For years, Pakistani celebrities have harnessed the power of Instagram and Twitter using them as their personal diaries slash megaphones.
Now, in increasing numbers, they are turning to YouTube as the latest stomping grounds. Indeed, the video content platform, which has nearly two billion users worldwide, is no longer just a hub for cat videos and those hoping to become famous a la Justin Bieber.
In recent years it has self-styled itself as a popular side hustle for the already super duper famous.
For industries like Hollywood and Bollywood, celebrity YouTube channels have been par for the course for several years. But in Pakistan, the dust has only just now settled in the wake of a nationwide YouTube ban that lasted from 2012-2016.
Even though the digital platform is still emerging from infancy, Pakistanis -- including local celebrities -- are very much about the video creating and sharing service.
Just last week, actor turned religious activist, Hamza Ali Abbasi announced the launch of his YouTube channel while other celebrities like Osman Khalid Butt (18k subscribers), Juggun Kazim (401k subscribers) and Nadia Khan (625k subscribers) were relatively early adopters. More recently, a whole bunch of the younger crop of stars has also begun flocking to the streaming service.
So, if you haven’t tired of seeing them on pretty much every television channel, now you can also tune in to YouTube to see how the likes of Iqra Aziz (53k subscribers), Hania Amir (135k subscribers), Yashma Gill (27k subscribers) and Hina Altaf (106k subscribers) live, work and play.
Recently, I decided to go deep diving into this brave new world of Pakistani celebrity YouTube channels.
Even though I told myself I would fast forward through most of the content to, you know, get a feel for what was going on, I actually wound up spending an embarrassing number of hours watching YouTube celebrity channels. (If you’re wondering how I sat through the trillion commercials, well, I am not ashamed to admit that I am a previously dedicated YouTuber with an ad-free account that I pay $12.99 for every month).
My first foray into the world of Pakistani celebrity YouTube channels was with everyone’s favorites: the very bubbly and the very forthcoming, Hina Altaf and Yashma Gill. I spent about ten minutes listening to Hina dissect the dichotomies of the ever elusive work-life balance and finding love on Tinder (the struggle is so real, amiright).
Then I watched Yashma try to make round rotis (again, the struggle is so real, amiright) followed by a twenty minute clip of Yashma’s recent photoshoot for Hello! Magazine (which is, coincidentally, also how I learned about makeup artist Nabila’s ZERO Make-Up Palette) .
Afterwards, I found myself on YouTube newbie Iqra Aziz’s channel. I watched all of her travel vlogs from her recent trip to Houston for the Hum Awards (I justified my doing this because I had just recently met and interviewed Iqra and Yasir at the Houston Hum Awards). What I learned was that the two are perfect together and Iqra has skin better than most newborns.
Next, I found myself watching one of Hira Tareen’s very well-made, very intimate YouTube videos. In a matter of minutes she transformed from gorgeous to, well, gorgeous. Making it look mega quick and easy, Hira all but promises us (the viewers) that not only can we also, like her, look like lit-from-within unicorns but that we can do it in five minutes.
Of course, one beauty how-to tutorial is never enough, which is how I found myself on the slippery slope and down the rabbit hole of celebrity beauty how-to YouTube videos. For the better part of the next hour, I watched Juggun Kazim’s makeup artist Mahroosh get her ready for three different events: mehndi, barat and walima. I learned so much yet I learned nothing. Just wow.
Somehow, along the way, I spent $70 on Shiseido sheet masks because, well, my favorite model, Sabeeka Imam was sweet enough to share them as an important part of her skincare routine. (Full disclosure: technically, Sabeeka doesn’t have a YouTube channel. Currently, she uploads beauty tutorials to her Instagram).
The takeaway from my hours of “research”? YouTube celebrity channels are supremely fascinating and fun places where anything goes.
Unlike Instagram, where engagement with celebrities is limited to being one of the 46,000 rabid fans liking or commenting on photos, YouTube gives the feeling of an actual, personal connection with a celebrity who you’ve just spent twenty minutes watching and taking life, fashion, beauty, fitness or diet advice from.
Never mind that this connection is entirely imaginary, fleeting and one-sided. Because, for the briefest of moments in the history of our universe, it seems like Hira and I just got done hanging out in her chic home where she kindly showed me her favorite makeup products.
According to Urban Dictionary, this feeling I’m describing apparently has the formal title of “frand”. Please note that “frand” is not to be confused with the type of frandship requests, which occasionally find their way into our filtered inboxes.
Frand, in the world of celebrities, means someone who sees themselves as both a friend and fan. It signifies a phenomenon recent to our times whereby celebrity interaction with fans via the Internet starts to make regular folks like us feel like these celebrities are… you know, actual friends.
Of course, I’d like to believe I’m a grown woman and not a preteen fan girl (no shade on preteen fangirls! It’s just that I’ve long retired from being one). Of course, I know Iqra and Hania are not my actual friends. Why then did I just spend hours tuned into their daily reflections and ramblings? And while, admittedly, I might never do it again… why do countless other “regular folks” continue to diligently do so?
The answer, I’ve learned, is twofold.
The first reason is our seemingly innate curiosity and desire to know about the lives of others -- especially those who we think are better, smarter, prettier and/or richer than us. Second, is the perceived authenticity of celebrity YouTube channels. Simply put, celebrities uncensored and exposed in this way apparently makes us like them more.
Consider this: according to YouTube CEO Susan Wojicki, 40% of Millennial subscribers feel that YouTube content creators understand them better than their friends do. And, over 60% say that YouTubers have changed their lives.
Back in the day, before sites like Instagram and YouTube made us feel like celebrities were inviting us into their homes for a quick gander, stars were unattainable, unknownable entities.
Occasionally, they would give an interview in which they might let slip something intimate, earnest, awkward or scandalous leaving us dazzled yet still curious.
It doesn’t work like that anymore. Not only are celebrities increasingly giving us more intimate access to their lives, fans are both demanding and expecting it. Of course, in exchange, celebrities have our full attention. We are fully invested like loyal lap dogs.
Indeed, by acting as both broadcaster and publisher -- with no middleman -- these celebrities have been able to spread their influence well beyond their day jobs as entertainers on our television screens.
“Today, it’s all about creating a direct connection with your followers or the people who want to see more of you,” actress and YouTuber Hira Tareen tells me.
“What makes YouTube appealing is that it gives me complete freedom of creative expression. On traditional media, one has to first be understood as an artist and then be at the mercy of channels, production hours or directors. Secondly, once you have an interested audience on your YouTube channel, there are almost no limitations on what you can say or do. When there are no scripts, no ratings and no pressure, one can really thrive creatively.”
As Hira points out, traditional media is part of the older paradigm, the older way of doing things.
YouTube videos are quick, casual and uncomplicated, which is why the typical, pre-prepped mainstream interviews have started feeling like a thing of the past. Celebrities not only know this but also know how to leverage it.
“I wanted a more permanent platform because Instagram stories are not permanent,” actress and YouTuber Ayesha Omar tells me. Since she’s been in the industry for so long, she’s mastered the art of directing, angles and lighting, which explains the high production quality of her YouTube vlogs.
“The videos are directed by me from start to finish. The photos that are part of my videos are mostly photos I’ve taken from my phone. All my content is original. All the information I give out is researched by my team and I because I don’t want my videos to have unoriginal content,” says Ayesha.
Both Hira and Ayesha put great emphasis on the originality and authenticity of their content.
“The source of inspiration was always my followers and fans who would write to me to ask where I got a certain something from, what products I use, how I do my makeup or what my fitness routine was. I thought YouTube was the perfect platform for me to express myself and my unique set of experiences. And waiting around for someone else to record me and then still not show me as the real me felt a little passe,” says Hira.
That last bit -- the ability to do you without someone telling you what to say or wear -- is critically important to all the celebrity YouTubers I spoke to for this story.
“Someone asked me if what I say is scripted. It’s not. It’s all about what is happening naturally [around me] and that’s why I find YouTube a lot of fun,” points out Hira.
Director Wajahat Rauf who moonlights on YouTube as the popular character, Voice Over Man, echoed a similar sentiment, telling me, “the freedom to write and create anything you want is the biggest attraction.”
"There is no channel committee, no content department telling you what will work and what won’t. And there’s the perks of an unlimited audience if your content hits a pulse,” he adds.
Yet, no matter how attractive the freedom to create is, for Pakistani celebrities navigating a YouTube still in its infancy, it can come at a heavy cost.
“At this time the money isn’t that great as the cost of advertising [on YouTube] is very low but in time we’ll get there,” explains Wajahat Rauf. “There is always the option of getting a sponsor to make it worth your time and effort.”
But, still, celebrities keep at it because of the pleasure that comes with connecting with their fans on a deeper, more authentic level. And because of the potential of developing a global audience.
“So far, the feedback has been amazing,” Hira Tareen tells me. “One suggestion that comes up a lot is that I should speak in Urdu. That’s something I will think about. My approach is that since YouTube is a global platform, and there are people in many parts of the world who would want to see and understand what happens in [Pakistan] like how we do things, how our media industry is, I choose to speak in English.”
Ayesha Omar tells me she plans to stick to English-heavy vlogging for the same reason.
“I want to promote a softer image of Pakistan to the world,” she says. And because, in the near future, Ayesha Omar plans to vlog and share content more frequently while traveling abroad, she also wants to bring the outside world to the people of Pakistan.
At the turn of the century, when print media, as we know it now, first came into existence, the gossip section was the most read portion of newspapers. The curiosity to know about the lives of others is a part of our shared human history, which is why the lives of celebrities -- which I am broadly defining to include the rich, famous, talented and/or beautiful -- has such a stronghold on us.
A 2012 Time Magazine article chalked up this celebrity obsession as purely biological. The theory goes as follows: because humans are, by nature, a social species, it’s only natural for us to want to know all about those at the top of the social food chain. By knowing what they are wearing, what they are saying and who they are mating with we are not only watching, we are also learning and mimicking. In other words, we are developing our own personal set of values and beliefs, our own social cues. It’s how we, as a people, manage to stay socially mobile and relevant.
This, I think, is part of the reason for the appeal and success of YouTube celebrity channels.
Because we equate celebrity with authority, platforms like YouTube further bolster these stars as authoritative agents of persuasion to our minds.
And because, biologically, we are wired with the desire to know about the lives of others -- particularly, the lives of those on top -- something as mundane as watching Hania travel makeup free in sweatpants is a pleasant and necessary reminder that despite a high-paying, high-profile job, she remains, like the rest of us, a regular girl who occasionally gets pimples.