Molly Burke On Battling Bullying And Blindness, One Vlog At A Time

Molly Burke On Battling Bullying And Blindness, One Vlog At A Time

Photography by Maya Fuhr / Words by Jennifer Hussein

Molly Burke is not your average beauty blogger: she's blind, and can still style her makeup and outfits better than just about any of us. The 24-year-old motivational speaker grew into a YouTube beauty and lifestyle vlogging sensation after posting raw, genuine content and creating "blind girl" hacks for fashion, beauty, and day-to-day tasks like pouring tea.

Burke suffers from Retinitis Pigmentosa, a disease which slowly broke down her vision, but even with a disability, she's already accomplished things most of us couldn't even dream of doing. Beginning as a prominent motivational speaker at just 5 years old, she grew to share stages with major celebrities, such as Demi Lovato, Macklemore, and Justin Trudeau, while managing the battle of her slowly deteriorating eyesight. Your fave could never.

Simultaneously, Burke was forced to contend with bullies, which lead to her searching for solace in the vlogging community. Venturing into the giant sea of YouTubers 10 years ago, she has built a strong reputation for herself and teamed up with other vlogging royals like Kandee Johnson and Casey Neistat — even teaching supermodel Karlie Kloss how to read Braille on her channel — and this, it seems, is just the beginning for this young powerhouse. PAPER caught up with Burke to find our how she's did it and what's next.

So, why YouTube?

You know, when I was growing up and dealing with my vision loss and bullying, I had no one. I only had YouTube, and I would go to YouTube and watch girls that were just around my age talk about makeup and fashion, all of the things that I loved and cared about, but didn't know how to experience or enjoy anymore. I couldn't see store windows or read magazines, and I didn't have girlfriends to have sleepovers with anymore after my vision loss. So, these girls became my best friends, they taught me and helped me figure out how to love myself again. And I wanted to be able to impact people the way those girls impacted me. And at the time, I was a motivational speaker, and I felt like there was only ever going to be so many events I could speak at during the year, and there are more people than that that need to be helped with my story. I needed to reach to people through a platform like YouTube. And even more than that, YouTube would allow me to share sides of myself that I don't get to share through speaking, but are just as important to me. So those are really the reasons why I started it.

Did it help break down some barriers down for you and made you build your confidence?

Yeah, absolutely. It gave me my confidence back for sure.

What kind of advice would you have for girls watching you?

There's so much advice. But, I think what the moral is is to tell people that no matter what challenge you're going through in your life, whether its a disability or any other thing you might be going through, never give up hope and never give up on yourself. Know that you can achieve whatever you want to.

You said that you were bullied a lot. When you started growing into a bigger personality, did any of those bullies apologize or change their attitude towards you?

I mean, I'm sure that a lot of them have seen what I do now, that I share my story, and I definitely have had some of them reach out and express that they're proud of what I'm doing now or apologize because they didn't realize how bad the things they were doing was affecting me. Some of them have never reached out, and that's okay. I really don't need an apology, I forgave them a long time ago within my own self. Because I realized that the only person I was holding back by being angry and resentful was myself. I don't need their apologies, it's great if I could have them realize what they did was wrong and how that changes a person, but I definitely don't need it for my own healing.

That's a very mature response. Do you think everything that you've gone through has helped you mature more as a person?

Oh yeah, it's definitely helped me grow up a lot faster than most 24-year-olds. I definitely feel like it's taught me to be a stronger person, and I really look at everything that I've ever been through and appreciate it. It's given me the means to love myself, and help me find a direction in my life that most people my age I don't think have. I look at all the positives that the situation has given me instead of seeing the negatives.

That's so great, because so many people just slip through the cracks. How do you keep yourself up from the negativity of the day-to-day?

I got really depressed back in 2008, when I was going through all of my vision loss and bullying. And I think it was really important for me to let myself have that time to be angry and depressed and ask, "why me," and then, just get up and move on. I had to go through that grieving process and let it out, in order to heal and rise above it. Hurting is important for everybody, no matter what they're going through. To let themselves express the feelings and emotions they have, but not let themselves be absorbed by it and wallow in it forever. Because you can't live like that. And even now, ten years later, there are definitely times when things get to me. It could be someone leaving a comment that really affects me, definitely. That's normal, I'm human. For the most part when I read these comments I get all of this love and support, kindness and admiration, and those are the people I try to focus on the most. The negative comments only ever get to me when I'm having a negative day in general, and it just adds that extra layer to my day. But for the most part, I just try to focus on the positive like I do with every other aspect of my life. Just focus on the positive people and the support. And I'm lucky enough that that's what most of my following is, support and love.

Speaking of support and love, before you became a big YouTube star and found your people, did you have any friends or family members that were helping you cope with everything?

Yeah, I've had a really big team of people support me and help me heal and recover from my vision loss, depression, and bullying. My parents, my family, they're absolutely incredible and I'm so fortunate. I had a number of teachers through school that were very supportive and incredible in helping me with my own journey. My therapist, my psychologist was incredible. The doctor at SickKids Hospital, my ophthalmologist, my nutritionist, there are so many people who have been instrumental in my own healing and growth as a person.

Was there ever a time when you were bullied that you just look back and think, "Why did I handle it that way? I should've done things differently."

Yeah, definitely. There's one that instantly comes to mind and still sticks with me to this day. It was around grade 10, when a girl was bullying me and dressed up as me for Halloween. She went to school dressed as me, and did a parody mocking me. That was really, really hard for me, because I left my previous school because I was so badly bullied in grade 8. My first year there had been great, but all of a sudden it was happening again, and it was like I was trying to heal and become a bigger person and I didn't want to let her take me down. I wanted to stand up for myself, and I didn't really know how to find a proper way to do that. So, I lashed back and I made fun of her and I made one comment. As soon as I made it, I was like, "Oh my God, why would I say that, that's a horrible thing to say." And I apologized, and went to the principal and decided to deal with it the right way, to get a teacher involved. I shouldn't have done that, I shouldn't have stooped to that person's level and snapped back. I should've just done the right thing in the first place.

That's so terrible that she would treat you like that. I've watched your videos, and just even talking now, you're such a sweetheart. I just can't imagining someone having that much hate in their heart to do that.

I know, and I think that's why it affects me to this day that I snapped back, because that's not who I am as a person. It's hard for me to think that I would do something like that, because that's not who I am. We ended up sitting down with the principal and working through our issues. We ended up breaking down a lot of the misconceptions she had about who I am and the ideas she had in her head about me. We're actually friends to this day, and she'll message me me for advice on things. I think it just goes to show that when you do deal with bullying in an appropriate way, it can work out for the better and can actually completely change the situation from being bully and victim to being friends and supporters. Now she comes to me for advice, so it's definitely come a long way.

So, did you think that your videos would get as much attention as they did?

You know, it [YouTube] is just like a weird beast. You never know when it's going to be popular. I've talked about this with other YouTubers, and it's just like you can put so much effort into a video, and you love it. The title's perfect, the thumbnail is amazing, the content is so shareable, but then you're like, "Why did this only get 5 thousand views?" And then there's videos that you just throw up, with no effort because you just need a video up that week, and it gets like hundreds of thousands of views. There's just no science, there's no recipe to making the content that's going to be successful. It's definitely not something that you can set out and say, "This is going to be my career." It's like being an actress. You try and you're going to go to as many auditions as you can, you're going to take classes and do everything that you can, but sometimes there is nothing you can do but accept fate. So, I can't say I expected to be successful and have a successful channel, and it wasn't really my goal because I had a full-time job as a speaker. So, for me this was just a really fun hobby, and if I helped a couple of people and made connections, that's great. And the fact that it's grown into so much more than that is even better. I'm very fortunate.

You don't know what people are going to want to watch next, and some people try so hard for clickbait, but it completely falls flat. And then, someone unknown posts just a random video and it can go completely viral. They can just become an instant star in a minute.

Oh yeah, it's insane. When I hear kids who say, "I want to be a YouTuber," I think it's so funny. Because that job is like the similar to saying, "I want to be a movie star." It's just so unpredictable. The amount of people that say they want to and the amount of people that achieve it, it's a big gap. And it's not anybody's fault, it's not whether they're bad or not, it's just because its one of those weird industries where there's no telling of what's going to work or not.

How do you think that social media culture is affecting kids, whether positively or negatively, when it comes to their self esteem and their self-worth?

I definitely think it can be both positive and negative. On the negative side, there are certain people who choose to show a filtered life on YouTube, which are the high moments and never the low. That can lead to young people looking at a lot of these idols that are unrealistic and unattainable because it's not even their lives. It's not even their reality, and to someone looking at it, you can't hold yourself up to that false reality, because that person doesn't even live like that. And that's why I'm super passionate about showing the good and the bad, and being very realistic and very relatable. Because the reality is that I'm a person, and I'm going to have good and bad days. I still go through challenges, and I still have to suffer through failures and I want to share all of that. I don't want to share the really cool experiences I have without sharing the painful moments that I have. It can negatively affect people when they follow the very filtered, because none of that is real. That's definitely something that is unattainable. But I think it can be life-changing for people in the way that it worked for me. With these girls, most of them are like my sisters, they're my friends, and they never even knew I existed until YouTube. And just posting makeup tutorials helped change my entire self esteem and helped me find myself again. And knowing that I can do that for other people, and have that power, it means a lot. I know more than maybe the others do, how much you can positively change your life, and I feel that responsibility for my own followers. I see the comments of people being like, "I don't know anybody else with Retinitis Pigmentosa except you. I feel so much less alone." Or they say, "I get bullied everyday at school, and you're my only friend. I come home every day and I watch you." And to know that, it just shows how much a YouTube channel can help.

What was one moment that hit you and made you think, "My life has completely changed. I'm a role model now, I'm not just Molly."

You know, I've had a number of moments where it hits me a kind of way. But even before I started YouTube, I was just doing school events and conferences as a speaker, and I had kids come up to me, and tell me about their stories and their journeys. And they tell me that me sharing my story with them has completely changed them and their perceptions and perspective on life. Then I realized how powerful my words can be. I remember I had this 19 year old guy come up to me after seeing me speak and said, "After hearing you speak I realized that I was a bully in high school. And I spent the rest of the conference not listening to any other speaker, messaging on Facebook just about every person I've bullied, saying I'm sorry for what I did." And realizing that I could affect somebody that much to change who they are in an instant, I realized how powerful my words are, and how powerful what I do is. And I take that very seriously, I don't want to negatively affect people. I want to make a positive impact on people's lives.

You're really changing people's lives. That's nuts that you can have that influence on people.

Yeah, and I remember I posted a video, this is probably my YouTube moment. I posted a video, I think it was tips to overcoming bullying, or maybe it was about being more confident. I think it was 7 Tips for Being More Confident, and I read this comment on that video that said, "I planned on killing myself tonight, but I came across the video I saw you posted. So I watched the video because you're my favorite YouTuber, and everything you said was exactly the motivation I needed to hear to not kill myself." And it was like, to know that you have that power is crazy. I unfortunately don't think that everyone takes it to heart and as seriously as I do, but I think there are a lot of people who understand it. It's important to understand it. And, there's nothing that irritates me more than social media influencers, because you're literally called an influencer, who say, "I'm not trying to be a role model, if people choose to follow me that's up to them." No, you're putting yourself out there, and by doing that you have to realize that you will become a role model to some people. And people will look up to you and you will become an inspiration. And you can choose to make it a positive thing or a negative thing. I find it a really frustrating thing when people claim that they shouldn't be looked up to when they continue to post these crazy things online. You made the choice to become one when you started sharing your life online. So, whether your intention to become one or not doesn't matter, because now you are.

So how do you try to be the best role model that you can be for your followers?

I try to post content that's real and also genuine. Like I said before, I always want to be my real, authentic self and it means so much to me when I meet someone and they go, "Oh my god, you're the exact same in real life." When it comes down to it, I'm posting my life, so I try to be the most authentic self that I can be and be a grounded, real person with them. And I try to be their friend, I try to be a sister to my followers. I want them to feel like they can come to me, and I really just share my views on life and on topics. I'm understanding that it's not going to be everyone's view, but I'm just sharing mine. I try to chose wisely what I put out there, I never swear in videos, I don't talk about drinking, partying. I don't talk about anything like that because I don't think it has a place on my channel. I want to share stuff that's going to positively impact people. Those things won't make people question or learn and grow as a person, and that's the kind of things that I want to make people do.

So you say that you give a full-frontal view of your life. There's nothing that you ever held back or were too afraid to put on camera?

There's definitely been things that are scary to post, but I still post them. In videos where I'm crying, it's hard to post that because I feel so vulnerable and so raw. To most people, crying is not something you do in public, it's something you do in maybe in front of your mom or your best friend or your boyfriend, so it's hard to post stuff like that. Or when I went through my break up, and had to share it with my followers, that was really hard for me. But I post it anyways, because again, that's the decision I chose to make when I started a channel, to show my personality and my life.

What are ways that you help people who are vulnerable, like maybe some fans who are going through a rough time and having some really big mental health issues? Do you comment, do you respond back to their direct messages?

Yeah, I always try to run through them within the first half hour to hour of my videos being posted, but after that it gets a little bit too crazy. But Instagram is where I have my group of really hardcore followers, so it's easier to interact through livestreams, and to answer questions and comments. I reply to a handful of DMs, I have followers who write every single day and comment on every single Instagram post. They DM whenever they're going through something and I always try to get back to them. I know their names, I know about their lives, and they mean a lot to me.

There are a lot of YouTubers out there who just don't really communicate with their fanbase.

You know, I can see why it gets overwhelming to respond. Especially when the more and more your platform grows, its very hard to respond and you're never going to get to respond to everyone, which is hard. No amount of reading through them that will ever change that, because there's just so many requests that come in every day. And my Instagram is only about just over 17 thousand, so I understand that. But at the same time, you are nothing without these people. These people took you through your experiences, your income, your career, your connections, your relationships. And to not value them, to not want to support them back, I think is doing a disservice to the social media community.

Exactly, in any form of entertainment or influencing, your fans make or break you. If no one's watching, how are you making content? I think that's great that you show your fans not only respect but also some love.

I have multiple friends in my life, who I consider to be best friends now, who started out as fans that reached me out on social media. They're my real-life friends, and I was actually with one of them last night. And the other one, we're actually best friends. I just got her birthday present in the mail. One of them, her name is Shelby, she messaged me a few years ago on Facebook saying, "Hey, I'm a fan," and now we're best friends. And the other one messaged me on Instagram and said, "Hey! I saw you moved to L.A. I live here, if you ever need help filming or want a friend I'm here for you." And I was like, "I actually do need friends here, so yeah, totally." And now we're also close best friends. So yeah, I value these people and they obviously follow me because they connect with my story. And oftentimes when I need them or talk to them, I connect with their stories as well. We have similar interests, and we have the same sense of humor, that's why they watch me. It's fun when I meet them, and I feel the same way back.

Was there any culture shock, moving from Canada to the big celebrity life of L.A?

L.A. feels like home to me, and I know it's weird because a lot of people don't feel that way. But L.A. always feels like home and it always feels like the right place for me to be. I have more friends here and a more social life here. And I enjoy it more here and feel more freedom to express who I really am. So I think, for me, it was definitely the right move. And I mainly feel culture shock whenever I move back to Toronto.

That's crazy, because so many people say L.A. is a whole different beast and a whole different world. That's awesome that you had a good experience.

Yeah, I think you just have to find the good people. And I think when you are a good person and if you put that out there, that's what you attract back. The people I have out here are really genuinely good people that I can count on. And I like being in a place around fellow creatives. When you're a really kind of an artistic, out-there personality, it's really good to be in a kind of place where everybody else is like that too and you're like, "Yes, you get me!"

So what do you see in the future for you? What's next for Molly Burke?

You know, it's always very hard to answer this question because I'm definitely a very live-in-the-moment type of person. I found that living in the moment is the best way to be. I literally am the worst at responding to text messages and answering my phone, and I work in social media so I should be very good at it, but I just love to be in every moment. So it's really hard for me to be like, "Where will I be in 5 years?" Who knows? Hopefully still being a creative and making an impact on the world, whether it be with my speaking and my YouTube, which I hope it will be, or completely other creative outlets, like a book or on television, or just doing modeling or something like that. I do modeling as well, because I think the beauty industry needs more barriers broken, especially when it comes to disabilities. I'd love to do more of that. It's comforting to do what I love, make amazing connections in my life with people and live.

Honestly a book sounds like an awesome idea. Do you have anything upcoming that you haven't announced yet that you could give us a little detail about?

I definitely have an exciting project coming up in 2018 that's in the works right now. If people follow me on YouTube or Instagram, they'll see some really amazing content coming out in the latter half of this year. I'm really excited about it, this is my ten year anniversary. 2018 marks ten years since I lost my vision. I went through a really tough time, especially with the pressure from bullying, so it's definitely a really big milestone year for me, and I definitely plan to celebrate that by creating a lot of really empowering content for other people. So there's definitely a lot of great content that's going to come out around that anniversary, and I hope people are interested in following and being a part of it.

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Photography by: Maya Fuhr
Hair & Makeup: Tami El Sombati (Plutino Group) using MAC Cosmetics and R+Co
Styling: Daniela Bosco
Location provided by: Kastor & Pollux
Produced by: Canvas
Clothing by: H&M, Alexander Wang, COS,