Tanya Burr reveals why she is embarking on her second career

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As she embarks on a brand-new career, vlogging phenomenon Tanya Burr tells Stylist about never giving up on your goals  

Every year Tanya Burr writes a ‘to do’ list, detailing 10-12 items that she wants to achieve over the next 12 months. Over the last five years, there was one item she had to keep resubmitting. It was her biggest: a career change. Despite being one of the most successful YouTube stars with just under 3.68 million subscribers, writing two books and having her own make-up range, the 28-year-old longed to become an actor.

Burr, in her appealingly down-to-earth way, was not afraid to talk about her ambition. When Stylist trailed the vlogging star for a cover story in November 2016, she didn’t hide the fact that her working week included sessions with an acting coach. “I never think ‘that might not happen’. It’s not how I think. I aim high,” she said of her acting ambitions at the time. Burr has made her name, and a £1.5 million business, from sharing beauty tips, shopping and lifestyle snippets. So sharing stories of failed auditions or her vow to be in a film by the end of 2015 seemed natural to her, even if she didn’t quite hit the target.

“That just shows how candid and a bit of a mess I am,” Burr laughs now of the slight overreach. “Being so cocky, [saying] I’m going to do this and I’m going to do that. It’s embarrassing that I spoke about it three years ago and that people know I’m auditioning every week. Because then people know you’re not getting the roles. But it’s a realistic perception of the acting industry: it’s so tough. You have to put yourself out there.”

“I never think ‘that might not happen’. It’s not how I think. I aim high.”

Acting is not new to Burr. She did drama classes after school in Norwich but as a teenager, Generalised Anxiety Disorder destroyed her confidence. “I gave it all up at 14,” she explains. Instead, she went on to train as a make-up artist, work at Topshop and in 2009, started her YouTube channel. After creating her successful business, Burr put her childhood passion back on the to-do list.

Now, Burr finally gets to strike ‘become an actor’ off that list. She has a small part in a new Sky1 police drama, Bulletproof, which starts next week. There is a movie she thinks will definitely happen for her this summer (‘But I don’t want to jinx it,’ she laughs). And later this month her stage debut in a new production of Judy Upton’s 2014 play, Confidence. A story about sex, ambition and hope in late Nineties, Britpop-era Brighton, Burr plays Ella, a working class 18-year-old with ambitions beyond her station. Clutching her script as we talk, Burr is clearly in her element. “The moral of the play is dream big and work hard but be honest,” she says, a motto that sounds completely on brand…

What can audiences expect from the play?

It’s about young people not knowing what they want. It’s set on Brighton Pier. The people in the play don’t have very much money at all - to them, £20 is loads and loads of money. Ella, my character, decides she’s sick of this life and she wants to go to Hollywood. She wants to meet Brad Pitt. She just wants out of her life and is willing to do anything to get there.

How does she go about getting her way?

She’s not afraid to use her sexuality to get what she wants. She sees all the kiosks on the prom as money-making opportunities and if she has to sleep with the guy in charge of hiring, she will. It’s less about herself being promiscuous and more about her knowing what she wants and going after it and not letting anything get in her way. Of course she falls short.

Did you immerse yourself in Nineties culture for the role?

I was born in 1989 so I’m definitely a Nineties kid. I was aware of Spice Girls, ‘girl power’ and girls wanting to graft and work hard. But I wasn’t aware of the politics like the Labour party. For the part, I recently watched Pulp Fiction and made a Nineties playlist with Billie Piper, Spice Girls, B’witched, Oasis and Pulp. I thought, ‘Who would Ella’s heroes be? Who would she have on her wall?’ She’d fancy Leonardo DiCaprio in and Liam Gallagher, for a bit of edge.

What’s your opinion on the lack on access in the arts?

Theatre can be quite exclusive and elitist, we all know that. Our cast is diverse. I don’t think any of us come from middle class backgrounds. One of the characters – Edwin – is written for a pale, skinny guy but the director, Rob Drummer, has cast a black guy who is really muscly. So he’s perfectly willing to take older plays and modernise them for people today. I saw Frances McDormand speak about inclusion riders and that’s totally something I would do for screen work. 

“I saw Frances McDormand speak about inclusion riders and that’s totally something I would do for screen work.”

Your casting in Confidence has seen the producers accused of stunt casting. How do you feel about that?

I have a social media following but so do a tonne of actors. It’s not like I’m some YouTube star who has been cast in a play: I’m an actor. I’ve been working hard at this. I’ve done drama for years. Also, it’s not like it’s a massive Broadway show. The director is not going to struggle selling out this small theatre.

When we last met late 2016, acting was still very much a dream for you…

Things have changed since then! I was having acting lessons. I was auditioning and seeing my drama coach all the time and now things have started to happen. It just takes time.

You gave up amateur acting as a teenager due to anxiety - was your anxiety about performing?

No, it was general life anxiety. It definitely affected my everyday life for many years, until I was 19. I wish I’d found a good therapist earlier. I didn’t feel brave enough to do [drama] at A Level. I had periods when I was okay and periods when it would make me not want to leave the house. Having intense anxiety made me lose all my confidence with everything, I didn’t feel myself with my friends even. Also, it’s a tough age to ask yourself to be free on stage. You need to lose your inhibitions [to] go be a tree! 

Why did you decide to try it again?

I got caught up in the YouTube bubble and that was great but I felt something was missing from my life. I got an agent, started auditioning and that’s how I got here.

Was your YouTube career helpful in terms of performing?

I see it as two separate jobs. On YouTube I’m just being me. I know I might be me plus 10 per cent – I do keep it very genuine on there. [YouTube] might help if you want to be a TV presenter but for acting they are not connected for me at all.

Is your vlogging career parked for now?

Not at all. I just enjoy creating videos and sharing snippets of my life. I just see them as two separate jobs. Lots of actors who aren’t doing back-to-back films have to have other jobs. There are so many actors like Millie Bobby Brown who you could call influencers now. They treat social media as much as a job as I do. That’s the modern world of acting.

How did you change people’s perceptions of you as Tanya Burr, YouTube star, to Tanya Burr, actor?

I started sharing it on my YouTube channel. I mentioned, offhand, that I’d gone for an audition, thinking people wouldn’t care about it. But I got so many comments asking about the process. I would tell people what I could. I think it’s just about sharing the process, so it’s not a shock when I’m the lead in a play. 

“I got so many comments asking about the process [of auditions]”

How do you know if you’re any good?

You can feel if what you’re doing is good or terrible. When I auditioned for Bulletproof, the role was a 30-year-old social worker who was tough as nails. I felt I wasn’t very good at all. This part was not right for me. I didn’t get it but they called five months later and gave me another small part.

You’ve been so successful with your career so far - what did your first acting rejection feel like?

I got very close to the lead in a film, to the point where I added the weather of the shoot location in New Orleans on my phone. I always put my weather app in order of where I’m travelling. I really thought the role could be mine. Then I got a no. It properly hit me in the stomach. But then I set up meetings in LA so I felt like I was doing something. I didn’t dwell on it. I didn’t look up anything online about who had been cast.

Do you have to work harder to prove yourself, given your success?

If I felt that I needed to prove myself to people who are writing crap about me on the internet, I would have a meltdown. I’m just treating it as a job I want to do my best in. It’s just in my nature to do that.

Confidence is at Southwark Playhouse, 23 May-16 June, tickets from £16, 

Words: Colin Crummy

Photography: Rachell Smith

Other images: Getty