On March 22, Tyler Oakley's birthday became a trending topic on Twitter. There are plenty of household names who don't get that kind attention in their own households.
Though less conventionally famous, the 26-year-old L.A. YouTuber has amassed a Twitter following of 3.9 million. That's actually a smaller crowd than he has on YouTube, where more than six million subscribers follow his regular updates.
Oakley is a little taken aback by the attention. “They get creative,” he says of his audience. “They get inspired and make something trend worldwide.”
Oakley's fans, though, can do more than catapult birthdays into worldwide topics of discussion. Right now, they're raising money for Trevor Project, the suicide-prevention organization that focuses its efforts on LGBT youth. Oakley launched the annual fund drive three years ago, after noticing how many viewers sent him birthday gifts. “I don't have a lot of things that I need,” he says.
Just in the past year, Oakley has accomplished a lifetime's worth of fun. He runs down the list of achievements in a recap video — meeting the president of the United States, guesting on Joan Rivers' web series and traveling to Italy and Australia are just the start. More significantly, he's become a hero for the YouTube generation. While he may live the celebrity-filled, jet-set life now, Oakley started out making videos in his dorm room. Even now, he records his messages from home, gushing with genuine excitement, as though even he can't believe that a kid from Michigan could grow up to do these things. That down-to-earth attitude is what makes him so popular.
In the voluminous selection of videos on Oakley's channels, there is a clip of him watching the video of his birth with his mother, where embarrassment fades to acceptance. He has talked safe sex, watched porn (and cracked up over it) and answered questions from fans. The videos frequently balance silliness with depth, as though you're talking to a friend in the middle of the night.
Oakley, who was featured in the Frontline documentary Generation Like, is part of the wave of YouTube early adopters who have made a massive impact just by being themselves. He started uploading clips in 2007, while attending Michigan State University, to keep in touch with his high school friends. After college, he moved to San Francisco and got a day job in social media. When he tired of the gig, he moved full time to YouTube.
The social media background has helped Oakley immensely. He's not just big on YouTube and Twitter, but also on on Facebook, Instagram and Tumblr. “I'm essentially working from the moment I wake up to the moment I go to sleep,” says Oakley. “It's my biggest hobby, but also my favorite career that I could ever have. Every single platform is important.”
And Oakley makes good use of his college education. At Michigan State he studied subjects like public relations, public speaking and marketing. “A lot of the education that I got at Michigan State I still use to this very day,” he says.
Oakley moved to Los Angeles close to three years ago, but he's not home often. He spends a lot of time hitting up conventions and other events. Last year, he toured the northeastern portion of the United States. In May, he'll be back on the road, this time making his way to Ireland, the U.K. Canada and Australia, as well as covering parts of the western and southern sections of the U.S.
Describing his live shows as “Pee-Wee's Playhouse meets Ellen Degeneres' show,” Oakley says they're designed to resemble his live stream chats with fans. They play games. He tells stories. Fans can ask questions. People wear pajamas.
“Being on YouTube, your audience is kind of all over the place,” he says. The live shows are a way of reaching out to viewers who may live in places that don't have a lot of IRL entertainment options. Oakley points out that he grew up in the middle Michigan and understands what that's like.
The most poignant Oakley clip dates back to 2011. Oakley posted a National Coming Out Day video (see below) in which he mentions that he came out at 14, eight years before the recording, and encourages others to do the same. It's not one of his most-viewed clips, but it might be the most important one for understanding the Oakley phenomenon. Below the video, Oakley shares the number of crisis lines and links to a blog post with his own coming out story. While Oakley's mother and stepfather were supportive of the teenager when he came out, his dad wasn't. He closes the post with a message to other people who may be going through a similar situation. “It may feel like you're completely alone, but for every bigot who denies you, there is someone out there, whether you've met them yet or not, who does and will accept you completely,” he writes.
Since his first year on YouTube, Oakley has been receiving message from viewers who say that his videos have made an impact on their lives. “Every video I make, I want to make sure that it's doing something entertaining or hopefully inspiring or maybe teaching somebody something or sharing my mistakes so that they can learn from them or anything that will make a positive impact in the world,” he says.
One way in which Oakley makes an impact is fundraising for the Trevor Project, where he was once an intern. He wanted to continue helping them out after he hit it big. “All the money that's donated to the Trevor Project provides resources that directly affect the youth that actually watch my videos,” he says. “It's a cool thing to see them basically provide resources for each other.”
Last year, Oakley intended to raise $150,000, but the crowd brought in around $525,000. This year, he upped the stakes, setting the goal at half a million. When we spoke, the fundraising total was at $478,000. A few hours after that, the campaign surpassed its goal with a few days to spare. The drive ends today.
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