Dwayne (The Rock) Johnson is looking to start a YouTube channel. So who else would he ask for advice but Canada’s Lilly Singh?
That was the premise of a 2016 YouTube skit that had the actor, the highest paid in the world at the time, requesting the input of the highest paid woman on YouTube.
It’s rich, of course, that one of the biggest brands in the world would require the counsel of Scarborough-born Singh, who created a media empire in a bedroom from her parent’s house.
Her advice: “Just be yourself.”
So far, that’s worked for Singh. Forbes estimated that Singh earned $10.5 million (U.S.) in 2017, making her the tenth-highest paid earner on the channel. Her work featuring skits aimed at a younger audience about issues such as bullying, gender and race have resonated with her 13.6 million subscribers.
As a UNICEF goodwill ambassador, Lilly Singh visited a school in Bhopal, India where she met with students between 11 and 14 last year.
In addition to her YouTube channel, the busy Singh has authored a book, is starring in a new NBC pilot sitcom Bright Futures, released a new lipstick, had a role as a vlogger in HBO’s Fahrenheit 451 and launched her own production company Unicorn Island Productions. She is also a UNICEF goodwill ambassador supporting Childline 1098, which addresses child abuse in India.
The Star caught up with Singh, 29, to ask about her new sitcom and the juggling act of being one of the world’s busiest media stars.
NBC cast you in their upcoming pilot sitcom Bright Futures with Emily Ratajkowski. It looks like you’re playing a doctor, which I think would make your mom and dad proud, but typecasting perhaps?
(Laughs) Honestly, it’s not typecasting. My character just really wants to be a doctor, she thinks doctors are cool, she’s not being forced by her parents. It’s a very diverse bunch of roommates, millennials who are looking to bright futures but are really getting their butts kicked.
The character was meant to be a man. It turned out to be really interesting, last-minute selection. It was really fun. Seriously, it’s my favourite thing that I’ve ever done. So I’m hoping it goes through. I’m really proud of this.
You’re a writer yourself. And on YouTube, you have complete control of your domain. Do you feel tempted when you’re in a sitcom like Bright Futures to tell them that your character should be written a certain way?
I feel like I’m really respectful of people’s creative vision because I have my own creative vision and I would like people to be respectful of that. I never want to walk into a project and say it should be like this. Although I might say what do you think about this. But I try not to get in the way because I know what that feels like.
You seem to be at a crossroads. You’re still doing your YouTube channel, but you’re also bridging into more mainstream media work with movies, sitcoms and pilots. How do you juggle those worlds?
I’d be lying if I said it was easy. I often feel that I have two full-time jobs.
My assistant just told me next month is completely booked up, which is pretty scary. I have to maintain my YouTube channel and my daily vlogs, still do the writing myself, then with pilots going through the whole audition process and making sure I’m on set. It’s really tough. But I have a really great team, scheduling and focus. I guess it’s about putting your head down.
I remember the first time I saw you at a book signing in Brampton, and there were all these kids outside Chapters in complete rapture. What is this connection you have with your fans?
I think a few reasons. When I first started in YouTube in 2010, I was the first person that looked the way I look, especially since I’m a woman. But as the years went on, there was a general level of relatability that traditional celebrities in media don’t really prioritize as much. They focus on their craft. I’m making videos in my bedroom and I think people think “Oh my gosh that’s me” because I’m talking about my flaws and that I’m not perfect. My fans value that.
Facebook and Google have come under attack for fake news and for trolls. You recently posted that people should be more careful when they consume social media, that there is a “lack of critical thinking.” Is this something of a frustration for you?
Not so much of a frustration. More like an observation. Social media plays such a big part of people’s lives, especially with my young audience. It’s not always about well-researched opinions. What social media is good at is curating a few opinions and presenting it in a certain way. But people often don’t question the viewpoint. They see someone read something about someone and pass on that research without knowing about it. And sometimes you get an alternate point of view that’s not being shared and people aren’t as informed as they should be. You have to do some research, form your own independent thought and opinions. A lot of social media is opinion, not fact.
You’ve been very outspoken about empowering girls. How do you explain something like the #MeToo movement to your young fans?
I haven’t necessarily addressed it directly. My audience is quite young and there are a lot of other voices out there. I think there are people much more equipped to have that conversation. I am proud, though, to be in the industry at the time when women are standing up.
You have a new dog Scarbro. It’s only been a couple months since you gave him an Instagram account, but last time I checked, he had more than 300,000 Instagram followers — more than the 126-year-old Toronto Star. What does this say about new and old media? Should we start packing it in?
I think it says more about him. That should be normal. I’m just looking at him right now and he’s on my bed. He’s precious. Best decision I ever made. He deserves a million more followers because he’s the best. He really is.
You’re a huge Toronto Raptors fan. You were there during the playoffs. First of all, should they have fired coach Dwane Casey?
I like to focus on the positive. You can’t take away from the fact that he’s done so much for our team. He’s such a classy guy and someone we should be proud of and that’s what we should celebrate more than anything else.
How about Drake freaking out on the court and getting into verbal fights with opposing teams? Should he just chill out?
(Laughs) I think Drake has earned the right to freak out. I think he’s done a lot for the city. He’s passionate. I don’t think we can blame him. I’m a big believer if you’re from the city and you’re a fan of the Raptors. It’s like family: You shouldn’t get upset if they might fail at something. Yes, I was heartbroken when we didn’t win like everyone else. But it’s about supporting your family.
Can you tell us about your work with the India-based charity Childline? I remember those orange carton boxes that we used to collect money for UNICEF growing up. Is that your early connection to the charity?
Growing up in school, I was very familiar with the work they did and I absolutely remember carrying those little boxes at Halloween. I’ve been to India lots with my parents, but it was the first time I got to go to the remote villages.
I became involved with it last year. I’m the first person from the digital space to do this, and I jumped on it.
This health line helps kids who are in difficult situations, but many of them didn’t know it existed. For one thing, it’s hard to communicate information in India because it’s so big. Still, many have phones because the cost is much more easily accessible there. So they do have internet access and access to YouTube. So it was perfect to do something that would reach them.
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