Seven years ago, Riyadh Khalaf was a young student studying radio broadcasting. Now, the 26-year-old Irishman is a YouTube star living in London with over 250,000 subscribers and one of the internet generation's most prominent LGBT faces.
Ahead of his appearance on a discussion panel about online bullying and the power of YouTube at National Student Pride in London next weekend (February 25), we caught up with Riyadh to talk relationships, online stardom, his new BBC Three series, and the issues affecting the gay youth of today...
So Riyadh, what’s an average day in the life of a YouTuber like?
I love it! Each day is incredibly different. You could be home alone writing, shooting, editing and uploading a video, then the next you are speaking at a convention to hundreds of people, doing meet and greets with your viewers, designing merchandise or executive producing your next big project with a team of ten people while running around town rehearsing dance numbers, collecting smoke machines while simultaneously booking studio spaces on the phone. It can be crazy!
Tell us about your BBC Three series. Sounds exciting!
The show is a dream come true for me and couldn’t have come at a better time. It’s called Queer Britain and is a six-part documentary series which sees me exploring the real issues facing the LGBTQ+ community in the UK today. Each episode will focus on different issues including racism, homelessness, porn, body shaming, faith and the history and meaning of the word queer.
When is the programme out?
The show will be released in April with an exact date still to be announced. We’ve been shooting non-stop for five months and just wrapped last week. I’m incredibly proud of it and hope you’ll love it too. It’s full of emotion, rage, passion, love and laughs.
What do you see as the biggest issues facing young LGBT+ people today?
The biggest issues in my opinion really are the ones we’re exploring in my series. Too many LGBTQ people of all ages are riddled with insecurity because of body image pressures and unattainable ideals celebrated by gay culture because they face subtle everyday racism on the scene and on dating apps because they identify as queer and are called an attention seeker or embarrassment as a result.
We are an incredible, diverse and strong community who has been through a lot together. This struggle and triumph should make us the most accepting bunch on earth but at times we can be more judgemental and harsh on our LGBTQ brothers and sisters than anyone else.
You’re at Student Pride discussing the power of YouTube in telling LGBT stories. Why did you decide to become a YouTuber?
Becoming a YouTuber was a no-brainer for me. I had worked for seven years in commercial radio and online media. Although I loved every minute of it, I wasn’t able to truly express my feelings on issues in an unfiltered way. Becoming my own boss, producer, writer, presenter, editor, marketer meant that I was the one in control and I could say and make whatever the hell I wanted. It was a creative awakening and the release I needed.
I was able to say “Hey, look at me. I am gay, out, happy, successful and have a family who loves me for it”. On YouTube, I could really connect with LGBTQ youth who needed an example of how it really can get better, how they can aspire to the same goals as the ‘normal’ kids and live an incredible life of their own, no matter how bad it may be now.
What are some of the more heart-warming messages you’ve had in support?
I receive the most impactful emails daily from people all over the world. They are always unexpected and regularly leave me in tears. They talk about families who don’t accept them or schools who don’t act when it comes to bullying. They also say that it was my videos which give them strength to go on and love themselves. These messages motivate me to keep doing what I’m doing and to try and connect with as many as possible.
Have you experienced much trolling? How do you deal with it?
Trolling is something I experience every day of the year, every hour of the day. I have become so hardened to it and it really takes an especially vile message to affect me. I was 16 when I made my first YouTube video, almost 10 years ago and the trolling I got back then drove me off the site for about seven years. I will never let a person do that to me again. I will never allow a faceless, hate-filled, sad individual to stop me doing what I was born to do.
The story about coming out to your dad made the news. How did you handle his reaction at the time? It was quite disturbing to hear.
It was a shock that’s for sure. No child ever wants to hear that their parent was about to take their own life and especially not because of you. I was jolted by his confession but only for a few minutes if I’m honest.
That man doesn’t exist anymore. Now all I see is a father who worked incredibly hard to understand what it meant to be gay, integrated himself in the community, put love for his son above worrying over other people’s opinions, publicly fought for same-sex marriage rights and showed himself to be a real man. I am proud of my dad beyond words.
Do you find being a YouTube star has affected your personal relationships in any way?
Good question. It’s only in the last six months that I’ve really seen the effect on my personal and love life. Guys have pretended they haven’t seen any of my videos and then we go on a date and all they want to talk about is my channel and following.
I’ve also been on dates where a guy will try and initiate a selfie taking session to try and get some sort of shout out on my social media. It’s something that has made me walk out on said guy before. He must have thought I was born yesterday.
I now find myself drawn to guys who know what I do but don’t really care. They like me for me and can separate the Riyadh in front of them from the Riyadh they see online. I mean, I’d hate myself if I was always like that. I’m quite boring really.
Oh Jesus. On the best date ever. He's gone toilet and I'm playing it cool #dontfuckitup 😍— Riyadh Khalaf (@RiyadhK) February 2, 2017
As a good-looking lad, do you find guys show interest in you based on your celebrity status?
Haha well, thanks! If I’m a celebrity I’m definitely Z-list and happy with that. I think it scares more guys off than it attracts if I’m honest! I’m in the process of trying to make people aware I’m not a bad guy one by one. The nature of filming yourself in your most personal of moments and putting it on the internet for the world to see generally leaves people expecting the worst of you, when really I’m just as weird, insecure, normal and boring as the next guy!
Riyadh is joined by Saskia and Lily and Fox Fisher and Owl at National Student Pride in London on Saturday 25th February.