What It’s Like Being A “Not Very Successful” YouTube Star
We speak with comedian and YouTube star Natalie Tran about her accidental career, dealing with trolls, and her unique DIY approach.
Natalie Tran’s YouTube journey started with two things: boredom and a webcam.
But it’s not that kind of story. The Australian YouTube star, writer and comedian is known for her smart, quirky videos full of social observations, navel-gazing philosophies and breakdowns of the dilemmas of modern life.
She covers everything from what people think about in the shower, to the routine you go through with a new outfit, how to cook bacon in a hotel room, and what kind of person a cockroach would be. These are important matters and somebody clearly needed to address them.
The career was an accident
Natalie’s YouTube channel, communitychannel, has amassed more than half a billion views. Not bad for someone who never had social media stardom in her sights. “I’m not a very ambitious person,” she says, wryly. “I’m trying to write something at the moment, but if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. It’s more just a personal project.”
Natalie started making videos on YouTube at a time when many people didn’t even know what it was (in other words, 2006). Her videos, which have been described as “charming, quirky and hilarious,” are comedic sketches about life’s absurdities, where she plays all the characters herself.
“I’m not very successful really,” she remarks in her trademark self-deprecating style.“If you think about how long I’ve been online. Technically, it’s pretty terrible.”
So if Natalie never planned on a YouTube career and doesn’t even consider herself successful, how did this accidental career come about? The hint is in her YouTube channel name: community.
It started with connection
In 2006, Natalie’s boyfriend at the time was overseas, and she realised she was a bit lonely. She found she “really enjoyed the company online” because the then small YouTube community allowed her to chat to other people by making videos.
“Back then, YouTube comments had a limit of characters, and so I was like, ‘Oh, I’ll just record my response. That’s easier.’” Without realising it at the time, Natalie was laying the foundation for a YouTube channel that would provide a light-hearted diversion spotlighting the quirks of every day life for more than 1.7 million subscribers.
Natalie started to play around with scripting stories, and then a few years later, YouTube implemented their partnership program that allowed people to earn a percentage of the ad revenue that played beside videos. She was asked if she’d like ads placed. This revenue enabled her to start making a passive income from something she loved doing anyway, all while still at uni.
There’ll probably be a crossroads
Irreverently witty, Natalie’s humour is infectious and completely relatable. When asked how she handles her YouTube fame, her response is: “Very easily. It’s like not being famous at all. Once I got free movie tickets. That was pretty gangster.”
There was a point that Natalie was Australia’s most-subscribed-to YouTuber, so naturally, this positioned her at a crossroads: leave university and pursue YouTube stardom, or finish her degree in digital media. It was a difficult choice, but Natalie resisted temptation in order to finish her degree.
She’d still managed to maintain a profile in the online community despite posting “inconsistently” – it just meant that YouTube wouldn’t become her life’s sole focus – and that was totally OK.
Making videos has never been about getting recognition, says Natalie, instead, YouTube helps her to “tell stories, communicate with people and facilitate a freelance lifestyle.”
Out come the trolls
While she has had some incredible experiences (like travelling the world with Lonely Planet), there have been a couple of downsides. “When I was starting out, I had to deal with [bullying] a lot more severely. Maybe because there were less places to troll or something. I’m not sure.” Natalie found that the bullying was mainly “about being a woman online, a lot of people going, ‘I didn’t know that Asians could speak with an Australian accent’ – that kind of stuff.”
There had even been instances that left her fearing for her safety. Natalie remembers, “People had come to my house and left some stuff there, and I was getting bullied. I went to the cops… and they’re like, ‘Just don’t put stuff online.’”
To handle this type of negative attention, Natalie takes the view that any negative commentary isn’t about her as a person – it is about her online persona. “I think it’s important that you realise that that’s just an online profile. That’s just one aspect of somebody – it doesn’t justify it – but it’s one aspect, and it’s not personal… that’s not you. That’s just your online profile, as well.”
On the flip side, being a woman in a public arena also meant hearing the opposing view that being female affords special treatment. “For a long time, people, even those I knew, would discount any (video) views I received and attribute them to my being a woman online, and they’d claim that was some sort of novelty or draw card,” says Natalie.
“I’d actually argue it’s quite the opposite. It’s incredibly hard to fight the idea that women aren’t as funny or don’t have interesting stories to share, so for me personally, just getting past that undermining was a huge challenge.”
How did Natalie move past that criticism? By continuing to create interesting, smart and funny content, and ignoring the rest as white noise.
Creativity is a process
Where does Natalie get her ideas? The creative process of making videos is inspired from “weird things I notice day-to-day,” she says. “I tend to write them down and then have no idea what they say afterwards. I return and I’m like, ‘What does ‘foot shoe’ mean?’”
All Natalie’s videos are scripted. “I write and edit myself. Occasionally I brainstorm with someone if I feel unsure of an idea, or quite often other people spark that idea for me, but the writing process has always been something I do by myself. In PJs. With a lot of food,” she says. Her partner, Rowan, has been filming her videos for a few years now, and it’s “definitely made the process much easier”.
The connection is still live
Part of Natalie’s appeal is that she feels like a friend – and she’ll be the first to admit she feels the same way about her viewers, too. If she bumps into a fan on the street, she’ll often snap a picture with them and then include it in one of her videos. “Everyone is ridiculously lovely and sometimes we’ll just chat, I’ll apologise for wasting their bandwidth, and sometimes we take a photo together and I pop it in a video to remember meeting them.”
It’s clear that Natalie’s initial purpose around creating community is still at the core of what she does. “It sounds cliché, but pretty much everyone who says hi feels like a friend I just haven’t met yet.”
Hear more from Natalie and other brilliant humans, like DJ Tigerlily, at O-Weekender. Westpac and Junkee Media have joined forces to throw this free event for students, with inspiring talks and an after party hosted by FasterLouder. Register here.
Sonia is the editor of The Cusp.