Over the last six years, Scola Dondo has been creating health and fitness videos on her channel. But throughout her life, she’s been fighting racism, exclusion and body image pressures. In a frank and funny interview, TenEighty talks to Scola about weight loss, race and ethnicity online, and what being a YouTuber is really like.
Scola began her channel when she was very young. After seeing her older sister watch YouTube videos she fell in love with it, and begun making videos on her camera phone. “My first video was a short film that’s basically about a homeless man who liked to steal toilet paper from people’s homes – it was a ‘comedy’ although I wouldn’t make that now because I now know that would be #problematic!,” she laughs.
Her old animations of stickmen and other “embarrassing videos” are still on YouTube – if you know where to look.
By the time she was 13, Scola was watching the likes of Charlie McDonnell, Molly Templeton and Mac from WasteTimeChasingCars, and began taking YouTube seriously. “I started vlogging, which was just me talking about my day and updating people on my life. It was weird because people were watching it and enjoying it, even though I didn’t have a massive following at the time. Then I started losing weight and made a separate channel for that, which is now my main channel.”
Starting YouTube at such a young age, Scola received a range of reactions. “My parents thought it was a cute thing, like ‘oh she’s so creative’. My friends in school sort of enjoyed it as they were in my videos, and there were some who made fun of it and took the piss,” she says.
“But, I didn’t care because I was really enjoying it and it was my thing,” she adds. “It’s such a cliche, but I’m naturally a shy person and my outlet is when I’m at home with my camera.”
YouTube has changed a lot since those early days but, despite the recent debate around the creator/ viewer divide, Scola feels her relationship with her audience has remained the same. “It sounds so corny but I don’t think of them as subscribers, I think of them as friends. Everyone says that, but it’s so true!”
“There’s people who have been there for five years and they’ve grown up alongside me,” says Scola. “As somebody who didn’t have many friends at school – I was the only black kid at school – or people who understood me, it was so cool to find a place where I did fit in.”
While Scola found her place online, real life was not the same. At school she was bullied for her weight, and at sixth form she struggled to pursue her passion for working in film. “When I first started out in school, I really wanted to be a film director but quickly I realised I wasn’t a white man,” she says.
“I did film studies at college but I got really discouraged because my teacher just didn’t treat me as nicely as the white boys in the class, and would look down upon me and literally didn’t think I had any talent,” Scola explains. “It wasn’t until we actually started making our own projects that he was like ‘oh – she actually knows what she’s doing’.”
“By then, I knew I really wanted to do something with health and fitness, and it was an easier world for me to get into,” she adds. “I feel like I copped out but I just didn’t have the energy to deal with that especially as I was still finding the confidence in my abilities in filmmaking.”
“It’s been a really difficult journey and I’m still on it. It’s not a weight loss journey any more, it’s a journey of life”
The bullying about her weight eventually led Scola to decide enough was enough. Taking her fate into her own hands, she began documenting her weight loss journey. “I would run or do skipping everyday after school or before school – I don’t know where I got the motivation from. If you asked me to do it now, I would not be able to do it – I was getting up at six to go running – on a weekend!”
She acknowledges that her original reasons for losing weight were unhealthy. “I wish it was different, but at the same time we learn so much about health and fitness, and I think one of the best things is making mistakes so you learn what works and what doesn’t work for you.”
“Every teenager has an unhealthy stage with their body because growing up, you don’t know how to deal with your ‘womanly curves’ and all that good stuff,” she continues. “So it can be really awkward but I’m glad I went through that because I can now help others through those situations.”
“There’s that mental journey because I realised I needed to love myself no matter what,” concludes Scola. “It’s been a really difficult journey and I’m still on it. It’s not a weight loss journey any more, it’s a journey of life. It’s been fun and not fun at times.”
It was after college that Scola found out she couldn’t afford to go to university: as an immigrant, she was unable to get the loans she needed. So all her focus went into her channels. Her weight loss channel continued to grow slowly, and then in 2013 her videos 10 Tips I Used to Lose 15 Pounds went viral, gaining over 2 million views.
“It wasn’t a regular thing back then – people didn’t make weight loss videos, it was just silly videos and cat videos,” says Scola. “That video made my channel take off, especially as I was so young. Not many teenagers were talking weight loss, or at least not in a healthy way at the time.”
“My body is a form of art”
Acknowledging that going viral is so rare these days, Scola reveals that she hasn’t rewatched the video in a long time. “I’m worried, as I was 15 or 16 at the time, the advice could be hugely different from what I would give now,” she says. “I have to just be assured that they’ll watch my other videos and get up to date – you can tell it’s an old video because it still has annotations from the good old days!”
Since then, Scola’s channel has evolved from just weight loss videos to a broader focus on health, self-love and dance and Afrobeat workouts. “I sound like a cheesy PE teacher but I keep trying to make exercise fun,” giggles Scola.
We ask Scola about changing fad diets and the constant societal pressure to conform bodies to the trending body type. “There’s definitely an unhealthy section of health and fitness, where people are obsessed with burning fat and losing weight and it can be damaging for people who aren’t accustomed to that world.”
“For me, my body is a form of art,” she says. “I like to work my body and make it different over the past few years – there was a time where I wanted to be standard and skinny, then I wanted to be ripped and toned with a six pack and the biggest biceps, and I’ve been through every single stage.”
“It’s a hobby I enjoy and some people understand that lifestyle and it’s something they love,” Scola continues. “But, it can be damaging for some people who don’t understand that and think it’s just about being skinny all the time. It’s the people who are in the health and fitness industry who need to take responsibility.”
Making weight loss videos alongside pushing a body positive message can seem like a juxtaposition. How does Scola manage advocating acceptance and loving your body while simultaneously wanting to change it? “It’s something I’ve been struggling with lately,” she admits. “I’ve always promoted loving yourself first before going out and losing weight, but now I’m thinking ‘is it even right for me to be telling someone how to change themselves or even to suggest weight loss?’”
“It’s difficult for me to balance that on my channel because some people just genuinely want to do that to their body or need to for their health,” she says.
Scola has a condition called hyperthyroidism which made it initially difficult for her to lose weight. Early on in her journey Scola chose to accept her body the way it was, but eventually realised that she did want to do something about it. “I still love my body, but at the same time, I want to change my body and I’m not unhappy,” she says. “I just think as humans, we’re always striving to be what we think is the best version of ourselves and for me, personally, being stronger and faster and leaner is what I would like to be.”
“It’s just one of those things that you have to realise you can do what you want with your body as long as you’re not hurting anybody, you’re not hurting yourself and you’re happy about it. You can make small changes to make your life healthier and that can mean anything for you. It doesn’t just have to be skinny – which doesn’t equal healthy.”
“It’s that feeling that comes along with being the fittest you can be and how that feeling just makes you feel like a superhero,” she states. “I just want to feel like a superhero!”
It’s not just women who are victim to certain body expectations, as Scola points out. She also comments on the pressures on male bodies: “When the whole gym and bodybuilding trend happened, these regular guys who are working nine to five jobs started trying to be part-time bodybuilders – but these bodybuilders do this as a full time job!”
She notes that this male beauty ideal is often more rooted in pressures from other men, rather than women telling them they need to be more muscular. “There’s certainly women that might be more into that bodybuilder look, but it’s not as much pressure as women get from other women and men, whether you’re into the opposite sex or not. That’s how the whole of society puts this pressure on women to be a certain way.”
And that ‘certain way’ changes with trends. “If you look at earlier 2000s super skinny was in – and now people want to be thicker and literally, the thigh gap was in last year,” says Scola. “It’s all just trends and what I think people need to do is sit down and think ‘where am I the happiest’ and ‘what do I feel comfortable with’.”
“YouTube used to be my main source of income and now it’s not even enough to buy food”
For Scola, the highlight of her YouTube journey so far was being featured as part of YouTube’s Made For You campaign in 2016. “I was actually the smallest channel in that campaign!” she exclaims.
“It was an amazing few months because my face was on billboards and escalators,” continues Scola. “It’s like when people say ‘one day your name will be in lights and your face will be on billboards’ – and I’m like I’ve already done it! What do I do now?”
“I hope there’s more to come,” she adds, “…maybe I’ll get my face on a plane!”
Despite the recent highs, Scola admits that, thanks to the recent Adpocalypse, it’s getting harder for YouTubers to keep making content – or a living. “It’s not a huge deal for me yet,” she says. “I’m lucky as I haven’t been hit as hard as other people.”
“I guess the health and fitness industry is huge and everyone’s got some diet product that they want to push. But, I’ve seen my revenue dip hugely,” Scola continues. “YouTube used to be my main source of income and now it’s not even enough to buy food. I try not to pay too much attention to the money side of YouTube or I’ll go crazy but I have African parents and the only success they see is money!”
“I’ve been lucky in that I get external brand deals but there’s been times where for like a year I can’t get anything and I’m broke. However, this year has been good,” she says. “I wish I could just ignore it but it’s my full-time job so I have to learn and know how to run my own business.”
While Scola pushes for confidence and self-love, one can only imagine the type of comments she has to deal with on her channel. When asked how she deals with hate comments, she replies: “I just delete them. It sounds so bad as people are like ‘don’t censor things’ but I need to otherwise I’ll do something terrible for myself. When you leave them, it either just grates on you, or you try to have an argument with them and they’ll never change their minds.”
“I’m still a UK size 10-12 which isn’t even the national average (which is around size 12-14). But people are still going in on my weight and saying I’m super fat,” she adds. “And so on average, women are coming to my channel, they’re going to be bigger than me and think ‘this is how the world looks at us, they think we’re fat and we’re gross’ because of the things people comment. So that’s why I delete it.”
However there are some comments Scola doesn’t delete. First of all, constructive criticisms “because that’s fine, if it doesn’t have malicious intent. You can always tell when it is because it starts with the sentence like ‘I love you but; or ‘no offence but’ – there’s always a ‘but’.”
And secondly, racist comments. “I want people to see that because there’s people who think racism doesn’t exist.”
“It feels like there’s a barrier there, I don’t know if it’s a race thing or a number things”
Scola has always been outspoken about the lack of diversity on YouTube and the difficulties of being an ethnic minority in the creator community. In 2016, she called out Stand Up To Cancer’s campaign for only featuring white YouTubers on their promotional images, and spoke on the Ethnicity and Diversity panel at Summer in the City.
Despite all this, Scola still feels isolated from the creator community. “I’ve always been on the outskirts of the community. I’ve always spoken out about how the lack of diversity is a huge problem in the community and how I’ve always felt a bit left out,” she says.
“It’s not that people haven’t tried to be my friend or anything, but you do feel a sense of exclusivity and you see that there’s a group of one race here and a group of another race here. It’s crazy and heartbreaking because I do have friends of every single group but they never mesh together,” Scola explains. “We might branch out and have acquaintances but to really form that friendship where you’re real life friends – it feels like there’s a barrier there, I don’t know if it’s a race thing or a number things.”
Scola is remarkably frank and perceptive, showing her strength through her shyness. She continues to talk openly about what it’s like trying to make real friends in the community as a black creator. “It’s really bizarre – I’ll get tweets from people but I can tell it’s for show like ‘look I’m tweeting a black person, I’m not racist’ but then if I see them in person – they don’t say hi to me first and then they act like they have so much to do and go talk to someone else.”
“I have noticed people who are of colour who have bigger numbers fit in a bit easier and do get to make those friendships but I don’t know,” she continues. “I’m not trying to spill any tea! But it literally just feels that way. Maybe there’s something I’m missing.”
While there is this frustration, for the most part Scola laughs it off. “It feels like school again, like being that outsider. I don’t know how to fix it – I might just be a terrible person no one wants to be friends with!”
Nonetheless, Scola calls out the hypocrisy of those pretending to care about diversity on YouTube. “Some creators genuinely care and some only because it’s on trend. This year has been a year of speaking out and being an activist,” she states. “But when you ask people what they’re doing rather than just tweeting about it, they haven’t changed. They’re still doing the same things, still have the same attitudes.”
“I could count on one hand the people I’ve seen who are for diversity and want to do something for it”
Scola defines this as ‘fake support,’ and it’s a topic that has frequently come up on the Ethnicity and Diversity panel at Summer in the City. More recently other YouTubers have called this out too. After HelloWorld, Jana Damanhouri tweeted that she felt she was only invited to show diversity. Likewise, Rose Ellen Dix and Rosie Spaughton pointed out the hypocrisy of how some brands use LGBTQ+ creators for campaigns, in an interview with TenEighty in July.
However, it is her fellow creators that Scola is most disappointed with. “The bottom line is, it doesn’t affect their lives so why should they change? They still doing everything they want to do, they have their friends, they have their money, they have their channel – why do they need to go out of their way to change for us?”
“The fake support frustrates me the most. I could count on one hand the people I’ve seen who are for diversity and want to do something for it,” Scola adds. “It’s shady as hell, but I’m going to say it.”
We ask Scola if she felt she had a burden of representation on her: “I’m used to feeling like the token black person. But it’s been such a different year, I’ve definitely seen such a wave of black creators that I don’t feel like one of the only ones anymore which is amazing.”
Over the past year, YouTube seems to be attempting to tackle the lack of diverse visibility on their platform, with campaigns such as #YouTubeBLACK. Scola celebrates these projects but notes it’s not perfect: “There’s still that separation. I wish there was a way to bring it together.”
There is no easy answer to the problem of representation and integration on YouTube, and Scola herself is unsure of what the solution could be. “It would be great if everyone could be friends with each other but you can’t force people to be friends with each other – if people don’t want to, and don’t want to make the effort, that’s up to them.”
“We’re all really worried about how YouTube is going at the moment”
However, Scola uses her presence as a means of raising visibility for black creators like herself, and calls on others to do the same. “We need to go and do more. I’ve really gotten to meet more of the community – I go to every event. Literally, if you just go to the YouTube Space there’s so many events.”
“Make your presence be known because, say white creators, they think there’s no black creators because we aren’t making ourselves known at these events,” she affirms. “I think just taking up space and not being afraid to do so is so important.”
When it comes to black creators who inspire Scola, she’s quick to answer. “I think Patricia Bright is killing it and doing great work for black women in the UK,” she says. “She’s so versatile, her videos are always entertaining and also she’s all inclusive so it’s a space that’s really diverse.”
“It just shows black women can be successful and be someone amazing on the platform. It proves you can’t say there isn’t enough diversity available because she’s right there. They’re there, people just aren’t paying enough attention,” Scola asserts. “Even though I’ve met her I’m a still a bit ‘Oh my god it’s Patricia!’”
With the current fragility of the YouTube world, Scola is unsure of what will happen next. “We’re all really worried about how YouTube is going at the moment. We’re all not getting as many views as we used to, not as much revenue, and just all these things have changed.”
Nonetheless, she’s determined to continue with the platform. “I’m really just going to YOLO it – I can’t believe I’m still using that word but I am literally just going to that.”
“I’ve been on the longest gap year ever,” she jokes, “but as long as I can continue to make good stuff that people actually want to see, that’s all I can hope for.”
“It’s really scary but something I found is that a lot of people just don’t know what they’re doing. So it’s alright, we’re all confused!”
Photos by George Yonge.
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