A scroll through Lilly Singh’s YouTube channel, called "llSuperwomanll," includes shots of the star wearing wigs and colourful costumes, impersonating her parents, and collaborating with fellow YouTubers to produce outlandish sketch scenes—sometimes all within the same video. Her 12 million subscribers eat her eccentric humour right up, and on July 30, so will the audience at the Lilly Singh Gala at this year’s Just For Laughs (JFL) comedy festival in Montreal. Since starting her YouTube channel in 2010, Singh has starred in films, created a viral hashtag for female empowerment, #GirlLove, and published a memoir, How to be a Bawse: A Guide to Surviving and Conquering Life. The McGill Tribune chatted with Singh via email to discuss the ups and downs of her career, writing her new book, and takeaways from going to university in Canada.
The McGill Tribune (MT): You get millions of views on most of your YouTube videos, so in comparison, the audience at a JFL gala is pretty small. Yet, for many comics, a gala is as big as it gets. Do you ever get nerves before going on stage for audiences this large? If so, how do you work through it?
Lilly Singh (LS): I absolutely get nervous, but I’m a big believer that success lies outside of your comfort zone. One of the hardest things to do is to be willing to fail. Sometimes you just have to count to three and throw yourself into something you’re nervous about doing. That way, you’ll be a little less nervous the next time you do it, and the next time, you’ll be slightly less nervous. It’s all just part of the process.
MT: You recently published a book, How to be a Bawse: A Guide to Surviving and Conquering Life. What was the process of brainstorming ideas for this book, and writing the book itself, like?
LS: When I started to write How to be a Bawse, I had an idealistic image in my head about the writing process: I was going to take three months off, sit by a fireplace and then the book would be done. Anyone who has written a book knows that was quite the fantasy! To write a book, you have to dedicate the time to do it and prioritize writing each day. Your progress isn’t always going to play out the way you envisioned, but that is okay!
MT: Your book talks about maintaining confidence and control in all areas of one’s life— which for many people, is easier said than done. Have you ever had moments in which you didn’t feel like a “Bawse,” and if so, how do you get through those moments?
LS: Of course I’ve had moments where I did not feel like a Bawse. A Bawse understands that in order to succeed, you need to learn how to get hurt [and recover] efficiently. Lessons are the silver-lining in any experience, whether it is a heartbreak, failure or other tough times. You should acknowledge that emotion because you will go through that experience again. Auditions are a great example. There have been several auditions where I’ve left wondering, ‘What could I have done better? Did they think my joke was funny? Was I the right fit this role?’ It is important to learn a lesson from every experience, even if that lesson is never do that again!
MT: Can you tell me about the first YouTube videos you ever made—did you feel nervous before putting them on the internet? What kinds of reactions did friends and your first viewers have?
LS: I made my first YouTube video in 2010. I wish you could have seen the amount of time I spent getting ready for it – doing my hair, my makeup, picking out the perfect outfit. I stood in front of the camera and read off a piece of paper and it was the worst, most awkward, cringe-worthy video. It was horrifying to make but when I put it up, people watched it. I distinctly remember my view count being 70 for that video. But, I thought 70 people was a lot of people for a video that I randomly put out and from someone who none of those viewers knew.
MT: You grew up in Canada and went to York University. What did you study at university, and what was your experience there like more generally? How did you decide to move from academia into YouTube/comedy?
LS: I studied Psychology at York University. I excelled in school, but realized the traditional career path was not for me. I hated the idea of living this linear life – take classes, go to grad school, get a job. When I made the decision to pursue YouTube full time, I was in the middle of applying for graduate school. My parents were keen on me getting my Master’s degree because they believed I needed something to fall back on. So, I started writing an essay for a Counselling Psychology program application. Halfway through, I stopped and stared at the screen. I couldn’t get myself to finish the essay because the area of study didn’t excite me and I couldn’t imagine doing it for four more years. At that moment, I slowly got out of my chair, walked to my parents’ room, and announced that I didn’t want to apply for graduate school, but instead wanted to pursue a different career. This was about seven years ago, and I haven’t looked back.