Canada’s Lilly Singh on being a ‘disrupter’

Lilly Singh is photographed in Toronto on Monday, June 3, 2019. From being one of the world's highest paid YouTubers to becoming the first Indian, South Asian and LGBTQ person to host a late-night show on a major network, Lilly Singh has always blazed her own path ⁠— and that's exactly how she likes it. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young





Lilly Singh is photographed in Toronto on Monday, June 3, 2019. From being one of the world’s highest paid YouTubers to becoming the first Indian, South Asian and LGBTQ person to host a late-night show on a major network, Lilly Singh has always blazed her own path ⁠— and that’s exactly how she likes it. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

TORONTO – From being one of the world’s highest paid YouTubers to becoming the first Indian, South Asian and LGBTQ person to host a late-night show on a major network, Lilly Singh has always blazed her own path.

Now, without her show and after an emotionally draining pandemic that left her with more spare time than ever to reassess her goals, she’s charting another new course.

“I think with everything in my life — who I am culturally, my sexuality, my career path — I’m a disrupter,” the Toronto native says in a call from Los Angeles.

Although sketch comedy and hosting have been her bread and butter since she founded her YouTube channel in 2010, Singh is yet again ready for something new: acting.

This year alone, she’s joined the cast of the Hulu/Crave series “Dollface” and the upcoming book-to-screen animated film “The Bad Guys.” Sticking with her comedy roots, she’ll also lead “The Muppets Mayhem,” a new Disney Plus series following the Electric Mayhem Band as they record an album, and is developing a comedy series for Netflix with “Black-ish” creator Kenya Barris. Oh, and she’s also a judge on this season of Citytv’s “Canada’s Got Talent.”

“I started this year deciding what my priorities are and dedicating my energy there,” she says.

“I don’t want to be too spread out where I can’t put 100 per cent of my effort into whatever I’m doing.

“But I do see myself as someone who is always going to wear a few different hats; I want to make sure that I don’t get stuck in one lane.”

With a new love for long-form storytelling, she’s written her second book, “Be A Triangle,” out Tuesday, which treads far more vulnerable territory than its 2017 processor “How To Be A Bawse.”

Singh shares how she’s felt less like her “successful, happy, energetic” self since the COVID-19 pandemic began and her late-night show, NBC’s “A Little Late with Lilly,” was cancelled.

“The world quite literally collapsed, my physical and mental health deteriorated, and I have a new friend who just won’t leave, named Anxiety Singh,” she writes.

It’s a powerful admission from a 33-year-old known for colourful power suits, constant wisecracking and an endless slate of projects.

She says writing and releasing such personal revelations was scary.

“There were some moments writing the book where I was alone in my room typing, and I looked at what I wrote, and thought, ‘You’re lying. Why are you lying to yourself? No one’s here. Erase this and be real,'” she says.

“Sometimes it was hard to even be honest with myself. I wanted to go there because I feel like that is the work that is required to get to the place I want to get to in life … somewhere where I have a strong foundation and a clear direction of who I am, what I value, and what matters to me.”

As work dissipated over the past two years and she was left with time to focus on herself, Singh realized she had a propensity to overlook accomplishments and ruminate on what she deemed failures.

“It’s like I can’t process joy and success, and that’s a really scary thing to say,” she says.

“It’s always been about getting the next accolade and making everyone proud, but this time really forced me to look at myself in this empty space and this empty calendar and figure out who I actually am without (the work).”

Singh no longer defines her identity by her struggles, but prioritizes happiness and openly discusses her mental health, something she notes her family never talked about “because they’d never had (that talk) themselves.”

“It’s a cultural thing,” she says, alluding to her South Asian background, and a community that has long stigmatized mental health.

“I grew up being told there’s a certain way to do things: get the degree, get married, have kids. Even in the industry I’m in, I’m told this is the template.

“I resent that. I think the reason people don’t do things a different way is because they’re scared or haven’t figured out how to. That doesn’t mean it’s not possible, it just means it’s hard.”

“Now I fully embrace that. I think it’s important for people to break the mould so that we can innovate not just in business but in the way we live our lives.”

And so she’s made it her mission to build platforms for fellow creators of colour, beginning with Lilly’s Library, a book club she curates with South Asian stories.

Then there’s Unicorn Island Productions, a multiplatform production company she founded that is focused on elevating underrepresented voices, and recently struck a first-look deal with NBCUniversal’s Universal Television Alternative Studio.

“I’m trying to get more South Asian people into the rooms where decisions are made so that we can see more of our stories onscreen,” says Singh.

“If we could see our experiences reflected a little more, the benefit would be so much more than just having good movies and TV shows, we’ll have people that are more enlightened.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 4, 2022.



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