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People who got famous (and got paid) thanks to YouTube

People pose with mobile devices in front of projection of Youtube logo in this picture illustration taken in ZenicaPeople pose with mobile devices in front of projection of Youtube logo in this picture illustration taken in Zenica

If you want to feel the merciless ravages of time as it has its way with you, simply ponder the fact that as of this year, YouTube is 10 years old. Founded in 2005 and sold to Google the following year for $1.7 billion, it’s been the go-to source for leaked movie trailers, musicians of dubious talent and kitten videos ever since.

It didn’t take long for people to figure out that YouTube was a great source of free publicity, but turning millions of YouTube views into actual, paying careers is another matter entirely. Just ask Rebecca Black, or Chris Crocker, or Tay Zonday, who all found this out the hard way.

Despite this brutal reality, a few people have beaten the odds and parlayed YouTube popularity into actual careers. With paychecks and everything! Fortune presents a list of these lucky luminaries, who jumped out of our computer screens and into our hearts.

Cenk Uygur

PLAYA VISTA, CA – MAY 09: Cenk Uygur and Ana Kasparian attend the Young Turks celebration of 1 billion views at YouTube LA on May 9, 2013 in Playa Vista, California. (Photo by Joe Scarnici/Getty Images for Young Turk)

Progressive political commentator Cenk Uygur is the host of “The Young Turks,” which calls itself “the largest online news show in the world.” Known simply as “TYT” for short, it started in 2002 on Sirius Satellite Radio, but YouTube put it on the map and provided it with 2 billion views by the time July 2014 rolled around.

Three years prior to that, the MSNBC network was impressed enough with Uygur’s YouTube popularity to offer him a spot vacated by Ed Schultz when the departure of Keith Olbermann led to a frantic re-shuffling of time slots. The stint lasted only six months, and his slot was given to the Reverend Al Sharpton. From there he went on to host “The Young Turks with Cenk Uygur” on Current TV for two years. He is still a frequent guest on numerous political talk shows, and is a contributor to Daily Kos, The Huffington Post and Politico.



SUNRISE, FL – DECEMBER 08: PSY performs onstage during the Y100’s Jingle Ball 2012 at the BB&T Center on December 8, 2012 in Miami. (Photo by Michael Kovac/Getty Images for Jingle Ball 2012)

The omnipresent hit single “Gangnam Style” is the brainchild of South Korean musician Park Jae-sang, better known by his stage name, Psy. It was released in July 2012 as the lead-off single from his sixth album, “Psy 6 (Six Rules), Part 1,” and though the album did well in his native land, it became an international sensation thanks to YouTube.

On November 24, 2012, the artist took to Twitter to announce that the video had just become the most watched video in YouTube history, and less than a month later, it became the first in history to reach one billion views. This led to the song peaking on the US Billboard charts at number two, and its presence on every DJ playlist in corporate Christmas party history in the last couple of years. Psy’s next album is expected to be released later this year.


Justin Bieber

LOS ANGELES, CA – MARCH 14: Justin Bieber attends onstage during Comedy Central Roast of Justin Bieber held at Sony Picture Studios on March 14, 2015 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Michael Tran/FilmMagic)

There is no surer sign that one has hit the big time than when one becomes the subject of a Comedy Central Roast, the fate that befell pop singer Justin Bieber in March 2015. He became the butt of cruel jokes by such celebrities as Snoop Dogg, Martha Stewart and comedian Chris D’Elia, who said, “You literally are a guy who has it all, except for respect, love, friends, good parents and a Grammy.”

Bieber would never have reached the dizzying heights of stardom had he not first been plucked from obscurity in 2008 by his current manager, Scooter Braun, who had seen his YouTube videos. Just two years later, he had sold over one million copies of his debut CD, “My World,” and he has never stopped dreaming big, even when visiting the Anne Frank House in 2013, where he wrote in the guestbook, “Anne was a great girl. Hopefully she would have been a belieber.”


Michelle Phan

NEW YORK, NY – APRIL 23: Michelle Phan attends Unleash YouTube Event with stars Michelle Phan, Rosanna Pansino And Bethany Mota on April 23, 2014 in New York City. (Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for YouTube)

Michelle Phan is a cosmetics entrepreneur who got her start giving make-up application tutorials on YouTube in 2007. In 2011, she told Forbes that she took her inspiration from that painter of happy little trees, the late television painting instructor Bob Ross.

Guffaw if you must. Her methods brought her to the attention of Lancôme, the French cosmetics giant, which made her their official video make-up artist in 2010 after seeing her feature their products in her videos.

In 2012 she started the subscription cosmetics service Ipsy, and in 2013, L’Oreal created a makeup line for her called “em.” This year, she graced the “30 Under 30” lists of both Inc. and Forbes.



NEW YORK, NY – MARCH 11: Singer Charice performs during the Pinoy Relief Benefit concert at Madison Square Garden on March 11, 2014 in New York City. (Photo by Mike Coppola/Getty Images)

YouTube has brought the attention of the Western Hemisphere to artists from parts of the world that don’t often get it, as in the case of Filipina singer Charmaine Clarice Relucio Pempengco.

Better known simply as Charice, she found that videos of her 2005 appearance on the Filipino talent competition “Little Big Star” had not only made it to YouTube, but had been viewed 13 million times, prompting performances on “Ellen” and “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” all while she was still very much a teenager.

After going on to perform duets with Andrea Bocelli and Celine Dion, she joined the cast of “Glee” in 2010, playing a Filipina exchange student. Luckily, they didn’t hold her brief appearance in 2009’s “Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel” against her.


Daniel Bukszpan is a New York-based freelance writer.