Growing up, Lilly Singh aspired to be a rapper, singer and actor. The daughter of Indian Sikh immigrants, she founded a bhangra dance team called Nachde Tapde Punjabi while attending Lester B. Pearson Collegiate Institute. In addition to performing with the troupe she also handled publicity, designed costumes and choreographed dances.
After graduating from York University with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, Singh was torn between applying to graduate school and pursuing her dream of a career in the entertainment industry. She has said her feelings of depression motivated her to start creating and posting videos: “I didn’t have goals,” she later said. “I didn’t feel like eating. I was upset for absolutely no reason. I told myself, ‘You have a choice: Either continue feeling this way or do something to change your life.’”
Too nervous to try stand-up comedy, Singh posted her first YouTube video in 2010. The clip, a spoken-word piece, which has since been deleted, racked up a total of 70 views. Nevertheless, she persevered, uploading about two videos a week, typically writing, shooting, editing and posting a video all in the same day. She has said the most important thing to her is that the videos be relatable. “That is a priority above the colouring, production, angle and whatever. Half of my videos are out of focus!”
As of March 2019, her YouTube channel, IISuperwomanII, has 14 million subscribers and more than 3 billion views. Her most viewed clip, “What Clubbing is Actually Like,” was posted on 5 December 2016 and has amassed more than 30 million views. In 2011, Singh launched a separate channel, SuperwomanVlogs, where she posts video diaries and more intimate, behind-the-scenes reflections. As of April 2019, SuperwomanVlogs had 2.8 million subscribers.
Of her rapid rise to mainstream stardom in 2012, Singh has said, “I think I just say things that other people are scared to say. As a brown girl, I don’t think people expect me to say the things I say, and when I do, they’re like, ‘Oh my god, I feel that way, too, I’ve just never said it.’”
In some of Singh’s videos, she plays characters; in one popular series, she impersonates her parents. Many of her characters are loosely based on the kinds of people she grew up and went to school with. In other posts, Singh speaks to the camera as herself and opens up about how she is feeling. Most of her videos are based on things that have happened to her in her day-to-day life. Many celebrity guests have also appeared alongside Singh, including The Rock, Seth Rogen and James Franco, Selena Gomez, and Priyanka Chopra. They have also inspired Singh. In 2016, she told Vanity Fair that she looked up to performers like Gomez and The Rock, “people who are business owners, not just creative.”
Within a year of posting videos, Singh had attracted the attention of executives at YouTube, who invited her to be part its Partner Program. Now, she was eligible to earn a share of the revenue from the advertisements running on her videos. In 2012, Singh hired a manager. In 2017, Forbes placed Singh at No. 10 on its list of the world’s highest-paid YouTube stars of the year; her earnings totalled US$10.5 million.
For many years, Singh posted twice a week, on Mondays and Thursdays. In January 2019, she announced she was slowing down her schedule and would post only when she was inspired to create a video.
Television and Film
In 2014, Singh made her first appearance in a feature film, the Canadian movie Dr. Cabbie. She has since appeared in other movies and TV series, including HBO’s Fahrenheit 451 (2018), and the feature films Bad Moms (2016) and Ice Age: Collision Course (2016). In the spring of 2018, NBC announced it had cast Singh in an upcoming comedy pilot, Bright Futures, co-created by Black-ish creator Kenya Barris.
A Trip to Unicorn Island, a documentary following Singh on her first world tour, was released in February 2016 on YouTube’s paid subscription service, YouTube Premium (formerly YouTube Red). Her second world tour, #BawseBook Tour, was launched in conjunction with the publication of her book, How to Be a Bawse: A Guide to Conquering Life (2017), and took her to 30 cities worldwide.
In March 2019, NBC announced that Singh had signed a deal to host and executive produce a new half-hour late-night series. A Little Late with Lilly Singh will premiere in September 2019 in the 1:35 a.m. timeslot, replacing Last Call with Carson Daly. Singh will become the first woman since Cynthia Garrett in 2000–01 — as well as the first openly bisexual person — to host a late-night talk show on one of the “big four” US broadcast networks (NBC, ABC, CBS, Fox).
In 2016, Singh partnered with Smashbox Cosmetics to release a branded lipstick shade called Bawse. That same year, she signed a book deal with Ballantine Books, a division of Penguin Random House. How to Be a Bawse: A Guide to Conquering Life was published in March 2017 and quickly topped the New York Times Business Best Sellers list.
In April 2018, Singh launched her production company, Unicorn Island Productions. Polly Auritt, the former head of original programming at Mashable Studios, joined the company as head of development.
Activism and Philanthropy
In December 2015, Singh began a social media campaign encouraging girls to compliment each other rather than tear each other down. Called #GirlLove, the message spread, with Singh’s original post about the campaign quickly reaching 1 million viewers. Singh donated the profits from the video’s ad revenue to the Malala Fund, which supports schooling for young women around the world. Soon after, Singh partnered with Marc and Craig Kielburger’s ME to WE philanthropic organization.
In 2017, Singh was appointed a UNICEF Gwill Ambassador. The following year, she travelled with UNICEF to South Africa, where she met children who are speaking out against bullying and violence in schools.
In late 2015, Singh moved to Los Angeles. Until then, she had lived at her parents’ house in Markham, Ontario, where she shot most of her videos. In a February 2019 Twitter post, Singh came out as bisexual.
Despite her success, Singh has been candid about the pressures of her work. In November 2018, she posted a video in which she announced she was taking a break from her YouTube channel. “I am mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritually exhausted,” she said, adding that YouTube “makes creators believe that we have to pump out content consistently even at the cost of our life, and our mental health, and our happiness. Because if you don’t, then you’ll become ‘irrelevant.’” She returned to her channel the following month.
Awards and Honours
- Best First Person Series (2015, 2017)
- Best Feature (2016)
- Best Social Good Campaign (2016)
- Creator Award (2017)
- Social Superstar of the Year (2015), MTV Fandom Awards
- Choice Web Star: Comedy (2016), Teen Choice Awards
- Choice Web Star: Female (2016), Teen Choice Awards
- Favorite YouTube Star (2017), People’s Choice Awards