, sitting beside her at a conference table stories above Times Square, her jaw drops so low that she momentarily resembles a screaming emoji. Then she smiles and says, "You've seen such an interesting glow up!"
"Glow up" understates what Koshy has achieved in the six years since she recorded that clip. She now boasts more than 25 million combined subscribers on YouTube and more than 40 million followers across Instagram, TikTok, and Twitter. She's been a contributor to MTV's Total Request Live, Vogue's Met Gala red carpet correspondent for two years in a row, the host of Nickelodeon's Double Dare revival, and the co-creator and co-producer of YouTube Premium's original comedy series Liza on Demand. Since 2017, Koshy has been a recipient of four Teen Choice Awards and a Kids' Choice Award, and she was honored this year on Forbes's Hollywood 30 Under 30 list and TIME's compendium of the 25 Most Influential People on the Internet. Two weeks ago, it was announced that she would join Selena Gomez, Shonda Rhimes, Kerry Washington, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and Tom Hanks as a co-chair of the Michelle-Obama led nonprofit When We All Vote. And just last week, she was written up by Alicia Keys for TIME's 100 NEXT list.
So Koshy hasn't just glowed up, she's blown up. Among her laundry list of accomplishments, the most remarkable is the trail that she blazed through the formerly undeveloped landscape of digital entertainment. Her evolution from Vine comedian to YouTube megastar to one of the world's most popular entertainers has redefined the meaning of "celebrity" for a new generation. And Koshy did the majority of it single-handedly, only bringing on a manager for her growing brand in 2017.
But in 2018, it all got to be too much. At the height of it all, Koshy stepped away from the spotlight to recalibrate. She would later clarify that she needed to fall in love with herself again. Now, after therapy, meditation, and genuine hard work emboldened her with a new sense of self, she roars back with a fresh understanding of the world, her worth, and her purpose.
Liza is tiny in stature but not fragile. In fact, she scares my editor and me when we step out of an elevator to meet her for the first time by shouting, "There they are!" and enveloping me in a warm hug as her brassy voice echoes around the vestibule. Her 5-foot frame is decked out in Dior, which she quickly assures me has been rented for today's public appearances. ("There are literally tracking stickers inside my bag," she qualifies.) It is immediately clear that she is capable of disarming anyone she meets with the grace and skill of an elite sniper. Within minutes of our greeting, she compliments my outfit. ("I love a statement skirt with a simple white tee!") Later, as I wait for her to finish up a meeting, she catches my eye through the glass wall of a conference room and waves excitedly. As we sit down to begin our interview, while I run through the research I've done on her career, she informs me she has done her own research by watching a YouTube video I made two years ago. I can't help but sputter a series of expletives as she laughs at my embarrassment. "You know me and now I know you!" she says. "It's an even playing field."
This is Koshy's charm: She is a friend to everyone, universally likable, and quick on her feet. She's also funny as hell; a master at finding a sunny sliver of humor in every phrase. She dispenses jokes so rapidly, either under her breath or as a muttered aside, that 15 seconds go by before you realize you've missed two excellent puns.
Koshy used this skill to create a small family of characters that launched her to YouTube superstardom: the matronly, old-fashioned Helga; the sensual, confident Jet; the sex-crazed Carlos; and a sassy toddler named Little Liza. She also found success with a video format in which she filmed herself making puns at the local dollar store, interjecting her catchphrase, "a dollah!??" between jokes. Her first-ever dollar store video, posted in 2015, currently has 41 million views.
And yet, Koshy's rise has been difficult for some people to wrap their head around. During a 2018 appearance on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, the late-night host generally seemed to misunderstand her influence. "You people are the future. We're the dinosaurs," he conceded after questioning her choice to share the news of recent breakup with her massive online audience. "It was interesting," Koshy says when asked about the experience, sympathizing with his confusion around the role of influencers in entertainment. "I don't know what to call us, because influencer is a weird word. I'm hoping I'm influencing something good in the world. And we all do have that influence, right? We all are able to vote, to choose what we're buying. The line between digital influencers and traditional entertainment has been blurring for years with amazing people like Lilly Singh, who's stepped into the ‘traditional' space multiple times. It's just all entertainment now and that's exciting. And now Emma Chamberlain stepping into the fashion world... that's paving the way for us, too."
Koshy refers to fellow YouTuber Emma Chamberlain's ongoing collaboration with Louis Vuitton, which has included multiple digital shorts for the company's social channels in addition to Paris Fashion Week vlogs from Chamberlain herself. Koshy is humble to credit Chamberlain with paving the way, when Koshy probably cleared her path. In May 2017, Koshy posted a video parodying Vogue's "73 Questions" series as Jet. "I didn't think they would ever invite me on the real series so I was just like, I'm just gonna do this on my own." Koshy's parody soon surpassed the views on many of Vogue's own videos. Unlike Colbert, Vogue understood her power, asking Koshy to appear on the series as herself later that year. So how did the 2018 Met Gala gig come about? Koshy has an answer ready, "Anna [Wintour] texted me and was like... ‘Hey, you up?'" In the corner of the room, her publicist snorts at the ridiculousness of the statement. "I'm just kidding, but if that sounds like a real story, put it in. That's awesome!" She clarifies that the seed of the idea was planted during her "73 Questions" video, when she took a pan of cookies out of the oven with icing that read "Met Gala?" "I was just asking to go to the gala and then they're like yeah, you're gonna interview everybody," she says. "[We worked with them again] this year and they dressed me in Balmain. Wild."
Koshy's work at the Met Gala preceded a larger wave of collaboration between YouTube and the fashion industry that included Chamberlain's Paris vlogs and the appointment of Derek Blasberg to run YouTube's fashion and beauty partnerships department. "This is me trying to shatter the box I placed myself in," Koshy says. "From 19 years old until I took a break at 22, I told people to expect characters, skits, and sketches from me." She flattens her palm and traces it with a finger. "A YouTuber literally places themselves in a rectangle at the palm of other's hands. They are our bosses. We look to them like Yelp reviews of our videos."
In many ways, Liza on Demand was Koshy's way of exploring her own commitment to the needs of others. She conceptualized the show, then co-created and co-produced the series with industry vets Deborah Kaplan and Harry Elfont. The series follows a central character, also named Liza, as she works as a "Tasker" on the "TaskIt" app. The Liza in the show is a jovial cog in the machine of the gig economy, constantly trying to better herself as she navigates rude clients and odd jobs: she's hired to cry at a funeral, take a cat to the vet to be euthanized, and pose naked for a figure drawing class. The writing also seamlessly weaves in topics like masturbation, misogyny, gentrification, and polyamory.
"It originally started off as social commentary about how men are treated in the workplace versus women. It was a very specific show," Koshy notes, but Kaplan and Elfont helped her shift the concept to something even more timely. "What does the life of someone who is a personal assistant to everyone do? Like, that's Uber, that's Postmates, that's TaskRabbit. We just wholeheartedly trust strangers now. What does that person go through? For my character, Liza, she's solidifying her place in the world. She does love to give and she's made a job out of it. And that's a really cool way of thinking about the gig economy and entrepreneurship. My character has a career at her fingertips, which is not dissimilar to what I've done in my career where I picked up a camera and started making videos."
The show has been an absolute boon for YouTube, but it was what prompted Koshy to take a break. "I was so busy producing Liza on Demand Season 1, in the editing bay working on these first eight episodes and it was just a whole process. I wanted to give the show the due diligence it deserved because it was my baby and I was trying something new."
YouTube Originals' Liza on Demand Season 2
Then, Koshy realized that she deserved some due diligence, too. "I'd had all these transitions from Vine into YouTube, YouTube into hosting, hosting into acting. I didn't go to college. The year I stopped making YouTube videos was the year that I would have graduated from college. And that break was me entering into the adult world and really stepping into my power. I came out here thinking this was a hobby that was taking up a lot of time and paying for dinner but this is my job now. I'm evolving as a human being and I want to give myself that time to step back. A lot of people have been placing burnout on it, but I think burnout is not a YouTube condition. It's the human condition." After that satisfying sound bite, she excitedly whispers from the corner of her mouth: "That was so good!"
While Koshy needed time to reflect on her personal trajectory, she also needed to be around people more often to escape the physical isolation of creating alone. "I was by myself writing, editing, shooting, uploading, posting, and then I celebrated with myself," she says. "It was wonderful and fulfilling and satisfying, but I wanted to go out and create with other people, hear their stories, and have experiences of my own that I can write about and love and enjoy."
Liza on Demand gave her those experiences. She connected with costars Travis Coles and Kimiko Glenn, whom she calls "amazing talents and souls." Both of them moved in with Koshy while filming, and she shared her life with them onscreen and off. "Travis is a gay Black man from the South. Kimiko is a young Asian woman also from the South. Then there's me, an ethnically mysterious, ethnically ambiguous, racially what-the-fuck-kind-of-person, also from the South," Koshy says. "Travis went through a really tough year losing his father and... we got through it together. People only get to see 20 minutes of this show, but 22 months went into it. There's so much human behind it."
Coles, Glenn, and Koshy speak onstage during the Liza on Demand panel at VidCon 2018 in Anaheim, California
Her work directing episodes of Liza on Demand made her a member of the Director's Guild of America. She's very excited about that. "Me and Spielberg — we friends, we tight!" She clears her throat. "We're not, but one day, maybe!" It's an experience she'd like to revisit in the future. "It's really cool to have that muscle now. 10 out of 10, would do it again, especially on something that I'm not in."
But that's Koshy in a nutshell: She loves being able to do it all. "I actually did the Met Gala while filming and directing at the same time. I directed this insane carnival scene that night until 4 a.m. Then I caught a 5 a.m. flight to the Met Gala, slept that day, woke up, did the Met, flew back and went right back into directing again for Liza on Demand." She hopes to act in other projects and just wrapped a Netflix film with Sabrina Carpenter. "I love being label-less. Like, yes YouTuber, yes host, yes actress, whatever. That's an honor to be all those things and I strive to wholeheartedly and lightheartedly be myself in whatever I do."
So if she can't be labelled an influencer, an actress, or a director, what would she call herself? "I'm a human being." She shakes her head at herself and slaps the table. "Come ooonnn!" Then she giggles. "Yeah, that was corny, but it's the beginning of a sentence that I can finish in different ways. A human being a director, a human being an actress, a human being just a human, a human being present. The ultimate goal is to be present in whatever I do, no matter what hat I'm wearing."
To maximize her present, Koshy learned to meditate. She also went to therapy. "I needed a little help and there's no wrong in asking for it." It was especially difficult to deal with criticism about her personality, which was directly tied not only to her identity but also to her livelihood. "I realized, ‘Oh, I'm kind of cute but I'm banking on my personality to bring me to these different places.' So it hurt me to read something about myself and be like, ‘Oh my god, you see that, too?' Criticism is amazing when it's constructive, but when it's just criticism, I will tell you it is expensive in therapy!" she says, laughing.
Throughout our conversation, there are moments where she still struggles with shadows of self-doubt. For example, when I congratulate her on being almost completely self-produced, a woman of her own making, going from bedroom to big screen in just five years, she laughs nervously and says, "When you put it like that, I'd love to meet this girl. She sounds great."
But she is proud of the work she's done on herself in the last year. External criticism "made looking in a mirror a struggle for a second, but the mirror's gotten a lot better-looking recently," she says with a smirk. "I started out creating what I loved. Then I started catering to what people wanted to see, and that's where I lost myself. I handed over the power that I now have within me at all times."
Before we end, I ask her one final question: "Why do you think people like you so much?" Koshy looks like I slapped her across the face. "Oh my god, that's the worst! I can't…," she trails off and then laughs in embarrassment, "I have no answer." It's the first time I've seen her lost for words. "It's not even me being humble. I'm grateful that people like me. I just hope I can be a mirror of sorts to reflect the good in the world. Fingers crossed, I'm a good person? And I hope that people can somehow see themselves in me, that I'm representing something for them in some way." She cringes a bit, as if wrestling with her own influence. "So being kind and doing good things and being a positive influence… if you were to ask someone why they like me, I hope that's what they'd say."