What YouTube's Superwoman Lilly Singh Learned From India's Girls and Boys

Courtesy of ID-PR
Lilly Singh, surrounded by schoolgirls in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, in July.

The comedian and star hopes to have an impact on her 12 million subscribers as UNICEF's first-ever Goodwill Ambassador from the digital world.

At WME-IMG's January retreat, where the agency announced a partnership with UNICEF ­— the brainchild of Tascha Rudder, who directs WME-IMG's foundation — it was comedian and YouTube star Lilly Singh who represented the client roster on a panel about the initiative. Six months later, after a five-day trip to Madhya Pradesh in central India, Singh was named UNICEF's newest Goodwill Ambassador. "Part of our partnership with UNICEF is trying to help them be more effective with this new generation," says Rudder. "Lilly's the first digital influencer to be given this honor." Toronto-born Singh, 28, who will appear in HBO's Fahrenheit 451, boasts 12 million subscribers on YouTube, where she goes by Superwoman. In India, where more than half of 1.3 billion citizens are younger than 25, she hopes to have a unique impact. She spoke to THR about what her trip taught her as an activist and entertainer.

On my trip, I was eager to see a part of India I had never visited and to jump in on issues of class and gender discrimination. The question I asked was, "How do we change people's mindsets?" But these are not things you can fix overnight. Unfortunately, discrimination, especially gender-based, is embedded into the culture in various ways. For some, it's the only way they know. And even though the girls and boys I met told me really heart-wrenching things about abuse or discrimination, they don't see themselves as victims. They are thinking about ways to remedy their problems. In many cases, it's not just adults leading the efforts toward solutions but also kids. They are taking it upon themselves to solve problems they see, which is amazing.

One of the groups I met was the Change Loomers. These 30 kids take on initiatives that they believe in and spread it out into their community for the greater good. One is a black belt in karate, so he teaches girls karate for free. Another is a dancer, and he wanted to teach other kids how to communicate through dance. I communicate messages that are important to me through comedy because I believe it's a great vehicle to get people to let their defense mechanisms down. It was inspiring to see that these kids have learned the same thing through tackling uncomfortable experiences through dance or karate or song.

The in-person experiences I've had with my audience helped me during my visit. Because I've shared so much of my personal story with them, they often share their experiences with me when we meet on tour. It's very humbling to hear stories about how my videos have helped people through mental health issues, deaths in their family and challenges at school. That trust means a lot, and these interactions have taught me the importance of listening and empathy. I think that's the first step in communicating with and helping people.

Some girls told me about abuse and inequalities they face, but they also spoke about all the ways they're going to make sure other girls don't face that. That is the first step of progress, and they inspired me to think of practical ways to help. For example, I noticed that everyone has a cellphone — even when a village might not even have toilets. And there's a Childline you can call to get help if you're being abused or mistreated, but many don't know that number exists. So I talked to UNICEF about how we better inform kids about Childline.

I'm also going to begin translating some of my videos and making sure that there are closed captions in Hindi so that I can communicate more with the people I met in the field, especially for my videos that highlight gender inequality or other social causes. When I've visited India in the past, I've gone to Delhi and Mumbai where many people speak English so there wasn't a language barrier. The kids made me promise that I would add Hindi to my videos so that they could watch them.

I also have started to think about how to communicate what I learned to my audience who may not be aware of what life is like for so many children around the world. I remember learning about UNICEF when I was in school through their Trick-or-Treat program — it exposed me to human rights issues, and taught me that I could make a difference. I hope my videos will inspire the young people watching to be global citizens and to believe in the power of their actions.

As I got closer to these children during my visit, I was surprised that, like them, I too felt our potential to enact change was greater than ever. And at this current time, I think that message to come together, share with each other and work together is important for not just young people, but all people, to hear.

A version of this story first appeared in the Aug. 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.