Lilly Singh says she was using the nickname “Superwoman” long before her popular YouTube series based on the character — a post-collegiate, mid-twenties South Asian Canadian who lives at home with her garrulous Punjabi parents — took off. Despite the bravado that a nickname like “Superwoman” projects, Singh says that for years, she was struggling. Trying her hand at sketch comedy on YouTube was initially an effort to beat back her depression. Four years later, it’s a business.
Singh’s channel, iiSuperwomanii, has more than four million subscribers, and she says about 80 percent of them are women between 14 and 25: a marketer’s dream audience. She posts a new show weekly, often conducts live streams to chat with her fans (in August, three thousand viewers tuned in), and is building a suite of ancillary products like merch, music videos, and separate Twitter accounts for her parent characters, @iiManjeetii and @iiParamjeetii. This is what the ascent to a place in the YouTuber firmament looks like, and Singh is the most visible South Asian from the hip hop generation among that crowd. I emailed her recently with a few questions about how she got there.
NK: What sparked the idea for “Superwoman,” and the themes of your videos?
LS: The idea of making videos on YouTube came from a few things. I was coming out of a really crappy period of my life; coming out of depression. I noticed that YouTube didn’t really have someone who looked like me speaking out.I really wanted to do something positive, and something that reminds not only myself, but other people, that life has ups and downs, it can be beautiful — and, you know, you pick yourself back up. From a business perspective, I noticed that YouTube didn’t really have someone who looked like me speaking out. There was no South Asian female representing, really. When I say representing, I mean representing the things I go through, not what all brown girls go through, because I don’t think I’m capable of doing that.
The reason my videos all have some sort of inspirational message is because…coming from a really dark period, I wanted to make sure there was always something that could make someone’s day be better. I know how much things like that impacted me when I was going through depression.
You play both of your parents in the series. How closely are the events inspired by your home life? Are they wary of how you’ll depict events at home?
A lot of the things that I talk about in my videos — not all of them — are real conversations I’ve taken and just exaggerated a bit. There’s a video I did about a flask, a video I did about a water bottle — all those skits are true things, and of course I just added some masala, a little bit of comedy, to them.
In terms of my parents, they’re pretty supportive. Every family party I have, people are always like, “This better not end up on YouTube!” They say it, and I always just remind them that, yes, I’m playing you in my videos. But my parent characters are actually nothing like my parents in real life. My parents are actually super cool! Not to say that my parent characters aren’t, but…I remind you that I’m playing stereotypical parents. So I’ve convinced them that it’s ok if I make videos like that.
For producers like you and Fousey, who depict their immigrant families and do it with loving humor, how do you make decisions about what aspects to parody? What does it take to do accents, etc. in a way that feels respectful, and not exploitative?
I think it is a fine line between being funny and then being stereotypical, and that’s something I’m super aware of. When you do things online, you kind of have to accept that no matter what you put out, a lot of people will like it, and a lot of people will hate it. And you can’t please everyone. I will never put up a video that I feel is offensive.
Not all Indian parents have accents. To be honest, my own parents don’t have accents. But as a performer, I’m playing all To be honest, my own parents don’t have accents.the characters. It’s me, in a room with a tripod and costumes. I need to convince the audience these are three different people — I need to make them extremely different. That’s why I make the mom cover her head, or the dad acts as ridiculous as he is. I want them to each have separate, strong character traits, solely from a performance point of view, a comedic sketch point of view. If they sounded like Superwoman, they wouldn’t have that differentiation.
My subconscious goal here is to normalize the accent. There’s nothing wrong with having an accent, and I don’t feel like it should be the main thing people hear. I feel like me doing an accent shouldn’t raise questions of “Oh, is she making fun of the accent?” No, why would I be making fun of an accent by doing an accent? Because there’s nothing funny about an accent. I’m trying to normalize it to where people don’t even pay attention to that.
For video producers trying to make a living from their YouTube platform, obviously it’s important to be responsive to fans. Some of your fans — especially young girls who post to your FB page — write you to say that watching your series has been therapeutic for them, even stopping them from doing self harm. How do you respond to/engage with those fans?
That is definitely one of the hardest (and best) parts of the job. I recognize every comment, tweet, and letter I get that says, “You helped me get over depression, you helped me stop self-harm.” That is such a surreal, overwhelming feeling. Especially for me, someone who’s been through depression. That feels so fulfilling to me, and so worth it, to do what I do, the fact that I can help someone who’s in the same situation as me.
Having said that, I try my best to say whatever I want to say that’s positive in videos, as opposed to responding to specific fans. I know realistically, I cannot respond to every fan that sends me a tweet, email or message like that. And I would hate to pick and choose fans I do that to. I would also hate to respond once, and not be able to respond again, where I leave someone hanging. I recognize that’s a dangerous situation, for them to become reliant on my response. I try to say whatever positive stuff I want to say in videos, so that everyone can hear it, and it applies to everyone.
I think they see that I’m someone who’s been through some stuff. I share these things publicly, and I think I practice what I preach when I say that life can still be beautiful. They see that I’m keeping it real, and I think that’s what resonates with them most.