Lilly Singh built her audience on authenticity – and she plans on keeping it that way.
The 32-year-old comedian, who created waves as the first openly bisexual woman of color to host a major broadcast network late-night talk show, stressed the importance of staying true to yourself in a recent interview with NBC News’ Know Your Value.
She did just that after graduating from York University in Toronto with a degree in psychology. She was struggling to figure out what she wanted to do, which is when she started making comedic videos and posting them on YouTube. The videos featured everything from Singh’s hilarious impersonations of her family and even serious videos about mental health and happiness. Her first video went live in 2010, and Singh has since amassed nearly 15 million subscribers on YouTube and 9.5 million followers on Instagram.
Singh, who grew up in Canada as a child of Indian immigrants, considers herself a storyteller – with authenticity being her top priority. As she’s moved from being her own team-of-one on YouTube to a world that hinges on network approval ratings, she has experienced plenty of know your value moments, or times in her life when she has had to speak up and advocate for herself.
“As a creator of something, I’ve really had to stand strong [and say], ‘No this is my authentic journey. This is authentically what happened in my story, and I don’t want to budge on this aspect of the story,’” said the comedian. “Especially being a minority woman, I feel like if I’m saying, as an Indian woman, this part of my story is important, I’m gonna really, really fight for that because there’s not many of us and I want to make sure how I’m being portrayed is authentic.”
Singh described a particular sketch her show did about an Indian bride. She requested wedding invitations from the props department, but found herself holding a single, short wedding invitation in plain white and gold. This, she explained, would never work.
“I just said, ‘Ok, so I need you to make the same invitation six times now in different colors to highlight all of the events that are gonna happen at this Indian wedding,’” recounted Singh. “And the props department was like, ‘Wait, why do you need six? I don’t know if we have the bandwidth to do that.’”
Singh pushed until she got the invitations — all of them.
“I can’t do a sketch about an Indian wedding without highlighting all these seven events, because every Indian person knows that an Indian wedding takes a week-and-a-half,” said Singh. “That’s like a small detail that is authentic, that I wasn’t just willing to budge on. Every Indian person watching the show, if they had watched the sketch and I was holding one piece of paper for a wedding, they would have known something would have been missing.”
The importance of standing up for what you believe in carries over into her partnership with plant-based protein brand Lightlife. Singh has been a vegetarian for 12 years and loved the idea of participating in their advice-giving campaign. Through the campaign, she helps people trying to make a clean-break from something in their lives. In her own life, Singh said she has made a clean break from social media during certain parts of the day. Setting clear boundaries, she said, is crucial for her own mental health.
“My career’s on social media, so I have to be on my devices a lot. I’ve tried to make a clean break from just letting that world consume my world,” said Singh. “I have clear boundaries about when I’m on social media, which devices are near me when I sleep, …when I go out — just to make sure I’m not impulsively, constantly scrolling.”
Singh, who has been quarantining amid Covid-19 in Los Angeles, is hoping the move helps her maintain a work-life balance that carries over to her life post-pandemic. “I want to hustle really, really hard, but then relax really, really hard,” said Singh. And while Singh admitted that she’s been working and shooting some projects during lockdown, she has also taken the time to learn to cook.
“I never thought I could create edible food before, but apparently I can,” said Singh. “I make a pretty dope Indian chicken curry that’s vegetarian, but I also really go on the other side of the spectrum … I love [vegetarian] shepherd’s pie, I don’t know what it is — it’s the least Indian thing about me.”
While she may have picked up a new medium with her late-night show, she’s still intent on maintaining the same veracity that her fans have come to expect from her. And if her past is any indicator, she’ll manage just fine.
“I feel like I’m constantly just holding my ground when it comes to being who I am, how I want to portray myself and how I want to tell my story,” said Singh. “It’s really hard, because there’s the marketing world and there’s the testing world — and there’s all these reasons as to why who you are should be molded. To actually stay true to yourself as you go through all of those filters is a very hard thing to do, but it’s something that I’m very keen on making sure I keep doing.”