15 million clicks of fame: Stylist spends a week with vlogging phenomenon Tanya Burr

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Helen Bownass
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Stylist spends a week with Tanya Burr, the YouTube. sensation who turned herself into a £1.5million business

Photography: Tom van Schelven

When we launched Stylist seven years ago we knew that you wanted to see businesswomen on the cover just as much as you wanted Angelina Jolie. Entrepreneurship was the ultimate career aspiration, dangling the carrot of autonomy, increased creativity and financial security. Not much has changed. But while once it was cupcake entrepreneurs leading the pack of dream businesses, today – among the wellness pioneers and tech start ups – an altogether different type of entrepreneur is paving the way.

With the introduction of social media as a powerful new marketing tool, businesses with personality – think Gwyneth Paltrow’s GOOP and Jessica Alba’s Honest – have charged ahead. But it’s vloggers who are really capitalising on this trend, taking full advantage of their unique relationship with their audience to graduate from YouTube stars to bonafide business mavens. The most successful of these is arguably Tanya Burr.

For those of you who aren’t one of Burr’s 3 million followers on Instagram, 2.2 million followers on Twitter or 3.6 million subscribers to her YouTube channel, let us introduce you. The 27-year-old Norwich native isn’t just a vlogging megastar, she has also released two books (Love, Tanya and Tanya Bakes), has two companies – Tanya Burr Ltd (Aug 2011) where her £15 A3 inspirational quote posters are almost constantly sold out, and Tanya Burr Cosmetics Ltd (July 2014) – a product is sold from her cosmetics line every two minutes. She has also sat on the front row at Topshop, Burberry and Tommy Hilfiger and works with brands including Mulberry, Clinique, La Roche Posay and YouTube – she’s currently all over Piccadilly Circus in their #MadeForYou campaign. “By applying a proprietary algorithm, we have estimated Tanya Burr to be worth in the region of £1.5 million,” says Zahra Al-Kateb, online writer at business magazine Spear’s who she adds, is “reportedly earning over £20,000 a month from ad revenue alone.” Impressive for a woman who often works from her bedroom.

Regardless of how familiar she is to you – we estimate the majority of Burr’s audience to be 13 to 23 year old girls – there is no denying she’s at the forefront of a new type of entrepreneur who brands refer to as influencers – and businesses are desperate to utilise their power to sell products. “The baby boomer generation wanted to know the smartest person in the room; with millennials it’s about the coolest person in the room. Anyone who has social influence has a higher currency than in previous years,” says technology journalist Edmund Ingham, who writes for London start-up blog Haggerston Times. “They offer brands an opportunity to be associated with the coolest kid in the class. And that’s an extremely powerful resource.” Indeed. According to The Shelf (an influencer marketing platform), 92% of consumers trust recommendations from others, even people they don’t know, over branded content. No wonder brands want in on the action.

For many of us the idea of launching a multimillion pound business by essentially sitting in our bedrooms and talking to a camera sounds slightly preposterous. But it’s slowly moving from pipe dream to a viable career choice for millennial women.

“Blogging/vlogging/social media stardom have gone from a left-field career option, which once caused raised eyebrows, to the top career choice for under-25s,” says Natasha Courtenay-Smith, digital mentor and author of The Million Dollar Blog. With thousands of YouTube channels globally making “six figure sums a year” according to Rosie Allimonos, head of Creator Partnerships at YouTube, it’s a career choice that’s only set to explode in popularity in the future. Especially with the recent news that, for the first time ever, British children are spending longer online than they do watching TV, about 15 hours a week, up 1.8 hours on last year.

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So can anyone do it? Is it really as straightforward as it sounds? And if not, what exactly is it about Tanya Burr that has captured the attention and admiration of millions of viewers weekly? And, most importantly, what exactly does she do all day? The more we learn about Brand Burr the more fascinated we become. And when Stylist asks if we can spend a week with her – she gamely agrees.

When I first arrive at her west London home, I’m in a line behind the Ocado man (delivering microwavable rice, bottled water and tins of tuna among other things) and the Fedex guy (delivering one in a series of parcels that arrive for her and husband Jim Chapman, also a vlogger and the brother of beauty vloggers Pixi Woo). She is chatty but also focused (I’m not sure I’d work well if a journalist like me was sat in the corner watching me but she carries on unfazed). I get the impression very quickly, that she is a classic overachiever. Over a cup of tea she tells me about the goals list she has kept for seven years, I ask if she moderates herself when she’s adding things to it, telling herself, for example, that getting an acting job (one of her continuing goals) isn’t likely. “I never think ‘that might not happen’” she says simply. “It’s not how I think. I aim high” Not unlike most entrepreneurs I’ve met, then.

Burr grew up in Norwich where she admits she was uninspired by school, but not lacking in ambition. “My grandad once found me in my parents’ back garden writing out my life plan between leaving school and getting a flat in Central Park, New York,” she recalls. “I’ve always thought I would do something amazing even though I didn’t have an upbringing that would necessarily allow me to do that.” Burr’s mum is a teacher, her dad a lorry driver, she also has an elder sister Tasha and a younger brother Oscar – a social media star in the making himself. Burr launched her YouTube channel in 2009 after training as a make-up artist, and after giving up her ‘day job’ working at Topshop to work on it full time, its popularity surged.

Her vlogs are a mix of make-up tutorials, shopping hauls (when a vlogger shows the fruits of a shopping trip) and lifestyle posts such as baking a chocolate cake with fellow vlogger Zoella, and the occasional more serious one thrown in, like her trip to Johannesburg with One, an international charity, to learn about issues affecting women and girls. Watching her posts is strangely addictive, I find myself falling into a stupor, lulled by the warm tones, her upbeat nature and the perky instrumentals in the background. I begin to slightly understand why people buy into it. Her life is like (a slightly nicer version of) my life, her make-up looks like what mine would if I made a bit more effort. She likes baths. I like baths!

I’m not alone. “Vloggers are so slick and well produced that you absorb the content, rather than consciously watch it” says Ingham. “Ten minutes goes by and then another video comes on… it’s like guerrilla marketing in a way, because it’s so stealthy.”

I’m struck by how similar Burr is both on and off camera. She does come across as incredibly genuine. She tells viewers where something is going wrong with an eyeliner flick, she still sits on her bed with a candle in a jar (to get a cosy glow), rather than in a fancy studio. She talks both online and in reality about Harry Potter, the joy of bath bombs and her dog Martha; her basic cultural touchstones mirror her audience’s.

Indeed as I began to research Burr, and why she is so successful in the over-saturated vlogging world, there is one word that keeps coming up: authenticity.

“Authenticity is the Holy Grail within marketing and branding. You want your brand to be seen as sincere and genuine in its intent,” says Tim Hill, lecturer in marketing at the University of Bath. “And vloggers, especially Tanya Burr, go out of their way to help achieve authenticity. One of the ways in which Tanya does it is by providing behind-the-scenes footage of her life. Her Instagram page is full of images that peek behind the curtain of what she does on YouTube. This all shows that this is what she’s really like.”

But remaining authentic when you’re no longer a girl from Norwich working in Topshop can’t be easy, can it? “That doesn’t mean I’m not authentic,” she stresses. “It would be worse if I pretended all this stuff hadn’t happened. I’m honest, and people know what my life is like. They see I can afford to have a Gucci handbag and also still shop in Topshop.”

You also can’t talk about Burr’s authenticity without talking about the struggles she has with Generalised Anxiety Disorder. “I like to be open about anxiety, because it’s not a done deal for me” she admits. “I’m not completely sorted, I still have therapy. I describe it as mind management; if you can’t make the anxious feeling go away it’s nice to know why it’s there. That gives you so much more power. I had the worst years of my teenage years with anxiety because I didn’t talk about it.” You can see how thousands of young women with similar struggles find her so relatable.

Behind the scenes

For anyone who thinks making a vlog is easy, I can tell you it takes a lot longer than you think. Burr plots out every post in advance including the products she will use, any key messaging she will include, how each scene will go. A 45-minute video is edited into a 10-minute make-up tutorial, always by Burr herself, a process that takes a couple of hours. Burr has amassed all her own equipment and films at home with a couple of soft boxes (to provide light), her DSLR camera on a tripod. In our week together, Burr, among other things, films a vlog (a three hour shoot), stars in a blog shoot, has a meeting with the founder of Instagram, Kevin Systrom, has an afternoon of writing for her new book and takes an acting class. She shows me a day in her diary for the following week where she’s had to schedule in a shower before reassuring me: “I’m a sensible workaholic now. I value my time with my husband. I value my mental health. I’m still obsessed with my work but I’m equally obsessed with making sure that I’m OK because it’s not nice when I’m not.” As such, her and Jim stop working at 7pm, don’t work at weekends and she doesn’t vlog every day – unlike him – as she says she doesn’t like to share too much of her life.

Halfway through our week together, I am invited to Gleam Futures (the agency set up in 2010 was the first to recognise the power of “digital-first talent”) to sit in on a business meeting with SLG (the company that produces Tanya Burr Cosmetics for Superdrug) Or to clarify, I get to sit in on the first half hour of her meeting with them, before being asked (as agreed with Tanya beforehand) to leave. I get the sense that Burr is incredibly involved in the creative and research side, probably less so in the business part. I learn there will be six big product drops for the brand in 2017, a sign Superdrug are taking her very seriously. Burr spends the first 25 minutes discussing mascara wands – she has been testing them on herself, her friends and sister. She is very vocal in the meeting and is steadfast in what she likes: “Imagine a blogger reviewing that,” she says of a wand she dislikes.

For business matters, I suspect she relies on her team at Gleam – founder Dominic Smales still negotiates some of her big deals. She also has a PA – Kate one of her best friends since she was at school. “Having the right team is key. When I’ve been unhappy working with other people, I can’t do my job properly,” she says. “I need to have creative space. I need to be motivated to create great content. If you’re not it’s hard to stay like this.”

I ask Tanya how much her company earns a month. She tells me she has no idea. “Does that interest you?” she asks when I make a surprised face. “Maybe it’s because I don’t have to worry that much at the moment that I don’t, but I’ve always been like that, even when I worked at Topshop, I was never any good with money.” I’m not sure if she’s keeping her cards close to her chest or if she genuinely doesn’t know but it does lead me to muse on how vlogging fits into feminism and social media… some have argued that its concentration on the more traditionally female topic of make-up is a step backwards for female entrepreneurship.

“Social media in general has given women a voice,” says Burr. “We’re still not at a stage where we’re living in an equal world. It’s nice that YouTube has nothing to do with your gender – whether you’re trans, female, male; it doesn’t matter. You can really have your own opinion.”

We discuss whether there will come a time when she speaks about more heavyweight topics. “I read the news and like reading feminist books – I have just started reading Lean In by Nell Scovell and Sheryl Sandberg – but at the same time I’m not an expert, I’m not a politician. Instead, I can give people easily digestible pieces of information, easy ways to add a bit of politics into their lives. My audience is learning along with me. [There’s a sense of] can you believe this is happening in the world? Let’s talk about it. Let’s do something about it.”

Burr – who is also an ambassador for the United Nations’ project, Global Goals, which aims to tackle poverty, inequality and injustice – recently posted about Clinton’s concession speech – garnering over 111,000 likes: “I knew posting that would result in a mess of comments, so I haven’t read any.” Burr is bucking the trend by even talking about politics. “While vloggers say a lot, there’s a lot of stuff that they don’t say,” says Ingham. “They’re rarely drawn on current affairs.”

Does that mean that Burr considers what she does feminist? “Yes, I guess so,” she muses. I wonder if she’s thought about this before. “I’m my own boss, and I don’t rely on any men.”

As I begin to wrap up my time with Burr the thing that I keep thinking is what a slog vlogging seems. Call me naïve but I had no idea it took so much effort. Like every successful woman I’ve ever interviewed from business to show business, she has got here through hard work – alongside a healthy dollop of self-belief. It might look like an easy way to make a fast buck, but I suspect for every Tanya Burr, there’s another thousand that will never hit her dizzy heights. It would be remiss to write her off as just lucky – yes she was fortunate to launch at a time when that landscape was barren and as such she could help shape that world but she has also proved she has the right type of talent to make it stick. And while vlogging isn’t everyone’s business dream, the tools they harness is a lesson for all.

Tanya Bakes by Tanya Burr (£16.99, Random House), is out now