STREAMING: THE STARS OF YOUTUBE

November 10, 2019

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Iqra Aziz
Iqra Aziz

Why wait for opportunities when you can create them, all on your own? Opportunity, after all, can be a fickle creature, so easily swayed by partisanship, political and social factors or even mere mood swings. And in the world of show business, stalwarts will tell you that there are times when opportunity just doesn’t come your way.

Luckily, stars now have YouTube: an all-pervasive, all accessible, free platform where the truly inventive can create content and float it out to the world. It is a platform that has created stars of its very own: ‘vloggers’ who have now become millionaires with their thriving YouTube channels with scores of followers worldwide.

It has also become a launch-pad for stars who proceeded to build their careers after their initial whiffs of success on the internet. Justin Bieber and Shawn Mendes, for example, jump-started their careers via YouTube and, on home ground, a 16-year-old Asim Azhar began by floating out his music on the web portal, building a fan following until, one fine day, an offer from Coke Studio came his way.

There is, however, another genre of YouTubers that is prevalent in cyberspace: big name stars that have launched YouTube channels of their own. It isn’t quite enough that they are scoring mega-movie contracts and attending the most glamorous parties and awards ceremonies — they have decided to cash in on their popularity and their high-flying lifestyle by opening up parts of their lives to audiences on YouTube.

For Pakistani celebrities hoping to fight off stereotypes or waiting for that one role that will finally prove their mettle, the wait seems to be over. They’ve found YouTube. It helps that it can also be quite lucrative

Zac Efron makes short videos of his travels while Will Smith just posts glimpses of his gloriously glitzy life and his picture-perfect family. The Rock likes to show behind-the-scenes snippets from the projects that he’s involved in while also shooting plenty of workout videos because, well, he likes to work out! There are plenty more celebrity YouTube channels, offering fans insights into the lives and personalities of their favourite stars.

In Pakistan, show business’ Gen-X — as well as some savvy veterans — have also caught on to the trend. A small smattering of talk shows have popped up on YouTube, although not many have been able to last for long. A few local musicians upload their music on their personal channels and a quickly increasing number of young stars with state-of-the-art cellphone cameras are getting adept at making short videos wherever they go and uploading them on to the internet.

Actress Samina Peerzada could perhaps be considered the country’s most successful celebrity YouTuber. Her talk show, Rewind with Samina Peerzada, has been pushing out online content for two years now and is widely watched. It is also popular as fodder for memes in which, following the format of the personal questions asked in the show, a caricature of Samina is usually accompanied by a ridiculous question. These are jokes that only people who have seen the show will understand but, given the frequency of these memes, it seems as if a lot of people truly are watching the show.

Hira Tareen
Hira Tareen

Samina points this out. “I really don’t mind the jokes because it means that someone has taken out the time to think them up and then to create a graphic around them. It also means that all the many people making these memes and sharing them are well-acquainted with the show and its format. That’s a great thing!”

Ayesha Omer began YouTubing some six odd months ago and discovered that she was a pro at it. Her videos vary from covering a visit to a school for the underprivileged to nutritional advice, workout sessions, make-up tutorials and — her most popular upload so far — a behind-the-scenes tour of the set of the hit sitcom in which she acts, Bulbulay.

There are others, chalking their own cyber-routes. Iffat Omar has recently decided to dabble with the talk show format. Musician Bilal Khan has a personal YouTube channel where he uploads his music as well as casual videos of himself traveling, behind the scenes on sets or spending time with friends. A lot of these friends are, of course, some very famous people. Ayesha Omer began YouTubing some six odd months ago and discovered that she was a pro at it. Her videos vary from covering a visit to a school for the underprivileged to nutritional advice, workout sessions, make-up tutorials and — her most popular upload so far — a behind-the-scenes tour of the set of the hit sitcom in which she acts, Bulbulay.

Another avid YouTuber, Hira Tareen also likes to create content that covers the many facets of her life, from her acting projects to music video shoots, random trips to local festivals, skincare tips and tackling motherhood.

Actress and host Juggun Kazim has been YouTubing for about a year now and she says that she tries to work on topics that she feels will interest Pakistani viewers. “People often ask me questions on social media and that helps me decide what I want to cover on YouTube,” says Juggun. “I’m frequently asked for tips on hair and make-up, or fitness, or more serious issues such as PCOS [Polycystic Ovary Syndrome] and how to overcome them. I like to address these queries via YouTube. There’s also a lot of content which is just based on things that are a part of my life: my fitness routine, cooking or my salon, Magnifique.”

Samina Peerzada
Samina Peerzada

Unlike many of her peers who post content sporadically, Juggun is strictly following a format in her YouTubing career: she makes sure that she posts at a certain time, twice a week and makes an effort to single out days entirely dedicated to filming online content. “Sometimes, I’ll just shoot four to five videos in a day, perhaps centered round a single topic such as hair and make-up or exercise. That way, I manage to create enough content to post for an entire month at least.”

Other TV talk show hosts have similarly gone ‘online’: Nadia Khan, who churns out anything from celebrity interviews to product endorsements to the very real issue of ‘how to lose your double chin’; Shaista Lodhi, whose content varies from celebrities to the work that she does in her ‘Aesthetics Clinic’; and Javeria Saud’s fledgling channel has so far been dominated by tours of her home.

But long painstaking videos cannot simply be created with the altruistic intention of pleasing fans. It’s no secret that successful YouTube channels can become very lucrative, attracting offers for product endorsements, being bought off by major web portals or latching on to heavyweight sponsors.

A younger casual perspective is provided by actresses Hania Aamir and Iqra Aziz, who have opted to follow a more random format, making videos that may just be an overview of their day, adding in quips and spontaneous commentaries. Iqra Aziz, a YouTube newbie, chose to launch her channel with videos of her recent trip to the Hum Awards in Houston, USA. From the long flight to the US to the actual awards ceremony, Iqra allowed fans an up-close look at her life, often appearing on screen without makeup and including entertaining little bits — a conversation with a taxi driver, snapshots from the trip and the euphoria that she was met with on the red carpet!

Ayesha Omar
Ayesha Omar

“I’m enjoying connecting with my fans via YouTube,” says Iqra, “although it’s a lot of hard work.”

But if it is such hard work, why do these stars — many of whom have their hands full with TV and film projects — take out extra time for YouTube?

It’s all about the fans

“I just want my fans to get to know me in a more personal way,” observes Iqra. “When we are interviewed for TV, the questions follow a certain format. The interviews may be following a particular agenda — perhaps a project needs to be promoted or a certain topic is being pursued. With my personal YouTube space, I feel free from these restrictions. I’m generally a shy person and I have always preferred to enjoy a moment rather than rush about making videos and taking photographs of it. But I’m slowly now getting accustomed to the idea of filming things. Fortunately, I’m quite comfortable with appearing on screen without make-up and speaking my mind. That helps!

“Yasir has played a huge role in convincing me to work on my YouTube channel,” she says, giving credit to her fiancé, actor Yasir Hussain. “He was the one who suggested that since we were going on a trip to Houston to attend a star-studded awards ceremony, I could make it the topic of my first few YouTube videos.”

Hira Tareen
Hira Tareen

For Hira Tareen, YouTube has served as a converging point for her diverse career choices, while being flexible enough to suit the changes in her life when she became a mum. “I just felt that people would sometimes get confused about my professional choices,” explains Hira. “I’m an actor, I was a professional DJ when I was in Dallas and still do the occasional gig, I have a creative graphic design background, I have my own clothing label and I even model sometimes. This is just the way I am and I felt that YouTube could be the platform that would unify my personality. It truly explains who I am to my fans as they follow me, through different projects or a simple make-up routine. I don’t follow a script and it’s all very natural. I think that’s very important for a YouTube channel. It needs to be personalised and unforced rather than have the feel of a scripted show.

“I really binge-watched YouTube when I was expecting my first baby and was stuck at home. That’s when I realised that having a channel of my own would be a great idea!” says Hira.

There are others, such as Juggun Kazim, who already connect with audiences regularly via TV. “Yes, I have a two-hour-long show on TV but content on it has to be a certain way,” she says. “With YouTube, I’m not restricted in any way and I can run the channel however I like.”

And Ayesha Omer, with her hectic schedule that yo-yos from TV shoots to modeling assignments, feels that YouTube allows her to give voice to topics that she feels passionate about. “My channel started out just so randomly. I had visited a home for orphans and I posted a video about it earlier this year. It was the month of Ramazan and I felt that, perhaps, people would see the video and become inclined to give charity to the home. That video just started things off. It’s tough work, but I love the end result. My fans ask me so many questions and I can address them with entire videos. For instance, I’m really passionate about nutrition and I frequently talk about my dietary choices via my YouTube channel.”

What particularly makes celebrity YouTubers appealing is how successive videos tend to personalise them to fans. Ayesha Omer will refer casually to a broken collar-bone that she has endured for some time now, mentioning how it is difficult for her to put her arms up for too long. Hania Aamir will poke fun at the allegation that she is ‘badtameez’. And Iqra Aziz will grin in stark sunlight and comment that the bright light can make one look pretty. These little nuggets of information do strip the mystery off a star but, then again, many present-day celebs don’t really aspire to be mysterious. They’d rather befriend their fans and take them along on rollicking rides!

Money matters

Iqra Aziz
Iqra Aziz

But long painstaking videos cannot simply be created with the altruistic intention of pleasing fans. It’s no secret that successful YouTube channels can become very lucrative, attracting offers for product endorsements, being bought off by major web portals or latching on to heavyweight sponsors. Samina Peerzada’s show, for instance, now has a multinational sponsor. Ayesha Omer’s channel occasionally features sponsored collaborations with brands. Certain celebrity YouTubers — Ayesha Omar and Hira Tareen, for example — are currently considering going on-board with global portals that single out online influencers and promote them on their forums.

“Why not?” says Ayesha Omer. “But product placements and endorsements need to be done intelligently, without being too overbearing. That’s very important.”

Most significantly, though, YouTube allows artists to fulfill their creative aspirations. Faiza Saleem, one of Pakistan’s foremost social media comediennes, once pointed out to me that she would often get offers of unimaginative roles that stereotyped her as the comical overweight girl. She refused to succumb to these offers and, instead, chose to create roles for herself via YouTube — roles that went on to prove her versatility and made her hugely popular.

Similarly, many Pakistani stars are also constantly fighting off stereotypes. In an industry that is hugely competitive and increasingly crowded, there are those who wait in vain while the right chances never manage to come their way, given away to other ‘favourites’. They wait, wanting that one role that will prove their mettle, but sometimes never get it.

A lot of them don’t have to wait anymore. Not when there’s YouTube.

Published in Dawn, ICON, November 10th, 2019