“This summer has been nuts,” Tyler Oakley said one recent morning. The energetic 25-year-old was in L.A., where he lives, for 24 hours before jetting off to New York for a magazine photo shoot.
“Every day is different,” Oakley went on cheerfully, describing his jam-packed schedule. “I get back from New York on Thursday, and then I leave that night for Virginia for a college speaking event. And then yesterday I was in San Francisco for the GLAAD gala, I presented an award. Sometimes I wake up and am like, ‘Which city am I in?’”
Oakley isn’t a glad-handing politician or a best-selling author, of course. He’s a YouTube star. But unlike most successful YouTubers, whose agendas tend to revolve around YouTube conventions (though he goes to those, too) and self-promotional brand meetings, Oakley uses his massive fan base–he has over 5 million subscribers and recently won the Entertainer of the Year award at the Streamys–to bring attention to things like LGBT issues and education. For his 24th birthday, he asked fans to donate to The Trevor Project, an organization that helps prevent suicide amongst LGBT youth, and wound up raising $28,000. For his 25th birthday, he raised $525,000 for the cause. His reach is so pervasive and his style so unapologetic, funny, and–to use an overused Internet descriptor–authentic, that he’s even been tapped by President Obama and the First Lady to promote pet issues.
In a video Oakley filmed with Michelle Obama recently to discuss her Reach Higher program, which works to get more kids through high school and into college, Ms. Obama playfully joked that after Oakely met with her husband to discuss how the White House can better connect with the YouTube generation, “I was jealous. I wanted my Tyler time.”
More subliminally, Oakley, who is openly gay, is an inspiration to teens all over the world who are grappling with their sexuality. He receives messages every day from fans who need advice about how to come out of the closet, or how to support a friend who has, or who just want to applaud his courage. Not that he sees himself as any kind of pioneer. He says that being frank about who he is was a no-brainer from the beginning, particularly on a platform like YouTube.
“There’s something about YouTube, where you’re not being anybody but yourself,” he said. “You have the opportunity to start as yourself from the very beginning. From the very first video, you choose what you say, and you choose what’s right and wrong for your presentation of yourself. There’s no Hollywood tradition of maybe not telling people that you’re gay to protect your future ambitions. The YouTube world is a little unprecedented. I think what people are seeing is that the more true to yourself you are, the more an audience will connect with you. So there is, I think, an advantage that doesn’t exist anywhere else in the media.”
Oakley’s friendly Midwestern (he’s from Michigan) personality is another one of his advantages, and if Hollywood has any sense, he’ll be getting a TV show sometime soon. Despite his gravity-defying hair–which rotates between “fifty shades of lavender”–and oversized black glasses, Oakley comes off more like a loveable Disney character than anything remotely alternative. And like the most successful mainstream entertainers, he has the savvy instinct to keep things light. Even when he’s talking about Big Issues, jokes and non-sequitur riffs are always hovering in the wings. In the video “How Mom Knew I was Gay,” he sits down with his mother, Jackie–from whom Oakely seems to have inherited his love-of-the-spotlight gene–and addresses how his siblings outed him when he was a kid, but only after he and Jackie gush over their love of Crocs for several minutes.
Still, Oakely is the first to admit that his YouTube career has hardly been serendipitous. He’s been working at it since 2007 and only in the last year–when he gained 4 million subscribers–has it really taken off. He talked to Co.Create about why that is; how he wound up at the White House; and why he’s taking his time making the leap to traditional media.
Fast Company: Four million new subscribers in one year. How? What changed in your videos, or how you approached them, that you suddenly blew up?
Tyler Oakley: A lot of it has to do with, I really dedicated myself to programming my content, strategically partnering with organizations, working to do more traditional things that work as awareness campaigns, a lot of collaborations with my favorite YouTubers.
At the same time, when things were getting as busy as they were, I kind of took the route of not forgetting about YouTube. A lot of YouTubers get that mainstream celebrity, they get these big deals, maybe a book deal or a TV deal or whatever it is they aspired to do, and they kind of abandon ship on what got them to that point. My strategy has always been to never forget the reason I get to do the things that I do, and I come back and continue to make videos every single week. I typically release two a week, one on Tuesday, one on Friday. Also on Tuesday, I release a new podcast every week.
I also keep people involved. Over time, I’ve seen viewers feel like they’re more distanced from their favorite YouTubers and I never want that to happen. So I always try to do as many things as I can to keep people in the videos, keep people reminded that they are the inspiration for the videos, whether it’s Q&As or opening up P.O. box mail or doing advice videos, things like that. I just try to involve them as much as I can.
How much of your content do you try to make about messaging or raising awareness for a cause?
I would say it depends on the level of education. Sometimes there’s an underlying type of take-away message within a video, but videos dedicated directly to causes I would say are more few and far between. I always want my videos to feel like a diary, so I think those causes, messages, come from when I go to events and then come back to my computer and about, say, the GLAAD gala that I was at this weekend. Within talking about that experience, I explain the causes that are being affected by that. Or with my birthday, I did a fundraiser to raise money for the Trevor Project. With that there was an awareness campaign within itself as well as a fundraising campaign. But those things happen as they happen.
So, the White House event, where you and a handful of other YouTube stars met with the president–how did that happen?
It happened really crazily. I was in Hawaii at the time, for a YouTube convention, and I got an email that was like, ‘Hey, would you’–it was as blunt as that–‘like to come to the White House for a meeting with the President?’ So I rearranged my schedule. I bought a suit and had it tailored in Hawaii. I had, I think, three connecting flights to get to the White House within an hour of the meeting.
I arrived and we were at a table next to the Oval Office, maybe like the Roosevelt Room, that rings a bell, seeing our names on place cards. That’s when I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is really happening!’ It blew my mind because at the end of the day, I make videos about my life. For the President to value that as a means of connecting with youth or connecting with the country was mind-blowing. That was never my intention, never my goal.”
A recent poll showed that YouTube stars are now more popular among teens than mainstream celebrities. I assume you’ve had some Hollywood meetings about crossing over to traditional media in some form?
There’s been a lot of stuff in the works, things that have been talked about, meetings. That’s been happening. I’ve totally had those conversations with tons of networks or tons of production companies. It’s one of those things where they’re excited about it, I’m also excited, but I’m cautious because there’s a reason why people connect to an online person. That’s because there’s a lot of freedom on the Internet, and I want to make sure if I have that transition to traditional (media), that I retain all of that freedom, that I get to incorporate all the fun I have online to a traditional platform. And finding the people that understand that and believe in it is an interesting journey. Because they’re fascinated and bewildered by the Internet. But they’re also sometimes a little bit terrified of it. Because it is a wild beast that is unprecedented and who knows what’s going to happen. Traditional is very structured, and there are recipes for success. And on the Internet, people are creating their own recipes.
This article was updated to include that Oakley raised $525,000 for the Trevor Project for his 25th birthday.