Tyler Oakley may be the most consistent person in entertainment.
The 26-year-old got started making YouTube videos in college; he now has more than 7 million subscribers to a channel where he continues to build his personal brand simply by being himself, with titles like "Pancake Art FAIL" and "MY EPIC FOOD FIGHT." In each of them, he's exuberantly goofy and eager to share his slightly raunchy sense of humor and declassé taste in junk food with fans. He's as high-spirited when interviewing Michelle Obama, whom he called "queen," or in a borrowed designer suit on the red carpet of the Grammy Awards; he ended up accidentally throwing his fine garments into a dumpster.
That detail, along with many others from the intersection of Oakley's burgeoning fame and his ability to laugh at himself, is revealed in Binge, his first memoir, out Oct. 20. The book covers Oakley's Michigan upbringing, his relationship history and a variety of interactions with stars from Obama to One Direction. While Oakley goes darker than he ever has before—revealing his history with domestic violence and eating disorders—the book invariably returns to the sunny, fun tone familiar from his videos; the joke is always on him.
In conversation with TIME, Oakley talked about just how much work goes into maintaining a consistently breezy persona, as well as how the Internet is changing body image for teens and what makes him talented, rather than just lucky. Says Oakley: "You don’t have to get it." After all, millions already do.
TIME: Your book seems to take precisely the same ribald, humorous tone as your videos, even as it includes more challenging or upsetting subject matter. How are you able to be quite so consistent?
Tyler Oakley: That’s a very nice thing for you to say — well, is that a good thing? I think I have. Maybe I put myself in a good position from the start. Since the beginning I have always tried to just be me. There have been moments in my career as a YouTuber where I’ve recognized that I’m trying to emulate something else or I’m being heavily influenced by a YouTuber or something like that and I realize that’s not what I want to be putting out. I remember a distinct moment when it was my junior year of college and the content I was making was changing and not really myself, and I tried to switch back to just putting me out there. I’m happy that happened really early in my career, because that was before I started doing podcasts or writing. Being in control of presenting who I am and not trying to stray from that set me up to put my best foot forward as myself.
What is the message you’re trying to pass on?
What Binge really meant to me is—here’s what happens between the edits. What you see on the YouTube videos is the highlights reel of 10 or 20 minutes of me coming to the camera with a very clear thought of what I want to present. It’s not that I’m saying that’s not who I am, but it’s definitely the highlights reel. So Binge means embracing not just the highs and the lows, and encouraging the reader to do the same. For me, when it gets more serious, it’s me trying to figure out my life and saying, It’s okay if you don’t know it all, it’s okay if you don’t get it all. I think people can relate in some capacity, seeing themselves through my experiences.
It feels as though more and more teens are comparing themselves to social media and YouTube and feeling inadequate. Do you feel any responsibility to show a more unvarnished side—to convey that your life isn’t perfect?
I definitely am conscious of the opportunity to use my platform for good or whatever, but to me, first and foremost, I just want to be me, do what I’m doing, and the intention was never to be somebody who’s going to talk about serious things. YouTube has always been a diary for me. I’m here to share what I do, share my life, and if people want to watch, more power to them. But regardless of my intention, if people are looking at what I do and am treating it like I’m a role model, it doesn’t matter whether or not I want to be. It’s not just me: It’s anyone with a platform of any capacity, whether you’re a YouTuber or a musician or an actor or whatever. You don’t have to go into it saying “I want to be a spokesperson for this.” If people are looking up to you, it’s happening regardless or not. It’s up to that influencer to embrace it or ignore it, and if you ignore it, it’s a missed opportunity.
There was a moment in my own YouTube career when I said, I can either use what I have for good, or it’s a missed chance to positively affect people. When it came to Binge, it wasn’t my intention to get on a little soapbox and have a teaching moment. It was more: Here are things that have happened to me, here’s what I’ve learned from it. If you’d like to learn from it too, great; if you just like the entertainment aspect, that’s fine too.
You’ve been criticized for old posts perceived as racially insensitive. How do you deal with the fact that less enlightened or less aware versions of yourself don’t merely exist forever on the internet, but are held to the high standard of a role model?
That’s something I am still working through! With social media, and screenshots, and social-justice blogs and everything, it can be stressful and scary to have a platform where there’s a microscope. It can be intimidating—I was terrified to put anything out there because I felt like if I say one thing wrong, that could be the end. That’s what it felt like.
But, I think it’s important to rise to the challenge. For me, a missed step is an opportunity to grow and teach my people how I messed up and own up to it. One of my friends once told me, nobody is born with a sociology degree. To expect anybody to know all the nuances of how you can be problematic from the start is a little far-fetched. What I hope to do when I see one of my faves be problematic is to have an educational moment or to reach out and tell them why it could be harmful. There are two sides to this. There is this call-out culture where you want people with platforms to be held responsible, but then also, when somebody does do better, does apologize, and does use their platform for good, it’s important to recognize that. I try to not just hold the people that I look up to to a high standard, but to accept growth. It goes both ways. I hopefully rise to that challenge. Especially with the connection that social-media influencers have with their audience: They see the direct feedback. I want to be held accountable, and I want to grow. I want my viewership to expect more from me, because that’s what’s going to make me better.
How much do you have to tone down your sophistication for your videos? You have seen and understand a lot of things that your younger teen fans haven’t, or don’t.
I don’t try to change my perspective with the intention of them consuming it. It’s always my hope to be me, do me, and if people want to watch, that’s great. If I had tried to change my voice to be more accessible to a younger audience, I don’t know that the people that are currently tuning in would have tuned in. I just try to be my 26-year-old self, flaws and all, experiences of a 26-year-old and all, and I think people will maybe tune in. I don’t think I change my perspective. There are some people who do that. Between podcasts and videos, it’s not in my interest to change who I am.
Eventually, though, you’re going to be a 35-year-old YouTuber, and presumably you’ll have to adjust your act somewhat. How do you see your work evolving?
Who knows? Last year, I couldn’t have imagined this year. I couldn’t have imagined seeing my friends on billboards and magazines or in movies. That was the thing! It was so up-in-the-air of what it could be, which is terrifying and exhilarating. But I want to be doing it as long as I love it. If I still love it when I’m married with kids and I’m daily vlogging changing diapers, that’s cool. Who knows? I have no clue! It would be cool to have that as my scrapbook of going into adult life — the past eight years are a scrapbook where I can look at any week going back to my freshman year of college and see what I was up to. Who knows if, in ten years, vlogging will even be a thing people do? Maybe there will be a new version of that. I cannot predict.
You have more critics than most YouTube stars, and you also make a practice of acknowledging them—for instance, favoriting tweets that are critical of you. What accounts for the hate, and what do you get out of engaging with it?
I feel like when you put yourself out there and when you expose yourself to the degree that social media people do, there’s a vulnerability to it, and I also think social media influencers are an easier target in some ways, because they are so connected to the people that give feedback. Would you go off on Donald Trump? He’s less likely to see it. Does that have as much of a payoff as targeting someone who will see it?
It would also bother him less, given his wealth.
I would question that. Everyone is just doing their best — to a degree, I don’t know if Donald Trump is doing his best — but everyone is doing them. So to see criticism can affect people, whether it’s one of the most powerful people, or one of the people you think might have their s--- the most together. I think everybody is, to a degree, affected by it. I try to respond to people who are positive and encouraging. I spend every day responding to tweets from my people. But I do see a lot that’s negative. If I do acknowledge it, it’s less to start something and more to show them… You’re talking about a human and a human can see that. Is this the presence that you want to have? To me, I want to say, “You would never say that to someone in person.” I want people to be conscious of their impact.
Has social media exacerbated body-image issues for young people?
I can only speak from my own perspective on it. It’s a journey that I have been pretty open about. And it’s something that I still deal with. I don’t know if social media exacerbates the problem, but in the past year, I’ve seen so many people speak out about body positivity and have conversations about slut-shaming and issues that were never discussed when I was younger. While there might be pressure to edit yourself, use a filter, or find the best angle—the things that might be more harmful — the other side of the situation is all the conversations happening that I never witnessed when I was younger. What you get from social media depends on what you want out of it. You could follow blogs that encourage you to edit yourself and find your best angle, or you could find people that are more body-positive, sex-positive, or whatever. I always say, social media, whether it’s Twitter or Tumblr—you can’t say “I hate Tumblr.” Tumblr is only what you follow. And if you’re following a certain thing you’re getting something out of, that’s on you. That’s not on Tumblr. So I think a young person’s experience with social media can only be defined by the type of people that they follow. With that in mind, I try to be a person that would put a positive spin on these issues.
Your appeal comes from your relatability, but you’ve interviewed the First Lady and done the red carpet at the Grammys. When will your life become unrelatable?
I was doing a “Favorite Things” video recently—which is so YouTuber of me—and I was talking about these oil-blotting things and said “They’re perfect for red carpets.” It was the least relatable thing I’d ever said! But the intention is not to be relatable; it’s just to be me. Relatability goes into how much people can connect with you. Authenticity is more important than attempting to seem relatable if that comes across as trying hard. I would rather be me than something that’s more retweetable. But a lot of YouTubers have a moment like I did talking about red carpets. Is that something that people will get? I try to find a healthy balance between who I am and what I do, and knowing the audience.
What makes what you do a talent?
As someone who does it for a profession and who looks at other people in the industry and understands what they do, there’s a lot that goes into it and makes it seem effortless. With that, I think a lot of people see it and think, “They just put up a video and get to walk a red carpet!” At least with the book and with the documentary coming out, I very much want to show behind the scenes so that people can get a better understanding of it. When I think about my favorite creators, when you take away the editing and the lighting and the fancy cameras, they’re great storytellers. Great storytellers exist in multiple mediums throughout history and are appreciated in a lot of ways throughout history. I don’t see it as different from people who are writers, or who do TV shows or movies. Whatever type of entertainment you like, it’s just another form of entertainment. When I think of my favorite authors, I could enjoy a chapter, and that could give me as much enjoyment as a vlog from one of my favorite YouTubers. So if people don’t get it, that’s fine.
There are a lot of types of entertainment that I don’t like to tune into. But I don’t think it’s my place to say, “You people enjoying this type of entertainment are lesser for enjoying it.” Being a part of a new type of entertainment makes me want to open my eyes and be less critical of other types of entertainment that I don’t really get. Who am I to say something is valid or not?