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TYLER OAKLEY: Turning YouTube fun into a powerful purpose

  • Author:
    Catherine Ferland
  • Published:
    Summer 2016

Social media celebrity Tyler Oakley, 27, makes a living simply being ebullient, zany and charismatic—for an Internet audience of more than eight million fans.

The YouTube sensation, and MSU alumnus, posted his first videos as a freshman living in the dorms. It was 2007 and YouTube was in its infancy. While he started out interviewing friends and giving dorm room tours, he now interviews people such as Michelle Obama and reports live from the red carpets of the Grammys and the Oscars.

He’s appeared on such TV programs as The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, The Ellen DeGeneres Show and The View. You may have seen him compete on the 2016 Emmy Award-winning CBS reality show The Amazing Race with his best friend, Korey Kuhl, a fellow Spartan.

Oakley is a popular voice among his peers in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ+) community.

LGBTQ+ youth who tune into his YouTube channel may see reflections of themselves in Tyler. And straight people may experience a virtual—yet genuine—encounter with an unabashedly gay man. “Representation matters. Visibility helps everyone,” he said in a backstage interview at the Wharton Center.

Oakley appeared in February as part of the Innovate State Speaker Series on entrepreneurship, hosted by the Eli Broad College of Business. He greeted a raucous, young audience with humorous anecdotes from his college days and offered advice on being a self-starter.

“I know that what I do matters because young people tell me that it’s affected their lives,” he said. “And although that was never the intention, I now fully accept the opportunity—not the responsibility, but the opportunity—to be that for someone.”

Fans can also get a glimpse into Oakley’s life through his best-selling biography, Binge, where he writes about growing up in Michigan, coming out and his rise to fame. His personal documentary film, Snervous, documents conversations with friends and family, including his once-estranged father.

He’s not just a social media prodigy. He has a social conscience, too. Oakley has parlayed his online presence to raise more than $1 million for the Trevor Project, a nonprofit focused on preventing suicide among LGBTQ+ teens.

YouTube advertising revenue, brand sponsorship and book deals now cover his living expenses. To sustain that success, Oakley relies on his brand team, “an army of incredibly skilled people,” and his fan base. “To think that one person can execute their dreams without the help of others is hubris,” he said.

Oakley admits his self-made, modern career is an unpredictable one. “While there have been moments where I’m in a little bit of panic of what’s next or what should I be doing, I just try to have fun and I feel like that has not led me down a bad path yet.”