At a casual glance, Atlanta's Woodruff Arts Center looks like an amateur furry convention, with people dressed as dragons and owls and raccoons milling around. Look closer, though, and you notice people in pajama sets, nightshirts. Closer still, and the glittering signs reveal the real cause of this crowd: Tyler Oakley, YouTube's golden boy, is in town, and he's hosting a slumber party.
The 26-year-old has spent the last year criss-crossing the globe as part of his Slumber Party Tour, his first solo jaunt to meet his 7 million fans beyond the computer screen. In between it all, he's worked on a book, attended the White House Correspondents' Association dinner, made videos with the likes of Michelle Obama and Jesse Tyler Ferguson, and won both a Streamy and a Teen Choice Award.
He's a bona fide tween idol, so it's only natural that I'm witnessing his tour from my tween and teen home base of Atlanta—with my mother in tow. She's just as clueless as the other parents dragged along, although she and I have the benefit of being able to share a glass of wine legally before the event kicks off. When I was the age of most Oakley fans, my obsessions ran toward Broadway shows, and, content with my message boards and just old enough to go unchaperoned with my friends, I didn't ask my mom to take me to any growing up. I grew into liking *NSYNC in my 20s, way past their prime, so experiencing a renaissance of my teenage potential fan-self is fun, especially when there are so many infectious Oakley fangirls around. My mom and I are both wearing onesies to fit in, and even Oakley is not exempt from the dress code. He dons a skeleton onesie for his VIP meet-and-greet pre-show, and then enters the stage to deafening screams in a rainbow-colored leopard number. "My gayest onesie ever," he laughs.
Oakley has mastered the art of the YouTuber on tour. Where other shows can feel one-sided, with the crowd playing the part of the screaming mass while the star poses for a few selfies from the stage, answers two pointless questions, then heads off to a meet-and-greet line, Oakley spends a full two hours on stage actually interacting with his audience. It's a mix of storytelling, games, and general banter, but through it all Oakley's show maintains the feeling of an actual slumber party. He looks at you, at the individuals dotting the room, not just out to the general audience. Sure, fans are in the seats and Oakley's on the stage, but it's the most true translation from watching an Oakley video to an actual physical experience. This skill is possibly unique to Oakley, one of YouTube's breakout stars who's poised to bridge the divide fully between mainstream and Web.
"This year is when people are really starting to get digital talent, and not question it as something amateur or young or unprofessional," Oakley told the Daily Dot backstage minutes before starting the event. "It's something that I think is the next big thing, and I'm really lucky and fortunate to be a part of it. This year has been the year of realizing crazy dreams and seeing them come to fruition. It's been the most bizarre year of my life."
Through that defining year, as his numbers and influence continue to jump, he's noticed how his fanbase has changed as they age—and how he's changed right along with them.
"High school is a very different atmosphere from college or when you graduate and go off to the workforce," he said. "What I've found is not only do [fans] stick around, but new people join in as they discover you. I just want to continue to be myself and show my growth, because obviously I'm going to change over the years. I'm not going to hide me growing up; I think that's a good part to show."
And Oakley doesn't shy away from showing much of anything. The special sauce that makes Web stars and their content sparkle is connection. While a traditional celeb might respond to a Facebook post during a pre-ordained time or favorite a fan tweet occasionally, digital stars thrive by removing much of the divide between celebrity and fan. Oakley is so connected with his fanbase that he said he recognized almost all 150 people who came through his pre-show VIP meet-and-greet line. Some people have been tweeting at him, he explained, so he recognizes them from their avatars, while others who aren't making the show have been telling him which of their friends to look out for during the photo session. Oakley's appeal is as much about him as it is about fans connecting with other, likeminded fans. While Oakley poses with the VIP set, out in the lobby a local fan is excited after meeting her Canadian friend for the first time.
"I met this friend from Canada because of Tyler, and I asked my mom if I could meet her, since she planned to come down here for this, and also to meet me," said 14-year-old fan Emily Hall. "My mom said yes to it right away because she knows how much I love him."
Emily's mom, Kristie, one of the many parents dotting the landscape as chaperones, said she thought the whole affair was "cute," and that she was happy to take her daughter an hour away from home to see Oakley and meet her Canadian friend, even if her understanding of Oakley's brand was vague. "I know that my daughter watches him all the time. He's cute and gay and funny."
That's a well-trained parent who knows the value of #content.
The tour is the PG version of himself, Oakley said. It's also parent-appropriate, since he knows the crowd is filled with his younger fans in the company of adult supervision, which they may lack online. In fact, he plays to that throughout the night, inviting parent-child pairs up on stage for a Newlyweds-style challenge that wonders just how much moms and dads know about their kids' Internet consumption and Tyler Oakley addiction. In Atlanta, Oakley's own mother is the surprise guest, and they participate in the game against two other duos. (The Oakleys lost, but it was a close race.) Of course, everyone gets a crown and a selfie with the star, with one diligent dad videotaping the entire exchange, even while he's getting his picture taken. That's a well-trained parent who knows the value of #content.
Oakley's enlisted his YouTuber friends like Troye Sivan and Zoe Sugg to make videos for throughout the evening that move the narrative along (and give Oakley a chance to sit and sip water). They prompt him to play games; craft a Mad Libs fanfiction story that, in this iteration, pits Mamrie Hart and Franklin the Turtle against each other; and give him room to jokingly promote frequently touted brand sponsorships on his channel. When he asks the crowd for suggestions of brands he promotes on his YouTube, their immediate response of "Audible" and "Nature Box" are about as good a survey of how well YouTubers are working as an advertising machine as any. Every time Oakley answers a tweeted question from the crowd, he asks the actual person to stand up, chats with them, usually compliments their look, and gives long and detailed responses. He even knows when someone who's tweeted a question isn't in the room and has hijacked the hashtag by his or her username. Of course he still answers dutifully.
One question that Oakley elaborates on is about his book, Binge, which comes out in October. He's one in a long line of YouTubers turned authors this year, and Oakley says he's taken special care to ensure that he's putting out the best product possible.
"The book is full-color pictures—not like an insert, pictures throughout the book," he explains. "It's super high-quality paper. I just wanted it to be worth the money. I'm not putting out something that's crap. I'm really fortunate that I've been able to do videos, which is short-form and concise, and I've done podcasts, which lets me talk things through and also have somebody to bounce off of, but this has been a whole new experience."
Oakley may have made his mark as a digital celeb, but he's hoping on the page he doesn't simply tell a story of a YouTuber's rise to fame. It's the No. 1 question Oakley says he gets from traditional media, but he knows his fans already know that story. Instead he hopes to convey stories from his life beyond the camera.
"[There will be] maybe some glimmers of what a YouTuber will do in their life, but it's so much more than that," he explained. "I think there are some parts that are gems for YouTube fanatics, especially behind-the-scenes gossip."
One story he promises to tell is a story he's never told online, despite being a large part of his draw for young fans: his coming-out story. While other YouTubers have made heartfelt, emotional videos on their channels coming out as LGBTQ+, Oakley has been living out on the platform since he started, and he never circled back to tell the tale on video.
"I've never made a video about my coming-out story; I've never talked about anything gay," he said before the show. "To include that was really important to me, because it's something a lot of people don't know about. I've talked about it here and there, but it goes in deep about it."
Oakley spent the past year writing locked in hotel rooms or in fellow YouTuber Mamrie Hart's office, where she was working on her own debut book. The space was perfect because Hart had banned one key thing from it: Internet.
"We'd have the door open, a couple of beers, and just write," he said. "We'd bounce off each other when I needed someone to figure out a word. Reading her book was like being with her; it was incredible, and that inspired me so much. Like, holy shit, she brought it. Surrounding myself with people I really respected, not just creators but writers, meant a lot to me."
Back on tour, though, the most reading that happens on any given night are tweets on the screen and the closed-captioning on the video segments. Mostly Oakley sticks to reading his fellow digital celebs, teasing them with a Most Likely segment that plays off the idea of yearbook superlatives. A bit of insider baseball for the fans who love and follow the intermingling of their favorite stars, this is about the point where the parents and the generally uninitiated in the audience tune out, including my mom.
Otherwise, though, she was a trooper through the whole experience, even jumping from her seat to try and catch Oakley's eye during interactive moments. We snap a bunch of selfies, both with each other and with Tyler when he encourages the crowd to turn around and do so. We jump up and down to be caught in less than a second of his Vine for the night. Embracing my fandom right next to my mom feels liberating, and watching the rest of the crowd do the same makes me feel even warmer. At the center of it all is Oakley, a young adult with multiple generations both at his own command and connecting with each other in a safe and welcoming environment.
Oakley wraps up the night with purpose, explaining to the fans assembled that the greatest work he's gotten to do as a result of his celebrity is charity, and speaks about the
, an LGBTQ+ suicide prevention organization. Oakley started as an intern with the Trevor Project, and for three years running, he has made it his birthday project to
from his fans. Collectively, his fans (his "people," as he calls them) have raised more than $1 million for the organization, the largest single group gift, and Oakley now sits on the board of directors. Oakley is clearly thankful, and he's in awe of the people who surround him—not just as fans, but as creators in the own right. He talks to them about making their own work, not just following his, since he can see how creative and talented all of his 7 million subscribers can be. Before he leaves the stage, he's got a message for them:
"I'd love to be your first subscriber."
Photo by Ben Chandler