The YouTube celebrity – is there a more 21st century concept than that? The Internet’s done a lot for the world, but one of its biggest contributions is the democratization of celebrity: with a decent Webcam and a YouTube account, anyone can be a star. DIY celebrity isn’t a new concept: punk music was all about getting out and creating music without the need for training or traditional outlets. But what makes the YouTube celebrity different is the reach a Vlogger can attain. Tyler Oakley, a wildly popular figure on YouTube, has more than 6 million devoted followers. Oakley uses his platform as a way to share stories of his life, his friends, and as a way to market his brand of witty comedy. With his first book, Binge, Oakley takes apart the smiling, genial celebrity and shares some harrowing stories of poverty, addiction, abuse, and redemption. Like with his videos, he finds a way to connect with his audience through humor and empathy.
What sets Binge apart from other celebrity memoirs is Oakley has a clear and identifiable voice. He’s a champion of the underdog, having felt like one throughout much of his life. This humanity works its way through all of his stories, making them compelling and urgent. Like many funny people, he exposes the pain, angst, and sense of isolation that he felt during his adolescence, and he writes that he’s stronger for it. This book isn’t a tale of regrets but of survival – it’s a book that celebrates misfits and weirdos and imparts a message of hard-won appreciation of life.
As a queer adolescent in the Midwest, Oakley struggled with weight, his sexuality, and his family’s unstable financial situation. He’s honest and candid about how he and his siblings had to do without, and how that made him feel when he compared himself to his peers. Financial insecurity plagued Oakley during college, which explains his strict work ethic. Having a job since he was 15, he’s careful to remind his readers that despite his celebrity being largely created by him, it was the result of hard work and smarts. Behind the giggly videos and silly challenges is a guy who knows his craft – he understands social media, and was often outpacing his superiors at work (there’s a great story of how a Google exec vetoed his hire because he was too creative for Google). He’s honest about how draining zipping throughout the country can be, but he’s careful to balance these passages with moments of gratitude and joy. So even though he was mobbed by a crazy crowd of kids on his birthday, he also got to meet Michelle Obama. Oakley’s clear on how he’s essentially two people: the private individual and the popular public figure.
For those expecting just laughs, Binge will offer something more profound. He shares his experiences with eating disorders, Internet addiction, and in a particularly disturbing chapter, physical abuse. He also writes about his difficult relationship with an at-times emotionally-distant father who was estranged from Oakley for years after discovering his son was gay. But he’s not bitter about the years of estrangement, he’s clear-eyed, honest, and wise. He’s also understanding enough that he can forgive, and his father ultimately becomes a sympathetic figure. The passages about his struggles with eating disorders is also important because few men are open about struggling with weight and body image – and the gay community in particular, is pretty unforgiving when it comes to objectifying male beauty and setting unrealistic standards of male beauty. Oakley’s work on anorexia is important because he pinpoints that eating disorders aren’t a form of extreme and dangerous vanity, but often come out of a need of control, usually born out a severe lack of control. Young viewers – Oakley’s audiences – may come away from his stories with a deeper understanding, more empathy, and maybe inspiration if they are struggling with these issues themselves.
So, many may be asking, given that it’s Tyler Oakley, is Binge a funny read. Yes, very much so. Despite Oakley’s celebrity, he still manages to write about his experiences in an awed, appreciative voice, as if he sometimes can’t believe he’s doing some of the awesome things he gets to do. Some of the funniest moments in Binge are when Oakley writes out rules and suggestions for a perfect world (for Leap Day, Oakley suggests instead of indulging in wacky antics, we should get rid of the gender wage gap, racial profiling by the police, and biphobia, among other societal ills – I’m all for it!) His encounter with Michelle Obama is great and he really captures the shit-in-your-pants feeling of meeting the First Lady of the United States, while trying to avoid any breaches of protocol or security.
What makes Binge such an impressive read is its wide reach: his tween and teen audiences will likely lap the book up, but there is also a lot for older readers as well. Underneath the confessions, the jokes, and the anecdotes, is a smart treatise on American pop culture and celebrity in the 21st Century.