How Lilly Singh found YouTube stardom as IISuperwomanII

As part of YouTube’s growing star system, Singh and other entrepreneurial entertainers are remaking digital marketing

In the issue of Canadian Business that comes out today, Joe Castaldo’s cover story delves into the business of YouTube, and all the ways that the video site has become a linchpin of Google’s plans to extend its domination over 21st century advertising. Key to that plan are a new generation of video stars such as Lilly Singh, from Markham, Ont., who has racked up 5.6 million subscribers on YouTube under the name IISuperwomanII.

The full feature will be published online soon, but here’s an excerpt about Singh and her growing multimedia empire. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook or sign up for our daily newsletter to get notified about the full feature when it’s online, or download it today from NextIssue or the iOS Newsstand to read the whole cover story right now.

At 26, Lilly Singh still lives with her parents. She makes videos in the same bedroom as she did when she posted her first one five years ago. She started uploading videos for a couple of different reasons, she says. Singh cryptically references “overcoming difficulties” in her life and says she found the experience self-medicating. “I thought, if I make other people laugh, it’s going to make me laugh, and it’s like everyone helping each other.” But she displayed a savvy business sense even then. “The first thing that caught my eye was there wasn’t any other South Asian female doing this, and I thought, Hmm, this is kind of strange. That gap needs to be filled.

Singh’s videos, like those of other prominent YouTube personalities, are a bizarre mix of confession, standup comedy and ranting. They often just feature her alone in her bedroom, talking into a camera for seven to 10 minutes, interspersed frequently with jump-cuts. Singh performs skits too, like when she plays exaggerated versions of her Indian-born parents. Her style is somewhat manic, with wild gesticulations and rapid changes in intonation. Her approach is earnest, and the humour is innocuous. She trades in observation comedy, sometimes about situations she’s far removed from (“Types of Kids at School,” for example). “I’m talking about parents and relationships and things a lot of people can relate to,” she says. Her top video, with nearly 13 million views, is titled “How Girls Get Ready.” Her content is strictly PG. She never swears. Sex is never addressed. Parents can feel safe knowing their kids are watching Superwoman.

Singh is firmly part of YouTube’s celebrity ecosystem, which is crucial to the platform’s success. Each time she posts a video (which she does twice a week on her main channel), millions of people are notified and come to YouTube to watch it, like it and comment on it. YouTube fame exists largely outside the mainstream, but the company argues its celebrities have relevance outside the platform, too. Last year, Variety commissioned a survey that found five of the most influential figures among American teenagers were YouTubers, ahead of Katy Perry and Daniel Radcliffe. YouTube ultimately needs more people like Singh to produce engaging content and attract more of the advertisers and ad dollars it’s seeking.

YouTube creators and ad agencies have griped in the past that the company could be doing more to support and promote them, and the company has stepped up its efforts. In 2014, YouTube took out print, television and billboards promoting three of its creators, including Bethany Mota and makeup tutorial phenom Michelle Phan. Google Canada deployed a similar campaign in March, featuring Mota and the two guys behind a channel called AsapScience.

Check back next week for the full feature.