Behind the Smallest Screen: The Lives and Loading Times of Gay YouTube Stars
Clockwise from left: L.A.-based couple R.J. Aguiar and Will Shepherd, NYC's John J. Salomone, Lancaster, Calif.'s Michellé Hart, L.A.'s Tyler Oakley
Will Shepherd and R.J. Aguiar are a shining example of modern gay life. The 20-something fiancés moved to Los Angeles just nine months ago from Tallahassee, Fla. Shepherd loves Pokémon and Chipotle. Aguiar is a film buff. They have a dog, Dobby, that they often walk in their neighborhood on the outskirts of West Hollywood.
An observer would think the two to be a quintessential happy gay couple. Yet this sunny Friday afternoon, walking to dinner in West Hollywood, Shepherd and Aguiar are bickering.
“Can you let me talk for once?” Shepherd says sharply as Aguiar tries to interject into a story his fiancé is telling. It’s a tense moment. Aguiar apologizes. Shepherd takes a deep breath. “I’m not a controlling bitch,” he says. Then he continues his story.
It’s the kind of snipe that most couples trade all the time. The two are obviously in love, after all. But unlike most couples, Shepherd and Aguiar have thousands of people watching, analyzing, and responding to every moment they choose to share.
Shepherd and Aguiar are vloggers — video bloggers, members of the YouTube community who share a part of their lives on a regular basis. In their case, they film their everyday life — every single day, 365 days a year. And that’s just for their main channel. Shepherd also maintains his own gaming-focused channel, while Aguiar has a personal channel he describes as “a garbage dump for my brain.” They also both maintain personal Twitter accounts, have a lively presence on a slew of other social media outlets, run a website for their brand, Not Adam and Steve, collaborate with other vloggers on their videos, and find time to work on other projects, like The OMEn Chronicles, a YouTube pilot.
For the YouTube-uninitiated, this may sound impossible. Even sharing so much of your life — flaws and all — can be intimidating. But for the vloggers who make their bones on the business of personality, it’s expected.
In the past few years, YouTube has grown as a venue not just for silly viral videos but for vloggers looking to make their voices heard. These contributors — “creators” in YouTube parlance — aren’t celebrities or actors. For the most part, they’re ordinary people who excel at marketing themselves online. Creators’ audiences vary in demographic, but with YouTube conventions like Playlist Live and VidCon expanding each year, their consumers are not only growing in number but becoming more and more passionate.
Within the greater YouTube community exists a particularly vibrant swath of LGBT vloggers. This group started with trans men and women chronicling their transition and young LGBT people needing a venue to come out, but now has expanded far beyond that. Some LGBT YouTubers are massively popular and talk exclusively about gay issues. Some are less popular and talk about a broad range of topics. Others fall somewhere in between.
With the fifth annual VidCon set to take place in Anaheim, Calif., in late June — and with prominent media outlets like New York Magazine taking notice — LGBT YouTubers are now, more than ever, having a major moment. But who are the key players? What makes someone want to commit all this time to sharing their life on YouTube? And what exactly does it take to make an impact when dozens of other vloggers look and sound just like you?
“You cannot talk about gay YouTube without talking about Tyler Oakley,” Aguiar says of the 25-year-old vlogging powerhouse with bright purple hair. He’s not wrong — in many ways, Oakley is the mascot of gay YouTube. With 4.3 million subscribers, Oakley is far and away the most popular gay vlogger.
But when Oakley started filming videos of himself as a teenager in 2007, he never expected much to come of it. “People did it as a hobby, but only a very, very small group of people was doing it as a career,” he recalls. “As time went on, I grew my audience and grew what I was doing on YouTube. It had never occurred to me that it could be a full-time career until it hit that tipping point.”
Unlike Shepherd and Aguiar, who have a more demographically diverse audience, Oakley has a fan base composed primarily of young girls. As a self-described “professional fangirl,” he finds his viewership fits his brand well. But Oakley insists that brand is a pure distillation of him.
“At the end of the day, it’s me as a human,” he says. “If it’s me talking about my passions or me talking about my adventures or me talking about those things that bug me or my commentary about pop culture, it’s 100 percent what you see is what you get. That’s been my driving focus and mission from the start.”
Though Oakley remains incredibly active on YouTube, he hasn’t stayed there. Starting with a red carpet cohosting gig at the Trevor Project fundraiser TrevorLive a few years back, he’s quickly made his way into more traditional media gigs, most recently cohosting the red carpet preshow for the MTV Movie Awards.
“That boy hustles harder than any person I’ve seen,” Aguiar says of Oakley. “Insane work ethic. That’s why he’s kept it up for as long as he has: It works for him.”
His quick ascent made New York Magazine take notice — featuring him in a recent article on 20 up-and-coming Internet stars. But you don’t get to the top of the gay YouTube mountain without picking up some haters. One Tumblr blog, Tyler Faukley, was created solely to point out Oakley’s flaws. Another vlogger, Chescaleigh, has taken issue with Oakley’s previous statements about diversity.
How does Oakley deal with haters? How do you think? He makes videos, of course.
Oakley repeatedly emphasizes that his YouTube career makes him happy — and someone as successful as he is can’t let criticism stop him from doing what he thinks is right.
“I think the measure of a lot of what you do in life is, are you doing things that make you happy, and are you doing things that do good in the world?” he says. “I think I’ve found a pretty good balance of both.”