Will Smith has been successful in just about every medium you can think of: music, television, movies, even his children. Now, Smith is gunning for something very new: YouTube stardom. The Will Smith YouTube channel was created on December 14, 2017 and five days later posted its first video, a collection of behind-the-scenes clips of Will Smith’s Bright press tour. He documents his life on the channel, giving fans a glimpse of what it’s like to be Will Smith aside from red carpets and press junkets, while promoting his much-maligned Netflix movie Bright at the same time. As of this writing, Smith’s channel only has four videos and 118,000 subscribers, not bad for a new YouTuber though surprisingly underwatched for a man whose movies have grossed a cumulative $7 billion worldwide.
Nevertheless, Smith is trying really hard to hit his vlogging stride. His best idea yet was scoring a valuable cosign from YouTuber, Lilly Singh, whose “IISuperwomanII” channel has 13 million subscribers. Singh’s “How to Speak Internet 101 (ft. Will Smith)” video, posted on December 23, has over 4 million views, more than the views on all four of Smith’s videos combined. And while at the video’s end Singh looks overjoyed to have collaborated with the star for one of her vlogs, the person getting the most out of it was Smith, for whom the video was a vehicle to announce his newest online venture. If it’s accepted that kids today want to become YouTube stars just like Singh, it appears mega-stars with already successful entertainment careers might feel the same way, too.
Smith isn’t the first mega-star to head down this path. One of the most-established celebrities turned YouTubers is Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who joined YouTube in 2005 but posted his channel’s first vlog on June 23, 2016, nicely timed to pre-empt the marketing of his fall 2016 blockbuster Disney film Moana. “Go ahead and call the president of the internet,” he says to an off-screen assistant named Ray in his YouTube channel announcement video. “Tell ‘em Rock’s got a hell of an idea.” Like Smith, Johnson introduced his channel with the help of Singh, by appearing in her 2016 video “How To Be a YouTube Star (ft. The Rock),” which currently has nearly 14 million views. Other celebrity vloggers include names like Russell Brand, Karlie Kloss, Kevin Durant, Steve Nash, and Jeremy Lin, all who’ve been using the platform in varying capacities over the last few years.
Online fame used to be seen as a stepping stone to more “legitimate” and lucrative mediums like television shows, big-budget movies, and major label recording contracts. The many failures of vloggers to break through to traditional entertainment without diminishing their celebrity, however, has proven vlogging is an avenue all its own for mainstream celebrity. YouTube is now a widely accepted destination for entertainment, thanks in part to a new generation that has never known life without the website. Mega-celebrities — with their years of press training, public image refinement, and privacy management — may lack the effortless internet fluency of YouTube’s most celebrated vloggers, but for marketers they’re a much-less risky way of stepping into the lucrative realm. Companies hoping to profit off of influencers are threatened by their hazy standards of conduct, whereas the social conventions governing how mainstream celebrities are expected to act are much clearer.
Take the infamous Paul brothers, for example. In July, Jake Paul was dropped from Disney Channel’s Bizaardvark, a show about aspiring YouTubers on which Paul played a lightly fictionalized version of himself, after speculation that the unpredictable Paul had become too much of a liability for the youth-focused channel. Just last week, Logan Paul fell entirely from grace after posting a vlog where he stumbled upon the corpse of a man who had died in Japan’s “Suicide Forest.” The video, which explicitly depicted the corpse and Paul’s nonchalant response, resulted in widespread backlash. He subsequently removed the video and issued two apologies along with an announcement that he would be taking a break from vlogging.
Nevertheless, the numbers don’t lie: According to Celebrity Net Worth, Jake and Logan Paul respectively are worth $8 million and $14 million, which is pretty good for a pair of guys just out of their teenage years. When there’s that much money to be made in the game, why wouldn’t celebrities try to cash in? Still, even the most successful celebrity vloggers are playing catch-up to dedicated YouTube stars. Johnson, with his proven international appeal, has 2.7 million subscribers. Meanwhile, Logan Paul, despite his hiatus, still eclipses Johnson’s audience at 15 million subscribers. (PewDiePie — YouTube’s most popular vlogger, channel, and racial slur user — brags 59 million. ) Coincidentally, or maybe not, Paul and Johnson have appeared in plenty of videos together.
Some celebs have better chances than others. Smith and Johnson have boundless charisma, widespread popularity, and largely scandal-free careers, which means their chance seem pretty good. Of course, it’s a little bizarre to watch the world’s biggest stars humble themselves for a chance of online fame. At one point in his third vlog, “One Thing Arnold Schwarzenegger Taught Me,” Smith purposely mispronounces the word “naan” and then does so again with even more exaggeration, the word “NAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAN” appearing below him in standard blocky font. The shot is a clear attempt by producers to offer viewers a readymade, easily shareable meme, but the attempt is too transparent for much of the Internet-savvy youth they hope to grab, like your dad using a meme generator and insisting you share his creation from your Instagram account.
Still, there’s something almost endearing about Smith’s channel, which shows a side the public rarely — if ever — sees from international stars who have been celebrated in the public eye for well over two decades. “If we wanna have a YouTube channel it has to be based on authenticity,” he says in one with the kind of assuredness middle schoolers used to have when talking about their rock and roll stardom dreams. YouTube viewers are used to everyday people pandering for views by making their mundane lives seem exciting. When it comes to Smith, the power dynamic switches. Suddenly us nobodies are the ones who get to decide if Smith is a star.