Lilly Singh aka Superwoman: The Making of a Social Media Star
The Internet’s favorite sensation gets real about the lack of women in comedy and why there are absolutely no shortcuts to viral fame
Lilly Singh could well be Clark Kent. The social media sensation who goes by the moniker of Superwoman has a quiet, dependable strength that Superman’s alter-ego is famous for. There’s also a sense of resilience that we’re not privy to when she’s on YouTube or onstage. It’s interesting that while the boisterous Superwoman was the one who saw me through a lot in all the years I’d been a fan as a young adult, it’s Singh who makes the grander impression when we finally meet.
The Indo-Canadian YouTube sensation claims she’s more unicorn than human, and is effortlessly professional from the moment she arrives on the set for the cover shoot. For someone who has the world eating out of her hand, Singh is unfussy about everything (“A regular Pizza Margherita is good, thank you”) and rarely ever gives the dutiful support staff a chance to fuss over her.
Superwoman simmers just beneath the surface, making appearances between flashes of the camera and then again when a couple of pre-teen fans visit the set. It quickly becomes apparent that while Superwoman is the one with the powers, Singh is the true hero. “Superwoman is a performer,” she says when we sit down for a chat after the shoot. “Superwoman is onstage, so she’s super loud, super animated, never gets tired and never feels scared. Lilly… is the business owner. She does get nervous sometimes, she gets scared and she gets tired. So personality-wise they’re very similar but of course one is the performer and the other is the backbone of the business.”
It takes quite the backbone to hold up the empire that Singh has built. The YouTube channel she started in 2010 and put her life and soul into now boasts over 11 million subscribers, almost 2 billion total views, making her the third highest-paid YouTuber of 2016 according to Forbes.
Singh is currently on tour to support the launch of her New York Times best-selling first book, How to Be a Bawse: A Guide to Conquering Life and her schedule is packed with frequent flights, press conferences, fan meetings and more. Her show in Mumbai is later that night and the next day she will head to Hyderabad to begin the entire cycle again. There’s almost no room to breathe but she remains determined to put every last bit of her energy into it all. “I want to put out content and products where I know that everything about this is true to me and I went through it,” she explains at one point. “So if you read out any sentence from the book, I’ll tell you which chapter it’s from.”
Her fans mean the world to her, but Singh explains that the book itself isn’t just for them, it’s for anyone who needs it most. “I feel like this book will speak to people from all walks of life. It’s about being the best version of yourself and you’re never too old or too young to be the best version of yourself.” In this exclusive interview with Rolling Stone India, Singh talks about the business of social media stardom, the painstaking process of writing a book and why Internet fame doesn’t come easy.
Congratulations on your first book! Can you tell me a little about the process of writing it? How did you know it was the right time for a book?
Thank you so much. Well, when all my fellow creator friends started writing books, a lot publishers started to hit me up like, “Write a book, it’ll probably sell really well!” But I didn’t want to write a book just to merchandise it as something my fans can buy. So when I was at this point in my career where I thought I reached a really good level of success and met a lot of really cool people, shot a lot of cool things, travelled and just learned so much, I thought, “Let me just extract the lessons out of these things and put them on paper.” I feel like I want to share those lessons. That’s why I decided to write a book when I did, when I felt ready to say something important.
The process of writing a book… I would pull all-nighters and literally after a long day, spend three hours on a train of thought, just writing and revisiting over and over again–which is different from my YouTube scripts. This was much more thorough and much more vulnerable and the stories are much more elaborate. I have read each chapter over and over again–I have the book memorized at this point because I went over all the chapters so many times to make sure it was exactly how I wanted it.
The book lays a lot of emphasis on onwards and upwards. There are chapters about climbing metaphorical ladders, there’s pictures of you climbing ladders and stairs; What was the key thought process behind including all that?
I think it has a lot to do with the fact that being a ‘bawse’ and achieving your goals is a very slow and steady process that involves a lot of work. I think especially in today’s day and age, millennials are always looking for a quick way to do things, you know? They want viral videos. People always ask me, ‘How do you make a viral video?’ They don’t want to make videos, they want to make viral videos. They want to get a lot of subscribers very quickly. I want to bring back this idea that success takes time and you have to take it step by step, climb it rung by rung. There’s no straight to the top scenario.
How important is it to stay genuine no matter what level of fame you achieve?
Well one, because nice humans are pleasant to be around [laughs]. But also, when you are trying to achieve things, it’s people that are going to give you opportunities. People are on your team, people make up the world around you. So even if being a good human isn’t important to you, to get ahead and be successful you need to make people feel good around you or they will not want to work with you or support you. I always try when I go to a shoot to make everyone have a good time. Make them want to support you and work with you again.
You’ve worked with many influential people—Michelle Obama, Malala Yousafzai, Bill Gates and more—and initiated important discussions. How effective is comedy as a tool for change?
I think as humans, we get a bit defensive when people address serious issues towards us. Comedy is a good vehicle to discuss things that make us feel uncomfortable. It’s easier to talk about something if I’m making fun of myself or making fun of everyone as opposed to me sitting and making a five-minute video discussing a serious topic. People start to shut down when you get serious with them, you know? So I think when you can laugh at a scenario and discuss something serious in a light-hearted way, the message gets delivered better.
As part of #GirlLove (an initiative that helped fund the education of 800 girls in Kenya), you’ve also collaborated with a bunch of powerful women in the world including Priyanka Chopra, Selena Gomez and fellow YouTubers. As an artist, do you still see lack of girl love in YouTube or entertainment space?
I think the YouTube space or digital space is setting a good example for other platforms. Creators are actually very supportive towards each other. I could call any of my creator friends, male or female, and ask them for help with something and they would help me. I’ve called many of them asking for help with deals and they would be like, “Yeah this is exactly the amount of money I got.” They just don’t want other creators to get screwed over, so yeah we’re very much in it together. It might not be like that in Hollywood, I’m not really sure, but even equality… Men and women are given the same opportunities on YouTube. There’s no massive divide that there is in Hollywood. The digital space sets a great example because there’s no one monitoring the upload button. Anyone can upload stuff and anyone can have a voice.
Why do you think there so few women in comedy in comparison to men? Do you think there’s a certain fear to take on comedy?
I think it’s a cultural thing, to be honest. I would like to believe people are more reluctant to give women a chance when it comes to comedy. Not only that, but culturally women are told from birth to not be outspoken and not talk about certain things and comedy is all about picking on those certain things that make people uncomfortable–things like periods and relationships. If I listened to everything my South Asian community told me, I would not be talking about those things. There’s also a lot of issues related to how women are brought up and how we’re encouraged to behave in certain scenarios and that’s not good for comedy. But I think it’s shifting; more and more women are doing comedy and women are really good at comedy whether people want to admit it or not.
In your ‘How To Make A Sandwich: For Sexists’ video, you brought up the whole ‘women aren’t funny’ argument. People can’t swallow it when women get real about things like sex, our bodies, our careers, independence and men in general. Why do people want to dictate what should or shouldn’t be funny?
The thing is with comedy, it’s hard to draw that line. Everyone goes like, “comedians shouldn’t talk about this, it’s offensive, they crossed the line!” What line? The line is imaginary. The line is different for everyone. Someone could say a joke right now and I could find it offensive and the person next to me could be laughing hysterically. With comedy there has to be some leeway of understanding that different people find different things funny. Honestly to some people, it actually alleviates some of the problems they deal with in life. If I deal with a lot of sexism and racism, hearing some comedy about people that deal with sexism and racism is going to make me feel good. I actually go through it so I think it’s hilarious. It’s kind of counter-productive to get so serious when you deal with comedy. If I watch a comedian and they’re offending me, I just won’t watch them. I can’t control what other people think is funny. And when it comes to women doing comedy, I think that people should just stop trying to tell women what they can do and cannot do. Whether it’s talking about periods, sex or whatever it is, a woman can talk about her experiences and no one should try to control that. I know it’s a huge cultural shift that will have to happen, especially in places like India, but I hope that women are encouraged to try to make that shift.
You mentioned in your ‘The Most Honest Q&A Ever-Part 2‘ video that you feel your opinion isn’t taken into consideration for a lot of decisions about your own life. How hard is it to give up control over certain things? At what point do you feel you need to say, ‘No, this is where I draw the line’?
I’ve had a very interesting mental journey when it comes to this because I am a very big control freak when it comes to my stuff. I started on YouTube by myself, I didn’t have a manager, didn’t have a team… it was just me making videos. But as I grew, I got a team. And even though I had a team, it was still me being like, “No, things need to be done like this” or “This is what has worked for me in the past.” There’s been times when I have had to give up control because I can’t possibly do every job, but to this day I am still a really big control freak and I have embraced that. I used to be made to feel bad about it- a lot of members of my team and people in the industry would be like, “Let go of the control, you’re not doing this right” but I’ve decided that no one can tell me what I’m doing right or wrong because I have created my entire career from nothing. So I’m okay with being a control freak. Even when it comes to things like my book or the tour… I want to put out content and products where I know that everything about this is true to me and I went through it. So if you read out any sentence from the book, I’ll tell you which chapter it’s from. At the end of the day, my face is the brand, nobody else’s.
You’ve said in your book and previous interviews that you’re looking at going into films and television. Anything you want to do in particular?
I want to just make dope content. I obviously would love to do comedy—sitcoms like Big Bang Theory, New Girl. But I also really like fantasy. I love Game of Thrones, I love The Walking Dead; I love that creation of a world that exists separately. Like I would have loved to play Katniss from The Hunger Games. I also want to write and direct a little bit. But, if I ever get to make a Bollywood movie—I’ve said it before and I’m going to trademark it right here–I want to make the first Bollywood movie that has absolutely no love story. Like no love story whatsoever!
No matter who reads your book, what is the one key thing you want them to take away from it?
I want them to take away from it that everything in life requires work. Not just your success, not just your career or your goals, but your happiness, your confidence, your self-esteem, the way you think about things, the way your mind works… All of those things require work. And in school they don’t really teach that. In school they teach you math and science but this book teaches you how to work on every part of yourself. I want this to be the lesson for life and everything you do.
Read the interview in the May 2017 print edition of Rolling Stone India or click here for the digital edition.
Lilly Singh exclusively styled in Pepe Jeans
Photographs by Juhi Sharma
Art Director: Amit Naik
Fashion Director: Kushal Parmanand
Junior Stylist: Neelangana Vasudeva
Hair & Makeup by Jean-Claude Biguine India
Location Courtesy: G5A Foundation for Contemporary Culture, Mumbai