Anna Akana Will Give You Hope for YouTube

Her ascent—including a new show on YouTube Red—suggests the platform can still elevate diverse, creative voices who actually want to make the world a better place.

YouTube personality Anna Akana.
YouTube personality Anna Akana.
Tara Ziemba/WireImage/Getty Images

After Logan Paul uploaded his infamous “suicide forest” video, which depicted a corpse in close-up and in sensationalized tones, a pained reply from one of his fellow vloggers epitomized the backlash. “Dear @LoganPaul,” Anna Akana wrote in a tweet that would be excerpted by YouTube in the company’s official reply to Paul, “When my brother found my sister’s body [after her hanging], he screamed with horror & confusion & grief & tried to save her. That body [in the forest] was a person someone loved. You do not walk into a suicide forest with a camera and claim mental health awareness.” Akana, whose sister Kristina killed herself at age 13, 11 years ago, told me recently that she decided to speak up partly because she found Paul’s initial apology to be “very half-assed and not genuine,” and partly because she “didn’t want anyone to misinterpret what he was doing.

“A lot of his fans were saying, ‘Well, he didn’t know that person, so it was OK to zoom in on that body,’ ” Akana told me. “I disagree.”

Akana represents the diametric opposite of the juvenile jackassery that lots of people now associate with YouTube vlogging. At 28, she’s the quirky but wise big sister many of YouTube’s younger users undoubtedly crave—a role that’s earned her 2 million subscribers and 180 million views since 2011. (Heck, I’m a few years older than Akana, and even I look at her like an older sibling.) She’s aspirationally polished, dorkily funny, wondrously confident, occasionally raw, and won’t shut up about her six cats. At the intersection of teen-friendly explainers and feminist, Asian American, and anti-suicide activism, Akana’s most popular videos include “Why Girls Should Ask Guys Out,” “The One Question Men Fear,” “Why Guys Like Asian Girls,” “Am I White Washed?,” “I’m Going on Antidepressants” and “Please Don’t Kill Yourself,” in which she talks poignantly about how her sister’s suicide irreparably changed her. Akana’s willingness to tackle such a difficult and personal subject comes at a time when teen suicide rates are on the rise. Without being unduly cynical, it’s not hard to see why YouTube would want to promote the actress-comedian-filmmaker-author as one of the faces of its next big step: original programming.

Premiering in its entirety on Wednesday, Akana’s half-hour YouTube Red teen dramedy, Youth & Consequences, feels like exactly the right move for a woke YouTube personality with grander artistic ambitions. The first episode feels like a retread of Mean Girls and Gossip Girl, tinged with some of the darkness of Veronica Mars, but it quickly shows it’s been updated in smart ways for today’s online cultures. Created by Jason Ubaldi, whom Akana described as a “17-year-old girl stuck in the body of a 50-year-old man,” the eight-part debut season begins with the school guidance counselor found dead in his office and, separately, an imminent election for student body president. Akana’s snotty hottie Farrah, with the help of an anonymous school blogger (who runs a stark Drudge Report–looking site), secretly controls what news about the counselor and the candidates the other students see. Under Farrah’s reign, Central Rochester High is a more equitable place to be; for example, she chooses not to publicize criminal details about the guidance counselor to spare his family. But not everyone appreciates a benevolent dictator, especially when they discover they’ve been made into a puppet. (The idea of weaponized wokeness should resonate with anyone who has ever been on the internet.) Akana hopes that viewers won’t mistake her for Farrah, but grants that she shares with her character a “natural alpha vibe.”

For Akana, Youth & Consequences has been a reminder of the stark differences between the traditional and digital entertainment industries and an opportunity to put her diversity principles into practice while thematically exploring how aspects of her YouTube persona might play out in real life. The minimal-at-best possibility of her headlining her own show on a conventional network isn’t lost on the Los Angeles–based YouTube star, who sees herself as “definitely outside of” Hollywood, despite minor roles in Ant-Man, Hello, My Name is Doris, and MTV’s Awkward. In contrast to traditional TV, she said the video platform’s attitude toward its series development has been, “You know your audience. You know the creative vision that you want to tell. We are just here to support that”—a more relaxed programming approach that many Netflix and Amazon showrunners have also reported. That “support,” Akana’s said, includes “traditional marketing” and “traditional money.”

YouTube, Akana said, values Youth & Consequences’ racial inclusivity, such as three of the four Mean Girls played by girls and women of color. (Scheduled for a May premiere is another Asian American–led YouTube Red series, Liza on Demand, starring Indian American Viner–turned-YouTuber Liza Koshy.) That’s just the platform honoring its roots, Akana said: “When YouTube first started, its main stars were Asian American. It was Ryan Higa, Natalie Tran [actually Asian Australian], Michelle Phan.” Early YouTube’s deep Asian American bench also included Tim Delaghetto, KevJumba, the Fung Bros, David So, and Asian American–centric Wong Fu Productions. Reflecting on YouTube then and still now, Akana said, “I think it’s because we never saw ourselves represented anywhere else mainstream, and YouTube is finally an opportunity to see someone who looks like you doing either comedy or lifestyle.” She pointed to studies that show that Asian Americans spend more time online than any other racial or ethnic group. “I love that it’s kind of shown traditional [media] that there is a hunger here,” she said. Still, “there’s no way I would have been able to play Farrah and a lead—not only a lead character, but someone as complex as Farrah, where race has nothing to do with [the character]—unless it was a platform like YouTube.”

Akana’s optimism about digital entertainment seems well-founded. Her web videos gave her control over her self-presentation during her early years doing stand-up, when she would suffer panic attacks before her sets. (She decided to pursue comedy in earnest around age 19, when a Margaret Cho TV special made her laugh for the first time since her sister’s suicide.) Akana’s broad sketch sensibilities, combined with her evident desire to help make others feel better, have found a niche on a platform that hardly existed a decade ago. A good example is the PSA-y “How to Put on Your Face,” a beauty video that doubles as confidence-boosting self-help by pairing makeup tips with self-care advice. When she’s not uploading her weekly videos—usually made with a team of three in her home—she’s dabbling in book-writing, podcasting, and filmmaking. Throwing things at the wall to see what sticks, it seems, never ends for digital celebs who are still guessing what the future of their field will look like. Perhaps it looks like YouTube Red.

For its part, YouTube probably shouldn’t be confused for a benevolent dictator either: Logan Paul was involved in multiple YouTube Red projects, too, before a sequel to one of his movies and his character on a comedy series were ditched after the “suicide forest” video. And yet the company clearly isn’t just following the numbers; there are scads of vloggers with higher stats of virtually every kind than Akana. Two episodes in, I’m very interested in where Youth & Consequences will go, but its platform makes it hard to imagine the show breaking through, especially with a relatively unknown lead performer. At the very least, I’m now convinced that at least some of the time, YouTube is pursuing a quality that isn’t (yet) algorithmable: star power.

Inkoo Kang writes about technology and culture for Slate.