Youtube star Tanya Burr on equality, empowering girls and beating anxiety with baking
Her beauty, fashion and baking videos have been viewed more than 300 million times, but now the focus is on changing the world
As I walk to Easons on O’Connell St in Dublin to meet YouTuber Tanya Burr, there are hundreds of teenage girls lined up outside, the queue stretching the length of the block back to Liffey St. She’s come to Dublin as part of her book tour, to sign her second book, Tanya Bakes. It’s Easons’ biggest ever book signing.
“This is like my birthday and my Christmas present,” says one teenage girl to her mother as I pass. She’ll be the one giving gifts however, as she, like many others is carrying a gift bag full of stuff to give to the YouTube star.
This isn’t anything unusual for Burr. When I reference the growing queue outside when we meet, she isn’t fazed. “I think I’m used to it now. I find it quite overwhelming afterwards when I finish but I’m used to seeing a lot of people,” she says.
Burr has 3.5 million subscribers on her YouTube channel, and almost 300 million views on her videos about beauty, fashion, baking and her life. She rarely goes anywhere without someone asking for a photo.
She started in 2009, when she was working as a make-up artist on a Laura Mercier counter and her sisters-in-law, YouTube make-up gurus Sam and Nicky Chapman, suggested she use YouTube to experiment more than the counter would allow.
Cut to seven years later, making videos is her job, and through it, she has begun a make-up line of her own, written two books, and regularly sits front row at Fashion Week.
“When I started YouTube, no one was making any money from it, it was no one’s job, it was just a hobby. I had zero expectation of where YouTube would go. I always wanted to be my own boss... so I’m not surprised by the fact I’m a businesswoman but it is surprising what YouTube has become,” she says.
Her latest book, a baking guide, comes off the back of her first book, Love Tanya, which was part autobiography, part lifestyle guide. It had a chapter on baking that she says proved so popular a baking book was the next obvious step. While she created most of the recipes while writing the book, some are her best-loved recipes from over the years.
“Lots of my earliest and happiest childhood memories are all to do with baking. When I was little, I used to always bake with my mum. She would get a chair and bring it through to the kitchen so I could stand on it and bake with her. It’s always been my happy place,” she says.
She’s documented her struggle with anxiety in her videos, speaking to her young fans about her struggle with the illness since she was 14 years old, and how she copes with it. While she’s accepted that her anxiety will never totally leave her, she says she tries to stay happy and positive, and baking is one of the things she turns to when feeling stressed.
“I find baking really therapeutic because it’s such a science and if you follow the recipe, you will get something lovely at the end. The whole experience: weighing ingredients, the nice smell from the oven, making something and decorating it, I just find it all really therapeutic and stress-relieving,” she says.
While she admits she usually sticks to the lighter side of life on her YouTube, recently she tried something a bit different. Last year, filmmaker Richard Curtis asked her to be involved with raising awareness for his Global Goals campaign, which saw 193 world leaders sign up to 17 goals, with the ultimate aim to end poverty, fight inequality and end climate change.
Burr made a video introducing the goals to her subscribers, and then decided to put her own focus on goal five – gender equality. She has since launched a spin-off campaign, Time for Girls, in which she’s asked her audience to share what they really want for women, in a bid to get them thinking about inequality, particularly in developing countries, where issues such as HIV, child marriage, female genital mutilation and maternal mortality are rife.
“Girls really are the key to ending extreme poverty because if you invest in girls and women, it’s proven that if they’re given economic opportunities and education, they will invest it all back into their families and communities at much higher rates than boys and men. If you help girls, you’re helping not just girls and women, but everyone in the world,” she says.
A trip to South Africa, which she vlogged for YouTube, opened her eyes to some of the issues in a very real way, she says. “I learned so much, it was so amazing to see the things people are doing… Their education systems don’t teach people about HIV and Aids and keeping safe, but with things like Rise Club for young girls, they have a leader there who will teach all the girls and encourage them to go and get tested for HIV,” she says.
Putting a focus on women and women’s issues and using her platform for good is something she feels is important, as her following only continues to grow, she says.
“I’ve got an audience and the majority of them are young girls who have the ability to change the world if they all come together. It’s really important to me to use my large following for good. It’s lovely to talk about make-up and baking – and that stuff is important because it can make someone feel so much better about their day – but at the same time, it’s nice that I’m not just helping my audience but I’m using them to help the rest of the world,” she says.
While her own make-counter in the beauty halls of department stores is where she sees herself heading, and she’s teased a desire to enter the film industry, YouTube is going to remain her priority, she says. A seemingly endlessly expanding range of opportunities can come from a big YouTube following, but she remains coy about what’s next.
“I’m just taking each day as it comes at the moment because I’m so busy that if I started thinking ahead… I don’t have time to think what I want to happen next. I’m just taking it as it comes,” she says.