The 25-year-old Swede is the top-earning YouTube star on the planet, pulling in $12 million pretax over the past year, all for providing expletive-heavy commentary as he plays videogames. Thanks to the millions of fans who make up his “bro army,” advertisers are willing to pay a pretty penny to have their products featured in his videos.
In our first-ever ranking of the top-paid YouTube stars, we have uncovered the 10 channels that have managed to earn the most from their Internet aspirations. The minimum to make the list? $2.5 million in pretax earnings in the year ending June 1, 2015.
The list measures earnings before subtracting management fees and taxes. Our figures are based on data from Nielsen, IMDB and other sources, as well as on interviews with agents, managers, lawyers, industry insiders and the stars themselves.
These 13 DIY filmmakers—directors, producers, actors all rolled into one—have made millions doing what members of older generations may consider more play than work. By commenting on videogames, serving up comedy, debriefing about beauty and dancing while playing the violin, they have attracted millions of fans—and the money in their (or their parents’) wallets.
One of the only commonalities of the group is their youth: Most are under 30, and thus only slightly older than their target audience members, many of whom are of the generation that prefers YouTube to old-fashioned television.
“I thought, if [YouTube] is going to be the global television of the future, I need to build my brand here,” said Michelle Phan, who uploaded her first video, a natural makeup tutorial, from a grainy webcam in 2007. “Within the first week, 40,000 people watched it and hundreds of comments came in and that’s when I realized I’d found my calling.”
Most of their earnings comes from advertisements—both sponsored, integrated content and the pesky, inescapable previews—but some of these stars are diversifying into the television, movie and music industries. The publishing industry has been especially welcoming to these stars: Four have books out or in the pipeline. A few have their own product lines, selling everything from beanies and underwear to eyeliner and lip-gloss.
Videogames seems to be one path to making it big on YouTube. Kjellberg is joined on the list by KSI, or Olajide Olatunji, a fellow gamer who made $4.5 million in the past year. The British commentator has become a sensation across the pond and has used his following to break into the music world, with his rap single “Lamborghini” debuting on the UK Top 40 charts.
Comedians have also found a way to make YouTube their own: Half of our top-earning channels primarily feature sketch comedy, stand-up routines or pranks. Their antics have earned both Smosh—made up of childhood best friends Ian Hecox and Anthony Padilla—and the Fine Brothers—Benny and Rafi Fine—$8.5 million, in addition to a movie deal for Smosh and a Nickelodeon show and Daytime Emmy for the Fines.
Rhett & Link, aka Rhett McLaughlin and Charles Lincoln Neal III, have also turned laughs into serious bucks. The duo made $4.5 million through various sponsored content deals, including with Gillette , Wendy’s and Toyota. Lilly Singh, known to her fans as Superwoman, earned $2.5 million over the past year with her jokes, and amassed a global audience: Her recent tour, A Trip to Unicorn Island, hit over 25 cities worldwide. Roman Atwood, a prankster and internet age version of Punk’d’s Ashton Kutcher, has made the same amount through his jokes and has partnerships with the likes of Nissan to thank for his millions.
Coming in fourth is Lindsey Stirling, the dancing violinist—it is more mesmerizing than it sounds—who’s used YouTube to propel her to fame and $6 million in earnings over the 12 months to June. She has put out two albums, Shatter Me and Lindsey Stirling, scored a book deal and developed a lucrative touring career.
“It’s a very loyal fan base (that) wants you to succeed because they found you,” Stirling recently said of the benefits of a YouTube career at Forbes’ 30 Under 30 Summit. “It wasn’t some big radio station or record label that shoved art down someone’s throat and said this is what’s cool.”
Michelle Phan may be one of the more well-known names on the list, but this beauty entrepreneur lands close to the bottom with $3 million. She is playing the long game, reinvesting the money made from her cosmetic line, beauty subscription service and how-to videos—you, too, can look like Angelina Jolie and Lady Gaga with the right makeup—into her brand.
Rounding out the list is Rosanna Pansino, who made $2.5 million.The self-trained pastry chef has taken the cooking show format to the internet and has a cookbook coming out next month, making her a name to watch for next year’s list.
When YouTube was founded ten years ago, it was with the mission “to provide fast and easy video access and the ability to share videos frequently.” Now it can add another: minting young millionaires by the dozen.