A New York Times Bestselling Book. Charity Work. A podcast. 7.42 million subscribers on YouTube. Since starting in 2007, Tyler Oakley has gained an immensely powerful platform. Many fans remember watching his fun videos and challenges in middle school, and they've stuck around ever since. As one of the first openly gay YouTubers, Oakley also utilizes the channel to raise funds and awareness for issues in the LGBTQ+ community. The 49er Forum Speaker Series invited him to UNC Charlotte for a speaking event on Oct 1. Before he went on stage, The Niner Times spoke with him about activism, Youtube culture and fame.
I personally am really interested in your charity work and how you evaluate which projects you're going to work on, which organizations you are going to give money to. How do you decide that those are organizations that you want to work with?
Well, a lot of what I do, whether it's creatively or with charity work, it really comes from my audience. The first time I ever heard of The Trevor Project was when I asked, like, "Hey, I'd love to start supporting nonprofits. What do you guys care about?" and The Trevor Project was something that people kept bringing up to me as a resource that they found, you know, incredibly useful or helpful for people in their similar situations. And so when I try to consider who to support or who to shine the light on, I ask my people first. The Trevor Project is really near and dear to me because it's an organization that I've been talking about for more than 10 years now on YouTube, which is wild. But they are somebody who I used to make videos about and then it turned into me being an intern for them, and then I joined their board of directors and then I hosted all their red carpet galas and whatever way I could try to help or be a part of their legacy or try to help their cause, it's always been something that's really been important to me.
And then obviously any type of, um, LGBTQ+ type of charity and any charity that intersects with LGBT+ issues, whether that's GLAAD or GLSEN or HRC (when it comes to politics), refugee work and how that impacts the queer community, it's kind of endless how you can support. So it kind of depends video to video of what that applies to and how I can tell the story of the issue, personalize it and then direct the audience to a way they can help in a meaningful way, even if it's just sharing or donating or donating your time or whatever it might be.
What about some of the smaller organizations, like those from "Chosen Family?"
Well, what I love about "Chosen Family" is that it gives me an opportunity to explore these really specific issues within the queer community. And then, like I said, give the opportunity to the audience to get involved in how they want to get involved, whether that's donating, or we made like little pins this year or t-shirts the previous year. I'm trying to think of one in particular that I really loved. I mean, real small tangent: It was so weird this year because I was on "Amazing Race" when "Chosen Family" came out so I didn't get to see any of the videos go live or any of the reaction to it. I just got home like after a month of everything happening and I was like, "Oh, I hope it went well." Whereas the previous year, I was like pushing upload, like reading all the comments and blah blah blah. But the most recent "Chosen Family," I know that we worked with GLAAD and GLSEN again. One that I really loved was helping small town GSAs form at high schools. That was the coolest experience of being able to go to a school, talk to the people that are affected by not having a safe space for their community. And then like trying to actually make change in that community and seeing how important that was and then telling the story of how kids can do that themselves (through working with an organization like GLSEN or however they want to get involved). That felt really good cause sometimes on the Internet you make dumb stuff, but to be able to also make important stuff or do both is the dream.
You've been an out outspoken advocate for LGBTQ communities for a long time. How do you think it's changed since 2007 and where do you think we have yet to go? What is the next big hurdle for the community?
I mean a lot has changed laws-wise but a lot hasn't. A lot of people focus on small victories, which are great, or local victories, which are great. But it's important to listen to the most disenfranchised within the community and realize that it is a global community and that a lot of people's identities intersect in ways that force them to be even more disenfranchised than the people around you every day. So I think listening and looking outside of what we know as our own personal experience is going to help us with what we need to do within the queer community. Because there are still places where you can be killed for being queer or imprisoned, where a lot of younger people here might not even know that to be the case. They might think that the biggest issue is getting fired, which also is an issue, but there are many issues to tackle at once. I think spreading information and sharing the stories of those who are currently going through those issues is super important. And when I first started YouTube, the pool of creators who were queer and telling their stories was much smaller and I think in the past 10 years being able to see, you know, the explosion of different identities, being able to finally have representation in media where traditional media might've ignored them and now they have cast themselves in the audiences found them. It's game changing. When you think about exposure to organizations like The Trevor Project or the It Gets Better Project or even being able to go on Google or YouTube and search "coming out story," a lot of kids are able to feel less alone because of that. When I was coming out, that wasn't a thing. So yeah, we've come a long way, a long way to go. And a lot is still at stake every single year, every single election. Local or bigger. Often people forget local, so that's really important.
Moving into talking about fame and Youtube, I think part of what people find so engaging about YouTube culture specifically is the focus on personalities. People feel like they're very connected to that person. How do you determine what is public and what is private? And have you ever struggled with that?
Yeah. Um, well, do you have an Instagram?
Yes, I do.
Do you struggle with what you want to put on it?
There you go. I mean, whether you have one follower, a hundred followers, a thousand followers, a million followers, you face that question of, "Okay, like, does everybody need to know my business?" And then when you have to worry about outside opinions about personal things and then especially when there are people in your life who didn't sign up for having people's opinions. Yeah, it's complicated. So I think my general rule of thumb is if it impacts somebody in my life who didn't sign up for that, then I try to keep that more private. But I think also the older I get, the more I'm like, "Okay, well maybe I don't need to share my opinion about everything," which I think is the experience for a lot of people, where it's like, yeah, nobody means to know my opinion on everything and I think that's a good thing.
Do you think fame, especially with so much of it being attached to who you are as a person and your personality, do you think that has changed you in any way?
Oh, I'm sure. Hopefully in positive ways just as much as negative ways. Yeah. It's so bizarre because YouTube has been a part of my life since I turned 18 and I am 30 now. So it has impacted and influenced almost every major decision that I've ever made whether I want to admit it or not or thought about it or not. You know what I mean? But I think that I navigate the world a lot more conscious of the weight of what I might say or what I might do. I'm grateful for that for a lot of reasons. It makes me think things before I say something or do something because I know people, whether it's something that I wanted or not, I know people might look to me or listen to me or take my opinion for more than what I might think its worth. So it makes me just a little bit more conscious and I think that's a good thing.
I was going to ask, have you ever regretted posting something?
Oh yeah. Oh my God. Many times. I have a really bad habit of tweeting... I feel like my most controversial thoughts and opinions happen right before I take off on a plane. It's like, I really want to tweet, but then I'm like, "What if this blows up in a terrible way and I'm off the Internet for five hours and then I land?" But yeah, I have...I love to stir the pot sometimes, so it's finding a balance of that. As far as hurting somebody with what I say or do, very rarely have I been in a situation where I've regretted something like that, thankfully. Usually it's just like bad pop culture opinions and, you know, a pop star's super fans coming for me as opposed to having hurt somebody in a terrible way.
I'm sure that's preferable. How would you describe the changes in YouTube culture over the past 10 years?
Well, when I first started, so many people were doing it just for fun and it wasn't even an option to make money off of it, so even the motive for joining YouTube has changed. There are people who, when they were in middle school were able to say, "I want to grow up and be a YouTuber." That didn't exist when I started. So I think motivation has completely changed YouTube culture. What gets clicked is not so...what's the word? Um, controversy is great for views and that was not the case when I was first starting. It was, it was more meaningful and peaceful and, I don't know, thoughtful and not so dramatic in some ways. Shock value sometimes reigns supreme. That's a frustrating thing because I don't care to play that game.
How do you navigate that?
It is an interesting world to navigate because it's like, I never want to play that game. Like I don't care. And I don't want to start drama with people that I like. Who cares? I very much am like, who cares? Every time I see drama happening on YouTube, I'm like, "Oh, so people care about that?" It boggles my mind. So I feel like I stay in my own lane, I mind my own business. I don't know, when you ask how I navigate it, I just don't really.
What continues to draw you to the platform [Youtube] as it has changed and what do you find so engaging about it?
I mean, so especially now that I feel like I've been able to play in Hollywood for a little bit and see a little bit of what traditional media is like, YouTube is incredible because it is a democracy of who gets to have a platform. I love to follow creators that I know could never convince a room full of old white guys who think they know what's great for media to give them a TV show. But like to me, they're the best entertainers. You know what I mean? And so I love that it's a place where everyone has a chance. And not just that, but everyone has a chance to make stuff today. Whereas in traditional media, it's sometimes an idea can be pitched and then it's not going to see the light of day for two years (if it even sees the light of day). [On YouTube] I could come up with an idea and it can be up tomorrow and I could already be having a conversation about it with my audience. That is a world that had never existed before. So I'm really grateful for that because the turnaround is exciting as somebody who wants to create right now. And that has never changed. That's something that like, if there's something happening on the Internet right now, I know that I can be a part of it as opposed to "oh no!" and wanting to make something down the line.
Do you think the perception in Hollywood and in mainstream media of YouTube creators has changed? And what do you think that perception is?
Definitely. Before it was mystified by what was going on. But now you see celebrities with YouTube channels and celebrities wanting to do challenges on late night talk shows and it's completely changed Hollywood. Whereas before, feeling like this distant high-up-on-a-pedestal person is what a celebrity might be, now celebrity culture is up on its head because culture demands closeness, authenticity and approachability and being able to interact with them on the internet, whereas you could never do that before. You know, whether it's like selfie culture or Twitter, being able to have a Q and A or, like I said, celebrities having a YouTube presence or late night talk shows being completely changed from conversations to gamified skits that will perform well on the Internet. It's like everything has changed because of YouTube.
Do you think there's still misconceptions in Hollywood about YouTube?
Well, yeah. When I go on and do an interview or something and they're like, "So how do you go viral?" I'm like, "Oh God, I don't know." I've never gone viral. You know what I mean? So the perception that so much of it is an overnight success or that it's an accident or somebody's lucky because they have a full time job as a YouTuber, I think discredits a lot of what I love about YouTube. And what I love about a lot of creators is that there's a lot of work that goes into it and a lot of years that go into it that are not successful or viral. So there's a perception that it's easy and that anybody can do it -- which I think the barrier of entry is low -- but I think a lot of people don't give it the credit that it takes a lot and a lot and a lot of work and a lot and a lot and a lot of flop videos and a lot of learning how to edit or a lot of work.
Where do you see YouTube going in the future? Where do you think it's heading?
Oh girl, I don't know. I could never have predicted anything that's going on on YouTube now. Every year I go to like a convention or anything YouTube related, I'm mystified by it because I don't know. Every year there's a new something, whether it was Vine or TikTok. I think the one thing that remains the same is that there will always be a new type of something or a new type of platform where people are able to express themselves creatively and there will always be a group that resists it and doesn't understand it but that doesn't make it not a valid platform for connecting. So whether that's going to be YouTube or whether YouTube will someday not exist, there will always be a place where people are -- young people especially -- are creating and changing culture in their own way and deciding culture in their own way. That's what I love about it. I mean from the start, that's what I've loved about it. It's a community that anybody can be a part of and like shape the Internet and shape culture and shape everything.
Gotcha. So you mentioned that you watch a number of creators that you think wouldn't necessarily be taken seriously by Hollywood. What content creators do you enjoy watching? And is there anything unexpected that people might not know about?
I am currently on an ASMR kick. I was just talking to Lisa about it. If I were to look through my history on YouTube [it's] all ASMR. Um, who else do I love? I mean, there are so many creators that I think are hilarious classics. Like Mamrie Hart. It boggles my mind that she doesn't have a show yet or a something, a vehicle to showcase her talent. I love that Colleen [Balinger] is taking the world by storm, doing Broadway and having a Netflix show. All these things. Who else do I think deserves a platform? I'm so bad on the spot about all my friends. Who do I love? I love Chris Klemens. I love Elle Mills. Ben J Pierce. I don't know, I'm so bad at this.
No, that works. That's a solid playlist.
I mean, it is endless how many YouTubers there are out there now. Whereas when I first started, my first YouTube convention, I think it was 40 people that showed up. It was in 2008 in Toronto. We drove there and it was like everyone had 2000 subscribers and I was star struck by everyone. And now you can go to VidCon and see thousands of screaming teenage girls crying over somebody that you've never heard of, thought of, didn't know that this genre of creation on YouTube existed. It boggles my mind how big it is now, which is incredible. Like I said, everyone has a chance to do their thing.
Do you still get starstruck even as a person who has a platform and as a person people are definitely starstruck by?
Yes. You know the kombucha girl?
I posted one of her memes and she replied to it and I screamed and then we were DMing back and forth. I was like, "Okay, well we need to hang out." But I was like, "Oh my God, I'm so nervous." I'm not good with meeting people. So yes, I do get starstruck by people that are like that, that seem...the thing I love about YouTube is like the approachability factor. It's like who I love most are like people that I would want to be friends with. And so it's like a star struckness in the same realm of like somebody that you think is fun and funny at school and you wish you could be friends with them.
We've all been there.
Yeah. It's the same type of feeling on YouTube. And when I see somebody at a YouTube event or something and I'm like, "Oh my God." I don't know if I've ever met them or we just liked each other's tweets, but I love that person and I don't know how to go and say hi, that's how I am.
Is there someone you'd like to make content with that you haven't had the chance to yet? You interact with a lot of people, you've interviewed the Obamas...
Celebrities? I would love to make a video with Oprah. I have been really lucky that I've made a lot of stuff with the people that I want to make stuff with. Who is a YouTuber that I want to make a video with? Oh, do you know that...oh, what is her name? She takes edibles and then she tries to do makeup.
What? No, this sounds incredible.
It's incredible. I would love to do a video with her. I wish I could remember her name off the bat. She's great, there's no explaining it. [Editor's note: This YouTuber is Brandi TV.] Who else do I love? All my ASMR Queens. It reminds me though of like Mirandasings. When I used to make videos with people her back in the day, I would sit there and even the most recent time we've collabed, I'll sit there and just be watching and forget that I'm in the video too because I am such a fan of these people. Same with Mamrie. Every time I make videos with any of the people that I think are the funniest, I'm like, "Oh shit, I have to participate!" I just, I would rather just be watching and listening to them. Um, who else do I want to make a video with? Beyoncé.
Thank you. I would say Gaga again would be great. Yeah, those are my answers I think.
We've talked about number of projects. You have a podcast, a book and YouTube channel. Is there an average day in your life? If so, what does that look like?
Not really, which is great for me. I'm trying to get more of a schedule because it's good to have routine in your life. So on Tuesdays I take piano lessons, on Thursdays I have therapy. And then I surround all of that with filming, and Wednesdays I record podcasts, and writing, and a million things. I mean a lot of people think it's a lot less work than it is. A lot of being a content creator isn't just throwing spaghetti against the wall and hoping it sticks. It's also interacting with the people. And so all day, every day I'm on my phone...which I love. I'm doing everything on every platform. Before I was full time YouTube, my full time job was to do social media for websites. And I loved doing it, but there were so many approvals that I had to get for each little thing and it was so frustrating nine to five and then I would come home and do my own stuff. Switching to being my own boss for social media, it's my dream. It's like the dream job, and it has been for this many years because it's genuinely not work for me because I love doing it and I love interacting. I love from start to finish all of it. So, there's not an average day. It's like kind of all encompassing at all times.
Even though you do enjoy it all the time, is there ever a moment where it's exhausting or where you have to turn off?
Oh yeah. One thing for example, I love going to music festivals, but I don't necessarily want to do a meet and greet in the middle of a concert. So like that type of thing. But I also realize what a surprise it is for somebody to turn and see me sometimes, so I don't want to ruin that and be like, "No, I'm not going to take a picture." Battling with myself of figuring out boundaries or ever even being able to say no to some things, I struggle with because I don't want somebody to leave a situation and be like, "Well Tyler Oakley was a dick," and I know what it would be like to turn and see somebody that I love. Like if I turned and saw Mamrie Hart and I'd never seen Mamrie Hart, of course I would want to be like "OHMYGOD!" so I get it. But figuring out the boundaries for myself so that I can not never want to leave my house is...finding that balance is a challenge. And it has been the whole time I've ever done YouTube.
So, my roommate desperately wanted to know which hair color was your favorite.
Oh God. You know, I loved like a silver or a white but I'm so pink-complected that I'll blush really easily so a lot of colors don't go with that. Which is a struggle, I know. I loved the lilac. The first time I ever dyed my hair was in high school. My prom date, she got extensions in her hair and I wanted to do something with my hair. So I dyed my hair brown and it was the first time I ever colored my hair. I was like, "Oh, this is so fun!" And then it like turned into a problem. But the upkeep is so hard. Do you color your hair?
Yes, I do.
Then you know. And then when it's shorter, it's even more upkeep. I felt like it was just like, I need to not. So I've had natural hair color for what? Four years now? Which has been kind of nice. Maybe someday I'll go that fun color again. Not anytime soon. Too much work. Tell your roommate I said thank you for the question. What was her favorite color?
I don't know if she had one. She just really wanted to know.
Well, there was a time when I feel like I would change my hair color once every three weeks or something and there was just...it was a lot. But then I also was like, I look like a clown sometimes. My hair was just so bright and when it was colorful, it would not be so easy to like blend in among the people, you know what I mean? I felt like...
You can't go incognito.
Right. Yeah, no. Which I didn't like.
Are there any projects on the way that you think people should know about?
Right now we're doing a lot of work with production behind the scenes, which is really, really exciting. Because after 12 years in front of the camera, it's also exciting to be behind and to help develop projects that maybe I've always dreamed of being a part of but I'm not necessarily the right person to be on camera telling that story. Kind of giving that platform to people that should be telling this story. So that's what I've been working on!