Bright Ideas: What drives YouTube sensation Natalie Tran

Jun 20, 2012


The Sydney-based daughter of Vietnamese refugees tackles everyday social issues such as how much money to spend on gifts for friends, how to make porridge in a hotel coffee pot, obsessive handwashing and phone etiquette. Her most popular piece to date, How To Fake A Six-Pack, has delivered her fans from all over the world.

Over the past five years Tran has produced hundreds of videos, been invited to speak at conventions and travelled the world producing travel videos for Lonely Planet. She was enlisted in November last year by the Department of Foreign Affairs & Trade to launch its Smartraveller advisory app alongside then Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd.

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Her blockbusters are virally irrepressible. How To Fake A Six-Pack (2008) has had 34.5 million-plus views, although Tran now regards it as “an embarrassment”. OMG You Look So Hot, which explores the intolerable social media gaffe when a friend posts an ugly photo of you on Facebook, has been watched 3.2 million times in 18 months.

Tran is accustomed to public recognition – people shout out when they see her in the street, present her with gifts and have photos taken with her. When a week passes without her posting a video, there’s online umbrage. Recognition pays. These days she makes a respectable income – although she won’t say how much – through YouTube’s advertising partnership program.

She may be the epitome of internet celebrity, but Tran is self-deprecating. She has a suspended disbelief about the career that began with a webcam in her bedroom six years ago. “I enjoy doing it, [but] I’m still thinking I’ll get a proper job.”

Making it big on YouTube has no set rules, guarantees or career path. Like other forms of fame, it’s probably ephemeral. It’s a perpetual learning curve, but for Tran there’s no agent to canvass further opportunities or to be a buffer between the digital and the real world.

In 2006, Tran (who “wasn’t even a drama kid at school: I played the violin in the orchestra badly”) began experimenting with video responses parodying material she’d seen posted. The self-taught digital director, writer, editor and performer was just mucking around. But over time, her Community Channel on YouTube built a following. Tran abandoned her plan to become a schoolteacher, switched to a digital media degree course at the University of New South Wales and worked part-time in retail. Late at night she would rearrange the furniture in her parents’ house to record many takes for skits in which she would play all characters.

Her parents encouraged and sometimes even participated in her work, despite her mother’s good-natured confusion about the humour. “She calls me and asks: ‘Was that funny?’” says Tran, who points to her upbringing for her success and sense of the absurd – as refugees, her parents always saw things differently.

“It’s hard to pick what will click with people,” she says. Her most memorable videos encapsulate wry thoughts on common fleeting moments, such as the awkwardness of touching a stranger in public or how different things would be with the benefit of foresight. Or why is every password that you choose never actually available?

Her two-minute videos take about 20 hours to produce and have grown in sophistication. Generally, friends are her sounding boards for ideas. “They usually say it’s not funny and I say it’s all I’ve got and do it anyway.” Subscriber demand imposes a kind of deadline pressure. “It takes a day to script, a day to film and a day to edit.” No rehearsal? “That’s why there are so many takes,” she says.

More a writer than a performer at heart, Tran is mindful that the internet is considered “a bit dirty” – driven by ego and self-promotion. She has put herself out there. “I used myself because there was no-one else. However, her profile and popularity have led to offers, including a regular spot on Network 10’s The 7pm Project in 2010 and 2011. She recently played a part in the Australian movie, Goddess, a musical romantic comedy starring Ronan Keating, due for release this year. “I’m not an actor. I can’t do impromptu performance. I have to be scripted. And I’m bad at interviews,” she says.

Last year she made a series of videos for Lonely Planet, highlighting her stops on a four-month trip from the Caribbean to Singapore, Egypt and the Maldives. Working with a producer, she did two videos a week – one for the travel company, one for Community Channel.

“We were both history fans, so we’d go on tours with people at least 20 years older than us, and then go into the city at night to see what the young people were doing. Lonely Planet asked if I wanted to keep going, but I needed to go home and sleep for a few weeks.”

Natalie Tran may have inadvertently grown a career, but she insists she’s not driven by ambition. “I just want to be happy!” So, where to from here? She’s “slacked off a bit” from YouTube lately to write a rom-com screenplay. She fears it may end up buried in her parents’ basement, but would like to see it on a big screen.

“I like writing and the idea of working in a team,” Tran says. “I’m not interested in making an internet movie – that would be too low-budget and none of my favourite actors could be cast. Maybe I’ll have to play all the roles!”

Source Qantas The Australian Way July 2012

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