Music

Singer / Social Star Troye Sivan Talks Growing Up & Coming Out in the YouTube Age

Interview by Joel Kim Booster / Photography by Hedi Slimane

Troye Sivan isn't your average 20-year-old. While most of his peers are busying themselves with end-of-term cramming or summer planning, this South African expat is splitting his time between Perth and Los Angeles and working on his first full-length record, having kicked off the year walking in a Saint Laurent show. A new breed of pop star who came up in the early days of YouTube, where he went on to cultivate a following of 3 million-plus, Sivan slowed down long enough to stop by the PAPER office back in May. We talked about everything from his collaboration with crossover EDM titan Zedd to his work promoting organizations that make growing up gay -- a subject he's intimately familiar with -- a little bit easier.

It's a busy time for you! Zedd just announced that you'd be guesting on his upcoming LP alongside Selena Gomez and Echosmith. How did that come about?

Apparently Zedd has been a fan for quite some time -- I wasn't sure if I should believe it or it was just something my management told me, but apparently it was very legit. I went to him and recorded one song that didn't really feel right. I left and I felt so devastated, like, "Fuck, I just blew a Zedd feature!" And then a couple weeks later he told me he had another song and I went in, and from the word "go" it felt so right. I love the song now.

You have over 3 million YouTube subscribers, and with the Zedd feature and your own album in the works, you're going to expand your audience even further. Are you ever scared to mess up in front of so many people?

I don't know if I just haven't messed up monumentally enough. I'm pretty sure when I do it will all come crashing down on me and I'll freak out. [laughs] I mean, I've seen what the Internet is capable of, and it's terrifying: when things go wrong, things can really really go wrong, so it's something i'm aware of and preparing myself for. It's probably going to happen one day, because I do live so much of my life online and I obviously make mistakes. I think the most you can do is just try your best to be a good person as much as you can.

What does that mean to you?

So much of that is just about educating yourself. I'm lucky in that, being LGBT, I had to. I joined Tumblr, which is very focused on social justice, and you learn about certain social issues and the ways to address them. You can't be ignorant online because you will get torn apart -- and probably for good reason, because everyone should be educating themselves about what's going on in the world. Being a member of the Tumblr community and LGBT community online opened my eyes to what's going on right now and how I can make sure, when I speak about issues I'm passionate about, I'm educated and don't come off as an asshole -- and if I do, it's about educating myself more and apologizing properly.

What resources did you find beyond Tumblr? You came out when you were 16?

Fifteen, actually. It was mostly YouTube and gay teen forums. I had a bunch of anonymous accounts. I was already making YouTube videos, and although I didn't have as many subscribers as I do now, I was still terrified of getting outed. So there was a lot of incognito windows and stuff like that.

You're pretty actively involved in social causes as well. Can you talk about which ones interest you specifically and why?

As of late, LGBT issues are probably the number one thing I'm passionate about; obviously it's very close to my heart. I'm really excited about Minus 18, an organization for LGBT youth in Australia. They host events like a same-sex formal, so you can take the person you actually want to take to the formal, rather than someone your school says you have to take. I used to go on their Facebook page and stalk the photos of the events and just wish that I could go and meet other young people. There's a really awkward time for LGBT people, where you're too young to venture out without getting a lift from your parents, and then you can't get into a club. I didn't meet any gay people until I was 15 or 16. I just consider myself lucky to have had the Internet to turn to. I've also done some stuff with my local hospital in Perth -- the oncology ward at the local children's hospital. I wrote a song based on John Green's book The Fault In Our Stars, and put that out. That's what actually got me signed to my record label. I did the music video at the hospital and sold the song and all the proceeds have gone to the them, so that's something else I'm really happy to have been able to do. 

Your parents are pretty supportive then since coming out? 

Yeah, I think they've been super supportive. 

You were out to your parents before you came out on YouTube?

I came out to my parents when I was 15. and I think I came out on YouTube when I was just about to turn 18. They were completely fine with it. I think deep down inside they had always thought and just never brought it up, but I couldn't have asked for a better reaction and a better family. I'm so lucky in that way.

With things speeding up for you in your music career, do you see yourself slowing down from creating as much content on YouTube?

The YouTube posts slowed down a lot this year because I've been traveling so much, and I'm not OK with that. So when I was in Perth this last trip home, I bulk-filmed a bunch of videos. It's something I want to get better at balancing. Music is probably my top priority right now, but nurturing and speaking to and communicating with the audience that I've grown so close with is something that's going to be forever important to me.

So it is a conversation to you -- you don't see it as just generating content?

I don't think I'd ever tweet if I didn't get replies. Then what's the point, you know? I'll tweet something and then just be on my phone for the next 15 minutes scrolling through, laughing. [My followers] are funny. They have this amazing sense of humor that we share. It's a conversation, but it's entertainment for me. 

How do you filter that conversation? It seems like it could get overwhelming really fast.

It is exhausting sometimes. You've got to have boundaries. Sometimes I'll wake up in the middle of the night and check my phone and then go back to sleep, and then wake up in the morning and it's the first thing that I check, and that's not OK! I want to start sleeping with my phone on the other side of the room so that I can't do that. Also it's definitely made me quite guarded, being on the Internet as much as I am. I'm very aware of how quickly things can change. You have to be careful that you don't give absolutely everything, and try as hard as you can not to respond to the negativity. Sometimes I crack and it all it does is foster more negativity because people see they can get a reaction out of you. 

Are there relationships you're able to foster offline?

I don't think I have a relationship that's solely offline. Probably not. I'm lucky enough now that my audience is big enough that if I go out and about I get recognized. So even if you go out with someone in private, you're probably going to have a photo posted of you on Twitter or Tumblr or something. And that's fine, it's all cool, but it's just something that I've had to adjust to a little bit.

What does that look like to you as a 19-year-old? How do you hang out, how do you date?

Um. [laughs; long pause]

You don't have to answer that second part.

It's cool. It's just about accepting that it's going to happen and letting it happen. I think at some point if it ever got like really really bad, I would say, "Just come over and let's watch a movie at my house instead of going out." But it's not at that point. My viewers are so respectful a lot of the time, if they see that I'm, like, eating they won't come up. They're good people and we have a relationship that's built on mutual respect.

Do you think you're missing out?

Not really. I just do it all anyway. It's never stopped me from going out. The thing about YouTube is it's still quite a niche thing. You can go to a YouTube convention where there's 15,000 people coming from all over the world to meet their favorite YouTuber, and then if you're going to go out you make it all very strategic and secure. But in daily life it's not to where it's an issue at all.

What was it like working with Hedi Slimane?

I still can't believe it. Hedi was actually a fan of the music and contacted my management and asked if he could photograph me. We had a lunch meeting, and the next day we had a very casual walk and took some photos. It was my first entry into the fashion world, which is a place I really want to explore more. I used to secretly watch America's Next Top Model -- I didn't want my family to see me watching it because I didn't want them to think I was gay -- so I don't think I let myself enjoy stuff like that when I was younger. Now I'm starting to learn as much as I can. And what a way to enter the fashion world -- to be helped by Hedi Slimane!

So what does that bring us up to -- YouTube personality, musician, actor and now model?

[laughs] I wouldn't say "model." I'm really in love with what I do. I don't do anything that I don't enjoy doing. I love making YouTube videos and making music and making films. So to be honest, I don't really mind where my time is split; it's just a matter of where my focus is.

Beyond the Zedd release, what are some things you're working on?

I'm finishing my debut album right now. I think it's good? I hope it's good! I'm still learning every single day. I care so deeply about all these songs, and I can't wait to share these moments in my life that I've put to song with the world. I think it's just going to be bigger and better than before.

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