Tonya TKO is not a household name but she has amassed quite a following on YouTube, particularly among Black women.
Since 2007, over 100,000 subscribers, or “love birds” as she calls them, have flocked to The Tonya TKO Show, to receive their bi-weekly fix of dating and relationship advice, self-esteem boosts, travel tales and good old fashioned wisdom.
Part-radiant personality and part-savvy business woman, Tonya was able to use her platform to not only launch her successful TKO Skin skincare line but also establish herself as a trusted lifestyle brand. She even began using the moniker, “Media’s #1 “Big Sister.”
In spite of her online success, the prominent Youtube vlogger (and New York resident) would earlier this year shock the online community when she announced, via her YouTube channel, that she was homeless and living in her car in Los Angeles.
Through her desperate plea, Tonya TKO raised nearly twelve thousand dollars via a GoFundMe campaign, which was supposed to cover the cost of shelter as well as production costs associated with her new webseries entitled The Displacement Diaries. But after weeks of updates and little change, some folks began to question the validity of her claims. This included other YouTube vloggers who have accused TKO of lying about her homelessness, being mentally ill and bilking her followers out of both money and attention (for a quick primer on the criticisms and allegations, check out this Huffington Post article).
Over the weekend, I had a chance to speak to Tonya TKO about her Displacement Diaries, the criticism and online harassment she received and living through the expectation versus the reality of Internet celebrity. This is what she had to say.
Yeah I know it’s a long piece. But we talk about homelessness. We talk about reaching our dreams. We never talk about the intersection of both. So for those who want to know what it is like, and for those in the midst of the struggle, this is an interview you will want to read to the end.
Charing Ball: The last video I saw, you were looking for a house, how close are you to making that happen?
Tonya TKO: Well, The Displacement Diaries is a little bit behind real life. There are some episodes that had three or four days in it and published one day after another. And then I wasn’t publishing on Sunday. So actually we are a few weeks behind and what you seen actually happened about a month ago.
CB: Okay, that’s interesting. So to clarify: you are publishing these videos a month after everything in real life was already recorded?
Tonya TKO: Yeah…when you are doing a daily blog, if you miss a day you are pushed behind by a day. If you miss two or three days, you are pushed behind by half a week. And if a few weekends go by without you publishing every single day, than you start getting pushed behind by like a week. Because I first started getting pushed behind right in the very beginning. I actually started publishing every day when I started to get the criticized after I got the money. Once I got the money, I started looking for a place feverishly and I was concentrating all of my efforts on that. So people were like, “oh look. Now she got the money; now she’s not making videos anymore.” Anyway, originally I lost two or three days in the very beginning. And then I went to a red carpet event and I lost three days there. So when you miss two days here and three days here, that becomes a week.
Another thing, and I haven’t told anyone this, but there was a Youtuber who told people to flag my channel. And so I had gotten several flags on my channel in the very beginning [of filming] and because of this I had several strikes. I was in the process of appealing. And since I didn’t want any more strikes while in the process of appealing, I limited my videos so they weren’t longer than 15 minutes. If you look at the beginning of The Displacement Diaries, the videos were 20 to 25 minutes but after I got that strike, I had to limit my videos. So at first, people were complaining, like why are you making these short videos. But I really couldn’t tell anyone because I didn’t want the people who were making these strikes, to know that they were having an effect on my account.
So that’s how The Displacement Diaries ended up behind schedule… And now that I’m only publishing three days a week, it is making it spread out even more. I don’t know how people do daily blogs. Daily blogs are very difficult. Before I used to do videos that were taped and it would take about three to four hours to chop it up. Now with the music and the video clips and cuts, it takes about six hours.
CB: I will say that the production value on the videos is fantastic. So does that mean you have a house now or is that something you are kinda teasing out for the viewers?
Tonya TKO: Yeah…[laughing]…Stay tuned. Everything becomes revealed. But I will say that the way things unfold is a way that I didn’t even expect. And that everything, whether it seems like a curse, actually turned into a blessing.
CB: So let’s talk about that. Just to recap: You had this really successful skin care line. You decided to quit that to travel the world for a couple of years and write a book. You got home and then what happened?
Tonya TKO: Well, I only traveled eight months. I went out of the country in 2015 to write the book. I went to Latin America and the trip was difficult. So I came back and the book wasn’t written. I stayed in New York for about three months. I was just going to the YouTube space in New York; just making videos and really trying to figure out what I wanted to do with the Tonya TKO show. And my spirit told me to go back to Los Angeles. So I took care of all of the things I needed to take care of in New York and then I headed out to Los Angeles. When I got to Los Angeles – I don’t know how much of this story you want – I was supposed to be staying in one of the bedrooms in the home of an associate. And when I got there, the situation was a lot different than I thought it was going to be. And I was actually sleeping on the couch…
Just to be totally transparent, four days before I was supposed to rent the room in her apartment, she told me her daughter was going to be renting the room instead and offered the couch. And when I got out there, I started getting all of these emails from my different banking institutions that my accounts had been levied.
And so I had a few thousand dollars left over after that long, extensive trip. And you know, I hear criticisms from people. But I also hear that the average American can’t go sixty days without a paycheck. And I went July 2014 to January 2015 on the money I had saved after I closed by business. And all of that was taken.
CB: From the government. The Man got you.
Tonya TKO: [laughing] Yeah, you are so funny. But it is my fault. When I was out of the country, I was not getting the corespondents informing me that there was a problem. And I didn’t close the business down properly. And when you don’t close your business and you’re collecting sales tax, they will average what they feel that you owe.
CB: And it happens. It’s not really unusual for small business owners to mess up with the paperwork. But is the tax troubles – combined with the couch situation – how you ended up in your car?
Tonya TKO: Okay this is how it happened: The couch situation was just not working out. At the same time that was happening, I was at an three-day seminar at YouTube and when I left, I was looking for an [alternative] place to stay because I had to be right back there in the morning. In Los Angeles, it costs about $100 to $125 to stay for a night – to stay at the Motel 8 is like $99 a night. So when I was looking for a place, I figured I would just get some sleep in the car and come right back in the morning. So the first night, I went to a construction site and they had all-night security over there. I told the night security that I would be in my car and the security guy looked out for me all night. Unfortunately, construction started at 4 a.m., so I had to find another place. But yeah, it started out with me just looking for a place to sleep for one night. And then one night turned into two and two days turned into a week and a week turned into almost three. And when I got to the 18th day, that’s when I made my first video.
CB: Okay so what happened on that 18th day that made you realize that you should be documenting this?
Tonya TKO: You know, the original video wasn’t even a documentation. The original video was a plea for help. I was going to the Starbucks daily to make videos and stay in the realm of creative people – because I was in my car. And I didn’t have anywhere to go during the day. So it was like, where do you go, when you have no place to go? I was in a new city; I didn’t have a place to chill. I didn’t want to chill in the car because it’s hot out there and during the day. And the only place I knew that had free wifi, a bathroom and food was Starbucks.
So, I met a guy at Starbucks and we get to talking. And he tells me that he too was displaced and living in his car. And at the time, I really didn’t know where to sleep with the car because I was new to it. And I was staying in residential areas and people were going to school in the morning. And I felt kind of weird in my car, parked outside of people’s houses. So this guy said that he was parking on the roof of this big box store. So the first night, I parked up there. It was a really quiet night; he was in his car and I was in my car. So I felt a little safer. So the next night, he told me that he was going to be spending a few nights some place else. So was by myself for a few days. One night, the motion sensors on the street lamps kept coming on. And I heard some stuff outside of the car. And I was frightened. That’s when I said, “I can’t do this.”
I tried making a video the day before [that incident happened], asking for help. This was in January and I hadn’t uploaded a video since Christmas. Matter of fact, I hadn’t actually made a video a month before that; I just uploaded on Christmas. And I usually post a video once or twice a week. And this one particular subscriber named Kim who had been following me since 2007, tapped me on the [Internet] shoulder and said, “where are you?” And I opened up to hear to let her know what was going on. I was really embarrassed at first. It’s embarrassing sleeping in your car. It’s embarrassing not having money. It’s embarrassing being grown and not being able to take care of yourself. And I opened up to her and told her what was going on and she told me to make a video about it; that I always shared the ups and downs with people. And after she said that, I started thinking she was right; that I should at least let people know what’s going on. I tried to make the video and I couldn’t. And I ended up making the video the very next night, which was the night I was frightened.
I just couldn’t find anyway out of the situation. I don’t make that much money from YouTube ad sense. I just don’t. And you’re caught in this weird conundrum where you’re Internet famous because you have all of the down parts of celebrity. You know: you have the living in a fish bowl; you have the people who know your face; and followers and people criticizing you. So you have all of the down parts of celebrity and none of the upsides. YouTube just don’t pay. Like I seen people writing, “oh I may quit my job and go do YouTube” and I’m like, “no.” YouTube does not pay you enough to make money. Because of the [YouTube’s] terms of fairness, I can’t talk about the actual break down of pay but I will say this, you need to make millions of views per month to just barely make it. So if you are getting tens of thousands of views, or even hundreds of thousands of views, that’s not enough to live off of. That’s barely enough to buy groceries with -not rent, not clothes and not take care of your children.
CB: I’m glad you brought that up. Technology has kind of altered how we view people. But going back to the first night that you did the video, was that before or after the GoFundMe?
Tonya TKO: No, the first video was the GoFundMe video.