The rise and rise of Lilly Singh

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Lilly Singh

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Lilly Singh has gone from videos of tying turbans to global stardom on YouTube in a few years

“Money has always been the result of what I do. It was never the reason I started.”

Lilly Singh is talking about appearing on Forbes’ Highest Paid YouTube Stars of 2015 list, days before she takes her show to Mumbai.

Singh, 27 and from Toronto, uses the pseudonym IISuperwomanII when speaking to her social media following of more than 12 million people.

She earned an estimated $2.5m last year from her two YouTube channels, a 27-city world tour and her own movie, among other projects.

Her journey as a digital creator began in 2010. At the start, much of her content focused on her Indian heritage and highlighted her ethnic background.

The film she has just made, A Trip To Unicorn Island, follows her journey in planning and executing her tour from a behind-the-scenes perspective.

“There were so many times I was really tired and really didn’t want a camera in my face and the camera would be there.”

Although she publishes daily vlogs on one of her channels, she insists the film-making experience was far more invasive.

“There’s a lot of really raw emotional moments that I don’t think would have been captured if I was in control of the camera.”

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Lilly Singh

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An early video from Singh showed her demonstrating how to tie a turban

One of the areas the film highlights is the transition from making videos in her bedroom as a way of treating her depression, to having a global audience who visit her main channel religiously twice a week to see her latest uploads.

She holds the video sharing website responsible for helping her deal with her mental illness.

“The platform got me out of a very dark period of my life so I love YouTube genuinely,” she says.

Singh’s earliest public video, as IISuperwomanII, is called How to Tie a Side Turla Bhangra Pagh (Turban).

By 2013, her character had built a solid fan base predominantly among South Asian teenage girls living in the US, Canada, UK and Australia.

She began making public appearances all around the world, including the London Mela.

Her videos had started to hit millions of views but when your videos emphasise one particular culture, there will inevitably be a cap on viewers. Singh decided to diversify.

“Very quickly I realised that I didn’t have to do that because in the comments people would be saying my parents are exactly the same and my parents are American or my parents are Persian or my parents are Japanese.”

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Lilly Singh

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By the London Mela in 2013 her videos had hit millions of views

Choosing more accessible topics does not mean she transformed her appeal altogether.

“I still have my very Indian parent characters in my videos that still have an accent, my mum still wears a shawl on her head,” she says.

“It’s just I don’t feel the need to frame them just for Indian people because I want my content to be enjoyed universally.”

The decision paid off and it did not take long for Singh to become one of the most recognised faces on YouTube.

In 2014, she collaborated with other internet stars like FouseyTube, Connor Franta and Grace Helbig – all with millions of subscribers themselves.

The likes of Hollywood’s James Franco and Seth Rogan, and Bollywood mega star Madhuri Dixit also featured in her videos.

“I love where my career is at right now, but of course the cons are that it’s a super busy life and inevitably leaves you in a lot of long flights and a lot of lonely hotel rooms – stories that no one can relate to. That’s the one downfall of the job.”

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Lilly Singh

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Unknown a few years ago, Singh now rubs shoulders with Bollywood royalty like Shah Rukh Khan

But the negatives were not strong enough to stop Singh from continuing to increase her reach online. Last year, she moved to California.

“When I used to live in Toronto, I would always be the busiest person out of all my friends… no one could relate to what I was doing. When I’m in LA, I constantly feel like I’m keeping up with people and I love that.”

In her latest self-imposed challenge, she has made a foray into film and television. She has already secured a role in the forthcoming Mila Kunis comedy Bad Moms but admits it’s been a hard process.

“I can go to my premiere at the Chinese Theatre and everyone will know me and everyone will cater to me.

“And then I’ll go to an audition and get rejected left, right and centre. They don’t watch my videos and they don’t really know who I am. It is like starting from scratch when it comes to traditional Hollywood.”

Although Singh is still finding her feet with the conventional auditioning route, she sees the advantages of her current platform when it comes to diversity.

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Lilly Singh

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A Trip to Unicorn Island gives a look behind the scenes

“There is no casting director, there is no producer monitoring your upload button. Anyone that looks like anyone can upload a video.

“I think YouTube and the digital space does set a really good example for the rest of the industry in that sense.”

Lilly Singh is appearing this week at the YouTube Fan Fest in Mumbai. The travelling show visits different cities around the world each year, bringing together popular acts from both the host nation and internationally.

“Obviously they have a sense of pride when it comes to me. I always say Indian fans are just so excited.”

She has already been inundated with press requests in India with tickets sold out for her closing set in hours.

Celebrities, including singer Mika Singh, have used their Twitter influence to ask her personally to find a way to get them in.

It is expected millions will watch IISuperwomanII perform via the live stream on YouTube’s website.

With Hollywood on the horizon, maybe YouTube will take a back seat? Singh maintains it will always be her first priority.

“I’m trying to make my trip a little bit longer so that I can shoot a lot of content there which I’m excited about as well.”

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