After spending nearly nine years on YouTube producing what he dubs a video diary, Tyler Oakley has steered his ebullient comedic personality onto the TV screen.
The 27-year-old inked a pact in spring with Ellen DeGeneres to develop TV projects, and appeared on CBS’ “Amazing Race” last season. (He and his traveling companion, podcaster Korey Kuhl, made it to the finals but lost.)
There’s mutual admiration between DeGeneres — a major digital star in her own right — and Oakley, who says he’s “been pretty open and honest about my adoration for her for years” and counts her as a creative influence. “She’s somebody I said, ‘If I ever did TV, I wouldn’t want to do it with anyone but her,’” he says. “Now, making it happen, it’s a dream come true. It’s what I wanted all along… It feels like a brand-new job.”
That said, Oakley has no intention of abandoning his YouTube channel, where he posts segments ranging from his life experiences to ruminations on pop culture. “I’m the biggest fan of other YouTubers; it’s all about community,” he said, citing transgender star Gigi Gorgeous among his faves. “And my audience, they totally influence what I do,” he adds. (One of his recent hits: “Gay Guy Learns About Vaginas,” featuring fellow YouTuber Hannah Hart.)
The secret of Oakley’s popularity? “He is a professional best friend, someone who makes you feel confident and heard,” says his manager, Lisa Filipelli, VP of talent at AwesomenessTV’s Big Frame. Oakley also has a keen business sense, she adds. “He has an ability to be a chameleon, to get on stage and talk to thousands of teenagers, but also to sit in a room with executives and explain why he is who he is and why he does what he does.”
As he boosts his profile in traditional media, Oakley says he has to work even harder to remain true to himself so that he doesn’t come off as a phony, given that he’s working with a team of producers and writers instead of creating his one-man show. “The biggest thing I’ve learned is to trust my gut,” he says. “When it comes to making content, viewers — of all entertainment — can see through everything, whether it’s a transparency of working with brands, or performance aspects of creating who you are online. You just have to be honest and authentic and do what makes you happy.”
In addition to releasing a book (“Binge”) and a documentary feature (“Snervous” from Awesomeness Films) and staging sold-out nationwide tours, Oakley also has rallied his fan base to support charitable causes, including the Trevor Project, dedicated to prevention of suicide among LGBT youth.
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Oakley, who grew up in Michigan and now lives in Los Angeles, believes Hollywood is more accepting than it used to be that “digital creator” is a legitimate job. But succeeding online requires an enormous amount of stamina and hard work, he says, noting that he uploaded YouTube videos for five years before he went full-time. “The best creators on the Internet make it seem effortless — and there’s an art to that.”
The biggest challenge for Oakley is unplugging and avoiding burnout. “Like any job, you have to recharge,” he says. One of his recent getaways: a trip to Las Vegas with friends to see Céline Dion.
Despite his millions of fans, Oakley still has a suspicion that Internet fame could be fleeting. “It’s hard to say no to new things,” he says, “because this may not last forever.”