Akilah Hughes Talks About Being a YouTube Superstar

jen mussari
jen mussari / jen mussari

by Akilah Hughes, as told to Abbey Stone

Akilah Hughes leads an impressive double life: She’s a writer and producer by day, and an Upright Citizens Brigade comedian and Internet star by night. We asked the 25-year-old New Yorker how she built up a following of more than 87,000 video-hungry YouTube subscribers while continuing to pursue her stand-up dreams.

You read those interviews where people say, “I was a dancer when I was 2”—it wasn’t like I was doing stand-up at 2. But I’m the youngest, and the way you get in with older siblings is by making them laugh. So when I was very young, I went, “You know what, I’m just going to get good at this.”

In high school I got really into improv and competed on our speech and drama team, and I did plays and comedies in college. It should have been a no-brainer to transfer it to YouTube, but it took me forever to realize that’s what I wanted to do. I was nervous and intimidated when I started posting videos. I had no idea if what I was doing was lame or stupid or embarrassing. Most of my friends’ initial reactions were, “Why?” They just didn’t get it. I don’t blame them.

My first videos were mostly shopping hauls and book reviews. I tried to fit into categories like beauty or books, but I was like a second-rate version of an established personality instead of myself. Then I thought, “You know what, I’m just going to make fun of myself, because I’m bad at videos.” That became the theme of my channel: how bad I can be at different things.

I’d been posting videos for years before any took off. It’s frustrating when you know you’re funny and you know you’ve got a unique perspective, but the things you post don’t reflect that. A lot more than talent goes into making videos.

“Meet Your First Black Girlfriend” changed everything. Neither Tim Knight, who helps me shoot and edit, or I thought that was going to be the winner. I posted it around 8 p.m. to my Tumblr, and after 10 minutes, it already had over 1000 reblogs. That’s when I knew. There wasn’t a Champagne toast and a hand-delivered box of money and a letter of recognition from Lorne Michaels. I just went to bed excited to see how many people would see it by morning.

I’ve realized YouTube is not exactly a platform that encourages or supports diverse talent. No one like me has ever really “made it” there. It’s not just about race; it’s about the brand of comedy. I don’t want to be a black Grace Helbig; I want to be Akilah Hughes. I know YouTube is changing, but my competition is juvenile pranks and cute animals, and it still hasn’t made that much room for diverse voices. But, I do get a lovely paycheck from them every month, which is nice when you’re making it in the big city on your own. Those student loans aren’t going to pay themselves.

After “Meet Your First Black Girlfriend,” everything was different. I left my boring day job for a comedy-writing job at MTV and started working with Fusion (an ABC and Univision joint venture) writing blog posts and shooting sketches. I got to host Spike TV’s Comic-Con All Access, which was a total dream.

Recently I asked a friend who does comedy, “Do you know there are regular people who go home after work and just watch TV and that’s their night? Like, they’re not worried about anything.” And she said, “I don’t know what that’s like.” I guess I’m one of the lucky ones who never expected YouTube to become a career. The plan is to remember my roots and my audience and to bring them on the journey with me. I want to be Chris Rock, but younger and hotter.