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Anna Akana was the youngest person on the conference call. She was speaking to executives and scriptwriters and showrunners and anybody else who wanted to weigh in on a new YouTube Red series starring Akana, and she didn’t feel like a lightweight whose opinion wouldn’t mean anything.
Normally, in a scenario like that, while speaking to executives with decades of experience and with the power to greenlight a show, a 28-year-old Hollywood neophyte might feel uncomfortable making her voice heard. Could she project her ideas? Could she have a say in how the story is told? Could she tell the executives they were wrong?
In Akana’s case, the answer was yes. True, she doesn’t have much experience in the mainstream Hollywood world. But Akana has spent the last seven years on YouTube, building her reputation as a social media personality with something important to say, and building a foundation that allows her the confidence to speak up.
“I felt very empowered by it—and very supported,” Akana told the Daily Dot. “They took my opinions seriously. They validated my ideas. I did feel like what I had to say was real and relevant.”
It’s one reason why Akana is so proud of her YouTube Red series, Youth & Consequences, which premieres this Wednesday. It’s the first time she’s taken the lead role in a series or movie, and for Akana, it’s a perfect fit.
“I am loving it. It’s a freaking dream,” she said. “I love teen shows. I’m such a sucker for teen shows—Riverdale, Beverly Hills 90210, Gilmore Girls. As an Asian-American, I never really thought I’d have the opportunity to play the lead in one of those shows. It’s so against type. But for the last decade, I wanted to be the lead of a show I love that says something that has a deeper message.”
That’s what Youth & Consequences has given her. YouTube describes it as a “‘woke’ take on the traditional Mean Girls high school trope.” Akana loved Mean Girls, and she loved Regina George, the icy blonde main antagonist from the 2004 movie. If you watch the Youth & Consquences trailer, you’ll see plenty of similarities to Akana’s character, Farrah Cutney. She sets the trends at the school, and she’s the one who holds all the power.
But here’s why Akana fell in love with the character: It turns out, Farrah is not what she seems.
“She seems like a mean girl and that she’s a bitch,” Akana said. “But then you realize, ‘Oh, she’s benevolent.’ I’d never seen that before. I fell in love with that.”
Akana also wanted the show to mean something other than eight episodes of teen dramedy entertainment. After all, her YouTube videos are self-reflective and optimistic. She gives advice on self-empowerment.
She opines on why you should de-clutter your possessions.
She discusses how to help prevent suicides.
Sending messages like that is obviously important to Akana and her 2 million YouTube subscribers. It was also important in making sure Youth & Consequences showcased societal problems. That’s why Akana is proud of the female ensemble cast and the fact there are episodes centered around transgender issues and teen power structures. It’s supposed to be entertaining, but it’s also supposed to be instructive. It’s what Akana always wanted in a project.
As a social media influencer, Akana has power now. Even Susanne Daniels, YouTube’s global head of original content, said in a statement that “her star continues to rise.” But it’s not always been this way.
As a struggling actress with time to spare in between auditions, Akana started her YouTube channel in 2011, and it quickly became about self-improvement. She made short films for her channel, and she performed standup comedy. She acted alongside Sally Field in an independent movie, and she landed a cameo in the Marvel movie Ant-Man.
Akana realizes that mainstream Hollywood is beginning to understand that YouTube stars can have worldwide appeal.
“We’re getting to a point where traditional Hollywood is really starting to recognize digital and give us credibility,” she said. “There were definitely instances where I’ve been dismissed because of my age and my platform. But… I have the capital to do things and be the creative boss, and the worlds are merging together. The people who get it, get it.”
She’s been dubbed the “older sister of the internet,” reminding us that, while Akana is relatively young on the mainstream Hollywood scene, she’s more of a middle-aged YouTube star. But with age comes experience, and with experience comes the understanding of how to build power. And with power comes the ability to make the shot-callers listen to your notes.
“I could say things like, ‘Nobody uses the phrase ‘fleek’ anymore,’ and they were like, ‘Oh, OK,’” said Akana, who referred to herself as the show’s “troll filter.” “A lot of the people who work at [the Mark Gordon Co.] and YouTube are progressive already. They’re kind of on the pulse. But I’m the person who cultivated an audience. I can relate to a large group of people and can anticipate the reaction.”
There’s a line in her new show that Akana still thinks about. It’s when Farrah says, “Get on top and then you can make change.”
She’s in that position now. She can speak out on Logan Paul’s “suicide forest” video and have her opinion lead the conversation. She can weigh in on the direction of Youth & Consequences and have it mean something. She can be the youngest person in the room and yet wield more power than she’s ever had before.
Josh Katzowitz is a staff writer at the Daily Dot specializing in YouTube and boxing. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and Los Angeles Times. A longtime sports writer, he's covered the NFL for CBSSports.com and boxing for Forbes. His work has been noted twice in the Best American Sports Writing book series.