Asian American YouTube stars sidestep Hollywood

Vivian Vo-Farmer is an 18-year-old Asian American YouTube star based in Seattle whose channel has over one million subscribers. (Photo courtesy of Victoria Lemos )
Vivian Vo-Farmer is an 18-year-old YouTuber based in Seattle whose channel has over one million subscribers. (Photo courtesy of Victoria Lemos )

For young Asian Americans aspiring to enter the entertainment industry, Hollywood has long seemed like a distant, unattainable dream.

But recently, many Asian Americans have found a shortcut to success in the entertainment business: YouTube.

Vivian Vo-Farmer, an 18-year-old living in Seattle, is one of a growing cadre of Asian American YouTube stars who have leveraged the popularity of her channel on the video sharing platform for profit, and used it as a springboard into other business ventures.

“I never once wanted to be a Youtuber,” Vo-Farmer said in an email interview. “I never pictured myself as a super interesting person that people would take the time to watch.”

Vo-Farmer says it was her prominence on other social media platforms like Instagram and Tumblr that helped kickstart her YouTube success, when other girls requested her to do beauty and fashion advice videos.

And where limited roles for Asian Americans could stifle a career in Hollywood, she says her ethnicity has been an asset on Youtube.

“I do think [being Vietnamese-American] is somewhat of an advantage,” she said. “A lot of my audience is Vietnamese/Asian so a lot of times they can really relate to me in ways such as body types to more personal aspects like similarities in upbringings.”

Vo-Farmer shows ideas for a Valentine’s Day date night in her latest lookbook video. A lookbook is a video that showcases a model’s style or fashion ideas surrounding a specific theme. (Photo via Vivian Vo-Farmer’s Instagram)

According to a study by GLAAD, only four percent of all the main characters on broadcast television in 2013-2014 were Asian. But YouTube has elevated the voices of people who were underrepresented in mainstream media and led them to become celebrities in a different way.

Dr. Lei Guo, an assistant professor at the Boston University College of Communication, & Lorin Lee analyzed the language used by Asian YouTubers in their paper, “The Critique of YouTube-based Vernacular Discourse: A Case Study of YouTube’s Asian Community.”

According to Guo’s and Lee’s article, some Asian YouTubers use “mainstream stereotypes about their own community to produce entertaining videos that worked to identify with and retain their Asian audience and fans.”

In other words, their portrayal of Asian stereotypes worked to their advantage by helping Asian viewers relate to them.

One example is Ryan Higa, a Japanese-American from Hawaii, who started out in high school posting videos of himself lip-syncing to songs (since removed due to copyright violations) and moved on to produce low budget sensations like “How to be Ninja,” “How to be a Nerd,” and “How to be a Gangster.” Known by his YouTube name, nigahiga, Higa later created “Movies in Minutes,” which are parodies of popular movies. Now, he also has his own production company. As of February 2016, he has over 16 million subscribers on his Youtube channel.

Statistics of YouTube users. (Infographic by Rhea Panela)
Statistics of YouTube users. (Infographic by Rhea Panela)

Another Asian-American YouTube star who rose to prominence due to this digital platform is Timothy DeLaGhetto, also known as Traphik, a YouTube rapper and comedian of Thai descent. Aside from making YouTube videos, he has been featured on MTV’s Wild ‘N Out, an improvisational comedy/hip-hop show hosted by Nick Cannon.

The path to fame of 28-year-old fellow Vietnamese-American Michelle Phan is something of a template for Vo-Farmer. Phan is the daughter of two Vietnamese immigrants who struggled financially in their first years in America. Now she’s a beauty mogul who founded her own cosmetics business, ipsy, in 2011, and was recently featured in Forbes. She has over eight million subscribers on YouTube and is currently working on finalizing her graphic novel, which will launch online in March.

Vo-Farmer says her family was very supportive of her non-traditional career aspirations. She recalls that the DSLR camera she used to make her videos look more professional was a gift from her uncle and aunt.

“I would show my mom my video as soon as I uploaded it to share with her what I had been working on all day,” she said. “She knew I loved doing it, so I felt like she was just happy to see me happy. No one ever told me I was wasting my time or doubted me which I’m so grateful for.”

In order to keep her channel alive and have a steady income, she and her manager work out deals with prominent brands to feature them in her videos.

Vo-Farmer said these kinds of sponsorships are the key to having YouTube as a full-time job.

She has worked with L’Oreal Paris and Pantene, which have taken her from Seattle to New York City to shoot videos for the YouTube channels of those brands.

“Traveling is something I’ve always wanted to do and now it has become a regular thing and I get to call it part of my job,” she said. “Financially, I can now take a lot of weight off my mom’s shoulders and get to start off my adult life on a great note.”

Vivian Vo-Farmer’s hair tutorial video on Pantene’s YouTube channel. 

Despite being comfortable and confident with her ethnic background, Vo-Farmer says she still faces some of the backlash that comes with putting one’s life in the public eye. She describes social media as a “cesspool of hatred.”

“Being on Youtube makes me extremely vulnerable to much more hatred than most people,” she said. “I put myself completely out there to millions with no makeup on my face, lookbooks where my body is being stared at for minutes, and my personal life seen through my vlogs.”

According to Vo-Farmer, some of the comments she has received on her YouTube videos range from ridicule about her body figure to disapproval because some products she uses are not cruelty-free.

“The mean comments definitely get to me at times but I’ve learned to not let them define me,” she said.

Vo-Farmer says she prefers to look at the bigger picture — she has reached a million subscribers in just about two years of being on YouTube.

“I wouldn’t let the small fraction of haters out there have the power over me to choose whether I’m happy or not,” she said. “They don’t speak for the millions of good, kind people that do support me.”

In the future, Vo-Farmer hopes to make managing her YouTube channel her lifelong career. She also wants to have her own clothing brand or become more involved in the fashion, beauty, and interior design industries.

“Youtube is a pretty unconventional job and very new,” she said. “With that comes a lot of unpredictability, but if it was up to me I would do this for the rest of my life.”