How Todrick Hall made the leap from viral YouTube videos to his own MTV show: ‘Impossible is nothing’
Behind the doors of a nondescript three-story home in the Hollywood Hills, a 6-foot-plus jack-in-the-box stands guard over a kitchen and dining room striped in white and sea foam green. A life-size wooden flamingo leans down, off in a corner. An ice cream cone-shaped table and chair combo weirdly complements the oversized neon letters and massive chocolate-iced cupcake prop perched on the windowsill.
This is not Willy Wonka’s factory but Toddyland, the entertainment empire helmed by YouTube star Todrick Hall, coming to MTV on Monday. But don’t let the visually tantalizing space misrepresent. Much like the quirky confectioner, the mastermind of this fantasy land is a stickler for rules.
“I’m very serious about my work,” Hall said in his kitchen, the jack-in-the-box peering over his shoulder. “I like to have fun, but on set, I’m really old school. I respect people who work hard, and I have no sympathy for people who want to take a day off. You get a day off when you’re Beyoncé.”
Hall and his ragtag team of friends are well on their way, evidenced by more than 1.6 million subscribers and 239 million views on YouTube. Also known as Toddy Rockstar and Qing Toddy, Hall has long used Internet video to propel himself into the cultural conversation. After he was eliminated as a semifinalist on the ninth season of “American Idol,” it was a viral video of Hall singing his order in a McDonald’s drive-through that thrust him into pop culture relevancy.
“I hoped that I would get back on TV,” said Hall, 30, who moved to L.A. from Plainview, Texas, “with every intention to audition for ‘Glee’ or something and get cast in a role. Unfortunately, I didn’t get those things. Something clicked in my mind that I should just make my own opportunities. If I’m not going to be on ‘Glee,’ I should make my own ‘Glee’ on YouTube.”
He’s since found continued success by learning what Allison Stern, co-founder of Web video analytics firm Tubular Labs, called “the language of online video.”
“He’s a really talented entertainer, but more importantly, he speaks the language,” Stern said, adding: “That’s Disney, cover songs, flash mobs, pop culture references like ‘Mean Girls.’”
On his forthcoming MTV show, “Todrick,” Hall will lead his team in creating the kinds of viral videos for which he’s known. He’s hoping the show will push him closer to his ultimate goal of being an EGOT, an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony award winner.
No other platform, he said, allows him to show “how I can write a song, create the concepts, execute them, direct, choreograph and do hair and makeup.” And sing, dance and act. “They’ll be able to see every aspect of what I can do and everyone on my team,” he said.
“Todrick” puts Hall atop a growing list of digital stars making the leap into traditional entertainment spaces. Last spring the E! network gave Grace Helbig her own talk show. Before that, Comedy Central turned the Web series “Broad City,” featuring comedians Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer, into a successful network show with Amy Poehler as its executive producer. This fall, Rachel Bloom, whose Ray Bradbury video tribute went viral, will star in “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” on the CW.
Facing a widespread ratings decline, networks have turned to the digital space to attract and keep viewers. The hope is that YouTube stars will diversify network TV audiences by attracting younger viewers away from computer and phone screens.
But the online popularity of digital stars doesn’t always translate into more viewers.
“The way people watch on YouTube is inherently different from the way they watch on TV, the way it’s measured is different and the audience on YouTube isn’t necessarily subscribed to cable,” said Paul Verna, a senior analyst at research firm eMarketer. “Having, say, 2 million subscribers on YouTube means one thing, but that doesn’t mean 2 million people will watch your show. I think this transition can happen, but it hasn’t happened yet.”
Some eMarketer research released in April showed that the time spent watching television has decreased every year since 2012, while time spent on digital outlets is increasing.
Hall turned his online following into offline revenue by staging live theatrical shows of his most popular videos. At $25 a ticket ($80 for VIP), his shows “Twerk Du Soleil” and the “Toddlerz Ball” have packed venues from Los Angeles to Bloomington, Ind. He sold out London’s Leicester Square Theatre, which seats almost 400, earlier this year.
That may not be a large amount of money, but it demonstrated Hall’s success in drawing his Web audience to another platform. Re-creating some of his memorable incarnations of popular characters, including a Good Witch complete with pink dress and high heels, Hall’s touring stage spectacle proved his influence on fans, known as Toddlerz.
“Doing these shows is what changed my life,” Hall said. “It’s awesome to get a million views on a video that’s ratchet and funny with a bunch of booty shaking — and heaven knows I love a good bubble butt. But it’s so much more fulfilling to go on stage and have someone say that you being you, and in a dress, changed someone’s life.”
Hall hopes his MTV show continues to spread that same message of love and creativity, particularly for black gay youth and those interested in performing arts.
“You have the ability to give yourself your own big break,” he said. “I hope this lights a fire in every single artist who watches the show that makes them want to get up and go accomplish the first dream they have, not the second.”
Along for the ride on “Todrick” is a team of creatives that channel the “Team No Sleep” work ethic of their leader, working on limited time, a minimal budget and a host of other challenges.
“When you’re on YouTube, you have to constantly be with what is trending or is going to be viral,” said a pink-haired Carlie Craig, one of Hall’s friends who make up the cast of eight. “You have to stay relevant, and it has to matter in a big way. We’re constantly pushing ourselves to do better every time, and it is crazy.”
Crazy not only because of the wacky ideas Hall develops — classic Disney song lyrics to the tune of ‘90s R&B, a twerking spin on Gene Kelly’s “Singin’ in the Rain” or a Beyoncé-inspired flash mob in a Target store that received praise by the queen herself — but because his dogged determination and ambition are rooted in a box-less mentality. Keeping up with him, as the show will highlight, isn’t always easy.
“It’s hard getting on Toddy’s level as far as ‘no sleep.com’ because she doesn’t function that well with no sleep,” violet-haired cast member Vonzell Solomon said, pointing to herself. “Sometimes — most times — I sneak away and have a little nap because she cannot keep up. ... You see what it takes to be successful.”
Solomon, an “Idol” alumna who placed third on the show’s fourth season, said Hall’s post-"Idol” career trajectory is a perfect example of what people can accomplish when they work hard for what they want.
“Like what I did on ‘Idol’ — that’s yesterday,” she said. “It’s about what am I doing every day to make my dreams happen. And if you have to sacrifice sleep, you have to do what you have to do. We have to stay ready.”
Interrupted Craig, her hand raised to the sky in a testifying manner: “Because if you stay ready ...”
“You don’t have to get ready,” completed Solomon, the two high-fiving over the table.
Others on the show include the filmmaker for all the videos, Shawn Adeli; Hall’s best friend and roommate, Chester Lockhart; and makeup artist Nicole Faulkner. Dancers and singers Jenni Thomasson, Kaley Hatfield and Thurshundray “ThurZday” Lyons round out the cast.
They all wear multiple hats as actors, body doubles, bedazzlers, production assistants, what have you. Being a part of the team is an opportunity for each, as Craig said, “to live out our own personal dreams in our own way.”
“I wanted to do it all,” said ThurZday, a performing arts graduate of the American Musical and Dramatic Academy’s Los Angeles campus. “Lo and behold, God orchestrated me to be mentored by this phenomenal being who literally embodied everything I wanted to be.”
As Toddy Rockstar works toward his overall goal, his ability to command millions of fans from just online videos in just five years since “Idol” proves the Toddyland motto persists: Impossible is nothing.
Times reporter Saba Hamedy contributed to this report.
When: 10 p.m. Monday
Rating: TV-PG-L (may be unsuitable for young children, with an advisory for coarse language)
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