Lilly Singh is a bona fide YouTube super (star, hero, they both work). Over 5.8 million people subscribe to her channel, proud members of “Team Super,” an army of “unicorn-ed” supporters the 26-year-old built solely from doing comedy skits in front of her camera—all in the comfort of her Markham, Ont. bedroom. (FYI: Singh has called herself a unicorn for years due to her unique stance on life and everything she stands for; her fans have adopted the word as their own.)
Singh’s stardom goes far beyond her 700 million views. Now she’s bringing her world tour, to 11 cities in North America, with stops in Montreal on July 8 and Vancouver on July 18, partnering with Coca-Cola’s summer program, “Share a Coke.” We sat down with the phenom before her kick-off show in Toronto last week to discuss racial barriers, fears of letting her fanbase down and her dream goals outside of YouTube.
How did the partnership with Coca-Cola come about?
The good thing about me is, I only do deals with people that I love to begin with. [Coca-Cola’s] campaign is all about spreading happiness and joy and obviously “A Trip to Unicorn Island” is along the same lines, so it was just a good fit.
Is Superwoman Lilly or just one of the many facets of Lilly?
Superwoman and Lilly are pretty much the exact same person in terms of personality. I am pretty weird, as weird as in my videos, the only difference is Lilly is not a performer and Superwoman is. So Superwoman is very fearless. You’ll never see her nervous. You’ll never see her sad. But Lilly is a human. She is the person behind Superwoman, who gets sad and tired sometimes.
One of my favourite things about you as a YouTuber and as a woman of colour is that you freely speak on the issues of racism and what it means to be a South Asian woman. Why do you think your voice should be heard when it comes to racial barriers?
Everyone’s voice should be heard when it comes to racial barriers. I started YouTube because I didn’t see anyone else like me doing it. I was the first South Asian female to do comedy videos on YouTube. But at the same time, all races face their barriers and I’ve learned through YouTube, if it’s not race, it will be sexism, if it’s not sexism, it will be homophobia. It will always be something and all voices should be heard.
You’ve been called the Tina Fey of the Punjabi community and you now have close to 6M subscribers on , 2M followers on , 963K followers on and over 2M likes on . Not to mention, 498.9K followers on . How has your large following impacted you?
From a personal standpoint, when I was young I wanted to be an entertainer. I was dealing with a lot in my life when I started making YouTube videos and I thought if I could make other people laugh, I could make myself laugh. It was self-medicating. Every bit of success I have gained has helped me become a more mentally and emotionally strong person. From a business standpoint, [these numbers] have proven that I can make a career out of this. I grew up in a South Asian family where [entertainment jobs] are unheard of and to take that leap of faith to actually pursue this has taught me to trust my plan A. We are so used to having a plan B all of the time that we don’t put enough effort into our plan A. This whole experience has just taught me to work really hard at my plan A.
Have you ever feared letting your fan base down?
All the time. Before every show. Before every video. Before every tweet. Before every Instagram post. All the time. It’s been a learning process for me to understand that a big part of why my fan base enjoys me is because I’m real. And I’ve learned that it’s OK if I have a pimple in my selfie, it’s OK if one of my jokes wasn’t hilarious because I am just being me. And [my fans] feel comfortable being themselves when they watch someone being their self, as well.
Have you had that moment yet of realizing you made it?
I haven’t had that eureka moment but the closest thing I’ve had was actually late in my career. I had already surpassed 1M subscribers; even then I didn’t feel like I made it. Then I travelled to India for the first time to perform as Superwoman. It was something about going literally across the world but also going to the place where my parents were born and being recognized and received well there. Something about it validated me and now my parents get it.
You also met Bollywood’s number one actor while there, Shah Rukh Khan. What was that like?
That was actually the real answer. One of the biggest moments was meeting Shah Rukh, because growing up, Bollywood actors and actresses were untouchable. Way more untouchable than Hollywood. It was the way I met him [that solidifies I made it]. He reached out to me. He called me and said, “Can you please come to my house because I am a fan of you and my daughter is a fan of you.” I went to his house and I will never forget the moment of stepping out of the car and hearing screams and my instinct was “Oh my god, some of his fans got in,” but it was his daughter and her friends screaming for me. I was like, “Do you know who your Dad is? What’s going on here?” No other words can describe it besides life changing. I will remember that moment forever and every time I think of it, I feel like throwing up. It’s so overwhelming.
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How have your parents reacted to your success in a relatively unconventional realm?
When I first started it was not that they were unsupportive, they just didn’t get it and that’s fair. Even my friends don’t get YouTube right now. It took my relatives calling them saying, “Is your daughter Superwoman?” [and also the fact that] I could sustain myself financially. Recently, I feel so grateful because they’ve become supportive in a new way. They actually watch my videos and understand the art I’m doing. My mom really believes my message. My dad has watched all my videos and he knows how many subscribers I have at any given moment, he’s obsessed. They understand what I’m trying to do and that’s really special to me.
Did they give you any parental advice when you started?
Unknowingly my dad gave me the best advice he could have ever given me, which was if you want to do [YouTube], just do it the best. And I’ve been trying to do it the best ever since.
I’ve seen and many of your s but besides YouTube and being the mother of unicorns, what else defines you? What drives you? Who inspires you?
I am a huge workaholic. I have an extreme desire to succeed in everything I do. And it can be a pro and a con. I am so obsessed with success and working hard that I literally sacrifice everything else in my life. That’s the most personal honest thing I can tell you. And that leads to all the people who watch my videos who inspire me. When I posted my first video, I never thought I’d post my second or my third or my fourth. It was the stories I would hear back from my viewers that made me want to keep going—people came up to me at meet-and-greets and told me they stopped self-harming themselves because of my videos; or they got over depression because of my videos. That’s what inspires me to keep going.
Is that why your comedy skits always have motivating messages for your viewers?
I’ve chosen to be a happy, jolly unicorn in my life so there are a lot of times I do make intentional messages solely because of why I started making videos. I was a super depressed person, I needed help and I found [my outlet] through YouTube so I intentionally put positive messages in my videos, in my show and in everything I do because I started this to help people and that will always be my reason for what I do.
Snapbacks are definitely a staple in your closet. What other pieces are your go-tos?
Well, I’m not wearing a snapback right now, which is very rare because I thought my hair was just doing it, so I didn’t want to ruin it with a snapback. On stage, I wear some pretty out-there stuff, because I am taking you to Unicorn Island. I am wearing a lot of colours, a lot of sparkles, I am wearing these gold out-of-this-world Jeremy Scott huge wing shoes. Even in real life, I wear colourful kicks, snapbacks all the time and graphic t-shirts. On an off day I love being a bum—track pants, hair not done, no mascara or eyeliner.
You have collaborated with a lot of big name YouTubers—, , , —as well as actors (, ), many of whom are now your good friends. But spill the beans, who was your favourite collaboration?
Someone I am really impressed with and really good friends with is [British musician] . He is probably the funniest person I’ve met in my life. I always tell him, “I don’t know why you sang because you should have been an actor.” He is so funny. And doing was probably one of the funniest things. Don’t tell Kingsley that though because he will come after me.
And who would be your dream collaboration?
The Rock. It would be The Rock. It would be a video of our marriage [and] our honeymoon, where he takes me, whatever, I’m not picky. And then that would be my favourite collaboration.
What is your dream life goal?
To be happy. I’ve experienced way too much in my life to say anything else. It doesn’t matter what job, what academic stuff happens, what relationship stuff, I just want to be happy.
Would you like to venture into more television, music and movies? Would you ever do a full out Bollywood flick?
Yes to all of that. It is my hope and dream to get into TV and film one day. With YouTube, I’m the director, I’m the editor, I’m the makeup artist and the few times I’ve been on a set there’s 20 people, and [each person] has a job. It’s refreshing. Bollywood, of course, as soon as I learn how to walk in a sari, I am all about it. But having said that, I would not do those things at the expense of my YouTube. I want to do both. I don’t want to ditch YouTube and go onto traditional media I would have to do both.
A lot of people binge watch your videos. What do you binge watch, listen to or read?
My favourite book series of all time is Confessions of a Shopaholic [by Sophie Kinsella]. I can read all the books [in that series] in one week if I had to. This sounds really bad but I try to avoid watching too much TV just because I have an obsessive personality and I get hooked on shows. But I currently binge watch Game of Thrones, I’ve just caught up and I can watch a whole season in one day. That’s how bad it is.
What is one question you have never been asked in an interview but have always wanted to be asked?
I would love if someone could ask, what would be your ideal fan interaction?
So Lilly, what would be your ideal fan interaction?
I would love it if a fan didn’t buy me any gifts but if they could tell me how they discovered my videos and what my videos have done for them. Even if it is something as simple as, “I had a really bad day and you made me laugh.” That is the type of information that keeps me going. And I understand when people see me on the streets they want a selfie. I just really wish we could have a conversation. We are two people in a vast world and I would love to hear your story.