Lilly Singh, also known as IISuperwomanII, is one of the greatest celebrities on YouTube. Her channel launched as a simple hobby back in October 2010, now she has racked up over 2 billion views and is now making millions of dollars per year vlogging professionally. She is just about to breach the 12 million subscriber mark on her YouTube channel. In 2016, she was ranked 3rd on the Forbes list of the world’s highest paid YouTube stars, earning a reported $7.5 million in 2016. Singh has featured in the annual YouTube Rewind every year since 2014. She ranked 1st on 2017 Forbes Top Influencers List in entertainment category.
Singh is smart and funny and unapologetically herself. Her 12 million subscribers have followed both her sketch comedy and her intimate daily vlogs for years. She writes skits, performs raps and satirizes her family. She doesn’t fit into a typical niche the way a movie or TV star might.
She made an estimated $2.5 million in income last year from her YouTube channel from ads. She also earned a significant amount of cash from her 2015 global tour, “A Trip to Unicorn Island,” during which she performed comedy and music in 27 cities across the globe. She has also partnered up with Coca Cola, Skittles and Smashbox cosmetics.
In many ways, Singh is among the new generation of 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.
The Beginnings and Battles with Depression
As Lilly moves between the traditional and digital spaces, she is charting new territory, and perhaps even creating a new brand of celebrity. A much more diverse one. Singh is quite open about the fact that she has struggled with depression in the past, especially during her third year of college.
“I lost my appetite and my desire to wake up in the morning,” she explained in a video. “I wouldn’t answer my phone and I lost a lot of friends. I had no goals, no aspirations, and no motivations…As scary as it sounds, I can honestly say that I lost my desire to live, and that translated into some very scary thoughts on some very scary nights.”
Singh says that this lasted about a full year, but she soon began forcing herself to get her life back on track. However, she says it wasn’t easy and she often relapsed back into depression. Towards the end of her journey of healing herself, she decided she wanted to pursue a serious career in YouTube.
“I was on a vacation in Mexico with my family and going for a walk, it was so like Bollywood, sat at the beach and had a talk with myself. I think for the first time I asked myself — ‘What makes you happy? What do you want to do?’ And the answer was: ‘Entertaining people makes me really happy.’ ‘What am I doing right now that involves that? I am making YouTube videos. So let’s put all my effort into that and see where it goes.’ The second I flew back home, I started making YouTube videos.”
Being IISuperwomanII on YouTube
For almost seven years now, fans have been devouring up Singh’s twice-weekly videos: energetic jump-cut observational monologues delivered straight to camera, send-ups of pop culture and gender stereotypes and skits trafficking in gentle racial humour featuring Singh playing a slew of characters loosely drawn from her life as a child of Punjabi immigrants growing up on the outskirts of Toronto. Her most popular video is “How girls get ready”, with an astonishing 23 million views. Lilly’s most popular series includes her fictional parents, Paramjeet and Manjeet, both played by Lilly herself. She also made videos out of her meetings with top celebrities like Michelle Obama, Shah Rukh Khan, Priyanka Chopra, Dwayne Johnson (The Rock), Ariana Grande, Ed Sheeran, and Selena Gomez.
Her main bread and butter though are her comedy sketches she does on her channel. “Even though I do comedy, it’s always positive,” she says. “It’s always uplifting. It’s never negative or bashing anyone, and it’s me making fun of myself. I think there’s something beautiful about self-deprecating humour where you learn not to take life and yourself so seriously.”
She interviewed Michelle Obama and Malala Yousafzai about the importance of girls’ education, and has talked with Bill Gates about development issues.
#GirlLove, Unicorn Island and How to be a Bawse
Lilly is most definitely out to change the world for the better and is the founder of #GirlLove, an online movement to break the cycle of girl-on-girl hate. “Goodbye hate, hello Girl Love” is its motto and it won the Social Good award at the Streamys. “It’s always such an interesting topic, because it’s so controversial. And I don’t think it needs to be,” she says. “Women are scared to use the word ‘feminism’ and identify as feminists.”
The 29-year-old has toured around the world and Michelle Obama was so impressed by Singh’s #GirlLove campaign, she invited the YouTube star to visit the White House. The pair made a video about education, referencing then US President Barack Obama’s Let Girls Learn campaign.
In 2015, she went on world tour called “A Trip to Unicorn Island,” with Unicorn Island being what she refers to as her happy place. When she would go on stage during the tour, the first thing she would say was, “Hi, my name is Lilly Singh, and five years ago I suffered from depression.” Her tour covered India, Australia, Hong Kong, Singapore, UK, Dubai, Canada, Trinidad and Tobago, and the United States. Singh’s vlog channel shows the planning of the tour, including dietary changes and rehearsing with her team. She documented the tour in her first feature movie, A Trip to Unicorn Island, which also describes how YouTube fame is affecting her life. The movie was released in February 2016 on YouTube Red.
On July 22nd 2016, during her second appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, she announced her first book. Titled How To Be a Bawse: A Guide to Conquering Life. The handbook is stuffed with business, social and relationship advice imparted with the snappy humour and giddy whimsy that animates Singh’s videos. One of the overarching themes of the book is that you need to check your ego at the door. “My secret to success is exactly what most people don’t want to hear: It’s a ton of hard work,” she writes.
Singh repeatedly counsels her readers to free themselves from their phones, at one point noting that “social media has made it easy to feel special for no reason at all.” She struggles with the very tools that brought her to the world’s attention, typified by a moment in the Unicorn Island doc when a Dubai fan rushes the stage as Singh is deep in an earnest monologue, and then proceeds to take a selfie while the star looks on, filled with rage.
Lilly Singh is a new Type of Star
Many of the world’s biggest female celebrities position themselves as untouchable deities: Swift has her famously exclusive squad and Beyoncé dresses up like a fertility goddess at every opportunity she gets. Singh has steered herself in the opposite direction, building her brand on inclusiveness and empathy. She lays bare her imperfections, filming the clothes piled on her bedroom floor and zooming in on her zits and stray facial hairs. She has a canny ability to make teens feel as though she’s reading their minds when she complains about the indignity of menstruation and how gross it is when parents ignore grocery expiration dates. By intuiting what her audience is thinking, no matter how banal, she makes them feel heard, validating teenage emotions in an ever-more-alienating world. The intimacy of the platform helps, too: on YouTube, there are no middlemen, executives or handlers. Singh has earned trust by communing with her viewers directly.
“If you want something in life, to be happy, to achieve a goal, whatever it is, you have to proactively work on it,” Singh says. “No one is going to give you anything on a platter. There’s no entitlement; you need to work for the things you want in life.”