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YouTube stars attract millions of fans with quirky content

| Friday, Dec. 5, 2014, 6:52 p.m.
Tyler Oakley during one of his 'Slumber Party' appearances.
Ben Chandler
Tyler Oakley during one of his 'Slumber Party' appearances.
Lifestyle and fashion adviser Bethany Mota in one of her YouTube videos.
YouTube
Lifestyle and fashion adviser Bethany Mota in one of her YouTube videos.
Tyler Oakley, YouTube star
Rae Marshall
Tyler Oakley, YouTube star
Nash Grier (left) and Cameron Dallas during an appearance on ABC's 'Good Morning America.'
Nash Grier (left) and Cameron Dallas during an appearance on ABC's 'Good Morning America.'
PewDiePie — Swedish vlogger Felix Kjellberg, 25 — runs the most-subscribed individual channel on YouTube, with 32 million fans.  It's mostly him commenting on video games.
PewDiePie — Swedish vlogger Felix Kjellberg, 25 — runs the most-subscribed individual channel on YouTube, with 32 million fans. It's mostly him commenting on video games.

Not that long ago, few fully understood the Internet's ability to create celebrities like Tyler Oakley — least of all, Tyler Oakley.

“I don't think anybody on YouTube thought something like this would get this big,” says Oakley, 25.

He's referring to his hobby-turned-career of posting videos documenting his everyday life to YouTube. How big it's become is evident by the number of people who watch each and every one of these few-minute snippets. Oakley's posts have earned him 5.7 million YouTube subscribers, 3.4 million Twitter followers, his own podcast and now, his very own tour, which comes Dec. 13 to Carnegie Library Music Hall in Munhall.

Oakley is among a handful of Internet stars who got their starts with popular posts that showcase their personalities. Some, like Oakley— who regularly posts short segments about everything from what his morning routine is like to funny stories from hanging out with friends — are simply effervescent and friendly. Others, such as Vine stars Nash Grier and Cameron Dallas, are over-the-top and funny. Some simply show off their fashion sense, a la Bethany Mota.

But despite having no definable talent per se, a select few of these stars are cashing in. Oakley has become a much-loved media figure, with two Teen Choice Awards and inclusion as one of The Advocate's 40 Under 40 Emerging Voices. Grier and Dallas signed a movie deal with AwesomenessTV. Mota was on this season of ABC's “Dancing With the Stars.”

On Dec. 3, Comedy Central's “South Park” billed a guest appearance by YouTube megastar PewDiePie as the show's “biggest celebrity cameo ... ever.” It's available now at southpark.cc.com.

PewDiePie — Swedish vlogger Felix Kjellberg, 25 — runs the most-subscribed individual channel on YouTube, with 32 million fans. It is mostly of him narrating the action as he plays video games. He earned $4 million in revenue on YouTube in 2013.

Internet stars can make money in a variety of ways, including linking their content to advertisements that play before each post, aligning themselves with certain brands and product placement.

“A lot of YouTube stars do a pretty good job of marketing themselves, building a brand and trying to capitalize on that,” says Steve Tanzilli, chairman of the Sports, Arts and Entertainment Management program at Point Park University.

The YouTube star phenomenon can be attributed partly to the short attention span of the video creators' target audience, experts say.

“We're just looking for so many different outlets to be entertained,” Tanzilli says. “The 18- to 24-year-old market is not turning on the TV; they're not listening to the radio. They're pulling stuff off their phone and the Internet.”

Yet, those same short attention spans mean the stars' 15 minutes of fame are ticking by faster than ever.

“You can't hold anybody's attention for 15 minutes on the Internet,” says Christine Whelan, sociologist in School of Human Ecology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who previously taught at the University of Pittsburgh. “Now, we have 10 minutes of fame.”

When it comes to filling those 10 minutes — or, in the case of Vine stars, six seconds — there's little creative restriction.

“You can be crazier and take more risks because you don't have to jump through the rules of a production house,” Whelan says. “You can get raw and real, and that very much appeals to this generation. It's a democratizing of fame, and that lure that anyone can be famous if you get the right video to go viral. Some do get contracts and a fair amount of short-term money. It's very elusive, though.”

How to extend those 15 minutes is “a very tricky question and something we're often helping our stars with,” says Mike Fabio, managing partner of MAGCON, a meet-and-greet convention where fans can meet their favorite social-media stars. Every show features a rotating cast of entertainers, including musicians, comedians, actors and filmmakers. There have been 23 MAGCON events in 14 cities over the past year. The show came to Pittsburgh in October.

“Our stars are largely teenagers,” Fabio says. “As their fans get older, they may or may not grow out of the stars they love. Staying relevant is always critical. They have to be engaging fans on an ongoing basis. There is no doubt social-media fans are a fickle bunch. They tend to move around a lot and choose different stars they're interested in at any given time. It's largely a matter of staying connected with the fans as much as you can and continuing to update your persona and content.”

It takes a savvy business sense, coupled with a keen awareness of your audience, to keep the momentum of Internet fame going, Whelan says. Some stars, like Oakley, use their success as a means to promote a message they hold dear. Oakley is an advocate for the gay community and helps raise funds for the Trevor Project, an organization dedicated to suicide prevention among LGBT youth.

“He's a real, approachable messenger for a cause that has some gravitas behind it,” Whelan says. “That's different from ‘Gangnam Style.' This is somebody who's advocating a message that very much resonates with young adults.”

Oakley first started making videos in his living room as a hobby to help him keep in touch with friends.

“As time went on, it turned into something bigger,” Oakley says. “I get that it's an opportunity to have a platform to reach an audience and impact them for the better. Maybe they don't have somebody they can relate to where they live.

“My favorite thing is hearing from people from around the world who have said that maybe watching one of my videos was a reason why they smiled that day or reason why they feel less alone,” he says. “A message like that outweighs any negative response. Online can be full of anonymous, rude people, but seeing those messages makes everything worth it.”

His tour is like “taking my living room and plopping in another city,” he says. It will feature stories he's not told online yet, as well as lots of audience participation for games and video creation.

For any fan who's interested in following a similar path, Oakley has a simple piece of advice.

“Start today,” he says. “The hardest part is making that first video. It's going to suck. All first videos do. You just have to do it. ‘Practice makes perfect' is literally what have to go through on YouTube. Figure out how you film and how you edit. Do not emulate any other YouTubers you love. Finding your own voice takes practice.”

Rachel Weaver, a staff writer for Trib Total Media, can be reached at 412-320-7948 or rweaver@tribweb.com.

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