Who Is Tyler Oakley?
Tyler Oakley is a YouTube and podcast celebrity and LGBTQ activist. He is best known for his eponymous YouTube channel, which he started in 2007 and which now has nearly 8 million subscribers; his videos have been watched more than 600 million times. Like many prolific YouTubers, Oakley built his brand simply by being himself. His exuberant, lighthearted monologues to camera riff on everything from celebrity crushes to junk food, but he has also shared his own experiences of anorexia and domestic violence. Because he is relatable, openly gay, and campaigns on LGBTQ issues, he has grown to be a figurehead for the LGBTQ community. His videos have inspired many people to come out, including the singer Ricky Martin — Tyler has become the world’s gay best friend. His global influence saw him feature in the Forbes “30 Under 30” power list for 2017.
Born in Jackson, Michigan
Matthew Tyler Oakley was born in Jackson, Michigan on March 22, 1989. His parents divorced when he was around two or three years of age. He lived with his mom, while his older sister, Cody, went to live with their dad. Both parents remarried within two years, adding 11 step- and half-siblings into an increasingly complex family tree; Tyler ended up the youngest of “about six kids” who lived with his mom, Jackie, and stepdad, Ken. The family moved to nearby Okemos when Tyler was six. By that point “I was pretty overweight,” Tyler said. “I had a bowl cut. It was not a good look at all. I was not popular [at school].”
His stepfather, a carpenter, had a woodcraft shop, but it burnt down when Tyler was eight. Tyler’s side of the family grew up poor — though his siblings who lived with his wealthier father attended private school. He credits his parents with raising him to “understand the value of hard work and saving money,” he wrote in his memoirs, Binge, published in 2015.
Coming Out as Gay
Tyler also wrote that he suspects Ken and Jackie “always knew” he was gay, but it wasn’t until he was 11 years old that Jackie asked him directly — while they stood in line in a bank queue. “I said yes, grabbed a handful of free suckers at the counter, and that was it,” Tyler said. His mom and stepfather were accepting; but his born-again Christian father and stepmom “worked endlessly to make sure God was on my mind” instead of other boys, “but I never bought any of it.” Tyler “hated” his father as a kid, though their relationship has improved with age.
Tyler did not come out to his high school peers right away, even though his school had openly gay teachers as well as pupils; it even had a “gay-straight alliance” club. He was outed by a female friend during his freshman year, after confiding that he was attracted to his friend, Eric. The female friend told Eric’s girlfriend, who “freaked out” — but, as the rumor mill went into overdrive, Eric reassured Tyler they that were still friends.
Since becoming famous on YouTube, Tyler has raised more than $1 million for The Trevor Project, a U.S. nonprofit that focuses on suicide prevention in the LGBTQ community. He told Forbes in 2016 that this has been “the most important thing I think I’ll ever accomplish.”
Battles With Anorexia
Before Tyler was 10, his father had tried to gain custody of him through the court system. By the time he reached seventh grade, Tyler was battling anorexia. “My personal life was flopping hard and between custody hearings to decide which family I was going to live with, moving cities, completely starting over in a new school district, realizing I was gay, but also unable to tell anyone, and my family’s being poorer than ever before, I was a bit stressed for a twelve year old,” he wrote in Binge. “When things got rough, I would eat everything and I was ashamed.” He began to work “obsessively hard” at the gym in his local YMCA before school. He skipped meals and shed 30 lbs of weight, leaving him “constantly exhausted,” with protruding ribs — yet he found that he still hated himself. He credits the kindness of a teacher, Mrs. Borden, who involved him in choir and musicals, for helping him to work through his issues. By ninth grade, he had the disorder under control, although he has admitted he still sometimes battles the feelings and impulses anorexia can evoke.
Making of a YouTube Superstar
Tyler Oakley began making YouTube videos as an 18-year-old freshman at Michigan State University, where he studied communication after switching from teaching. He spent a week watching YouTubers, notably William Sledd; then, on September 18, 2007, he posted his first video — a 10-minute guide to his dorm room, intended for his friends who had gone to other universities. Tyler continued to post videos throughout college, slowly growing an audience. He began talking about pop culture and made an early impact when a collaboration video he organized with other LGBTQ vloggers made the YouTube home page, gaining him 3,000 new subscribers, “which was huge back then.”
He began to get messages: “You were the first gay person I ever saw.” The realization that he was being seen as a representative of the LBGTQ community was “kind of like awakening,” he told The Advocate magazine. “Because this experience that they’re having watching me could be really detrimental or really good for how they view the gay community or what the gay community can do.” Though he added: “In no way do I think I’m ‘the voice’ of anything… I’m just trying to be a voice, and show people that they can also be a voice.”
After college, Tyler moved to San Francisco with best friend Korey Kuhl, and worked for startups organizing social media and producing videos. Though he was starting to make a small amount of money from YouTube royalties, it wasn’t until 2012 that things moved up several gears. A video he made about One Direction got 300,000 views; then he hooked up with BigFrame, the influencer marketing company, which showed him new ways to monetize his following, such as speaking at events and working with brands. A year later, he was interviewing One Direction.
Collaborations, Psychobabble Podcast and Dollar Signs
Collaborations have helped to boost Tyler’s profile. He produced a weekly video for the channel 5AwesomeGays from 2008 to 2011; he co-hosted a pop-culture news update with Becca Frucht for PopSugar in 2013; and from 2013-2014 he voiced a character, Mr. McNeely, in the comedy web series The Most Popular Girls in School.
Tyler and Korey launched their Psychobabble podcast — “half an hour of unfiltered gossip sessions, pop culture and stories never told before” — in 2014. By 2015, he was being hailed by Time magazine as “the most consistent person in entertainment,” albeit one who admits his life “has been largely about immediately oversharing on the internet.” That same year, he published his memoirs, Binge — in which he revealed he’d suffered an abusive relationship with an ex-boyfriend.
In May 2016, he signed a development deal with talk show host Ellen Degeneres’ new digital network, Ellen Digital Ventures. But his web-only talk series The Tyler Oakley Show failed to gain traction, and the deal dissolved by the end of the year.
Tyler Oakley currently lives in Los Angeles. He made the Forbes “30 Under 30” list for 2017; the magazine estimated his annual earnings to be $6 million.
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