The other day, the 26-year-old YouTube star Tyler Oakley had just finished two weeks of shooting season 28 (yes, 28) of the CBS reality show The Amazing Race, and was on the phone doing a series of interviews to promote the documentary Snervous, which chronicles his year on tour with his live show, and was released digitally on Dec. 11. "I'm so delirious from the race — I'm so scatterbrained!" he exclaimed, in his characteristically chipper Michigan accent. "This is, like, my first day back. All I can think about is like, running around the countries that I've never been to in my life. It's still on my mind. I was having race dreams last night."
If you were to look for an avatar of what fame means in 2015, you would probably conjure Oakley's bespectacled, impish visage, with his shock of blond hair sticking straight up and his mouth usually in a smile that is just this side of a smirk, from one of his hundreds of YouTube videos (his channel has 7.8 million followers) or maybe the cover of his bestselling book of essays, Binge, which came out in October and reached #2 on the New York Times bestseller list for hardcover nonfiction. There, his disembodied face is floating in a sea of shiny hard candy wrappers, his eyes squinched shut, his teeth clutching a single wrapped piece of hard candy between his perfectly straight, perfectly white teeth.
Or you could look to Snervous, about Oakley's life on the road with his show Tyler Oakley's Slumber Party, a kind of Pee-Wee's Playhouse meets Ellen DeGeneres in which he dresses up in a onesie and entertains a screaming audience of mostly teenage girls (and some of their parents) for an hour or so. There's lots of audience participation and frequent appearances (occasionally live, usually remotely) from his mother, whom he calls Queen Jackie.
His tone, whether on his videos or in print or on the big screen, is relentlessly upbeat. But more important, there's always the gee-whiz tone of "I can't believe all these great things are happening to lil' ole me!" that seems to be a prerequisite for popularity beyond YouTube. "I've been really taken aback by the success" of Binge, Oakley said. "I saw that it was on the bestseller list for the last 5 or 6 weeks, and it blows my mind! It never crossed my mind that that could happen. I thought maybe a lot of people will buy it the first week and it'll probably die down, but it really hasn't. So I feel really lucky that people are enjoying it and spreading the word about it and reading it in book clubs. Like that's crazy to me."
After all, on YouTube, success is predicated on accessibility and "authenticity" — here I am, broadcasting from my bedroom straight to YOU, and doesn't it feel like we are BEST FRIENDS? — and there is an expectation among fans that their stars will continue to be accessible once they've expanded the purview of their fame.The Oakley creed is summed in Snervous up by a fan in Ireland who's waiting for him to arrive at the venue before his show. "He reminds people to be the best version of themselves they can be, not a version of somebody else," she says earnestly. So for Oakley — who is gay, but is also an attractive cis white male, with all of those attendant privileges — it's important to amplify the idea that he relates to being the outcast, the loner, the kid who got bullied, even while he's interviewing Michelle Obama and walking red carpets.
Because no matter what, "relatability" has become the coin of the realm for an audience that's mostly under 25, largely white (if the audience shots in Snervous are any indication), and able to afford a $40 ticket. Oakley knows that if he walks the red carpet at the Snervous premiere in Los Angeles wearing an Armani tux, he'd better put it on Instagram with a self-deprecating comment.
Oakley has been making videos since 2007, when he turned on his webcam in his freshman dorm room at Michigan State. By now, he's part of a coterie of longtime YouTube stars who have managed to amplify their popularity on the video platform (Oakley has 7.8 million subscribers to his channel) by publishing books and appearing on broadcast TV and going on tour — all activities that are also potentially much more lucrative. The last couple years in particular have seen a spate of bestselling books published by YouTube stars including Grace Helbig, Mamrie Hart, My Drunk Kitchen's Hannah Hart, the Swedish gamer PewDiePie, the British lifestyle vlogger Zoella, and the British duo Dan and Phil. They're all white, they're all conventionally attractive, they are all in their 20s or early 30s. If YouTube was supposed to democratize entertainment, it's ended up looking a lot like... the rest of the entertainment industry.
Which makes some of Oakley's earlier videos especially cringeworthy — in particular, a 2008 video "Why Diversity Sucks," that he's since taken off his official YouTube channel (though it's still easily found online). In it, he holds up a brochure labeled Birth Control Facts that has a photo of a diverse group of young people on the cover, and proceeds to go on a "funny" rant: "Now, don't get me wrong. Diversity? It's top notch. When it's so obviously and blatantly forced, it makes me want to eat my own shit." The video seems to have gone relatively unnoticed until 2012, when he started getting called out for it on Tumblr. His initial response was defensive; the black comedian Franchesca Leigh, a friend of Oakley's, wrote on Tumblr that Oakley told her he was "too bored/exhausted to defend himself based on being witch-hunted regarding videos and tweets from 4 years ago."
Almost a year later, in November 2013, he wrote a Tumblr post called "On Privilege" that many read as a response to the controversy: "I guess another ah-ha moment is realizing that privilege is having your feelings hurt by being called racist or sexist or transphobic or problematic, but not actually having to face racism or sexism or transphobia day to day." Still, he seemed reluctant to address the diversity video specifically, writing that "A lot of things I’ve been accused of being problematic for happened years and years and years ago, but I still wanted to keep you in the loop, so thanks for getting through this mess of a blog post."
What felt "authentic" when Oakley was 19 feels cringeworthy now. And at the very least, he's refined his talking points — and acknowledging that, whether he signed on for it or not, he's a role model, with all of the (yes) privilege that entails. "I never went into it thinking, oh I'm gonna do this YouTube thing to become a role model, or whatever. But it's something that I would never want to deny, and just because it's not my intention doesn't mean it's the reality. So I try my darndest to be my best self and be really honest and open and say I will fuck up, and please hold me accountable and let's grow together."
Oakley is emphatic that that growth will continue to happen on YouTube, no matter what other platforms he embraces; in Snervous, he says, "My next step is adding things to what I'm doing, not leaving YouTube behind." But when I asked Oakley what was coming up for him in 2016, he was coy. "2015 was like, packed from January. 2016 is simultaneously open and packed — but I'm trying to keep 2016 open as possible so I can do weird, crazy, kooky stuff. But big stuff is coming up also. Big stuff that I can't say."
Like maybe TV, I asked? I could hear his manager laughing in the background. "Who knooooooows," said Oakley. "Who knows."