Exactly 70 People Watched Lilly Singh's First YouTube Video -- Now Millions Do
You've likely seen Lilly Singh, aka IISuperwomanII, on a building near you. The triple threat -- she's a motivational speaker, stand-up comedian AND singer -- is part of YouTube's "You Give Life Character" advertising campaign, which is why you see her and many other YouTubers' smiling faces popping up on billboards across the globe.
Singh shot to internet fame thanks to her hilariously relatable YouTube videos. Her channel boasts nearly 7 million subscribers, and her fans, known as Team Super or Unicorns, are fiercely passionate and supportive of her work.
MTV News sat down with Singh to talk about how she got her start, how her recent world tour (casual) went, her big Streamys win and what's coming up next for her. We also picked her brain about what ~inspires~ her content -- she posts new videos every Monday and Thursday, check 'em out -- and all things Unicorn Island-related.
MTV News: You're a superstar on YouTube now, but I'd love to hear more about what came before all that. When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up and how did that change as you got older?
Lilly Singh: When I was younger, I always wanted to be someone in the entertainment industry. In my eighth grade slideshow, when everyone was like "show us what you want to be," everyone [said] doctor, lawyer, [but] mine literally said rapper. I wanted to be a musician, I wanted to be a superstar, I wanted to be on stage, I wanted to perform, I wanted to be in movies. But as you grow up, those dreams kind of fade away and you're hit with reality and you're like, oh, not everyone can be Lil' Bow Wow? Fine. (laughs)
So I got into psychology simply because that's what my sister did, and I grew up in a family that was very like, follow your sister's footsteps. I went to the same school she went to, did the same degree she did ... really had no interest in it, to be honest. It was around the time that my dad was telling me to do my masters [in counseling psychology] that I decided no, I cannot do this for two more years and make this my life. I went back to my dream of being an entertainer, so my life has gone in a 360 [turn] -- letting go of that dream, discovering YouTube and [realizing] oh my god, maybe I can do this.
MTV: You made an incredibly powerful Draw My Life video that spoke to why you decided to pursue making YouTube videos. How did you break into that big, bad, scary YouTube world? What's your advice for kids trying to do the same?
Singh: It was really spontaneous. I actually recently remembered this and in all other interviews, I've never mentioned it [because of that], but before YouTube, I used to make comedy skits through audio. I used to record these skits on my computer making characters, immitating my mom or dad. I was spending more time on the internet and I discovered this video -- I think it was Jenna Marbles' "How To Trick People Into Thinking You're Good Looking" -- and I was like, what is this? How am I seeing this video? What is this on?
I slowly went from one video to another and discovered YouTube. One day I spontaneously had an idea and thought, hey, I'm not going to do an audio recording of this -- I'm going to actually make a video of it. I was super scared. You should have seen the amount of time I spent on my hair and my makeup and my outfit and my everything, and I stood in front of the camera and read off a piece of paper and it was the most horrible, awkward, cringeworthy interview. (laughs) It was horrifying to make but when I made it, people watched it. Only 70 people watched it -- I vividly remember it being 70 -- but I was like, 70 people is a lot of people for this video I just spontaneously put out.
I didn't think I'd put [out] a second or third but I did. It kind of just snowballed into what it is today, simply because after that first video, I fell in love with the idea that I could say whatever I wanted to say, market myself however I wanted to market myself and not be controlled by someone else. I was a rebellious young one. (laughs)
MTV: That's amazing. Is that first video still up?
Singh: Oh god, no. (laughs) And it's not up because it's embarrassing -- my second, third, fourth, fifth [videos] are also embarrassing and those are up -- it's not up because it was a spoken word piece about something I just don't believe in anymore. It's just not a good reflection of who I am right now, and so it's just confusing from a personal and a brand point to have that video [still up].
MTV: You publish new videos on your main channel every Monday and Thursday. What's your creative process like for coming up with new content?
Singh: My creative process is a bit manic at times, to be honest. I wake up Monday and Thursday stressed because I don't have a video. I usually -- with the exception of maybe a handful of videos -- wake up, write the video, shoot the video, edit the video, release the video all in the same day. I literally walk around my house thinking, "OK, what happened in my day?" Because the number one thing I want my videos to be is relatable. That is a priority above the coloring, production, angle and whatever. Half of my videos are out of focus! (laughs) I know this, but I want them to watch my video and think, "This happened to me and I can relate to this." I'll rack my brain thinking about what happened to me [and] can I make this into a story? If I really can't think of something, honestly, I'll ask my fans because they're the ones who watch it and know best.
I want my channel to be a place people go even if they don't care about Lilly. I don't want them to have to know about Lilly or care about me as a person to enjoy my content. After a long day at work, I want someone to come home, turn on my video and think, "Oh my god, how girls get ready? This is hilarious, I love this, I'm forgetting about all my problems."
MTV: And you've done a ton of collaborations! James Franco, Seth Rogen, Shay Mitchell, Jay Sean, fellow YouTubers like Connor Franta, Jenna Marbles, Kingsley, Hannah Hart. What's the creative process like for those?
Singh: I'm super hard on myself anytime I think of an idea for a collaboration. I will rack my brain trying to think of one. I wait for the right person. It stresses me to think that I'd do a collaboration with someone and not make it the best possible opportunity. My friend Humble [the Poet] says it all the time, actually. He says that the one thing you do, Lilly, is it doesn't matter if something's tiny or massive -- you always put the same amount of effort into it. Like [if I'm] doing a collaboration with someone ... [I] can collaborate with anytime or [doing] a collaboration with The Rock, I'll put the same amount of effort into making sure both collaborations [are] awesome and not just a throwaway. Aka I'm a crazy person is basically what I'm saying. I'm a crazy, workaholic person.
Side note: Singh went on to collaborate with Selena Gomez in the two weeks following her interview with MTV News. Cue hyperventilating.
MTV: What's it like making the daily vlogs on your SuperwomanVlogs channel? Is it weird to always have a camera on you?
Singh: It's twofold. I really like it because like I said, my [main] channel is for people who don't care about me. My vlog channel is different. Those are the fans that genuinely care about what I do in a day, and it's very unscripted. Honestly, sometimes it's even remedial. For me, it's like a diary, to talk out loud about my feelings. The only thing that I do try to control is ... sometimes it can take over your life in the sense that, oh, I'm experiencing this awesome moment, I'm enjoying it, why is my hand automatically going to my camera to look at it through a screen? [Other than that] it's great, I get to connect with my fans in a whole different way and tell them when something really upsets me.
I talk about things really openly. I talk about brand deals on my vlog channel, I talk about racist comments, about my feelings, anything [happening] at home. I feel like they [Team Super] get to see a side of Lilly and be like, "Oh, she is a human" because on my main channel, sometimes there's a misconception [that] "Oh my god, she's so happy and a Unicorn. She's never upset and she's the constantly perfect, spiritual person." I'm like, dude, no, watch my vlog channel and watch me cry over like seven things.
MTV: You talk a lot about finding your Unicorn Island and having that be your sanctuary of sorts. What's your advice to somebody looking for their own personal Unicorn Island?
Singh: I always call Unicorn Island a synonym for my happy place, so Unicorn Island means someone's happy place. In my show [A Trip To Unicorn Island World Tour], the main message I tell is that fighting for happiness is the hardest thing you'll ever fight for, but it's the only thing worth fighting for. There is no secret recipe on how to do it. I have no idea what you're going through in life, I have no idea what your challenges are -- all I know is you need to make sure happiness is a priority in your life and know it's going to be an uphill battle sometimes, and it's going to be a battle worth fighting.
MTV: That's really powerful. How did your A Trip To Unicorn Island World Tour go?
Singh: It was amazing, exhilarating and exhausting. I always tell people it was like the equivalent of going through a mental, emotional and spiritual growth spurt in two months. I feel like I learned more in those two months than I probably have in five years of my normal life. You can never compare a stadium full of people to statistics online ... There's something about seeing people's faces, and it's amazing [seeing how] things online can also be translated offline.
MTV: And you have a movie in the works, also called "A Trip To Unicorn Island"?
"[Yes and] it's not just a tour documentary. The reason it's so special is because ... to go on a world tour where you're the CEO of your own company with a psychology degree, where you don't really know how to do things -- I never was taught on how to be a boss. I never was taught how to go into a meeting and talk about a tour and how to plan a show, but seeing that side of things [about] someone who wants to be a Unicorn but has to now be a boss and navigate this is a really powerful and interesting story. It's [about] figuring things out, and I think definitely a lot of millennials will vibe with it because dude, life is scary.
MTV: Sounds awesome! Any idea when it'll be released?
It's gonna come out when I say it's perfect and only then will it come out. (laughs) I'll give you a teaser: I pick a lot of wedgies in it. If that's not quality content, I don't know what is. (laughs)
On Wednesday, Oct. 21, YouTube announced that "A Trip To Unicorn Island" will drop in early 2016 on YouTube Red, the site's new paid membership service.
MTV: Belated congratulations on your Streamys win for First Person Series! I've been watching your vlogs since then and noticed you always say "we" won a Streamy. Who exactly makes up "we"?
Singh: We is Team Super, my Unicorns, and that's simply because ... if Team Super didn't watch my videos, we wouldn't have that Streamy. I understand that my particular situation is only possible because of 6.73 million people, and I want to pay tribute to that. My favorite thing about YouTube is that it makes community. People will actively come to my channel every Monday and Thursday and be like, I want to see your content. They will actively comment, they engage so much more and because of that, you become a family. I want them to feel included in that.
I remember when I didn't win at the Teen Choice Awards [for Best Comedy Web Star], the next meet-and-greet I had, someone bought me trophy to be like, "I don't care if you didn't win, I bought you a trophy." How could it not be we? It has to be we, it's such a we. And that's something I want to maintain -- that community feel.
MTV: That's amazing. In your Streamys speech, you specifically thanked Google and YouTube "for not being scared to put a brown girl on a billboard." That really resonated with me -- what's your advice for kids who are tiptoeing the line between different cultures as they grow up?
Singh: I never want to position myself where I seem like an ambassador of anti-racism. I am fortunate enough to say that I've never experienced extreme amounts of racism, but a lot of my friends do. And I have in small ways, whether it's going to an event, whether it's getting opportunities or not, of course I have. I think the best way I could ever fight racism is just being as successful as possible. The reason I said the whole shout-out to YouTube and Google for the billboard is because I think it's so important for people, no matter what color their skin is, to see someone [of a different skin color] on a billboard and, eventually, that won't even be something they second-guess. To know that my billboard might be one of those billboards that contribute to that means a lot to me.
Right now, people will see [a billboard with me on it] and unfortunately we're not in the time where people are going to passively look at it. I've already [gotten] tweets that are like, "There's an Indian girl on a billboard? That's a big deal." It's still a thing, and I want to take it to a point where it's not a thing. It's like, yeah, why wouldn't she be on a billboard? I think it's really important that Google and YouTube actively take that approach that they don't care. My mom character is on a billboard wearing a scarf on her head, and I think that's so important, not just for Indians, but for anyone ... 'cause why shouldn't she be [on a billboard]?
If I could give advice to anyone, it would be that sometimes the best way you can fight a problem -- and this is going to be a little bit controversial -- is to not address it. I will make sure that I never let it [racism] stop me. That's how I'm going to fight racism.
MTV: That's really inspiring. You mentioned your parent characters, and I was wondering, how do your parents react to your "My Parents React" series?
Singh: The other day my dad asked me for royalty fees. He was legitimately was like, "I want royalty fees." (laughs)
But in the beginning, my parents were kind of like, are you making fun of us? But I think as it's evolved over time, they realize that the parent characters aren't actually like them. My mom and dad are nothing like that [in real life]. Of course they say some of the same lines, all of our parents do -- like cleaning your room and getting married and all that stuff -- but now they love it. One of the lines I used for my dad character recently, "old as gold but I'm platinum," my dad says that all the time. So I do take elements from them.
They love it and they're super supportive of what I do. My dad's a little bit too supportive of what I do, to be honest. (laughs) ... Sometimes I'll wake up after a long day [and] he'll be like, do you know how may subscribers you have today? I'm like, "I don't know, 6 point—" He's like "No. 6.372 [million]." And I'm like OK, dad, thanks. He's like, "Do you how many that means you've gained since yesterday?" I'm like, you're a freak, stop it, stop it! You're obsessed. I go to his work sometimes and he'll be watching my videos at work. And not only that, he'll force people to watch my videos like literally, I swear to god, YouTube should be paying my dad. (laughs)
MTV: Knowing what you know now, what's your advice for your younger self as she begins her career?
Singh: I would say don't change anything that you did, because everything you did was perfect for you to end up where you ended up. Every horrible video I made, I learned from. Every joke I made that wasn't funny, I learned from. Every time my camera wasn't in focus, I learned from. I learned about how to focus it for the next one. I always tell myself, oh, if you had started earlier, if you had branded yourself earlier -- but no, everything I did wrong has been the best thing that's happened for me on YouTube, because I learned so much from it. So if I could go back to myself, [I'd say] don't stress because mistakes, no mistakes, anything that you do, it's gonna be good.
For more from Lilly Singh aka IISuperwomanII, visit her YouTube channel, vlog, Twitter, Instagram, Vine, Tumblr, Facebook, website and follow her on Snapchat (IISuperwomanII).