With over 1.5 million YouTube subscribers, multi-hyphenate talent Anna Akana aims to bring laughter to those who need it the most.
Photography by Josefhaley
Styling by Sarah Kinsumba, Styling Assistant Justine Dard
Makeup by Jenna Kristina, Tomlinson Management Group
Hair by Tanya Abriol, Tracey Mattingly
Story by Ethel Navales
In the early 2000s, a teenage Anna Akana picked up a “crappy, old camcorder” and directed her very first video — a parody of the song “Bleeding Love” by Leona Lewis. Akana, who can’t help but laugh at the memory of the many, many bottles of ketchup she used for fake blood, claims she thought herself a comedic genius at the time. Little did she know that years later, she would have over 1.5 million YouTube subscribers agreeing with her.
Since beginning her YouTube channel in 2011, Akana has catapulted into online fame with her witty, sometimes heartfelt, always hilarious videos. Her 2014 makeup tutorial, which actually has nothing to do with makeup and everything to do with inner beauty, went viral with nearly 4 million views and gained widespread media attention. It’s no surprise that Akana regards the “takeaway” message to be key to a successful video. “I love watching content where I’m learning something,” she says. “So I always try to make videos that either give advice or leave viewers with something solid to take away.”
And even with nearly 300 videos on her channel, her fans want more. Her charisma is undeniable, and if I weren’t already convinced that she’s someone you just can’t get tired of, observing her photo shoot certainly would’ve done the trick. In that brief moment when I was able to tear myself away from watching Akana on set, I realized that everyone else in the room was just as captivated by her. Not only was she entertaining, she went the extra mile to make others feel comfortable and included. That, above all else, had everyone hooked.
Not surprisingly, this is exactly what has YouTube viewers drawn to her. In Akana’s videos, which cover topics as deep as depression and as lighthearted as cat ladies, she’s not afraid to be real. Though humorous in nature, the emotions and situations she discusses are raw and relatable. Her videos purposely try to reach out to viewers, and that, she explains, is the whole point.
After all, Akana’s decision to pursue comedy was borne out of tragedy. When she was just 17, her younger sister committed suicide. As Akana points out in her “Draw My Life” video, that pivotal moment defined her, whether she wanted it to or not, and it was that very experience that has made her who she is today. “I didn’t laugh legitimately for a couple years,” she recalls. “So when I was watching a Comedy Central special with Margaret Cho, it was the first time I was really able to forget about all of it and have fun and escape for a little bit. And it was the first time I had ever seen a female Asian standup comedian.”
Akana doesn’t shy away from her difficult past. In 2013, she published “Surviving Suicide,” a compilation of two years’ worth of diary entries chronicling the aftermath of her sister’s passing. She has multiple videos that openly discuss suicide, including one that is titled “Please Don’t Kill Yourself.” Akana says her most rewarding experiences are when she gets to meet young girls who were self-harming but stopped after watching her suicide prevention videos. “You know, that’s the most you can hope to do for someone — to really make a big difference like that in their life,” she says. After a moment, she adds, “And I always wondered if my sister had a Grace Helbig or a Lilly Singh [YouTube personalities], would she still be alive today? So it’s always really nice to think maybe I actually helped somebody.”
Of course, with hundreds of videos already uploaded onto her channel, Akana admits that her biggest challenge is trying to stay relevant. “It’s hard,” she confesses. “I feel like I’ve said my opinion on everything there is to have an opinion on. And as I go through my career, I tend to be a workaholic, so I run out of life experience to draw from. What can I say that’s relatable? Awkward things that happen at a photo shoot? Nobody could really relate to that on a broad level. So I’m working really hard at my career but also making sure I’m going out, having life experiences, meeting people and doing things in the real world so that I have more things to draw from and create content about.”
Despite this challenge, Akana is certainly in no danger of fading into the background. In addition to her YouTube channel, Akana regularly appears on television shows (she has a recurring role on Comedy Central’s upcoming new series “Corporate”), and she’s making inroads onto the big screen (check her out in Marvel’s “Ant-Man” and later this year in “You Get Me” with Bella Thorne). And let’s not forget that Akana also released a clothing line, Ghost and Stars. (“It’s actually more just cat apparel now,” she says, laughing. “It’s slowly morphing into having cats on everything. There are cat leggings and cat astronaut T-shirts and all that jazz.”) To top it all off, she shares a podcast with Brad Gage, “Explain Things to Me,” which calls on a variety of professionals (from morticians to tattoo artists) to shine a light on their expertise.
And even with an overwhelmingly packed schedule, Akana has no plans of slowing down any time soon. In the next three years, she hopes to put together an art gallery. “I want to rent out a warehouse and build miniature sets, and the whole purpose of it is getting your photo taken on all of these sets,” she explains. “With art, you want to feel something and you want to be somewhere, and our culture is so documentarian.” She laughs before adding, “And after, you go into a separate hallway, and there’s a little window with a plaque that reads: ‘Humans. The 2000s humans were obsessed with taking photos of themselves.’ So it’s making fun of everything that we love to be.”
Adding on to her giant list of things to do, Akana hopes to eventually direct films one day. That is, of course, after she’s had her fill of acting, writing, standup comedy, hosting a podcast, growing her clothing line, putting together an art gallery, and all the other things one does when one is taking over the world. How does she deal with the stress of it all?
“I don’t,” she quips. “That’s why I have six cats.”