Interview: Charlie Hides on becoming a YouTube drag sensation

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Having done shows for Sir Elton John and with 8.2m video views spread across 119 videos on his YouTube channel, Charlie Hides is bringing drag to the digital mainstream. Laurence Watts caught up with him to talk celebrity impersonation, Madonna and the digital dollar.

Twenty two months ago a friend of Charlie Hides suggested he put some videos, originally made for his lives shows, on YouTube.

“I’ve known Edgar since I was 14,” says Hides. “He used to do the lights and sound for my live show in Provincetown, Massachusetts. These days he lives in California and is very versed in social media. He said I should put some of my videos on YouTube and that, through some contacts he had, he could get me partnered quickly so I could start earning money from them.”

“I’ve had a YouTube account since 2006, I actually joined a few months after the site launched. I’m a bit of a geek like that. Anyway, back then I thought YouTube would be a great way for my family and friends in the States to see that I was doing over here. In those early days though, the quality of the uploads was shockingly poor.”

Hides recorded video for his shows using a broadcast quality camera, the video from which became highly pixelated by the time it was uploaded. The experience left him cold and for four years he dismissed the platform outright. By the time of his 2010 conversation with Edgar however, YouTube had begun broadcasting in HD.

“I put up a couple more videos to test it out and told my Facebook friends and some people whom I knew had seen my live show; that was pretty much the limit of who I thought would be interested. Pretty quickly though, I started getting comments from places as far away as Australia, Poland and Russia. That encouraged me and I started using YouTube as a creative outlet where I could try out things I wouldn’t normally do on stage; things like comedy with multiple characters or even male characters, which usually I can’t do live because once you’ve got makeup it’s just not possible.”

Charlie tried out a number of ideas in an effort to see what people would respond to.

“I only had a few hundred subscribers initially,” he says, “but my videos were getting several thousand views each, which meant the videos were being shared. Then on my birthday, July 12, 2011, I put up a video that featured me as Madonna and Lady Gaga. The video went viral and changed my life.”

The video in question, called ‘Madonna’s Gaga Nightmare’, featured Hides not only as Madonna but also as Cher, Sue Sylvester, Barbara Streisand and Liza Minnelli. In it, Madonna phones up Lady Gaga to accuse her of stealing her gay fans and ends up going to a therapy session for fallen gay icons.

“The idea came out of six-second appearance I did as Madonna in an e-harmony spoof I’d put together,” laughs Hides. “I had Madonna looking for someone who hated Lady Gaga! After that I had a hundred or more comments saying, “You look just like her,” and “You have to do more Madonna!””

“So, I had a think about what I could do that would be Madonna-centric and that’s when I came up with the video. Although I only had about 1,000 subscribers at the time, the video racked up more than 20,000 views in the first 24 hrs. After that the view counter just stopped because it was getting so many hits. By the end of that first week, when the counter was working again, it had been seen more than 150,000 times!”

‘Madonna’s Gaga Nightmare’ has now amassed more than 700,000 views and prompted Hides to make a number of sequels. He compares the dialogue between him and his YouTube subscribers as similar to the relationship he has with an audience when doing live shows.

“Comedy is very democratic,” says Hides. “I can think something’s hysterical, but if I say it on stage and nobody laughs then it’s not funny. So I’ve learned to listen to my YouTube subscribers so I can give them what they want. I’m never going to be a total slave; people are always telling me do more Gaga, but I’m only ever going to do so much of that. I’ve developed a number of original characters too, which I really like doing and which people seem to enjoy as well.”

I ask if the money he’s received from YouTube, presumably linked to advertising sold around the traffic he generates, is enough to support him.

“It’s not enough to live on,” he answers. “People who make YouTube their profession get more than a million views a week and have hundreds of thousands of subscribers. What the revenue I get from YouTube has allowed me to do though is cut back on the number of live shows I do. In a way it’s similar to when I started doing stand-up.”

“When you start doing stand-up you typically do a couple of nights a week while still working your day-job. Usually you feel pretty crappy the day after a gig. Anyway, you end up working 80-hour weeks until eventually you can support yourself through comedy, allowing you to quit the nine-to-five. With my work on YouTube becoming increasingly successful, I can see a time when I might think about cutting back on the live shows even more than I have.”

“I don’t think I’ll ever give them up completely, though. I love performing live and as an artist the experience is totally different to being on camera. In the meantime, my YouTube success has meant I’m now getting more corporate gigs and private parties though; it’s been a great calling card in that respect. On the back of it I’ve done private parties for Sir Elton John, Jasper Conran and Andrew Lloyd Webber!”

Though Hides is American by birth, he lives in the UK with his British husband, James, a man he describes as, “the funniest guy I know.” I ask if James is the one filming Hides’ videos.

“More often than not the camera’s just on a tripod and I operate if by remote control,” he tells me. “James gets involved occasionally though. When I need two characters to be in a scene together he’ll help out. So if it looks like there are two of us on screen, the one you can see is me and the guy with his back to you wearing the Cher wig is probably James!”

Of all the characters Hides portrays – Madonna, Cher, Adele, Joan Collins, Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber being just a few – I wonder if he has a particular favourite.

“I don’t really have a favourite,” he muses. “But when I put on a costume and do a character I haven’t done in a while, it’s very much like visiting an old friend. I’ll be honest and say Madonna isn’t that much fun to do. I tend to play Madonna straight, which means it’s usually the characters around her that get the punch lines. Maybe because of that, playing her daughter, Lourdes, is always a riot!”

It’s tempting to ask if Hides sees his future in television, but such a progression seems almost redundant in the digital age. Almost like a step backwards.

“I wouldn’t say no to television if the right offer came along,” he says, “but it’s a very different demographic. The average TV viewer is over 50 whereas the average YouTube viewer is in their teens. And it’s a different kind of viewership: about 45% of my hits are on hand held devices now. It used to be that people would come home from work and surf YouTube on their laptop from the sofa, but now they’re watching on their iPhone while waiting for the bus.”

“For the moment I’m very happy with my life the way it is,” he says, smiling. “I’ve built up a regular circuit that I play around the UK and that, combined with my work on YouTube, means I can make a good living.”