internet stars

What’s the secret to the success of Indian fashion and beauty stars on YouTube? Answer: You

Viewers can’t get enough of these content creators, even though advertisers don’t get them.

A young woman looks directly at the camera and begins the video with an energetic “HI GUYS!” (or some version of the greeting). The background changes – from living room decor to cute bedrooms, to statement walls with chintzy decor. As does the subject – sometimes the woman talks about beauty, fashion, sometimes her life and occasionally she play agony aunt. One thing though remains the same.

Each video is produced by a single-person crew: a woman shooting, editing and writing all by herself.

On YouTube, where demand for similar content is exploding, beauty and fashion channels are the reigning kings (or queens). At the third annual Fan Fest in Mumbai in March 2015, Satya Raghavan, Entertainment Head of YouTube India, said that the watch time for videos featuring fashion and beauty had grown by 138%. To compare, the watch time for independent musicians grew by 92%, while that for comedy and entertainment by 100%.

It’s no surprise then that just four Indian beauty and fashion channels on YouTube cumulatively have over 100 million views.

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Shruti Arjun Anand.

The channels were born of different reasons: an excess of time, creative energy or simply because the creator had a story to tell.

Shruti Arjun Anand, who might have been the earliest entrant to the genre of self-made YouTube videos in India, was bored. She began making videos while waiting to get a US work visa in 2011. She eventually moved to Noida in 2013 to work on her channel full-time.

Another video creator, Scherzade Shroff, who now runs three YouTube channels, set up her first channel Sherry Shroff as a creative outlet.

Komal Narang’s parents had recently got divorced and she was lonely, something most people in India rarely choose to speak of publicly. Narang began her channel My Happinesz with a video list of 10 things people should do to become happy.

Debasree Banerjee – who grew up in Dibrugarh, Assam – wanted to have a channel ever since she first became aware of the medium in 2009, when she moved to Bengaluru to finish her undergraduate studies. A year after she began in 2013, she quit her job to give YouTube a “real shot”.

The YouTuber next door

Several of their videos are real-life visualisations of the kind of articles found in lifestyle sections of magazines and newspapers. YouTube channels win over print and websites when it comes to makeup and fashion, because they provide a friendly relatable face and break down exactly how a certain look is achieved, or what a particular dress or fashion style will look like. Since they are usually based on the personal experience of the content creator, it seems more real and relatable, akin to a friend’s opinions and recommendations.

It is precisely this aspect of these videos that became a bone of contention between four US Vogue editors and some of the internet’s most influential global fashion stars after the Milan Fashion Week last year. The flare-up between the self-appointed gatekeepers of the fashion industry and the perceived “outsiders” gave credence to the valuable distinction between the two: the former created impossible standards of beauty by using glamorous celebrities and airbrushing them beyond all recognition, while the latter were real people – who if not accepted, at least taught viewers how to work with, hide and style one’s flaws.

While each of these Indian YouTube fashion and make-up channels began with poor technical skill – bad sound, grainy footage – they worked out the glitches after a few runs. All of them now have sleek visuals, and most creators run multiple channels. Usually, the main channel is geared around fashion and make-up, a second channel features blogs about the creators’ daily lives, or as vlogs, if they wish to speak about an issue close to their heart. In a popular video on her channel, Shroff shared a video showing her boyfriend proposing to her.

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Sherry Shroff with Kanan Gill.

Some of the most popular videos are ones where style bloggers show viewers how to mimic a particular celebrity’s look. Another popular video is the Q and A video, normally offered by the creators after a particular subscriber base is reached. Similar to a Reddit Ask Me Anything, viewers submit questions ranging from the personal to fashion advice via social media, all of which are answered by the creator in a short video.

These personal channels have turned into a sizeable subculture on YouTube: globally, over 50 million people watch 1.6 billion minutes of content related to beauty and fashion each month. Around 97% of these videos are created by consumers.

Get noticed

Shroff’s debut video was a collaboration with the beauty brand Maybelline. By the fifth video, she had an interview with actor Imran Khan as part of the promotion for the film Gori Tere Pyaar Mein. “When you make videos about beauty, make-up or fashion, you have to use a new product each time, she said. “They are part of the content. It’s not comedy programming where not only is it difficult to pitch to the brands but it is also difficult to bring the products into your videos.”

Scherzade Shroff. Image credit: via YouTube
Scherzade Shroff. Image credit: via YouTube

But it’s not the videos with actors that are the most popular. Shroff’s most viewed videos are collaborations with fellow YouTube stars: American fashion blogger Bethany Mota and Indian comedian Kanan Gill. Collaborations between different content creators is done as a way to share audiences and is encouraged by YouTube India. After the first YouTube fan fest in India in 2014, which Shah Rukh Khan attended, Shroff collaborated with “Superwoman” Lily Singh – one of the biggest YouTube stars in the world.

Shroff, a law graduate and a former model, said the transition to YouTube content creation was a seamless one. “I had pretty much done everything I could do in modelling so I was happier to stop doing it,” she said. “When I started making videos I didn’t think of it as a career. It was something I enjoyed doing.” Getting brand partnerships and views was not a struggle either, she says. “I already had an audience before I began. I already knew a lot of people, so I never really was struggling.”

On the other hand, Narang, who did not have a large community of friends to watch and share her first few videos, says it was her personalised content that did the trick. “The first video to reach 2,000 views on its own was a video I did called Up Close & Personal in which I spoke about how a cream, recommended by a dermatologist, burnt my face a few days before my engagement.”

Two of her other most popular videos – Styling tips for heavy breasts and How to hide tummy fat – both personal and based on her own experiences, touched a nerve with her audience. “What I try to do is give people more information than what is available on the internet,” she said. “Anyone can google it. If it is based on personal experience then the viewers get something out of it.”

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My Happinesz.

The million views club

Although each of these YouTube stars (except Anand, who has close to 3.9 lakh subscribers and whose videos have racked up nearly 7.7 crore total views) began at the same time, they have had varying levels of success. Shroff, who wrote for a beauty blog and ran its YouTube channel before setting up her own, has 1.10 lakh subscribers and 1.4 crore views. Narang, who moved to Delhi after studying business management in Paris, has 57,000 subscribers and 69 lakh views. Banerjee, the youngest of the lot, has 56,000 subscribers and 55 lakh views.

Neither of them felt comfortable or could clearly explain at what point a YouTube channel could be described as successful: Banerjee felt it was not the subscriber base or number of views that made a channel great. “As far as I am concerned, even a channel with 5,000 subscribers is a success as long as the creator is passionate and has a devoted group of followers he or she honestly interacts with.”

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Debasree Banerjee

Shroff said it was a waiting game. “You have to be consistent. The uploads have to be frequent and then I would say in six months or a year, you will start seeing results. You can begin monetising and brand partnerships will start coming in.”

While brands have warmed up to the idea of YouTube, Narang says they still do not seem to understand the personal connect that each creator has with their audience. “Only two out of 10 understand,” Narang rued. “A brand for teeth whitening came to me with a fully written script and I had to explain to them that this is not how it works. Even now, many brands refuse to pay and work on a barter system. Even big brands do it.”

Anand, in an email interview, agreed that it was a “learning curve” and added, “But brands are also gradually realising that social media promotion via bloggers is an important marketing strategy, mainly because they can hit the right target audience unlike traditional advertisements on TV.”

Screen queens

More and more young Indians are slowly turning to YouTube as a lucrative career option. Mumbai-based Shroff, who is now invited to schools and colleges to give talks at education seminars, said, “When I was starting out in 2013, there were very few Indian channels. Today the numbers have drastically increased. There are tonnes of people starting them. Now, it has sort of become the cool thing to do. Children as young as 12 and 13 have channels and come to me for advice.”

Debasree Banerjee. Image credit: via Youtube
Debasree Banerjee. Image credit: via Youtube

Banerjee had a similar take, “It is much easier now. There is a YouTube creator space at Whistling Woods [a film school in Mumbai]. People can book many amenities there, like a soundstage or things like aeroplane sets,” she said. Narang added, “YouTube India has meetings where they guide you and tell you how to optimise videos and get more viewers.”

In the United States, Lucas Cruikshank’s YouTube channel, Fred, led to a movie co-starring WWE wrestler John Cena. In India, comedy group All India Bakchod got a TV show based off their success on the video sharing site. Shroff is quick to deny that a similar thought has ever crossed her mind, “I don’t really have the time for anything else. I work for 12-15 hours a day and upload four videos each week just on my main channel.”

“YouTube has taken over my life,” said Narang and laughed. “One time, my grandfather was on a ventilator and I stopped uploading for a week and my viewers kept writing to me. If I had been absent for a month, they would have completely forgotten about me. Now, I even upload on holidays and spend two hours each day replying to comments. I have many sleepless nights. It’s an overwhelming experience.”

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