For once, Olajide “KSI” Olatunji didn’t have much to say for himself.
Stood backstage at the Copper Box Arena in London in early February 2018, the YouTube star was about to step out in front of a sell-out crowd of 7,500 people to take part in his first competitive boxing match.
As was often the case ever since he began filming and uploading videos at the age of 16, KSI had a cameraman pointing a lens at him.
“He said: ‘You’re not yourself today,’” KSI recalls, “and he was right: I just didn’t know what to do. Everything was going through my head. Thoughts… nerves… thinking I had over trained... It was weird.”
His opponent? Fellow YouTuber Joe Weller. The bout was the culmination of months of bad blood and trashing talking between the two, and was set to become easily the biggest live event in YouTube’s history with 1.6 million eager fans waiting to watch online.
The pressure was on. For weeks KSI had been promising he would “come like a thousand trains” at Weller, and in a few minutes he’d have to step out in front of the crowd and prove it wasn’t just all a front.
Ordinarily, KSI – which stands for Knowledge, Strength and Integrity, a motto he got inked onto his arms and chest on a visit to a Los Angeles tattoo parlour last year, an event which (of course) was recorded and uploaded to YouTube – is loud, outgoing and brash.
His infectious personality and quick wit are why his fans love him, and the asset on which he has built an empire. KSI has over 18 million subscribers on YouTube, and possesses the third most-followed channel in Britain behind Ed Sheeran and One Direction. He has 4.2 million followers on Twitter; on Instagram, 5.3 million.
He has an estimated worth of £3 million and lives in a £3.5 million, six-bedroom mansion in the south east of England with its own boxing ring (“we weren’t using that room, anyway,” he explains). This huge personal wealth comes from his eye-watering earning power. In the last month, YouTube analytics service SocialBlade estimates KSI’s made up to £250,000 from advertising revenue on his videos. Influencer marketers believe he can pull in something in the region of £75,000 for a product endorsement on social media, and he’s thought to be the highest-earning British YouTuber from merchandise sales (though Brits pale in comparison to American YouTubers on that front). KSI is also the director of three companies with total equity of £1.7 million. Did we mention he is 24 years old?
Despite all of this, if you’re over 35 there is a good chance you’ve never heard of KSI. His fame is almost entirely contained on YouTube and social media. He exemplifies a modern strand of celebrity that usually bypasses older generations completely. Despite being young and handsome and in demand, he has never done an in-depth, mainstream press interview and fashion shoot like this one, because – frankly – he doesn’t need to. From the comfort of his home and using nothing more than his own talent and a camera, he’s become a household name to anyone in their teens with a following many pop stars and actors could only dream of.
The boxing match, though, was something different. A public event, with a cost of up to £66 per ticket. Whether his online fans would actually come and see him – whether anyone outside his most ardent supporters would care about the boxing match he was about to have – was another question entirely.
Life could have been very different for the young man from Hertfordshire. KSI has previously joked that if it were not for cracking YouTube, he’d have been working in a McDonalds.
A pupil at Berkhamsted private school, he failed his A-Levels and found out the bad news while on a family holiday. He locked himself in the bathroom for hours until he could muster up the courage to tell his parents. His mother – who appears in both KSI’s videos and those of his younger brother, Deji, who goes by the name ComedyShortsGamer online – wasn’t happy with the news. (Always outspoken, she called her eldest son “a prick” on camera when KSI’s brother showed her footage of him getting his tattoo.)
But, he says, with the benefit of hindsight, “she can be angry as she wants but ultimately, she’ll always be happy with me and proud of me.” The exam failure was a major setback, he admits, but it helped him establish a defiant demeanour that he still carries today.
“I like proving people wrong,” he says looking into the middle distance, a smile creeping across his face. “I love proving people wrong. People saying: ‘No, you can’t do this’, then showing them you can – it’s the best feeling ever. Whenever I put my mind to something, I make it work. I put 110% into it, thinking: ‘How do I beat the next guy? I need to work harder than the next guy.’”
He goes on to list the achievements people said he couldn’t do, then did, starting with the boxing match and working backwards through his music career (he released his first EP, 'Keep Up', in early 2016), his short film career (co-starring alongside fellow YouTuber Caspar Lee in Laid in America, which KSI claims was scuppered by his young fanbase’s propensity to pirate, rather than legally download, the film) and his progression on YouTube.
“People said: ‘You’ll never get a million subscribers,’” he recalls. “Then I did it. ‘You’ll never get 10 million.’ I did it. Simple as that: just proving people wrong.”
Stepping out into the arena, KSI was met with a chorus of boos from the highly partisan crowd who were mostly behind Weller. But by this point, he had clocked the viewing figures online and rediscovered his verve.
“I was back,” he says, smiling. “I saw the crowd, I saw the people, I saw the whole occasion and remembered - I’m a performer.”
As he marched to the ring, wearing a black and white robe emblazoned with the word “Nightmare” and boxing shorts adorned with Swarovski crystals, fans wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference between the KSI they saw here and in any of the 1,124 videos he has posted to YouTube, which have been viewed more than four billion times.
The atmosphere, the boos, and the sense of occasion only further soothed KSI’s misgivings. “As soon as I got in that ring,” he says, “I was like: ‘I’m here. I’m here, baby!”
All that was left was the small matter of winning.
"WE LIVE IN A CLICKBAIT WORLD RIGHT NOW."
KSI’s continued success on YouTube is a rarity. In a fast-moving and fickle industry, where Andy Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame has shrunk into something more like 15 seconds, he has managed to stay on top of the game. When he uploaded his first video to YouTube back in 2009, one of the world’s most famous YouTubers, Jake Paul, was 12. KSI himself was still a teenager.
He’s managed to stay relevant by latching on to the zeitgeist. YouTube trends come and go almost unnoticed by the general public. If 2018 is the year of boxing matches, diss tracks defined 2017: a release by YouTuber RiceGum became the first to earn a platinum award on the same day as Ariana Grande’s 'Baby I' (RiceGum’s track took nine months to get the accolade; Grande’s took 56). KSI has released his own diss tracks; he’s also been involved in pranks (another major movement on YouTube) and gaming, which accounted for 0.1% of all views on YouTube in 2007, and earned 15% of views in 2016.
“Whenever something changes, I’m able to adapt and change into the next thing that’s popular,” he explains. “When it came to diss tracks I found my way into that. Now with boxing, I’ve created a new trend. I’ve always adapted well, and that’s what’s led to my success.”
Among his fans, he’s seen as a cocky, cool older brother that young people admire. To others, he’s a character they love to hate.
“I guess it’s because people don’t really know what to expect from me,” KSI says when asked to explain his own popularity.
“I’m not the kind of person to stick with one thing and just do that. I guess I’ve entertained a lot of people by bouncing from place to place.”
He’s also better positioned than most to analyse how the site has changed, and how it encourages often unsavoury content to rise to the top of search results.
“YouTube has been created in a way where you receive the videos that have the most attention, and unfortunately as humans, the thing that creates most attention is violence and crime, beef and drama,” he says.
“Ultimately, YouTube is a business, and YouTube is always going to favour anything that’s going to create more views and more money.”
This helps explain how the boxing match against Weller came into being. The feud began at Upload, a YouTube convention held in London in September 2017. The two had been releasing diss tracks and videos insulting each other for months, and came face-to-face at the event, which resulted in a scuffle. Plans for the fight were made soon afterwards.
Over the intervening months, the duo released more and more videos showing their training regime in which they took pot shots at each other, whipping their dedicated – and young – fans into a frenzy.
Each video fed the beast, and the fight had both a tribal appeal and a novelty one: seeing two people previously best known for playing FIFA, professing their love of KFC and uploading “diss tracks” trying to batter each other for real in the ring.
In the crowd, 13-year-old Maya Pollock was watching closely. “I’ve followed [KSI] since I was nine,” she said. “Boxing isn’t my thing, really, I’m here more for the YouTubers.” She wanted Weller to win, “because he’s less cocky than KSI.”
Another fan in attendance, Riley Piper, who travelled down to London from Port Talbot with his father for the fight, was a fan of both, but also wanted Weller to win. “I think KSI’s too cocky,” was also his view.
They’d both be disappointed. In the end, KSI vs Weller was a surprisingly accomplished demonstration of boxing which KSI won handily within three rounds after the referee stopped the match. Before launching his final flurry of punches against Weller's head, KSI beat his chest in defiance: another point proved.
After the bout – which was seen by a greater audience than watched the FA Cup final and attracted £100,000 at the bookmakers – an exhausted but elated KSI took to the microphone, congratulated his opponent and then called out Logan Paul, a controversial 22-year-old American YouTuber with 17 million subscribers.
Those who don’t keep up to date with the he-said-she-said minutiae of YouTube might struggle to come up with a compelling reason why two video bloggers want to knock ten bells out of each other. The drama may appear a little… manufactured. KSI doesn’t agree or disagree. “I guess it works,” he says. “Drama is always going to be an eye-catcher. That’s just how it is. We live in a clickbait world right now.”
Calling out Logan Paul was an attempt to instigate a dispute that would benefit both parties. Though at the time of our interview discussions with Paul’s team had stalled, a few days later, at 3am on Sunday 17 March, the contract for the fight was signed and the date publicly confirmed.
The choice of venue – the Manchester Arena – is a bold one. At 21,000 capacity, it is three times bigger than the Copper Box and, with the benefit of a Saturday night booking on a bank holiday weekend, it is yet another step forward for KSI and for YouTube.
Logan Paul is a much bigger name than Weller, and mooted plans to charge for access to the livestream of this transatlantic tussle would mean an extra revenue stream alongside ticket sales and merchandise through the video production company Nemedis, which KSI became director of in late February as negotiations over the Manchester fight were ongoing.
The Saturday night in August has a greater significance than just the money that stands to be made. It will likely be the biggest event in KSI’s career, and could be the thing that turns him from ‘internet famous’ into plain old regular famous, bringing with it a new level of attention - and scrutiny.
"JAKE PAUL IS A TERRIBLE ROLE MODEL. HE DOESN’T DESERVE ANYTHING.”
Certainly, KSI has had his fair share of missteps. In 2012, aged 18, he made his first big mistake by wandering around a gaming event trying to 'motorboat' the women in attendance – a stunt that courted controversy and cost him a lucrative commercial contract. A public apology followed, in a statement insisting "sexism is not something [KSI] condones or wants to be associated with". He’s friends with TGFBro, the stunt YouTubers who are best known for calling out emergency services after one of the troupe cemented their head into a microwave with Polyfilla, appearing in their videos running over mousetraps and jumping into nettle bushes. (By simply shooting a video with them, KSI managed to give TGFBro their single most successful day on YouTube, adding nearly 90,000 subscribers in a single day.) His 2015 autobiography was entitled I Am A Bellend.
But he’s changed. “I’ve just grown up,” he explains. “I started this when I was 15 or 16. I didn’t really know much. Now I’m 24, almost 25. I understand I’m in a position where lots and lots of people have grown up with me, watching me, so I need to watch what I do, watch what I say, and not be stupid. I need to take responsibility for the power I have.”
That comment invites a comparison with Logan Paul himself.
Paul is best known among most casual observers of YouTube for a uploading a video of a dead body hanging from a tree in a Japanese forest earlier this year – a decision that made headlines around the world and caused advertisers to abandon his videos, YouTube to strip him of benefits given to the biggest stars on the site and Paul’s agents to place a minder in the American’s camp to watch over subsequent content he films.
“It’s one of those things where because it’s his first offence, I’d give him a bit of leeway,” KSI says about his American counterpart. “Everyone makes mistakes. You have to learn from your mistakes and don’t make them again, and realise a lot of people are influenced by you.” However, he adds, “It’s stupid that [in a subsequent video] he tased a dead rat.”
He lets out a loud, infectious laugh – one that, after spending some time with him, you realise is a tell: he’s unsettled by the conversation, or wants to move it on.
Though there appears to be a begrudging respect for Paul and a belief that – despite the mistakes – he means well at heart, KSI is less charitable about Paul’s younger brother, Jake, who was forced to move from his California neighbourhood after neighbours threatened a class action lawsuit against him because of his behaviour, which included setting fire to his own swimming pool. He’s most recently come under criticism for releasing a 20-minute documentary about the Parkland school shooting while previously glorifying guns in his videos, and having a tattoo of a firearm on his thigh.
“Someone like Jake, he’s someone that doesn’t learn,” KSI says. “He’s a terrible role model. He doesn’t deserve anything.”
The more time you spend with KSI, the harder it is not to like him (a natural on the shoot, he even agreed to take off his trademark bandana for a few shots). The bolshy character who published I Am A Bellend is nowhere to be seen when the camera isn’t on, and is increasingly fading into the distance in his videos, too.
In his place is a new, more mature KSI: the go-getting entrepreneur who wants to prove people wrong. A man who has recognised the amazing set of cards he was dealt after some lackadaisical teenage years and is determined to make the most of them. A man who has recognised that, thanks to the incredible changes in the media landscape, he’s in a place where children look up to him and is determined to take that responsibility seriously as his profile grows.
Though he says YouTube is “still the core” of what he does and “allows everything else to blossom”, he is keen to expand his horizons – and not just by beating the crap out of his peers in the boxing ring.
“I always take inspiration from Donald Glover and Will Smith and all these people who don’t just do one entertainment thing,” he explains. And it appears that his straight-to-digital buddy comedy with Caspar Lee didn’t scratch the acting itch for him, either.
“Acting’s the next one, but it’s hard to do all these things at once. I have to delegate my time properly. And besides, I can always act whenever. There’s no time constraints.”
It sounds like he wants to follow in another celebrity’s footsteps, I say: Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.
“The next Rock?” he replies. “Ah I don’t know about that. He’s huge. I don’t think I’ll be as big as he is. We'll see.”
He lets out a loud laugh. There's that tell again. The one that makes you think it's not such a ridiculous idea after all.
Photographer: Kat Pisiolek
Fashion by: Emie James-Crook
Grooming by: Patrizia Lio
Source: Esquire UK