Photo by Nikki Petty Photography, Interviewed by Kerri Jarema
EDITOR’S NOTE: An ongoing series (both in print and online), Girl Like Us will spotlight women, in their 20’s, who are making waves in their various fields. It is easy to be inspired by those who came before, but there are countless women just like us who are making their ways in multiple and varied careers, women who are running their own shops, writing, working with and for others while pursuing their own creative projects — these women are smart and witty and passionate and multitasking and awesome. I can’t say how thrilled we are to share their stories with all of you.
WHO Akilah Hughes, 25
WHERE Brooklyn, NY
WHAT Writer, comedian, actress, host, and hot mess working at MTV (Other) by day and doing YouTube videos, stand up, and sketch comedy by night.
You know you’ve chosen the right woman for a Girl Like Us column when she gives her age as “25 sittin’ on 25 mill” and adds “hot mess” to her bio after writer/comedian/actress/host. But then again, who would expect anything less from celebrated YouTuber Akilah Hughes? Her combination of smarts, gumption and humor has been attracting people to her work for years, thanks in part to her unique combination of millennial wit and enviable smarts. She’s well known for making people laugh on her YouTube channel, at MTV and on the stage with the famed Upright Citizens Brigade, but she has also become a voice that young women relate to, trust and even turn to for advice on everything from careers to living in a big city and balancing creative pursuits with paying the bills.
COMEDY CHOPS I’ve always been into comedy—which is a kind of trite thing to say. Who doesn’t like laughing? But I loved performing and all throughout high school I was doing improv and speech and drama. In college I stuck strictly to performing in musicals and doing dumb ass vlogs with my friends. The internet kind of exploded between 2007 and 2009, and SNL Digital shorts made me realize that I wanted to be making good stuff for the web for the rest of eternity. So I read Bossypants as you do, and thought about moving to Chicago to pursue comedy at the IO and Second City, but after a random encounter with Jessica Williams (yes, that one) on Tumblr, she convinced me to move to NYC and get my ass in gear. New York is a lot different from Kentucky. While I’m not a complete backwater hick, I do feel like my sensibilities didn’t initially mesh with the big city. People are really focused on careers here. They don’t actually put much stake in getting married young, or saying hi to strangers, so my first few months were a bit lonely. I started taking improv classes at Upright Citizens Brigade, though, and it made the transition easier. I still have kind of a lame sense of style, but I’ve acclimated to New York in all other respects.
FINDING YOUTUBE I remember being on LiveJournal and wishing I could make my blog cooler—like back in 2007. Some people had already started posting really beautiful DSLR pictures and upping the ante, so I wanted my mundane thoughts to be more interactive and impressive. My friend Nessa (NessaKPhotography.com) posted her first “vlog” in place of a standard blog post and I was hooked. I wanted to be her. It was probably pretty creepy. Anyway, I got a really low budget camera and started shooting stuff here and there. It wasn’t until 2011 that I started consistently making videos and putting myself out there and trying to promote my stuff.
Last year in December my video, “Meet Your First Black Girlfriend” took off and changed my entire life. That and a few other videos got picked up by traditional media and just made it easier to make more consistent vloggy content—which was always the goal. Things are a lot different on the internet in 2014 than they were in 2007, though… When I first started making videos, no one was getting paid to do it. You had to do it for fun because there was no career to be made. People posted low-production value crap and “viral” was just more than 500 people seeing a single video. Now it is a big part of my career. Making sketches does pay the bills, and my competition isn’t just other individuals, it’s conglomerates like College Humor and Buzzfeed. The landscape is much more competitive, and while I do think there’s room for everybody, it is harder to stand out in online comedy because it’s so saturated.
CREATING A VOICE When people watch my videos, I want them to feel like they know me. I want to remind them of the conversations they have with their friends, or the thoughts they have, but are maybe a little too bashful to say out loud. I want my videos to make people want to be in videos with me. Is that narcissistic? I don’t necessarily want people to like, fall head-over-heels in love with me, but I do want them to want to be my best friend. My favorite kinds of videos to make are the ones where I’m talking directly to the camera about how I feel about things. Sometimes it’s an “Ask Akilah” video with user-submitted questions. Other times it’s a video about social issues where I’m just being very honest about how crappy a situation is. I think those videos perform better on my channel because they aren’t trying to be funny, they aren’t trying to be anything. I think it’s validating that people even care about my opinion on things, so I just really relish the opportunity to give advice or a voice to issues.
ROLE MODEL STATUS I am super honored that anyone would want be to be their role model, but it was never my intention. I mean, I make mistakes all the time! I feel like Oprah probably has better advice than me—she’s just less available for consultation. At first when people started writing to ask me about what they should do with their lives it felt strange; here I was, an early 20-something trying to figure out what the hell I am doing at all—blowing through relationships with reckless abandon, job-hopping while trying to get my channel off the ground, eating too many carbs. But the funny thing about your 20s is that you suddenly realize that adulthood is a myth and that no one actually knows what the fuck they’re doing. If people think I’m worth listening to, then I should oblige them. And plus I love my audience. I have the nicest, smartest, most open-minded, clever audience on the internet. I will obviously do my best not to lead them astray.
CHANGING MINDS I’m very strategic in the way I voice my opinions on controversial topics because I think that there’s a right and wrong way to do it. I think the end goal of those difficult conversations should be to change minds, and it’s hard to do that if you’re angry and not willing to work with opposing viewpoints. And I get it, it sucks talking to wrong people. That said, I do what I can to make videos that are funny, but make a point and really get it across. The Daily Show and the Colbert Report have been hella influential in my video style. Their segments are so punchy and smart, and I think that’s how you change minds.
ON STAGE AT UCB My entry into UCB was super exciting. I had just seen Asssscat 3000 immediately upon arrival to NYC and started going to open houses and diversity meetups to just immerse myself in the community. I applied for a scholarship for improv and waited a torturous 4 months to hear back. This was back in 2012, so my first class was in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. The training center was in that part of midtown that was without power, so I had to traipse through the dark like something from I Am Legend to get there, but I swear the rest is history. I’m excited to be finishing the improv track soon, and can’t wait to audition for sketch teams.
Getting ready for a performance is not something I am good at. I have the worst stage fright ever. I remember I once recorded a video in front of my then-boyfriend, and could not do it. I forced him to wear headphones and close his eyes because I didn’t want him to see it if I messed up. I’m not quite that bad anymore, but I still get the shakes and butterflies that I was told would have subsided by now. I typically try to watch something funny before I go perform just so that I’m inspired to do something good, but yeah, performing is horrifying until it’s over. UCB is such a great community. I wish I could be more involved, but I feel like they really rally behind anyone there who wants to collaborate and create. It’s amazing that they let people submit show ideas and pick the ones that are the best rather than going with featured players always. I think it’s really helped me get into the comedy community at large in NYC and is definitely a calling card for so many opportunities with which I’ve been presented.
DREAM DAY JOB MTV is a dream. I know that sounds like a canned response, but I am asked to come to work and do what I’ve done for free on my own YouTube channel for money and if that’s not what everyone wants—to get paid to do what they like doing, then what on earth do you people want?! When I come in every morning I am greeted by an amazing fully compiled list of current events and news in email format. I read through and try to come up with ways we can play on those whether that be through vines or tweets or even in longer-form sketch videos. My official title is “Producer,” but I think “Creative” is more accurate. I am asked to just come up with fun stuff and then make it.
I moved to New York when I was 22 and since then I’ve had at least 6 jobs (not including freelance gigs/hosting/acting stuff). The tradition of like “40 years and a gold watch” is over. We simply don’t live in an economy that supports staying at the same company forever, and I think that makes us freer than previous generations. Sure, some paint us as disloyal, but I think our morals have never been more in tact. We want to be happy more than we want to be super rich, and we’re not going to settle for a job that gives us less than that. There’s nothing unnatural about craving stability, but millenials’ greatest strengths are resilience and adaptation. We’re realistic about the world we’ve inherited and we don’t apologize for our means of survival. Success is finding contentment and refusing to settle for less. I always knew when it was time to leave a position. Either there wasn’t enough money to justify being that stressed out, or my personal stuff was becoming more lucrative, or I knew that there was no future and I bounced. A few missteps taught me the importance of saving, so I always had a good month before I went into “I need a job now now NOW!” panic mode after quitting.
FINDING BALANCE The balancing act for working at a huge company that affords loads of opportunity and my own artistic endeavors is tough. I am tired a lot. I tell everyone I work 2 jobs because that’s what it shakes down to after you take into consideration all of the after-work meetings and writing and scheduling and planning and shooting etc. It’s a lot. I try to stay organized by keeping notes on my phone. There’s a Google doc for almost every fleeting thought, and I try to focus on only one thing at a time. “Try” being the operative word here.
My advice for young ladies that want to pursue their passions outside of the 9 to 5 is to decide what is important and chase it until you collapse. I’ve found that most of my creative friends really found their calling when they allocated time to not being the most fun person in the room, but rather, to an actual goal. Does this mean that some Fridays are going to be spent in your room, on your bed, pants-less, writing out strategies and concepts, and planning? Yes it absolutely does—but someone once told me that it’s important to live like no one does now so you can live like no one does later. Be relentless and get what you want. No one is going to do it for you.
WHAT’S NEXT So, so many fun new things are on the horizon. I have an ad campaign coming out in early 2015, I’m doing some work on TV here and there, and I am doing my best to finish writing a web series. It’s like nothing I’ve seen yet, and I really think it’s different than my typical voice and tone (but not so different that you’ll hate it).
See more from the Winter issue of Lydia Magazine below!