She was an ordinary kid from Scarborough working a dead-end job. Then she posted a short confessional on YouTube and became a global celebrity almost overnight
Two years ago, at age 26, Lilly Singh moved out of her parents’ home in Markham and bought a $1.5-million Spanish-style house in the plush Los Angeles neighbourhood of Hancock Park. Since then, she’s been living out a shimmery La La Land fantasy. She owns a Tesla Model S, the same car Matt Damon and Will Smith drive. In conversation, she casually name-drops friends like Selena (Gomez, who often pops up in Singh’s Instagram feed) and Dwayne (“The Rock” Johnson, whose teen daughter she takes for ice cream). In January, before the People’s Choice Awards, I watched a herd of stylists converge on Singh, spackling her face, bronzing her shoulders and affixing mink eyelash extensions. After four hours, she emerged in a liquid-gold dress and glitter-flecked heels, trying to memorize the names of the designers for the red carpet. “Dress by Nicole Miller, shoes by Stuart Weitzman,” she recited at least 20 times, her voice betraying the nerves of a starlet headed to her first big awards show.
Except Singh isn’t a typical Hollywood starlet. Instead of appearing in films and on TV, Singh made her fortune by writing, directing and starring in YouTube videos. She works under the self-congratulatory alias of Superwoman (she licensed the trademark from DC Comics) and holds more than 11 million subscribers in her thrall. Every Monday and Thursday, Singh uploads a new video; collectively, they’ve had more than 1 billion views.
Her persona is that of a scrappy tomboy: she wears backward trucker hats and baggy flannel shirts, gripes about tampons and makeup, and acts out don’t-you-hate-it-when moments with Animaniac energy. She riffs about her Punjabi parents and the challenge of finding the right foundation to match her skin tone. And she specializes in Seinfeldian sketches about problems that afflict all teenage girls. In one of her creations, she rattles off the litany of problems that come with having long hair (Singh’s unicorn mane goes down to her thighs): she has to wrap her hair around her neck like a scarf while using the toilet so it doesn’t cascade into the bowl, she discovers dozens of hidden bobby pins in her bun and she whips her tresses so hard she has to wear a neck brace. Other sketches catalogue all the reasons Singh hates bras, the types of crushes she gets and why exams are annoying. She often plays three or four characters in one video, and sometimes her observational comedy veers into minstrelsy, especially when she adopts campy Indian accents and costumes to portray fictional versions of her strict parents.
To the adult eye, Singh’s comedy can seem bush league, her sketches occasionally cringe-inducing, her platitudes callow. (“You are going to succeed because the world is waiting for what you have to offer!” she once cheered.) But Singh doesn’t care about adult eyes. She has calibrated every video to appeal to the covetable teen demographic. Between fart jokes, she spouts aphorisms about positivity, empowerment and self-love. She’s as wholesome as Taylor Swift with streetwise chutzpah, a motivational speaker disguised as a comedian. And almost out of nowhere, she has become the reigning avatar of millennial girl power.
Many of the world’s biggest female celebrities position themselves as untouchable deities: Swift has her famously exclusive squad, the Kardashians flaunt their personal jet, and Beyoncé dresses up like a fertility goddess at every opportunity. 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.
Her teen-whispering powers work on YouTube in a way they couldn’t in any other medium. In the past few years, the platform has emerged as the preferred video source among the 13 to 24 demographic. In a recent study of American teens, 85 per cent of participants named YouTube as their number one choice for video, with Netflix and cable coming in second and third. Most respondents said they check out YouTube as soon as they wake up, and continue watching off and on late into the night.
YouTube’s dominance is largely based on utility: its content is free, accessible and ample. And, while the production values are evolving by the minute, the platform still retains an indie spirit. The personalities tap into a plaintive desire for authenticity: many of them play versions of themselves, speak directly to the camera and, like Singh, offer some form of inspirational pablum. Millennials now purge their emotions through YouTube the same way Gen X-ers did with Judy Blume novels.
It can be a lucrative formula. Last year, Forbes pegged Singh as the highest-paid woman on YouTube and the platform’s third-highest earner overall, estimating her 2016 earnings at $7.5 million (U.S.). (When I asked Singh if the number was accurate, she played dumb, claiming she had no idea how much she made.) She has leveraged her YouTube fame into a multi-pronged empire, bagging sponsorship deals with brands like Coke and Toyota. You can buy Superwoman-branded T-shirts, hoodies and trucker hats on her website. In 2015, she capitalized on her massive fan base and embarked on a worldwide comedy tour, selling out stadiums in Mumbai, Sydney and Singapore. And her coterie of famous friends keeps growing: her videos have featured Ariana Grande, Seth Rogen and James Franco. She just released a hybrid memoir and self-help book called How to Be a Bawse—slang for “boss”—in which she counsels her acolytes to believe in themselves and reach for greatness. The chapters are titled with directives like “Schedule Inspiration,” “Be Unapologetically Yourself” and “Be Nice to People.”
In the golden age of Hollywood, celebrity was a top-down operation: cigar-chomping studio suits would discover their muses at the drugstore, mould them into stars and unleash them on the world. Singh spent years transmitting her videos directly from her bedroom in Markham to millions of teenagers’ bedrooms around the world, building her name before Hollywood took notice. She became a star in reverse.
Lilly Singh’s house looks like the set of a Disney Channel series. In the centre of the kitchen is a vintage popcorn machine covered in rainbow stripes and the Superwoman logo. The armchairs are marigold yellow, and there’s a hoverboard in the corner. The shelves are stacked with Shopaholic books (“I can read each one in a day,” gushes Singh), as well as relentlessly cheerful titles from Singh’s fellow YouTube stars—a cookbook by the chef Hannah Hart (2.5 million subscribers), a self-help book by the comedian Grace Helbig (3 million subscribers), a coming-of-age memoir by the LGBT activist Tyler Oakley (8 million subscribers). Singh owns a plaque that reads “What would Beyoncé do?” and a bottle of Moët encrusted with the word BAWSE in rhinestones. She got her friend, a YouTube star named Mr. Kate who creates DIY home decor videos, to design her bedroom in a burlesque colour scheme of fuchsia, purple and yellow, with lyrics from Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds” hand-scripted in giant calligraphy on the wall behind the headboard. She’s putting the final touches on a production studio with three-point lighting, soundproofing and a green screen for CGI. The room is painted in My Little Pony pastels, and the words “Hustle Harder” are written on the wall.
Singh’s house has four bedrooms, and, for about half of the year, one of them is occupied by her best friend, Kanwer Singh (no relation), who goes by the YouTube moniker Humble the Poet. Humble is a 35-year-old former Rexdale elementary school teacher who earned minor YouTube fame for his rap-inflected spoken word poetry in the late 2000s, before Lilly even joined the platform. She emailed him to collaborate in 2011, soon after she started her YouTube career, and, over the years, he’s become her sidekick. Lilly, who’s single, insists their relationship is platonic, but she brings Humble as her date to every Hollywood party, and they frequently appear in each other’s videos. They have a brother-sister vibe: he scolds her for not eating well enough and teases her about her hyper-focused work ethic.
Her favourite souvenir from back home is a large piece by the artist Inkquisitive that features soulful illustrations of Drake drawn overtop the CN Tower. Singh, like any law-abiding Torontonian, is a devout Drake fan. She finally got the opportunity to meet him last September, backstage at his concert in L.A. In the Instagram photo, Singh wore a 416 trucker hat, closed her eyes and clasped her hands in mock prayer, while Drake made his signature 6 hand signal. “Me and a sweeter Toronto ting that has the world in her palm,” he wrote in the caption.
When I walked into Singh’s living room on the day of the People’s Choice Awards, I heard her voice before I saw her face. “Yoooooooo,” she bellowed as she thumped down the stairs makeup-free in a shiny black basketball jersey and tearaways. “Who’s this person who’s gonna see me looking all gross?” Singh speaks with a distinctively slangy Scarberian argot, exuding the same cocksure charisma that you see in her videos. She possesses a cartoon beauty, with giant eyes that look like a Snapchat filter and elastic, expressive features that are ideally suited to Internet vaudeville. When she sits, she leans forward, shifting her shoulders and splaying her legs like a manspreader on the subway. I ask her if she’s looking forward to the awards, and she closes her eyes and nods reverently. “I find awards shows so inspiring,” she says. Even Singh’s tattoos align with her Oprah-lite brand: she has “One Love” scripted conspicuously over her collarbone, and the Punjabi words “Nirbhao” (without fear) and “Nirvair” (without hate) on the insides of her wrists.
Most of her videos begin: “Whaddup! It’s your girrrrrrrrrl Superwoman!” she hollers, then flashes a complicated hand-signal S that’s meant to replicate the Superwoman logo. Insiders know the S has a double meaning: it’s also a symbol for Scarborough, where Singh spent the bulk of her childhood. Singh has lived out the classic second-generation Canadian success story. Her father, Sukhwinder, and her mother, Malwinder, grew up in the Punjabi region of India, where they were paired in an arranged marriage. Sukhwinder came to Canada in 1972 and found jobs as a factory worker, cab driver and furniture salesman, finally earning enough money for his wife to immigrate here in 1981. “He still has pictures of himself posing next to his first refrigerator. That was really exciting for him,” Lilly says. Malwinder worked at a company that produced CDs and cassettes. Eventually, Sukhwinder acquired leases for 11 gas stations around the GTA, and, by the early ’80s, the couple had bought a home in Malvern. Their elder daughter, Tina, was born in 1982; Lilly followed six years later.
Singh has been honing her tomboy shtick since she was a kid. In Grade 3, she developed a pathological obsession with The Rock, back when he was still a wrestler. She kept a life-size cut-out of him in her bedroom, plastered her walls with posters and dressed up as him at a school fashion show. She’d get up at 5 a.m. to watch Monday Night Raw episodes that she’d taped the night before. “If they ever announced my name over the PA system at school, they’d call me Lilly ‘The Rock’ Singh,” she says.
Lilly Singh’s over the top alter egos have become almost as famous as she is. Here, six of her favourite characters:
Singh’s unslakable thirst for attention led her toward a series of jazz-hand theatrical pursuits. Her sister recalls that, when Lilly was eight, she would carry around camcorders for days, recording her every move, reciting monologues, acting out skits—basically, what she does now. She’d perform hip hop routines for her sister and friends. “Every other kid in school wanted to be a doctor, an engineer, a scientist, and my parents were like, ‘Oh, of course, our daughter wants to be a rapper.’ ” When Singh was 16, her parents upsized to a new house in Markham, though she insisted on staying at her high school, Lester B. Pearson C.I. in Scarborough. It was around that time that Singh discovered bhangra, the elaborately costumed, beat-heavy Punjabi dance form that closes out every Bollywood musical. In 2006, when she started studying psychology at York University, she became president of her bhangra club. Soon, the group was hired to dance at Indian weddings, and Singh was spending more time choreographing shows and designing marketing materials than studying. Her parents had so far exhibited saintly tolerance for her predilections, but, when it came to dancing in public, they balked. “My parents said, ‘No, girls can’t dance at people’s weddings. It doesn’t look good,’ ”she recalls. “We butted heads. Ultimately, they just let me do it, because I was going to do it anyway.”
As she inched toward graduation, her parents pressured her to get her master’s of science, just as her sister had done. (Tina now runs an occupational therapy practice.) But Singh had realized school wasn’t for her. “I was really good at it,” she says, “but I hated the idea of living this linear life—take classes, go to grad school, get a job.” After graduating in 2010, she took a soul-crushing job working the phones at a collections agency. “It was horrendous. People swore at me all day long,” she says. Singh found herself in a desperate funk. “I didn’t get out of bed for days,” she says. “I didn’t go anywhere or see anybody.” The Singhs are Sikh, and, even though they are not devout, Lilly suddenly found the idea of religion reassuring. She spent two or three hours a day at the Gursikh Sabha, a baroquely furnished temple in Scarborough. “I would volunteer in the dining hall, wash dishes, clean the floors. I was always the only kid with a whole bunch of elderly people.”
One day during that aimless year, Singh was at home surfing YouTube when she stumbled upon a video by Jenna Marbles, a 24-year-old former bartender from New York with lavender-streaked hair. Marbles, whose real name is Jenna Mourey, had recently started her own YouTube channel, where she offered sexed-up satire spoofing the Paris Hilton generation. Her videos had titles like “Sluts on Halloween,” “People That Piss Me Off at the Gym” and “What Bitches Wear at the Airport.” She was a YouTube frontierswoman, one of the first people to attract an audience with her personality, rather than with gaming tips or sports clips. One of Marbles’ first videos, “How to Trick People Into Thinking You’re Good Looking,” racked up 5.3 million views in its first week, a milestone in those antediluvian days. “After I saw her video, I fell down a rabbit hole,” Singh says. “I didn’t realize that you could create that kind of content on YouTube.”
The next day, Singh, then 22, recorded her first YouTube video. It bore no resemblance to the manic sketches she does now. The clip was a piece of earnest spoken word poetry about her connection to her temple, encouraging more young people to spend time volunteering in spiritual places. She shared the clip on Facebook and watched it rack up 70 views. “I was amazed. I didn’t even think I knew 70 people,” she says. “But it was really awkward and bad.” So bad, in fact, that Singh eventually took it down, claiming it no longer aligned with her faith. She believes in God, but adheres to no formal religion.
As she got more comfortable in front of the camera, she set about establishing her brand of self-deprecating observational comedy, which at first catered specifically to second-generation South Asian teens. Her early videos taught viewers how to wrap a Sikh turban, riffed on why brown girls like white guys and introduced viewers to her “parents”—she played her father as a belligerent disciplinarian with a poofy wig and charcoal beard, and her mother as a controlling busybody in glasses and a chunni. In between shooting skits and working a series of dead-end jobs, she learned how to light her videos, what kind of camera equipment to use, how to make graphics and sound effects—and she found most of this on YouTube how-to channels. Within six months, she had more than a thousand subscribers. Gradually, her funk lifted. She claims the response to her YouTube videos helped alleviate her sadness, though it’s hard to know how much of that is self-mythologizing.
By 2011, Singh had amassed several thousand subscribers, and other YouTubers took notice. A creator named Allen Buckle, who went by Fluffee Talks, reached out to Singh and asked her to meet at his home. Buckle was a 24-year-old comedian from Toronto who wore a black beanie and aggregated bizarro news stories from around the globe. At the time, he had about 500,000 subscribers. She sat in his living room and sipped a glass of water. “So, what do you do?” she asked. “I do YouTube. I bought this house with money from making videos,” he replied nonchalantly. “I was blown away,” she recalls. “I had no idea people could make a living posting videos.”
The visit changed her life. Singh marched into her parents’ bedroom and told them she didn’t want to go to grad school—she was going to be a YouTube star instead. They were skeptical, but, as usual, relented to their daughter’s whims. Sukhwinder struck a deal: he gave her a year to focus on her YouTube career while living under his roof. If she wasn’t making a living by then, he told her she’d have to go back to school. Singh readily agreed and got to work formalizing her brand. She committed to a regular posting schedule and bought her first professional camera: a Canon T3i DSLR she found at a Best Buy Boxing Day sale for $699. “I’d never spent that much money on anything before,” she says. Her popularity was spreading rapidly throughout the South Asian community. People would stop her at the grocery store, at the mall, at the movies and ask: “You’re that girl who makes YouTube videos, right?” By the time she hit her dad’s deadline in 2012, she had 100,000 followers, and he agreed to let her keep going. Within two years, she’d hit the one million mark.
YouTube officially launched in early 2005 but didn’t start raking in serious revenue until Google bought it nearly two years later. The site’s new corporate overlords embarked on an aggressive campaign that allowed both the platform and its top content creators to generate funds. Advertisers would negotiate with YouTube, then YouTube would typically take 45 per cent of the ad revenue and let creators pocket the rest. At first, the company selected which users would be able to monetize their accounts. Most people had to wait months or years before they were chosen, but Singh got an email from the YouTube brass after she posted her third video, a guide to help brown guys decode the behaviour of brown girls. For the next couple of years, she says she made about $100 per month from her videos.
In 2012, YouTube enabled any user to activate advertising. Since then, the number of ad-supported YouTube channels has ballooned from roughly 10,000 to more than three million. Last year, the company grossed $5.6 billion (U.S.) in ad revenue. Advertisers pay a set rate for every thousand views. Seismic success is exceedingly rare. Many users—the hobbyists, whose views are in the thousands rather than the millions—might only earn a few hundred dollars a year. Most of them will never make a living off of YouTube, let alone experience the gilded life of Lilly Singh. The big guns, especially those in Singh’s echelon, can attract as much as three to five dollars per thousand views after YouTube takes its cut. So a video that earns five million views, as Singh’s often do, can shake out to a net revenue of $25,000 (U.S.). She posts 100-odd videos a year, which can mean about $2.5 million (U.S.) in YouTube revenue alone.
Advertisers have figured out that online video is one of the best ways to tap into a younger demographic. And while digital competitors like Facebook Live, Snapchat and Instagram are catching up, YouTube continues to dominate. “On Facebook, you’re scrolling past a video in a newsy environment that’s cheek by jowl with updates from everyone else in your life,” says Andrea Ching, the chief marketing officer of the online video analytics firm OpenSlate. “On YouTube, you’ve selected a piece of content and you’re ready to engage with it.”
The vast untapped revenue potential has spawned a cottage industry of YouTube professionals. There are analysts, like Ching and her team at OpenSlate, who crunch YouTube viewership data to advise brands on where their money is best spent. YouTube talent scouts watch hours of video per day, investigating which incipient stars are getting the most likes and comments, and grappling with other companies to see who can sign them first. Sarah Weichel, an independent manager who represents Singh and several varsity-level YouTubers, wanted to work with musicians when she came to Hollywood five years ago. When she interviewed at a talent management agency called The Collective, they told her they weren’t hiring music reps, but she could sign onto their burgeoning digital YouTube team, which, at the time, consisted of just three agents. Since then, The Collective shut down their music-management arm entirely to focus on digital talent.
A phalanx of digital ad sales firms have emerged to help brands maximize their reach. These companies sign individual channels and use their clients’ collective power to leverage more sales. A firm that manages 2,000 channels amasses billions of views every month, which is a considerable bargaining chip when negotiating with brands. Many of these companies also negotiate sponsorship deals and branded video collaborations on top of the pre-roll advertising. They’ll provide analytics, helping creators build their audiences. They’ll even offer studio space and production assistance. YouTubers who belong to the same networks give the appearance of a high school clique, popping up in each other’s videos and promoting each other’s channels.
Singh has always had a meticulous vision for her YouTube channel. “If you gave her an idea, she’d process it through the tiny computer in her brain, and then she’d say, ‘Nope, that’s not relatable,’ ” explains her friend Humble. She spent years poring over analytics, figuring out which posts were going viral and which ones were flopping. She read every comment to see what fans were responding to. And yet, in 2014, when she had about three million followers, she realized that she was no longer able to cultivate the Superwoman brand on her own. If she wanted to scale her business, she’d need to bring in some experts. Singh signed with Sarah Weichel at The Collective when the company was transitioning from a management agency to an ad sales firm. “What really spoke to me about Lilly was how hard she wanted to work,” says Weichel. “Here was this girl, fresh off the plane from Toronto, and the first thing she said to me was, ‘I want world domination.’ I laughed at her.” Within a few months, Weichel set up her own indie talent firm—she continues to serve as Singh’s manager, handling her creative endeavours, while The Collective, which has renamed itself as Studio 71, represents her sales interests.
As Singh’s popularity snowballed on YouTube, she attended dozens of public events and VidCon expos, which allowed her to keep expanding her fan base and rake in cash from appearance fees and merchandise sales. “People asked me to host dance competitions, then they asked me to promote their events. Eventually, it was like, ‘Hey, can you wear our T-shirt?’ ” she says. When Singh registered her business, her accountant didn’t understand what she did. “He’s like, ‘Why are you getting money from YouTube?’ ” (She has since hired a new accountant.)
The extent of Singh’s fame sunk in on a trip to Mumbai in 2014 for YouTube FanFest, a concert-style event featuring dozens of popular YouTubers. It was her first time overseas. Once she’d checked into her hotel, she got a call from the event’s producer, explaining that the daughter of Bollywood star Shah Rukh Khan, the highest-grossing movie star in the world, was a fan, and he wanted her to visit his house. Singh thought it was a prank. “My response was literally, ‘Dude, shut up. Stop wasting my time,’ ” she says. “Then, Shah Rukh got on the phone. I was like, ‘Cancel everything.’ ”
Khan lives in an enormous home called Mannat, which looks like an antebellum plantation on the outside and Versailles on the inside. Every day, hundreds of fans line up at the gates, hoping to spot Khan, who often waves from the balcony like the queen. “When I got there, I heard shrieks and screams. I thought, Oh my god, people snuck through the gate,” Singh recalls. But it turned out to be his 12-year-old daughter screaming for her. Before Singh left Mannat, Khan gave her one of his monogrammed blazers. “I want your dad character to wear this in one of your videos,” he said.
Later that night, Singh performed for 2,000 screeching teens at YouTube FanFest. Khan made an appearance there, too. While he was revving up the crowd, Singh walked onstage behind him, and the audience lost it. “They chanted, ‘LILLY, LILLY, LILLY,’ while Shah Rukh Khan was onstage with me,” Singh says, still in disbelief. “I felt sick for the rest of the night. I was shaking. I didn’t know how to deal with it.”
Over the next year, Singh rapidly accelerated from star to superstar. She got calls to collaborate with Hollywood celebrities like Selena Gomez and the rapper Jay Sean. As she realized how diverse her followers were, she began to distance herself from the South Asian–specific humour, focusing instead on issues that affect all teens. “I don’t want to just make content for Indian people. I’m all about universal themes. We’re all humans. We all fight with our parents. We all have relationships that fail.”
In 2015, Singh decided she wanted to go on a stadium tour and meet her fans. She dreamed of a Broadway-calibre spectacle, with elaborate costume changes, video projections and bhangra dancers. It would be a high-octane variety show, with Singh rapping, dancing and doing sketch comedy. Weichel shopped the tour to dozens of promoters, but none of them wanted to substantially invest. “Most people didn’t understand the vision. There was a disconnect between traditional entertainment and the digital audience,” Weichel explains. Then she realized that Singh could finance the tour the same way she did everything else: on YouTube. “I knew that promoters might not have significantly bought into Lilly’s thing on the stage, but they certainly were going to invest in Lilly’s thing on the screen,” she says. She and Singh conceived of a backstage documentary chronicling the creation of the tour. At the time, YouTube was debuting YouTube Red, a paid subscription service that would stream content. They bought the film and promised to spend a fortune on marketing. When Singh toured Asia, Australia and Europe later that year, she sold out most of her dates.
She has teamed up with Coca-Cola, creating promotional content on her channel. Coke flew her to the Rio Olympics last year to film sponsored videos. She has also partnered with TD, Skittles, Toyota and the cosmetics brand Smashbox, which named a deep-red lip colour “Bawse” in her honour. Last year, she joined forces with YouTube for an ad campaign that ran on buses and billboards, including a 20-footer in Times Square. Depending on the deal, Singh might appear in ads for a product, plug it in her videos, wear branded merchandise or let the company advertise at one of her events.
Until recently, Singh was still living in her childhood home in Markham. “It was really hard to make videos. I never felt like the space was my own,” she says. “I couldn’t film after 10 p.m., because my parents would go to sleep. By 2015, she was flying to L.A. for meetings and events at least twice a month. That year, Singh packed up her bedroom and rented an apartment in L.A. before purchasing her home. “When I first lived on my own, I had to ask my mom how to do laundry and pay bills. It was terrifying,” she says. She still adheres to her Monday and Thursday YouTube schedule, but she no longer wings it the day she posts—she now writes her sketches in advance and pre-tapes segments. She also employs assistants to help her produce and edit the films.
Every day, Singh seems to hit a new fame milestone. In 2016, she nearly doubled her subscribers, palled around with Jimmy Fallon on The Tonight Show and visited Michelle Obama at the White House to discuss a philanthropic campaign Singh is running to eradicate girl-on-girl bullying. “When Lilly was a teenager, she used to say she was going to be on Ellen one day,” says her sister. “That’s pretty much the only thing she hasn’t done.”
Lilly Singh’s fans call themselves Team Super, or Unicorns, because of Singh’s obsession with the mythical horned beasts. Their dedication is boundless. Each of her videos is accompanied by hundreds of comments from her groupies. “Heyy lilly I love you so much, you are an inspiration for me and help me to get up every single day!” “Why is she SO pretty!?!?!?!?! I wish I was as pretty as her! No matter what face she ever does she will be beautiful! Like and comment if you agree!!” They write fan fiction imagining romances between her and other stars. There are devotional Instagram accounts, fan websites and YouTube videos about her YouTube videos. When her followers meet her in person, they often burst into tears.
The only thing standing in the way of Singh’s quest for world domination is timing: there’s only so long a grown woman can dress in teen drag and complain about high school cliques before her audience decides she’s too old to understand them, before another role model—someone fresher, funnier, younger—usurps her fiefdom. As Singh’s fans grow up, she intends to grow with them. Her current plan is to branch into acting: last year, she appeared in the comedy Bad Moms, and she has attended several auditions—and callbacks—for pilot season. Yet, no matter what kind of success she achieves as an actor, Singh has pledged that she won’t abandon her YouTube fans. The platform, once perceived as a stepladder toward traditional Hollywood fame, has become a respectable medium in its own right.
If there was ever a place to prove YouTube’s legitimacy, it was at the People’s Choice Awards, where Singh sashayed down the red carpet with a veteran’s grace, hand on her cocked hip, flashing the occasional peace sign. “This is so awesome, because it’s from the people,” she gushed in her acceptance speech for Favorite YouTube Star. “This is for Team Super.” At the ceremony, she sat three rows from the stage, within spitting distance of Tom Hanks, Justin Timberlake and The Rock. During commercial breaks, she schmoozed with members of the girl group Fifth Harmony and Quantico star Priyanka Chopra. And when the awards were over, she went home, put on her PJs and recorded a new YouTube video.