YouTube stars, like most social media celebrities, appear to enjoy the most uplifting glamorous lives.
But Lilly Singh, who has 7.8 million YouTube subscribers and counting for her IISuperwomanII channel and another 1.2 million-plus subscribers for her daily Superwoman Vlogs, wasn’t always in the mood to lead her followers to her happy place of Unicorn Island.
In fact, Singh, 27, started posting YouTube videos in 2010 under a heroic nickname precisely because she was unhappy with where her own life was heading.
Fast-forward to February 2016, and Singh’s 80-minute movie A Trip To Unicorn Island premiered Wednesday as one of the first four projects of YouTube Red Originals — YouTube Red launching as the video giant’s answer to Netflix and Amazon Prime, offering its own paid subscription service with access to original and archived movies, streaming series and music ad-free for $9.99 per month. The other YouTube Red Originals launching this week include Lazer Team, an action-comedy film from Rooster Teeth; Dance Camp, a fun-loving movie about dancers from AwesomenessTV; and Scare Pewdiepie, an indulgent series banking on the success of YouTube’s most popular first-person gamer to draw in paid subscribers. Upcoming original series and documentaries will arrive later in 2016 from CollegeHumor, Gigi Gorgeous and PrankvsPrank.
Singh’s A Trip To Unicorn Island serves as concert film, making-of documentary, 30-show road diary and travelogue, plus a brief autobiography of its Canadian star born to Indian parents (who get played up in very exaggerated, very popular caricatures by their daughter). Here’s the trailer:
Becoming and maintaining star status in YouTube and other social media platforms is draining. As one of Singh’s close friends and collaborators points out, it’s not a 9-to-5 job, but “wake to sleep.”
As Singh herself puts it an hour into the film, in the middle of her world tour:
“I think I had this idea in my brain that I work so hard, and I hustle, pull all-nighters, and I put my blood, sweat and tears into something, that I will enjoy it. I think I had that idea in my brain. I don’t know why? Just seems that’s the way things should be. But I feel like the past couple days, I’m like the person who works hardest in the room — at least that I think so — who’s worked the hardest, who’s slept the least, who has put this whole thing together, but I’m the person who’s having the least fun in the room. What if that’s just how it is? What if I’ve convinced myself that you work really hard, you get to have this really fun life, what if that’s just not what it is? What if I’m always the person who works the hardest, sleeps the least, stresses the most, and has the least amount of fun? Then why am I doing what I’m doing? I’m super scared that this is the life I’ve signed up for, not knowing what it is. I willingly signed up for a life and I don’t know what it is. I feel like I’m so alone in my experiences.”
Singh expresses feelings of self-doubt that virtually everyone in the virtual space has felt. And yet, the film also documents how Singh felt sharing the stage with other YouTubers at fan fests, realizing she had more to offer her fans than could be shared in a few minutes, then working to realize her vision of a world tour to connect with them.
And then there’s always what could have been. Back in 2010, when her parents wanted her to pursue a Master’s degree after University, and Singh, recalling in that moment, “My heart is just not in this.” So her father said he struck a deal with his daughter, giving her one year to see if her new YouTube channel could succeed. “That’s maybe some of the reason I put so much effort into YouTube in the beginning and even now, is because otherwise I would have been doing a job I don’t like. If I do have something I like, I better work damn hard at it,” Singh recalled to the camera.
The first voices you hear after the opening credits are those of young girls attending Singh’s concert tour.
- “I think she’s a big inspiration to anybody who’s had like less confidence in themselves, and she can really like cheer you up and is just a huge inspiration to everybody”
- “She got me out of my sandbox. She got me wanting to do things again, to want to make something of my life again, to be more optimistic, to be more hopeful, to want to be something, to want to be someone.”
- “When my grandma died, I would watch her videos. She just makes people happy. And I still do that today.”
Even Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson shows up late in the film, a longtime idol of Singh’s who ends up reciprocating the fandom after learning of her through his daughter.
I’ve seen this YouTube connection between stars and fans up close, with my friends Grace Helbig and Mamrie Hart, who befriended fellow YouTuber Hannah Hart for successful #NoFilter live stage shows across North America and abroad, packing theaters with adoring fans, many of them teen and tween girls. And Helbig appears early in Singh’s film to provide a testimonial of sorts to her joy and hard-working determination, saying “she’s got this unwavering passion and this transparent honesty and integrity in what she does. She’s really making an effort to make people happy.”
Singh does comedy via her parent characters, and her show brings smiles to fans through song and dance and pep talks, but Unicorn Island is much more about joy and finding your happy place, and knowing that the only one stopping you from getting there is yourself.
She described the vision for her stage production as something akin to Katy Perry meeting Willy Wonka, and there’s an overpowering visual brightness there, to be sure; a relentless work ethic behind the scenes, too.
For all of her YouTube stardom, though, it’s those real-life interactions with fans (save the ones who are just in it for the selfies) that give her the most joy and satisfaction. And for that, it’s a reminder of the immediacy of performing for live audiences. The connection between performer and audience. As Singh recognizes while on tour:
“People coming up to you in tears, parents coming up to you in tears, telling you how are the reason, your videos are the reason I decided to love myself…the reason I decided not to be depressed anymore. It’s so worth it standing on a stage, no matter how exhausted you are, no matter how much your feet hurt, no matter what injuries you have, no matter what you’re going through emotionally and physically offstage, when you get on that stage, it’s so worth it to be there in real time. No screen, no comments, no analytics. Just be there in real time, say something and see the magic on these people’s faces, see them genuinely react to what I’m saying.”
Singh was once just like you, yearning to be heard. YouTube gave her a platform for her voice to reach all the way around the world, and she wants you to know you can be heard, too. The only one stopping you is you.
Lilly Singh stars in A Trip To Unicorn Island on YouTube Red