To see this and other fascinating stories, check out the Winter 2015 issue of YorkU Magazine.
Lilly Singh (BA ’10) doesn’t think she’s famous, even though the 26-year-old sassy comic and entertainer has attracted more than four million subscribers on her YouTube channel and become a household name in South Asian homes in just four years.
“What? Who? Never. People like Beyoncé, they are famous,” she says.
But on a recent trip to YouTube FanFest in Mumbai, India, Singh – known as Superwoman to her fans – was treated like a superstar by Bollywood celebrities. “People were going nuts for me there,” Singh says. “It was a huge realization that I’m recognized by people in the industry – holy crap, I’m someone.”
Long before YouTube existed, when Singh was about eight years old, she began calling herself Superwoman based on the hip-hop song of the same name by American recording artist Lil’ Mo. Then, four years ago, the York psychology grad had a random idea to post a video on YouTube under her alter ego. That was the beginning of Superwoman’s rise to Internet stardom.
“At the time, I wasn’t even totally aware of what YouTube could become,” Singh recalls. “I didn’t think it could be a career, I didn’t think I could make a lot of money from it, I didn’t think it would be sustainable by any means. I just had an idea and wanted to creatively express it somehow.”
More than anything, Singh fell in love with the creative process and excitement of producing content – hilarious Punjabi skits about anything and everything – the way she likes. She put her life on social media, stating on her Twitter bio: “Spent thousands of dollars on tuition, graduated and got a degree. I make YouTube videos now.” Her parents assumed it was just a phase their daughter was going through (they had hoped she would become a doctor or lawyer), but Singh saw an opportunity to tap into the South Asian community that lacked a female comedy presence.
“They’ve accepted that this is my career because of the success I’ve been fortunate enough to have,” says Singh, who still lives with her parents in Markham, Ont. when she’s not travelling and performing around the world. “Now they are super supportive, they are my biggest fans. It has definitely been a journey to get them to this place, but it’s a pretty unconventional career.”
From videos like “Sh*t Brown People Say at Fam Jams” and “Annoying People on Facebook” to “When White People Listen to Indian Music” and “My Parents Reacting to Someone I’m Dating,” Singh has used YouTube as a platform to address issues in the Punjabi community with humour. Her unapologetic way of poking fun at stereotypes about South Asians has earned her the nickname “The Tina Fey of Punjabis.”
Unlike Fey, who studied playwriting and acting at university, Singh has never taken any classes in drama or video editing. Not only is she self-taught, but Superwoman is, for the most part, a one-woman show that makes people laugh out loud.
“I don’t even think I’m funny. I think people just laugh at me,” Singh says. “I love playing characters and one that’s most fun to play is my dad, Manjeet, which is nothing like my actual dad. He’s very eccentric, he gets to be very ugly and I like being really, really ugly.”
In addition to making YouTube videos (more than 300 posted and 400 million views to date), Singh vlogs, performs standup comedy, raps and acts. Last summer, in collaboration with rapper, author and spoken-word artist Humble The Poet,
Singh released a song titled “#LEH,” a Punjabi slang meaning disapproval. Last fall, she appeared at the Toronto International Film Festival for the Indo-Canadian production Dr. Cabbie, in which she played a small part. An entrepreneur, Singh is also a motivational speaker for school children and operator of Unicorn Island, her online store featuring funky Superwoman products.
“It’s important for people to understand there’s a whole lot of work you have to do to accomplish what you want to do,” Singh says. “The biggest thing York did for me was it showed me all of the things I don’t want to do. The greatest life lessons I ever learned were because I was at York and was part of clubs and teams.”
One of those lessons is to be real and true to herself. Most of the time, it involves acting silly in front of the camera. “There’s so much pressure for females to be so pretty and ladylike. I am not that. I’m sitting in doughnut pyjamas right now,” Singh says. “I think everyone should be real and that should be portrayed. I feel like everyone we see on TV, in magazines, they are wonderfully flawless-looking. That’s OK, there’s nothing wrong with that, but I like to look silly and real. That’s just my thing.”