YouTube FanFest: How Google's video site created a whole new kind of famous

YouTube fans are flocking to Toronto on Saturday to meet some of the internet's biggest celebrities at North America's first-ever YouTube FanFest.

Some of the internet's biggest stars are in Toronto for N. America's first-ever YouTube FanFest

This composite shows YouTube stars, from left to right, Bethany Mota, IISuperwomanII a.k.a. Lilly Singh, Mike Tompkins and LaurDIY a.k.a Lauren Riihimaki in images taken from their popular online videos. They are among the online characters appearing at Saturday's 1-day event in Toronto. (Bethany Mota/IISuperwomanII/Mike Tompkins/LaurDIY/YouTube)

Toronto is playing host North America's first-ever YouTube FanFest today with a 1-day live showcase for the kinds of celebrities you likely know best from your smart phone, or your tablet (or your children's smart phones and tablets.)

All the digital demi-gods will be there, including Rochester, N.Y.'s Chihuahua-kissing comedian Jenna Marbles, who has 15-million subscribers, and California fashion and beauty video blogger Bethany Mota, who has racked up more than 8 million subscribers with her posts on make-up, design and shopping.

Canadian creators dominate

Don't let all that American YouTube heft fool you.

Canada is well represented among the YouTube celebrities available to fans at the event in Yonge-Dundas Square, including:

  • Toronto's own DIY guru and glitter-lover Lauren Riihimaki (best known as LaurDIY).
  • Brampton, Ont.'s Lilly Singh who posts videos as ||Superwoman||.
  • ​London, Ont.-raised music producer and artist Mike Tompkins.
  • Brampton, Ont.- raised Punjabi comic Jasmeet Singh, who is best known as JusReign

The guys from Epic Meal Time, the Montreal-based cooking crew known for their high calorie creations like the "Angry French Canadian (The greasiest sandwich in Canada)", will co-host the event,

The red carpet stars at 5:00 p.m. with the main event kicking off at 8 p.m.

The sheer volume of Canadian talent on YouTube is one of the reasons Google chose Toronto to host its first North American edition of FanFest.

"There is an amazing amount of creator talent here that is disproportionate to the size of the Canadian market," said Laura Lee, YouTube's global head of top creators. 

"I was lucky to be able go to my first Fan Fest in Mumbai this past year," said Lee, "and Lilly [Singh] and JusReign literally just shut it down."

How YouTube created a new kind of famous

While screaming fans and red carpet arrivals used to be the exclusive territory of Hollywood actors and world famous rock stars, the internet has thrust a new kind of stardom into the laps of fresh-faced personalities, who are winning over fans from their own homes.

"When I made my very first video in 2010, I didn't think I'd make another one," said Singh, whose first video, a serious spoken word piece, was seen by just 70 people. 

"When I hit a million subscribers I was like, I can't even comprehend that number. Now I'm at 5.6 million and everyday I'm in utter confusion. I never thought this would happen."

Singh is now taking her act on the road with her first-ever world tour.

Incredible opportunities 

Bethany Mota was just 13 when she started posting her opinions on fashion and style on YouTube. Now 19, she's built a subscriber base of more than 8.6 million, and has even interviewed U.S. President Barack Obama.

"That was a surreal feeling," said Mota. "I was actually really surprised that they chose me because my channel doesn't have anything to do with politics. But my audience is very young ... and we got them really, really interested in everything that is going on [politically]."

On top of enjoying face-time with America's commander-in-chief, the high school graduate has written a best-selling book and designed a clothing line for U.S. retailer Aéropostale.

A personal relationship with fans

Twenty-two year-old Lauren Riihimaki, who is best known on YouTube as LaurDIY, is the creator of one of the most well-regarded fashion and beauty channels in Canada.

She began posting her instructional videos on hair-styling and home-styled clothing in 2011. But the recent Ryerson University grad knew she really made it when people started recognizing her on the street.

"They were like 'I love your videos,' and I was like 'Wow, this is so weird!'" said Riihimaki who has identified two different kinds of fans.

"There are people who subscribe for the educational content," Riihimaki explained, "then there are the people who are there for my personality, who like to follow me around when I go travelling, who like to stay up to date on my relationships."

Creating a new kind of content

Epic Meal Time's Harley Morenstein, Josh Elkin and Ameer Atari captured an online audience with videos of extreme calorie-loaded creations. Their channel, which began in Montreal in 2010, has since attracted 6.7 million subscribers who tune in to feast their eyes on their outrages recipes.

"It was just a fun little thing," says Morenstein, describing their first video "Fast Food Pizza". "Throw some tacos on a pizza, put it together, and call it a show."

That first video garnered a whopping 100-thousand subscribers, Morenstein says. The next episode saw 600-thousand people watching.

"The third episode," said Morenstein, "had 1.2 million people tune in. I quit my job and committed to it fully. Fast forward to another quarter, both of them [partners Elkin and Atari] quit their jobs and now here we are."

Epic Meal Time's popularity has attracted the attention of traditional celebrities like Arnold Schwarzenegger and skateboarding pro Tony Hawk, who have both appeared as guests. The channel also spawned a spin-off competitive cooking show called Epic Chef.

Fostering a community

Mike Tompkins 1.5 million subscribers tune in to catch the 28-year-old's slick music creations. His videos, like his mashup of Katy Perry's Teenage Dream and Bruno Mars's Just the Way You Are attracted international attention. 

But for Tompkins, who was raised near London, Ont., the most important thing about his internet celebrity is the relationship he has with his fans.

"The most important thing, in doing this now, is to build in the community and feel like I have a connection with my audience," said Tompkins, whose most recent video "Daylight" was filmed in Tanzania with Convoy of Hope, a faith-based humanitarian-relief organization.

Tompkins internet fame has also lead to work with other famous artists. In 2013 he toured with the Jonas Brothers, and last year, he co-wrote and produced with Timbaland, Jennifer Hudson's single Walk it Out.

For more information on YouTube FanFest, including tickets and times, see the event's official website.


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