Melanin without tokenism: black people are slowly being allowed to be normal on TV

In her first column on television and pop culture, Bim Adewunmi explores the progress made by non-white characters on British telly.

Last Sunday night I felt, like Obi Wan before me, a great disturbance in the Force. No one had died, thank goodness, but my Twitter feed was abuzz with activity. The euphoria was evident: “What's this advert??” tweeted a friend. “Never seen so many black people in a prime-time advert in my life!!” Another replied to the post with: “British peak time ad full of black people. #WellINever”. My favourite was: “Listen... the way I almost snapped my neck, by doing a double take cos there were still black faces on the second time I looked up!”

Yes, there was an ad, full of black people, on terrestrial British television, during one of the most watched programmes on a Sunday night. The Force was properly disturbed.

The advertisement – starring singer Janelle Monáe and a coterie of attractive, well-dressed people, hanging out – was for Sonos. I have only a vague idea what the product does, despite the ad being about a minute long. But more importantly (for me, not Sonos) the ad was a small thing highlighting a much bigger thing: the – slowly – increasing presence of people of colour on television. Let me qualify that: we (or at least one version of us) have been on telly for a long while now. I’ve watched a lot of television, and I remember that much. What I’m talking about here is the evolution of people of colour on television. Things are still far from perfect, but that have got so much better than when I was a child or even a teenager. Back then, spotting brown people was like a game of Where’s Wally? except instead of the distinctive striped jumper of our cartoon hero, they were sporting assorted stereotypes, from aggressive criminal to street kids in need of a hot meal and a chance meek ‘model minority’ – tokenism at its purest.

I remember reading a Sidney Poitier interview in which the Oscar-winning actor spoke about his role in Stanley Kramer’s 1967 film Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner. He spoke of the character Dr John Prentice’s qualities, and the thinking that he had to be perfect in the context of the movie. Not merely "very good", but absolutely perfect, a paragon: a highly-educated and qualified doctor, and a world traveller (stopping off to give talks at the UN, as you do). I read later that he was going to be written as divorced, but it was decided to make him widowed, to complete his "perfect" image. He had to be utterly above reproach in order for white audiences to embrace him as an equal. But more than that, he had to counter the prevalent representation of black people onscreen.

Here and now, in 2012, we’ve reached the latest stage of our evolution onscreen: we are "normal". We are just like everyone else. We’re not over what I call the "Poitier Exemplar" just yet, but we are slowly moving past it. Monáe – hanging out and listening to music with friends – did not look entirely dissimilar to me and my life (pompadour and expertly tailored suit notwithstanding).

That’s what struck me the most about seeing it – in a world where the default experience of "normal" is "white", and more and more people of colour are finally being seen as possibilities when casting the default. Seeing that ad was seeing a reflection of what my life looks like. At the start of the ad, it was Janelle Monáe and friends, evolving into a black woman and her friends, and ending on just a woman and her friends. It’s the normalcy that strikes. Finally.

And most fantastic of all, it’s all over telly. My current favourite black woman on television is Vod (played by Zawe Ashton) on Channel 4’s Fresh Meat, a role that has almost nothing to do with her melanin. She is a fully-formed character, written as a rounded individual, and a full part of the world she inhabits. In US TV (and also on More4 at the moment), Kerry Washington is kicking arse and taking names as Washington power player Olivia Pope in ABC’s Scandal. Keeping her company is Mindy Kaling’s new comedy on Fox as well as Brit-doing-an-accent-and-wielding-a-baseball-bat Archie Panjabi in the superlative The Good Wife on NBC. Other casts with a dose of melanin that sidesteps tokenism include the very funny Happy Endings (will it ever return to E4?)and New Girl (Lamorne Morris’s Winston is fantastic if somewhat underused).

Some Girls. Source: BBC

But wait, there’s more! BBC3’s new comedy Some Girls follows four teenage girls and has a black lead in Adelayo Adedayo. The rash of ads in the run up to the orgy of consumption that is Christmas has yielded a bumper crop of "normal" brown folks too. Sainsbury’s has a black family with the little boy doing the dishes to the surprise of his parents, and Tesco’s campaign also makes use of another, sipping on champagne in the kitchen on Christmas Day. Baileys’ Blondie-soundtracked ad features several hues and shades. As a lifelong telly addict, I can’t lie: it’s all kind of thrilling.

There is still a need for the Poitier Exemplar, for we are not yet at the Promised Land in terms of the narrowness of our represented reality (hello, Top Boy). But what struck me the hardest about Sunday night was that we’re firmly on the way, and that is A Good Thing.

Viva from Some Girls. Source: BBC

Bim Adewunmi writes about race, feminism and popular culture. Her blog is  yorubagirldancing.com and you can find her on Twitter as @bimadew.

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The age of self: the strange story of how YouTubers saved publishing

When 21-year-old Alfie Deyes released his first book, it was No 1 on the Sunday Times bestseller list for 11 weeks. Who are the YouTubers – and why are their books so successful?

It’s a sunny Saturday May morning in Cardiff city centre, and shoppers are throwing confused glances at a large, cordoned-off queue outside WHSmith attended by a hulking cluster of guards. The queue is here for an author signing – a common enough sight at high-street bookshops – but the barriers and the bouncers are all new. “Even Charlotte Church didn’t have security,” the shop manager tells me. The queue is waiting for Caspar Lee.

The general population divides into two categories: those who have never heard of Caspar Lee and those who think he is one of the biggest stars in the UK. Lee, a 22-year-old British-born South African, is a YouTube star. Vlogging, or video blogging, first took off around 2005 – also the year that YouTube was founded. By July 2006 it was the fifth most popular site on the internet. A huge amount of content is uploaded every day, but Lee and his friends are the site’s celebrities. At the time of writing, he has 6.7 million subscribers on his main account – and his videos have notched up 633 million views.

His clips centre on pranks, chats with other YouTubers and records of his daily life. One series showed his trip to Paris with a girlfriend: we saw him singing in the shower and her drawing on his face with make-up. It all feels very up close and personal, until you start to wonder just who is holding the camera as the pair skip up the Eiffel Tower together, holding hands.

Until recently, Lee shared a flat with another YouTube star, Joe Sugg (the 25-year-old brother of the YouTube megastar Zoella). The pair’s influence is so great that the established media has had to take notice: BBC Worldwide recorded the travel documentary Joe and Caspar Hit the Road in 2015.

Inside YouTuber world, Lee is almost unimaginably famous. In October 2015 he recorded an interview with Léa Seydoux and Monica Bellucci, the two most recent Bond girls, titled “KISSING MY NEW GIRLFRIENDS”. He thinks, in short, that an implied insight into his love life will get more clicks than the names of two of the world’s biggest actresses. He is probably right. The video has over 1.9 million views.

***

To understand that queue outside WH Smith, we need to go back to 2014, when Blink, a small British publishing house, decided to bring out a book with a vlogger named Alfie Deyes.

The Blink editors knew they were taking a risk: Deyes, then 21, was virtually unknown outside YouTube. Not only that – his book was, quite literally, pointless. Based on his vlog of the same name, The Pointless Book featured mostly blank pages on which readers could complete a task. “Do a finger selfie,” reads one, suggesting that you draw round your own fingers. Another page wants you to “draw your pet”.

At best, it was a playful take on his channel. At worst, it was a middle finger to the whole publishing industry.

“No one had published a book with a big-name YouTuber before,” says Karen Browning, head of Blink’s public relations. “We knew Alfie had huge platforms and a big teenage fan base, but we didn’t know if that would translate into an audience.”

Blink did a big PR push. At first, the press wasn’t interested but then, as the sales figures rolled in, it began to take notice. Metro called Deyes “the most famous celebrity you’ve never heard of” and the Telegraph demanded: “Who on Earth is Alfie Deyes?” Blink decided to hold a signing at Waterstones Piccadilly days after the book was published, predicting a crowd of about 500, and handed out wristbands accordingly.

What happened next can be read in baffled news and police reports. Conservative estimates indicate that at least 4,000 fans descended on the store for the signing. Half an hour before it was due to start (YouTube fans are, it seems, nothing if not prompt), police helicopters and horses had to intervene and the shop was closed. Westminster City Council allegedly advised Waterstones not to hold any more signings until it could control them properly. “It was unprecedented,” Browning says. “They had never seen crowds of this size for anyone before. Including David Beckham.”

The book was No 1 on the Sunday Times bestseller list for 11 weeks and Deyes was featured in Debrett’s list of the 500 most influential British people in 2015. PointlessBlog now has 5.4 million subscribers. To date, the book has sold 300,000 copies and its sequels, The Pointless Book 2 and The Pointless Scrapbook, have sold 160,000 and 60,000 respectively. To put that in context, Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings, winner of last year’s Man Booker Prize, had sold 12,237 copies by the time he won.

Within days of Deyes’s signing, heads in the publishing world snapped towards YouTube. Isabel Prodger was working in publicity at Simon & Schuster at the time. “We had a book coming out by Grace [Helbig, a US YouTube star] and it wasn’t really on the radar at all – we were just distributing it,” she tells me. “There was no publicity campaign, no marketing. It was pretty much Amazon-only.” After the Deyes events, Helbig’s book, Grace’s Guide: the Art of Pretending to Be a Grown-Up, began to sell well, despite having no UK publicity.

Prodger’s job became YouTuber-focused: in the summer of 2015 she held events all over Britain for YouTubers, including Connor Franta, Tyler Oakley, Louise Pentland (YouTube name Sprinkleofglitter)and Miranda Sings. Today, publishers and bookshops alike are operating what many describe to me as a “slick operation”. Tickets are sold online and the location, which is kept secret (though when an event is marketed by WHSmith for certain cities it’s not hugely difficult to guess where it will be), is texted to visitors a week before the event. Security is high – for the fans’ protection.

Publicists such as Prodger and Browning measure signings in hundreds and hours – Oakley did 1,000 in three and a half hours. “It all depends on the length of their signature,” Prodger says.

Deep in the bowels of WHSmith in Cardiff, I sit down with Lee in the makeshift green room to discuss his book, Caspar Lee. It’s a memoir written by his mother, Emily Riordan Lee, with annotations, presented in a font resembling handwriting, by him. It covers 21 years out of his 22, from a photo of him as a baby – “Oh my God, Mom” – to his recent trip down the red carpet with Joe Sugg to promote their BBC documentary.

Lee is tall, with a neat haircut and the high cheekbones and piercing eyes his fans downstairs are whispering about. He is also far more serious than you would expect, given that he makes videos with titles such as “CARA DELEVINGNE SHOWS ME HER UNDERPANTS” and “ROOMMATE SHOWER PRANK”.

Why has he waited so long to do a book, until practically everyone was doing them? By my count, at least ten big or medium-name YouTubers will have released books between August and October 2016, and many are on their second or third. “I think I’m the last one to do it of the YouTubers I’m close with,” he says – by which he means the likes of Zoella, Deyes and Oli White, whose Generation Next young adult novel about an aspiring YouTuber appeared around the same time as Caspar Lee.

Lee says that he was approached by publishers before but wasn’t inspired until he thought of writing a book with his mum, a former journalist.

“I didn’t really want to write a book,” he says slowly, as if worried that he’ll say the wrong thing, “but then I realised I could spend more time with her while making the book. It’s really nice to have someone good at writing to do it, who knows my story.”

Lee has a busy schedule of signings – another one today and then to the Hay Festival; he will be the first YouTuber to appear there. (Katya Shipster, a publicist for Penguin, later tells me that the audience was full of dedicated Lee fans: “It felt pretty great to be bringing in a new generation of literary festivalgoers.”)

Back at WHSmith, the queue snakes right through the travel section. A mother barks at her pre-teen daughter, “Camera ready! Are we camera-ready?” A brother and sister, one nine, one 11, say they love Lee’s videos but would never watch them together. “Oh, we’re definitely each getting our own copy of the book,” the girl adds. Who is more excited to be here? “Me!” both shout at the same time. But why bother buying a physical book when Lee’s vlogs are there to watch, for free, any time? A shy 14-year-old explains: “This feels different – it looks really cool and funny. I’m going to read the whole thing this weekend.”

The noise mounts as the clock ticks closer to midday.

***

YouTuber books are a difficult genre to define. Lee rejects the definition altogether. “It’s important for people to understand that YouTube is just a platform, like TV is, and everyone makes completely different types of content on it.”

Indeed, the books come in disparate forms. Yet although one interviewee after another tells me that the grouping is a bugbear for authors and publishers alike, there is no doubt that it works as a marketing technique. Near Lee’s table at WHSmith is a special “YouTuber” book display, featuring everything from cookbooks to novels.

When we say “YouTuber”, especially in the UK, we don’t mean local schoolboys uploading skateboarding tricks. We mean an elite cadre of high-profile stars at the top of a complex UK YouTuber food chain. Most of these figures make personality-led videos. The women often talk personal life, make-up and shopping; the men veer towards interviews or pranks. A common trope is interviewing other YouTubers using a “tag”, or list of rote questions that has been circulating in the community, which might include “When was your last holiday?” or “How did you meet your best friend?”.

Somehow, the YouTubers manage to make even these dull questions interesting. They most resemble reality stars or presenters, in that they all have specific skills but are keen to emphasise that they are just like their viewers, and are really only there to chat. A common refrain in Zoella’s make-up videos is: “Remember, I’m not a proper make-up artist – these are just the techniques I use!” They are a new form of celebrity and they glimmer with that particularly irresistible quality: they all know each other. Zoella and Deyes are a couple. They share a £1.5m house in Brighton.

Philip Jones, the editor of the Bookseller, says the YouTubers’ books fill the vacuum left by celebrity biographies. “Until 2008, celebrity publishing was a big plank in most publishers’ armoury – massive sales generated over Christmas, with A-, B- or even C-list celebrities dominating the charts and underpinning a lot of the publishers’ work for the rest of the year. But that really sank without a trace from 2007-2008 onwards. Since then, publishers have been looking for the new celebrity publishing, and this is it. It came along at exactly the right time.”

Some are snobby about YouTuber books (a Guardian piece about a box set of Deyes’s first two books called them “the worst thing you’re likely to see in a tin this Christmas”), but Jones insists that the phenomenon has been a saviour for an industry that was struggling; the books are a key factor in the upturn of physical sales from 2015 onwards. YouTuber books, with their big, colourful images and hardback covers, most certainly fall into the printed-books category. Print’s overall resurgence encourages bookshops to invest, Jones says. “I think it was an important affirmation that the book is ­probably going to survive. The next reading generation, buying their YouTuber books, clearly want books. It has given everyone a lot more confidence in what they’re doing.”

Although they may have plugged the hole left by old-style celebrities, YouTube stars generally seem more invested in the overall process than their predecessors. As Briony Gowlett, a senior editor at the publisher Hodder & Stoughton, explains: “Because YouTubers are creative people, they know what they want – they’ve grown up on a platform where the restrictions are very few.”

These are young celebrities in direct control of every part of their personal “brand” and they are not about to let go. Which is wise, because digital-savvy audiences can sniff out inauthenticity, as Zoella (arguably the UK’s biggest non-gaming YouTuber, with 11.1 million subscribers) and her publishing team learned to their cost.

Zoella was the first YouTuber to catch the attention of the press, thanks in part to lucrative deals with brands taking advantage of her huge online following. But her breakthrough also brought backlash: a 2014 piece in the Independent – which argued that an “irritatingly Disneyfied” make-up vlogger was not the ideal role model for young girls – went viral, both because her fans hated it and because it resonated with many parents befuddled by her appeal.

Breakthrough also meant a book deal, and Zoella produced a young adult novel about a socially awkward blogger, Girl Online. The children’s author Siobhan Curham was credited as an “editorial consultant”. There followed accusations that the book had been ghostwritten but was not marked as such. A spokesperson for Random House told the Sunday Times: “To be factually accurate, you would need to say Zoe Sugg did not write the book Girl Online on her own.” Zoella tweeted: “Of course I was going to have help . . . everyone needs help when they try something new.”

Zoella’s debut sold 78,109 copies in its first week, making her the UK’s fastest-selling debut novelist ever. She didn’t hold meet-and-greets like her brother, boyfriend or friends: she has spoken about her problems with anxiety and hundreds of signings would have been too much for her. Girl Online, whether ghostwritten or not, is surprisingly moving. The protagonist writes in her first post: “This can be our very own corner of the internet, where we can talk about what it is truly like to be a teenage girl – without having to pretend to be something we’re not.”

Zoella has become an important figure in breaking the taboo around mental health. She tries – with questionable success – to ensure that her make-up videos promote a message about being creative with your appearance, rather than “fixing” your faults or simply appealing to a crush.

For sequels, she has written alone, though she holds weekly meetings with her publisher. And she has launched the Zoella Book Club with WHSmith, which presents a curated list of young adult books she has “selected” herself. (I requested more information about the ­process from WHSmith, but it remained tight-lipped.) In June, her recommended books drove a sales surge on Amazon – sales of The Potion Diaries by Amy Alward went up by 11,000 per cent.

***

Tanya Burr is on her way. The staff of WHSmith at the Bluewater shopping centre in Stone, Kent, are buzzing around a giant poster with her name on it and worrying about the table. “It’s ugly,” one of them says, pushing £20 into her colleague’s hand. “Go and buy a tablecloth.”

At the ticketed signing for Tanya Bakes, Burr’s new cookbook, the queue has been sent up the escalators to the mezzanine floor of the shopping centre, and faces peer down, stretching as far as you can see. Burr is not quite as big a star as Deyes, Zoella or Lee: she has only 3.6 million subscribers.Her UK book tour hasn’t quite sold out, but has still made waves – the Liverpool Echo did a liveblog of her signing. When it was published at the end of June, Tanya Bakes moved straight to No 1 in the non-fiction charts. It hit the top spot on Amazon, thanks to pre-orders, even before it was published.

A hush falls over the store – “She’s coming!” – and in walks Burr, wearing jeans, Converse trainers, a stripy T-shirt, impeccable make-up (she’s best known for her beauty tutorials) and a choker. She smiles sweetly and then sits down at the table. “Take away the tablecloth,” she says, her smile dropping. “It slips around when I’m signing.”

One by one they come, most of them too scared to say a word but eager to take their selfie. (Prodger says most fans far prefer a selfie to a chat.) The more outgoing ones immediately hold up their phones to take a reaction video: “We just met Tanya!”

This engaged young audience is just as exciting for publishers. Trade insiders compare the titles favourably with ­colouring books, the other chart-topping genre of 2015-16. Prodger says that during her long summer of signings, she saw “incredibly well-dressed, stunning 17-year-old girls” at signings who would say, “Oh, I’ve never been in a bookshop before.”

“It’s not seen by everyone as a totally positive phenomenon in publishing,” she remarks – “nothing ever is – and some people just don’t understand it. But that’s one thing that’s undeniably good about it.” As the author Neil Gaiman said at a lecture in London in 2013, “There are no bad authors for children. You don’t discourage children from reading because you think they’re reading the wrong thing. Well-meaning adults can easily destroy a child’s love of reading.”

Later, I sit with Caspar Lee, in a shop that will owe no small sliver of its profits over the next year to a book filled with his face and faux-handwriting, and ask him about his own relationship with books.

“Writing a book feels like a huge responsibility. It’s so overwhelming.” He looks towards the stairs with confusion and trepidation. “When I walked into the bookshop earlier, I just looked around and realised . . . how many types of literature there are.”

Downstairs, a side door opens, an alarm accidentally rings out and Lee, his mum and his sister step on to the shopfloor. “He’s REAL!” yelps a teenage girl to her friend. A hundred iPhone cameras click as the trio make their way to the signing table. The rumble of the crowd rises to a roar.

Barbara Speed is comment editor at the i, and was technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman, and a staff writer at CityMetric.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times