Tyler Oakley reflects on YouTube fame and activism


Sarah Cutshall | Visual Editor

Youtuber Tyler Oakley speaks about Ubers while introducing himself at Pitt Program Council’s “An Evening with Tyler Oakley.”

By Elizabeth Donnelly, Staff Writer

Tyler Oakley began his YouTube career in 2007 under the impression that only his friends and family would watch his videos. Little did he know that 12 years later he would be sitting in the William Pitt Union speaking about his YouTube career, LGBTQ+ activism and life as an internet celebrity to a room full of more than 250 Pitt students — only a small segment of his fanbase.

Oakley is a professional YouTuber with more than 7.5 million subscribers, and his videos cover a range of topics within the LGBTQ+ and pop culture communities. He is a New York Times bestselling author for his book “Binge” and was on the Forbes 30 under 30 list in 2017.

The Monday evening discussion with Oakley featured an audience question-and-answer session following a facilitated discussion with Pitt Program Council executive board director Nikita Iyer. Oakley discussed a variety of topics ranging from his favorite YouTubers to collaborate with to how to find balance in life to his small feud with former One Direction member Liam Payne.

Many students and Pitt Program Council members were excited to have him as a guest and see him off-screen.

“We thought Tyler would be a little bit different than what we normally do and that he would be a good choice for tonight,” Jenna Lehan, a sophomore biology major and PPC’s incoming lecture director said. “I think it is interesting to see him not in a YouTube video and to see what he is like [in real life].”

Oakley spoke about his claim to fame on the internet and how he initially was bewildered at non-friends and family viewing his videos.

“I kept making videos to keep in touch and send videos to people I knew so that I wouldn’t have to keep updating people with the same stories at different times. I think it was just a very natural slow addiction to creating and connecting in a different way that people didn’t really do at the time,” Oakley said. “Nobody was doing YouTube full time — it was just a way to keep in touch and slowly turned into something from there.”

He also commented on experiencing homophobia and hatred for the first time on YouTube due to his place in the LGBTQ+ community . When he was younger he lived in a relatively accepting and supportive community, so when he started gaining traction on YouTube, he started experiencing hatred he hadn’t encountered before.

“Starting YouTube was bittersweet because everyone was so sweet and kind to me, but it was also the first time I had experienced anybody being mean. My high school and community were really supportive of me — spoiler alert, I’m gay — so when I would see people being homophobic in the comments, it really opened my eyes,” Oakley said. “I lived in a bubble, in a good way, but also in a way that didn’t allow me to grow and see other queer people’s negative experiences with things like this.”

Many students, including sophomore psychology major Beatrice Fadrigon, were also excited that the University brought in a queer YouTuber and activist.

“This event was nice for me because I watched Tyler when I was younger and it was my first kind of queer representation,” Fadrigon, who is the president-elect of AQUARIUS, Pitt’s queer Asian student alliance, said. “And I just really liked how he was able to mix comedy and his personal life with his activism.”

While Oakley is known for his bright and cheery attitude, he did not shy away from the more pressing themes brought up during this evening. When one audience member submitted a question about how to be a good ally to LGBTQ+ peers, Oakley offered his best advice.

“You need to listen more than you talk. Everyone around you has had experiences that you can help to amplify. Do your research first. Don’t come out of the gates thinking you’re the number-one spokesperson for a certain topic,” Oakley said. “Being an ally is something you have to prove everyday. It’s not a label you get once and then can just keep without continuously speaking up.”

Oakley also spoke about how to maintain a balance between one’s career, personal life and creative endeavors.

“I am not good at that. It is really challenging at times because with my job a lot of what is personal becomes my content. There is a blurred line between what is for me and what I make,” Oakley said. “Over the years I’ve gotten a lot better at it, I feel like I used to be more of an open book but now I realize that some things can just be for me. To make sure there are pockets of your life that are just for you, and not performative, is really important.”

Tara Kim, a sophomore biology major, has been a longtime fan of Oakley, so when the opportunity to see him in real life presented itself, she took full advantage.

“I’ve always watched Tyler Oakley, especially in middle school, so my 13-year-old self is internally screaming,” said Kim. “He was always just an inspiration and always put a smile on my face every time I watched his videos and I just love how creative he is, how passionate he is about everything and how he just doesn’t care and puts whatever he wants out on the internet, which I think is amazing.”

When it comes to things like hate comments or internet trolls, Oakley likes to take a positive reinforcement approach — he disregards the negativity and focuses on the kindness and love he receives from fans.

“I think it was really important that the University hosted this and allowed a space for more queer representation,” Fadrigon said. “I think it’s cool that in the fall they had Antoni, who is queer, and now they’ve had Tyler, who is queer. I think if we could diversify a bit from the white gays, that would be good, but representation like this is important.”