Kevin Wu, known as KevJumba online, updated his Facebook profile picture two days ago debuting a new look. Instead of his neat, boy-next-door-could-be-your-classmate look, he is now rocking a shaved head with some bleached stubble, looking much like an 88rising artist. As a KevJumba fan, I could not be more excited for his next offering to the internet — a foray into music. That being said, I also understand that he doesn’t owe us anything nor does he have to share his life or work with us forever. His apparent comeback — although it looks more like a career change — has got me thinking about Asian YouTubers and how they dominated the late 2000s/early 2010s.
For those of you who weren’t on YouTube then, I’m talking about Nigahiga, KevJumba, CommunityChannel, Shimmycocopuffs, and Mychonny to name a few (see a longer list here). And while I didn’t watch them regularly, also Bubzbeauty and Michelle Phan, who is often referred to as the “original beauty blogger” or the “world’s first influencer.” They were part of this era of funny and fresh content that wasn’t an ad. Rather, it felt like people who wanted to create for the sake of comedy or to share their beauty routines without the expectation of financial reward.
And people loved it. Each of these YouTubers had hundreds of thousands to millions of subscribers and amassed millions of views. Nigahiga was especially popular and from 2009–2011, was the most subscribed channel on YouTube for 677 days, a feat only surpassed by PewDiePie and T Series. If you were on YouTube back then, you may remember that for a bit of time, Fred was the most subscribed channel. As Nigahiga fans watched their subscriber number inch closer to Fred’s, it became a movement to tell friends to subscribe to Nigahiga to displace Fred and in 2009, Nigahiga beat out Fred, speaking to the popularity of Nigahiga and how their fans galvanized behind them to make their channel the most subscribed one on YouTube.
One of the reasons why I’m hung up on this era is because despite their massive popularity and influence, there wasn’t much of a financial reward. This was a period in which users created original skits, did stand up comedy, and provided makeup lessons and became hugely popular for it. Yet, none of them, to my knowledge, became mainstream celebrities the way Emma Chamberlain, who by the way has 11.7 million followers today compared to Nigahiga’s current 21.2 million followers, or Charli D’Amelio have.
While I do not know the makeup of their followers, my theory is that these Asian YouTubers had millions of followers within the Asian diaspora. Since we were seeking representation and relatability in mainstream media and not finding it, we rallied behind this group of creators, who in turn united us even more, creating a very loyal fan base. The internet provided a space where many of us in the Asian diaspora could come together and watch content that appealed to us. However, the problem is that even though there are millions of us, we’re spread out across the globe.
To provide a little glimpse of how spread out both the creators and fans were, you should know the creators mentioned earlier were based in Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia. And you can guess that their fan base was similarly geographically spread out. Having a geographically spread out audience makes a theatrical release in movie theaters of something they made or selling magazines with them on the cover difficult because fans aren’t all going to be where the theaters are or where the magazine is sold.
Another reason they didn’t receive mainstream recognition is because during the late 2000s, we didn’t have streaming the way we do now and we certainly weren’t willing to pay for it. Stealing and uploading content illegally was fairly acceptable and common back then. A perfect example of this is LimeWire, a site where many of us would download songs illegally.
Nigahiga came out with two movies — Ryan and Sean’s Not So Excellent Adventure (2008) and Agents of Secret Stuff (2010). I remember my friends and I wanting to see both of these films, but being unable to because the screenings of them were either too far away or on schooldays. They didn’t have the same number of screenings a blockbuster movie would have, so being able to go and pay to see it in theaters was difficult, thus my previous point about Asian YouTubers fans being too spread out to ensure fans being able to see their movies in theater.
Although I can’t find the videos, I have a strong memory of several Asian YouTubers begging us to see the movie in person, explaining that if we watched it illegally, there was no way to measure its success and that if we wanted more movies from creators like them, we had to show the industry that their work could be successful. That brings me to my next point — we also didn’t have as clear of an understanding then as we do now of the importance of supporting our favorite creators and causes no matter what.
Nowadays, there feels to be more of a social responsibility to go support the content you want to see. For example, while my friends and I are not romcom fans, we went to see Crazy Rich Asians multiple times to show Hollywood there is a demand for movies with Asian leads. And we certainly weren’t the only ones to do so. Without that understanding and financial support, no creator or influencer can succeed. I truly believe that if one of these users came out today and experienced the same level of success, they could easily have a successful Netflix or Hulu movie because a) we’re more used to paying for streaming and many of us subscribe to one service or another now and b) we understand that watching their content isn’t always enough, we have to support their projects financially and show their sponsors that they have selling power.
Like I said earlier, what stuns me is how massively popular these bloggers were — Nigahiga was the most subscribed YouTuber for almost two years and Michelle Phan was the first beauty blogger to receive collaborations and sponsorships — yet none of them reached mainstream success, as in Met Gala or People Magazine level of fame the way James Charles, Addison Rae, Nikkie de Jager, and Emma Chamberlain all have. Some of the early 2000s Asian YouTubers received sponsorships (Michelle Phan partnered with Lancôme), but it wasn’t to the same extent as today where almost every video from a big YouTuber has a supporter or is about a product they’re trying to sell to you. It feels like every other YouTuber from Laura Lee to James Charles and Nikita Dragun either have their own makeup collaborations with well-established beauty brands or have started their own.
But that doesn’t mean the Asian YouTubers of the late 2000s/early 2010s were less influential. When we talk about influence, we have to talk about how they impact individuals and our emotional attachment to them as fans. For many Asian millennials such as myself, we still feel strong attachment towards these individuals — a testament to their influence and their impact on us over a decade later. A simple scroll through the Facebook comments on KevJumba’s profile pic or on Papa Jumba’s first vlog (Papa Jumba, Kevin’s dad, was a popular guest on KevJumba) will show you just how many people missed the two of them and still care about them, showing that even though it’s been years since they’ve been active on YouTube, we are still fans.
Can we say the same about influencers today? While I hate to be one of those people who says “things were better in my day,” I also acknowledge that there are a ton more influencers today, leading many to question is there an influencer bubble. This is partly because of the ubiquity of smart phones today, making it easy for everyone to record and to photograph their lives and to share it on the internet. Additionally, social media has provided more avenues to become internet famous. Because there are so many influencers now, there are more competitors fighting for a limited number of users’ attentions and it becomes increasingly difficult for anyone to stand out. There are simply too many. (Business and tech site EarthWeb estimates that there are between 3.2 million and 37.8 million influencers in the world; obviously a wide range that makes you question the validity of the data or the definition of an influencer, but you get the point — there’s a lot.)
On top of that, we receive more of our interactions with influencers through short-form content as shown by the popularity of TikTok videos and before that, Instagram photos with short captions. With short-form content, it’s harder to get to know your favorite influencer simply because each interaction with them is so brief. It makes you wonder — how well do you know them and if you are obsessed with them, are you obsessed with them or the idealized version you created in your head? I don’t have the answer to those or even know how much of that makes a difference but what I know for certain is that short-form content requires less commitment than long-form content. I can scroll through dozens of Bella Poarch TikToks in the time it takes to watch one Mychonny video. As a fan, it takes more commitment and adoration to keep us watching a ten-minute-long video (what you need to hit in order to monetize the video on YouTube) than a TikTok and to stop us from clicking on something else.
All of this speaks to how the world of internet celebrities has grown exponentially, creating a more difficult sphere to stand out in, and to how internet celebrities are becoming a more legitimate form of celebrities today. We see it each time a YouTuber or TikToker goes to the Met Gala, becomes a brand ambassador, attends fashion week, or appears in magazines.
While I do no want to stray too far because it’s too much information to cover in one Medium post, I also wanted to mention that it’s not as if today’s YouTubers or TikTokers are especially fashion focused, which would make them obvious choices for the brand ambassadorships and fashion week invites they receive. They’re not. And if we look at fashion-focused bloggers like Rumi Neely, Bryanboy, Jane Aldridge, Chiara Ferragni, and Susie Bubble, who were pioneers on the internet before today’s influencers, we can see that they did achieve a certain level of recognition that Asian YouTubers didn’t seem to receive. But the attention and acclaim they receive remains niche in that unless you’re into high fashion, you probably haven’t heard of them. Yes, they attend runway shows and write for fashion magazines but no, they have not become the face for a fashion house like Emma Chamberlain has, appeared on major magazine covers like the D’Amelio family has, or attended movie premiers like Bella Poarch does. Even influencers who were more focused on fashion in the past have not received the same level of recognition as today’s influencers; they remain on the fringe and have not entered public consciousness yet.
However, I can understand why they didn’t ascend to more conventional forms of stardom like today’s influencers have because they are fashion bloggers and fashion, especially high fashion, can be an exclusive realm.
But I am still in shock, and to an extent disappointed, that the late 2000s/early 2010s YouTubers didn’t receive more mainstream recognition like internet celebrities do now. If you had to argue that one of them did, it’s probably Michelle Phan, who had makeup collaborations and sponsorships. But even then, she and her makeup line, EM Cosmetics, never quite reached the same level of ubiquity that Addison Rae and her makeup line, ITEM Beauty — which is easily available at Sephora and whose hashtag on TikTok has accumulated over 129 million views — have. Ironic considering Addison is known for dancing, not makeup which is what Michelle built her empire on. Additionally, Michelle launched her first round of EM Cosmetics in 2015, 8 years after she first began posting on YouTube, while Addison launched ITEM Beauty in 2020, a year after she had joined TikTok, which shows how much quicker today’s influencers are rewarded or monetized.
It’s a weird space that these YouTubers inhabit. They were pioneers of the internet and had a tremendous impact on digital culture yet they weren’t rewarded for it to the same extent that internet celebrities are rewarded today. Even if their names were all on our lips and even if many of us logged onto YouTube just to see them, they never became “real” celebrities or profited as quickly or as highly as influencers do today.
While I have no real conclusion, all I can say is that these bloggers deserve recognition for what they did for both internet culture and for Asian representation. They connected millions of us at a time when Asian American representation was scarce at best, and racist at its worst. They deserve to be supported for what they’ve done and for what they will do. With that said, I’m excited for KevJumba’s return to the internet.