South Africa's YouTube millionaire

26 June 2014 - 13:00 By Leigh-Anne Hunter

Caspar Lee, 20, is SA's YouTube prince, turning lo-fi videos into fame & fortune.

They call them Gen C, as in Generation Content, Connected, Click... Youngsters who are masters of the terabyte. And they might not exist were it not for Janet Jackson's bosom. The rumour goes that the three PayPal techies who birthed YouTube before it became Google property did it to share video clips of her oops at the Super Bowl: she slipped out a mammary gland.

Fast forward nine years and tons of YouTubers with their own channels (DStv, eat your heart out) are getting cheques in the mail. "Thousands" of them are making six figures.

Now 20, Caspar Lee was 16 and living in Knysna when he started making YouTube videos for fun, then boom: he's on the red carpet, some lackey adjusting his hair.

Two years after he launched his channel Dicasp (as in "Director Caspar") from his bedroom, he's shed the baby fat and hired managers. "I'm bad at negotiating. I always say 'yes', but apparently that's not always so great," he says, with boy-next-door innocence.

He won't say how much he earns, but Socialblade, which compiles YouTube data, estimates he banks as much as R5-million a year. He lives independently in London. "I'm looking at investing in some companies and property."

At an awards ceremony where we meet in Joburg, he's bathed in TV camera spotlights. "It's not hard to cope with fame. It doesn't feel real." He knows what happens to TV child-stars with no Plan B. "I'm learning the trade and hopefully I can create a business from it." Watch out: here comes the media mogul of the 2020s.

He pulls out his phone from his jeans, but I bet he's already checked his numbers today. "Right now I'm on 2.34million subscribers, growing at 130000 a month, which is pretty cool. Whatever the advertisers are paying Google, you split: 55% to you and 45% to YouTube."

At 16, he won a poker game, then bought himself a video camera with the winnings. But his plan to shoot videos to get attention from girls backfired. "When you're a teenage boy talking to a camera every day, you don't get much action." Just then a doe-eyed girl slides up to him - most of his subscribers are young women. He's used his good looks. I'm told he has the best hair on the internet.

"When I started I made the videos topless. I wasn't trying to appeal to anyone sexually. It was just f**king hot in my house."Uh-huh.

"Soon, sitting alone in your bedroom making videos isn't going to be weird anymore. You're starting to see the cool kids doing it." It's funny, that he still doesn't see himself as one of the cool kids.

His first two channels flopped. "It was terrible. I got a lot of hates." But he stuck with it, even when others may have given up after months of earning no income.

"It's one of the most difficult things in the world to do and I don't recommend anyone starts it as a career. You have to do it for fun, and if it turns into something, great."

And yet you can't help but think that Lee, who thrashes tennis balls when he's not planning story arcs, had a game plan.

By the time he started Dicasp, he'd learnt a thing or two about building an empire on YouTube. Teaming up with overseas YouTubers around his "size" to do video collabs was a masterstroke: his following rocketed. After a year, he could leave home - with a job.

In London, he befriended edgy content creators like the two chaps behind JacksGap, a channel about their wild gap year misadventures. In London, too, was a far bigger audience. There's a culture of using YouTube for your daily infotainment fix, he says. "That's what we rely on."

But there was never a sudden spike in his audience. "It was more of a graph that curved upwards and kept going." Kind of like earning interest. "Once you get to a certain stage you just catapult."

                                                                                                                                                                                                

You have to think the competitive urge had something to do with it when he started seeing his numbers rise. "When I started, the top YouTuber had maybe a million subscribers." Now Swedish video game commentator, Felix Arvid Ulf Kjellberg, aka PewDiePie, has over 27 million subscribers. Lee guesses the Swede makes more than the equivalent of R100-million a year.

"I thought if I ever get 10000 subs, that'll be good enough for me to show my parents that all the hours I put in after school were worth it."

Yes, he's funny, eloquent, has great hair, and a knack for cramming hours of footage into five-minute clips. And production has to be top-notch. "It's not as easy as turning on a webcam anymore."

But all that doesn't explain his insane popularity.

As much as Gen C are creating content, they are consuming it - fast. "Young people aren't watching TV: they're on the internet." Streaming content on all their gizmos. It's why every brand "from Vodacom to Obama" wants a presence on YouTube.

And they'd rather watch a kid their own age, talking about issues like sex, in a way they get, with no adult filter. It's a world they can own. "I think most people watching YouTube are younger and want something more realistic than TV, where they can relate to us. People form a bond. Sometimes I forget they know more about me than my friends. And it's free, which is cool."

It's levelled the playing field. "Everyone has a voice now and it's probably quite worrying for the people in charge." Yet not everyone has cracked the YouTube lottery. "Well, the voices can't always be heard by millions. You don't know what YouTube is up to. There must be an algorithm."

He had the foresight to get into the game just as his particular slice of virtual real estate - vlogging, or video blogging - was about to explode. "It's an exaggerated version of myself, online. I try to avoid offending people, but it's hard. I can go from doing a prank call to hotel lost property about my sister's lost virginity, to serious stuff like my Tourette's disorder." He was diagnosed at six. "I always dealt with it by being the class clown. It's got easier to live with."

So you've never vlogged in your underwear? "Oh, I have. You hardly ever see below my shirt."

He aims for one video a week. "I'll be like, 'What haven't I done in a while?' Oh, I haven't cracked eggs on my mom's head in ages." That leaves lots of free time. "I go to loads of lunches. Yesterday I had a meeting with someone from Google in the ocean." They were surfing. "We were talking about my future and I was like, wow, I just finished high school two years ago."

A highlight was meeting John Cleese on the set of Spud 3 - his YouTube fame got him a role. "He was so nice. Lots of people seem to think he might be uptight." Lee casually throws in lines like: "I was driving around Milan the other day."

He often jets off with other prodigies to YouTube summits around the world, herded around by their "grown-up" managers. "It's always like a school trip." It must get loud, what with comparing sizes.

"Parents don't understand how healthy the internet can be. It's not evil. We shouldn't avoid it. Every day something is happening in the YouTube world. I don't think people will ever be able to tame it."

Smart kid. LS

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