How a YouTuber learned to laugh again after her sister's tragic death, and how it informed a career in the limelight
- Anna Akana, who began her career in stand-up comedy, has established herself as a YouTuber, actress, author, and singer.
- Her success in YouTube is due, in part, to her ability to tackle a range of topics with humor and education.
- Like many other successful YouTubers, Akana had to contend with the pressures of being an influencer but ultimately chose to prioritize creating meaningful dialogue with her viewers.
- While she's had a successful transition from YouTube to Hollywood, Akana balances the pressure to succeed and to represent queer women of color.
- Content warning: this article contains mentions of suicide.
- Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.
Anna Akana was at the DMV five years ago when a crying fan approached her. This wasn't an uncommon occurrence for the YouTube star and actress who has a devoted 2.6 million-subscriber following.
"I'm alive today because of your video," the fan told her.
The life-saving video, called "Please Don't Kill Yourself," has been viewed over 3 million times since Akana uploaded it to her YouTube channel in 2013. In the 4-minute clip, she explains the aftermath of suicide; a topic she became all-to-familiar with after losing her sister to suicide six years earlier.
"Your bother, your sister, your mother, your friend, your boyfriend, your girlfriend, your child — all those people who really, really love you would be really f—— confused for the rest of their lives. And really angry," she says through tears. "And really jealous. I'm jealous of everyone who has a sister."
The fan from the DMV, who had a history of self-harm and suicidal thoughts, told Akana that the video made her consider how devastated her sister would have been if she'd followed through on her darkest impulses.
"Having lost my own sister that way, when people tell me that, it feels like 'Oh my God, I've made a difference in this person's life and in the lives of the people who love them,'" Akana told Insider. "And that feels, I don't know, like a little bit of redemption."
Fan interactions of this nature might intimidate some public figures, but not Akana. She remembers what she wanted to say to her own heroes who helped her through the darkest time of her life — and she knows how she would have wanted them to react.
"I try to remember when someone's interacting with me on that level that all I have to do is be kind and listen and show up in that moment," she said.
For Akana, heavy subject matter goes hand-in-hand with comedy.
Akana has established herself as a YouTuber, musician, author, and actress — most recently guest-starring on ABC's "A Million Little Things" — but her career began in stand-up comedy.
That career choice stems from what she believes to be the healing power of humor; watching Margaret Cho perform stand-up helped her cope after her sister's death.
"It was the first time in two or three years that I actually laughed," Akana recalls. "I forgot to think about it for just a little while."
She went on to pursue standup, performing on-stage and eventually transitioning to YouTube. Her philosophy aligns with that of comedian Tig Notaro: "comedy equals tragedy plus time."
"Sometimes we do wanna laugh about how absurd or sad something is," the 30-year-old explained. "I think comedy has a really great way of opening someone's heart and really giving them permission to laugh about their sadness."
YouTube, she says, has been an outlet to explore that intersection in an educational and meaningful way.
While Akana describes herself as a "grandma" on YouTube — she was posting videos before some of the platform's biggest stars even reached high school — her videos continue to resonate with her audience, receiving hundreds of thousands of views each. Her channel has received a total of 323 million views.
That appeal likely comes from her ability to cover a range of topics with her videos: she talks openly about her mental health and sexuality, easily pivots to talking about her five cats, and can transition to chronicling her dating woes — all while making fun of herself and offering actionable advice.
That's what she likes about the platform; it's given people, particularly kids and teenagers, access to more information and a wider range of experiences than they might have experienced offline. In particular, it's provided a place to talk about mental health.
"I feel like it's a great space now to talk about mental disorders, to talk about depression, to talk about anxiety, to find relevant information," she said.
Akana even uses the platform to do her own research. Prior to going on an antidepressant, she watched YouTube videos about other people's experiences taking the drug.
"I think it's just a great way to get information," she said.
Like, many other content creators Akana almost fell into the influencer "trap."
As the YouTube star accrued more and more subscribers, she entered the territory of "influencer" — and all the expectations that came with the label, like exponential growth in followers.
"I think we all get into the trap of, like, it's a numbers race," she admitted. "It's exciting to watch your subscriber count grow, and think 'Oh, if I create this clickbait-y title, people are gonna watch it.' So I used to get very heavily invested in that and try to chase the numbers."
However, she soon realized that there's no place for sensationalized or "clickbaity" videos when discussing mental health.
"I have to be very mindful that what I lend my voice to is something that people are gonna take seriously. So it sort of influenced the way I put things out," she explained.
Now, her content must pass two tests: one, "Am I proud of what I'm saying?" and two, "Is it actually informational?"
While she's open about her own experiences and mental health journey, any mental health advice she gives on her channel comes from her therapist — a licensed professional.
"If I have a 14-year-old girl listening to everything that I'm saying, I wanna make sure that everything I'm saying is actually legit," she said.
Making the jump from YouTube to Hollywood was daunting, particularly as a queer woman of color.
At the start of her acting career, Akana faced what she describes as the "stereotypical racist stuff" from Hollywood — the roles she auditioned for were crafted around Asian stereotypes and she was often told by casting directors that they didn't "envision [particular characters] being Asian."
She's encouraged, however, by the rise of rounded-out stories in "Fresh Off The Boat," "Crazy Rich Asians," and "To All The Boys I've Loved Before."
"It's just become so much more three dimensional and wonderful," she said.
The lingering racism in Hollywood still hasn't stopped Akana from carving out her own space to represent queer women of color. She has appeared on Freeform's "The Fosters," Comedy Central's "Corporate," and ABC's "A Million Little Things." She also starred in the 2019 Christmas romantic comedy "Let It Snow," in which she plays out a queer teenage love story.
Her YouTube career, she says, has actually allowed her to sidestep some of the hardship of starting out. "A lot of the lead roles I've booked, I definitely wouldn't have got them if I was just going the traditional route," she said.
However, as a minority in Hollywood, she'll always feel pressure to "prove herself" while being mindful of the communities she represents.
"I really want to continue having an amazing career in that regard and playing challenging roles and representing women and women of color in a responsible, epic, awesome way," she said.
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