Ten years ago, Riyadh Khalaf left YouTube due to homophobic abuse and threats. Now, he’s one of the most influential LGBTQ+ creators in the UK and Ireland community, with an audience of 356,000 subscribers, several documentaries under his belt and an upcoming BBC Radio 1 show. TenEighty talks to Riyadh about his journey so far – from tropical fish to getting naked.
Riyadh’s YouTube journey began when he was 16, sitting on the family computer in Ireland, trying to load Bebo over dial-up internet (remember that?). “On my Bebo page, someone had posted a video of this guy in his bedroom,” says Riyadh. “That guy was Tyler Oakley and I went on to his channel, not knowing what YouTube was. I found myself sucked in and I probably watched hours of content until there was nothing left.”
Feeling inspired and struck by the connection he felt to Tyler, he immediately went out, bought a webcam and started recording. “They were short comedy videos, storytimes about how my parents didn’t want me to get a piercing, or how I was trying to become a pilot and pilot training – it was just my life in video form.”
“I enjoyed everything and making a story out of it,” he continues, “and I got loads of love from friends, so it gave me a confidence boost because what I was doing was making people laugh and getting me the attention I so needed and wanted.”
“I was born an attention whore and it gave me the fulfilment!” he laughs.
These were the early days of YouTube, however. It was less regulated; safety, privacy rules and anti-hate speech policies weren’t yet in place. “It was basically an online warzone,” says Riyadh, “so I was getting people sending me death threats, people saying we know where you live, ‘we’re gonna get you’, ‘you’re a disgusting faggot’, ‘you should kill yourself’ – really awful things and – as a 16 year old – I believed it.”
“I believed they would get me,” he continues, “and I believed that I was a bad person because of who I was.”
Riyadh went to the police to seek help. At the time, they told him they were unable to and recommended he stopped making videos. And so, for the next seven years, Riyadh stopped uploading.
Despite this, Riyadh still had other passions to immerse himself in. One of his goals was to work in radio so, to that end, he decided to set up his own pirate radio station. “I had this desire to broadcast myself. If I can’t do it online for whatever reason, I’m gonna do it elsewhere, where it is one way and I can’t get any hate back, I’m just gonna broadcast,” says Riyadh. “I’d finish school and, instead of doing homework, I’d be up in my room doing my radio show to my local area illegally.”
“It’s a very scary concept to film yourself, especially vulnerable parts of your life”
Soon, Riyadh got a job… in a marine wildlife centre? “There are two big loves in my life that are beyond media: aviation and marine biology,” he explains. “I was doing shark talks and tours for tourists, feeding piranhas and stingrays. People were always so shocked that this 15/16 year old was giving David Attenborough-esque talks!”
His work involved breeding and selling rare and exotic fish, doing conservation work for corals, seahorses and clownfish by captive breeding them to replace the wild stocks. “I learnt a lot from that and that gave me a real humanitarian feel.”
Alongside his enthusiasm for marine wildlife, he explored his other ambition to become a pilot. But this dream was cut short when he was unable to get a US visa to finish his training. “It was heartbreaking but I ended up going back into media,” he says. “I studied media, I worked in radio, I did a little work in TV and I found my release with the creative side in traditional media.”
The one dream Riyadh could start to make a reality was his hope of working in the media. His illegal radio paid off, when he got his first job working in a Dublin-based station for seven years. He started out as an “unsuccessful” news reader to being a researcher, then a producer and finally a presenter on the 5AM slot.
And then in 2014, Riyadh made the decision to return to YouTube. “I’m out of the closet, I love myself, I’m confident and I have stuff to say,” he affirms. ”I decided to go back on YouTube because the stuff I wanted to say probably wasn’t suitable for TV or didn’t interest them.”
By the end of 2015, two of Riyadh’s videos had gone viral: Calling My Childhood Bully, and Mom Reads Son’s Grindr Messages. This was followed up by similar success with Coming Out and Dad’s Shocking Confession in 2016.
But what was it like to return to a platform, after being driven away by hatred and homophobia? “Scary,” states Riyadh. “It’s a very scary concept to film yourself, especially vulnerable parts of your life, and then putting it on the internet for a worldwide audience to potentially see and to judge.”
“Not just to judge your story and what you’re saying,” he continues, “but also your production quality, they way you speak, the way you look.”
How does he cope with hate comments and homophobia now? “I don’t care,” Riyadh replies simply. “It’s gotten to a point where I don’t even see it anymore. I get so overwhelmed with love and support that when I see one comment that’s negative or hateful, I don’t take it in.”
“I might have a giggle and then I get on with my day – I’m too busy doing shit,” he affirms.
For Riyadh, the only comments that stick with him now are the ones about things like lighting or sound quality. “Isn’t that a beautiful thing?” he says. “I went from being a kid who was told to kill himself and driven off YouTube for seven years because of hate comments to someone who is now immune.”
Reflecting on these hateful comments, he admits that he – as well as many of his YouTube friends – have an innate need to share, and perhaps this made his return inevitable. “We feel weird if we don’t overshare,” says Riyadh. “Most people really enjoy the more intimate parts of their life being kept to themselves and their family, but I know myself and my online friends feel a sense of relief [in sharing].”
“It feels like a problem shared isn’t just a problem halved; it’s like a problem shared is a problem almost gone,” he continues. “When you know you have an audience there that like, support and want the best for you, it’s a great feeling to know you have that online family.”
Riyadh’s relationship with his audience is very important to him, and that’s why he enjoys going to conventions and meet-and-greets. “I know they’ve listened to my bullshit,” he remarks, “and now I get to stand and listen to theirs, hear their life stories and their struggles.”
But conventions can be a scary and overwhelming experience for just one person. If you’ve ever attended a similar event, you’ve seen the crowds gather and how large they get, simply queueing for hours to meet their fave.
Riyadh admits to feeling this, as well as a heavy dose of imposter syndrome. “You feel like you shouldn’t be there – ‘what have I done to deserve such love and such support?’,” he ponders. “When I speak to any of these people they’re just as funny, intelligent and engaging [as most YouTubers] and I just think that I’m very very lucky.”
Nevertheless this doesn’t deter Riyadh: he has a determination to leave everyone he meets feeling uplifted. Noting his own experiences, he admits disappointment when meeting some of his own idols. “I’m terrified of a young person – who has found a safe space in my videos – meeting me and not getting what they expect so I make sure I’m mentally ready,” he says. “I swear, I hug them, I laugh with them, I hug their mother or their father and it’s just a big ol’ lovin’! It’s just otherworldly.”
There’s one US-based viewer that Riyadh always remembers: “Emily has the most amazing beautiful smile and she talks to me like she’s my best friend.”
“If you don’t check yourself, you’re gonna wreck yourself”
Recently, Emily’s mother started attending meet-and-greets, who revealed to Riyadh that she’d been suffering from cancer. To help lift their spirits through difficult times, she and her daughter had watched his videos. “They’ve invited me to their house in Las Vegas any time for dinner, they chat to me every few days online and it’s just – I’m just very thankful.” (The mother is now cancer-free).
With such a close relationship with his viewers, we asked for his thoughts on the debate surrounding the creator/viewer divide. Many feel an increasing separation from the creators they watch and an overall fracturing within the YouTube community.
“I think when someone goes on YouTube to create videos and finds a degree of fame online there’s a very very high chance that if you don’t check yourself, you’re gonna wreck yourself,” says Riyadh. “You’re going to allow your ego to take hold of you and you begin to not live in the real world, but in this online YouTube bubble where – through not much fault of your own – you begin to believe that you are better than others, that you have some divine calling.”
“Really you’re an online creative person that has talent and has built an audience,” he affirms, “but that audience also has a skillset and talent, and every single one of them has a story to tell.”
It can be tricky to stay grounded in this environment, but Riyadh applauds his parents and his background for guiding him, as well as the variety of jobs he’s worked. “I have such an appreciation for how lucky I am that I get to have control over my own schedule,” he says. “I get to travel the world, I get to make money and get paid for doing what I want to do.”
“I never thought I’d have my own TV series, I never thought that I’d be an author or that I’d have a show on one of the biggest radio stations in the world,” he continues. “You have to pinch yourself and go ‘okay. This is weird but this is great, just go with it!’”
Riyadh is very open on his channel, discussing topics ranging from skincare, mental health, to his coming out story. But where does he draw the line? “You have to be aware of the point at which you’re damaging yourself, your family or your viewers,” he states. “The line that I draw when it comes to oversharing is if i’m going to put my safety or the safety of the viewer at risk.”
He also feels it’s important to share raw experiences with his audience but only if he can offer an inspirational message at the end. “If you’re just moaning at your viewers or reaching out in desperation, then I think it can be damaging for them in many ways,” remarks Riyadh. “A lot of these young kids feel extremely upset that they can’t help you or that they can’t fix you.”
“The only thing I had on was my glasses. I kept my hands over my ‘special parts’ and it was terrifying!” Stripping off in a room full of people was daunting for Riyadh, admitting he nearly cancelled the shoot. Thankfully the supportive energy in the room gave him an adrenaline rush and, in the end, he loved the experience.
Reflecting on this, Riyadh confesses that he has a turbulent relationship with his body, loving it some days and hating it on others. “I find that when you reach your mid-20s, you fluctuate a lot when it comes to weight,” he says. “You could look at a biscuit and then you have an extra little something something around the front there!”
By and large, he tries to treat his own body as he would someone else’s: accepting all parts. If he notices imperfections then that’s just his “arsehole filter” kicking in. “If someone that I’m dating comes into my life and sees my body and doesn’t accept it for how it is, they naturally fade away and out of my life,” says Riyadh. “And I have my body to thank for that.”
Riyadh believes that there can never be enough body positivity content online. He notes, however, that over a decade or two ago most of the focus was about female standards. “We kind of forgot about the boys and the pressure put on young men,” he says. “In particular when it comes to what they see on underwear packets, on the high street or what they see in porn.”
Riyadh points out how in TV shows, the character without a toned body will often be the clown rather than the guy who gets the girl. He feels this sends a terrible message to the young male world; if you don’t have the body, you will never be loved and only laughed at.
Riyadh notices that many of the men affected by this concept, in both straight and gay communities, aren’t talking about these issue with anyone, which can cause a huge amount of damage to them. “What you have is all these guys who have body insecurities and they’re not talking.”
In the UK, the biggest killer of young men is suicide, taking more lives than cancer or heart disease. Riyadh feels it’s due to toxic masculinity and the many pressures put on a young man’s life. “It’s the pressures to look a certain way, the pressure to keep these emotions in because it’s a perceived weakness,” he says. “And to not be masculine is to be a failure as a man. They must go hand in hand otherwise you are not worthy of friends, love, attention and success.”
In order to improve national mental health, Riyadh believes toxic masculinity must be fought from a young age, especially for young straight men. “It’s as though they’ve got this vice grip,” he notes. “It’s this leash on them pulling them back that never gets severed.”
“It’s there from the moment they leave their mother’s womb: wear blue, play football, don’t cry, get a manly job, get a wife, don’t wear girly clothes, don’t cross your legs, don’t talk about girly things,” he continues. “The list goes on and on.”
“We’re recognising their fight in order to give our generation freedom; to have the ability to love free of guilt and fear”
However, it seems things are changing, especially in larger more liberal cities like London. “I’ve noticed a lot of straight men who are more fluid with their masculinity,” he says. “They’re beginning to let in the real inherent man who was waiting to burst out – who is loving, caring, doesn’t mind putting an ‘x’ at the end of a message, doesn’t mind calling you babe, who will happily say he loves watching RuPaul’s Drag Race with his girlfriend.”
“These men are incredibly inspiring to me and I’m addicted to them,” Riyadh states proudly. “I feel like; ‘what a beautiful thing that you are a straight man who is expressing himself exactly as you are, unapologetically.’”
“Then I get really attracted to them and I realise I can’t have them!” he laughs.
Looking at his career so far, Riyadh notes his 2017 BBC Three documentary, Queer Britain, as a dream come true. The show allowed him to learn about a huge range of issues affecting the LGBTQ+ community to create a series that truly examines Queer culture in the UK. “It’s just an absolute honour to be the face of something that I now know has started a conversation and has created a degree of change. I’m incredibly proud of the team and BBC Three for commissioning something so daring.”
Following this, Riyadh made a short film which he premiered at Buffer Festival 2017. I Am… took a closer look at the stories of four elderly gay men who lived in a time when homosexuality was illegal.
Riyadh feels it’s important to document stories such as these, ensuring future generations don’t forget the struggles of the past. “In a hundred years from now we will know what happened to these men and what was brushed under the carpet,” says Riyadh. “We’re recognising their fight in order to give our generation freedom; to have the ability to love free of guilt and fear.”
Having worked on so many projects about the LGBTQ+ world, he dismisses the idea of being pigeonholed as just another gay presenter. “If I’m not gonna tell these stories then who is?” he says. “And I know I can tell them well because I’ve lived this life and I understand the struggles.”
“I think it’s so early in my career in British media that I don’t know what the future holds,” Riyadh continues. “What I say every time I go in for a meeting with a commissioning editor or channel controller is I love documentaries as a format, I love telling real life stories but I equally love comedy, celebrity interviews and just having a laugh.”
Either way, there’s no stopping Riyadh, and he currently has a further three documentaries in development. Unable to give more details, he leaves us with the smallest hint about one. “It’s going to be a feature length documentary that i’m presenting and directing,” he says. “It’s a really really eye opening original idea, it hasn’t been done before, it’s extremely personal to me and – surprise surprise – it’s not gay!”
If creating documentaries wasn’t enough, Riyadh is currently penning a book. “So the book is – can I say the name of it? Fuck it I’ll say it,” laughs Riyadh. “It’s called You’re Gay! Now What?”
He describes it as an unfiltered life bible for young gay boys, covering a wide range of topics from coming out, sex, dealing with bullies and what to do in a crisis, as well as stories from a multitude of Queer people from around the world. One quirk of the book is that it’ll include envelopes that readers can open for different situations. He also promises a section written by his own parents to guide other parents of their newly out-of-the-closest children.
The book is set for international release on 19 May. “It’s not just for gay boys,” affirms Riyadh. “It’s for him but also his close friends, his schoolmates, his teachers, his parents – anyone who is in his immediate life circle should read this book. It’s an incredibly difficult, turbulent point in his life that he will probably never have again.”
And as if your screens and bookshelves weren’t enough, Riyadh is finally fulfilling his biggest dream by returning to radio. Joining BBC Radio 1, he will be co-hosting a sex-themed comedy podcast with Alix Fox called Unexpected Fluids, a show all about sex, gender, sexuality and when sex goes wrong. This will be the first time BBC Radio 1 will have produced a comedy show in a decade.
“They came to me and said ‘we’d like you to come for a meeting’ – and when BBC Radio 1 calls you, you go for that meeting!” says Riyadh.
Accepting the offer for a 12 episodes run, the series is expected to be out in May. “It’s scary as well because we have to share a lot of our personal sex stories,” he admits. “I said to my parents ‘don’t listen!’ And I said to my exes ‘I apologise in advance that I’m going to use stories from my love life’ – they will be under different names but yeah, it will be funny!”
From illegally running his own pirate radio station as a teenager, Riyadh is finally seeing his lifelong dream become a reality at one of the biggest and most iconic radio stations in the world. “I got very emotional,” he admits. “Everyone in Irish radio hails BBC Radio 1 as the god of worldwide radio. Every single person would idolise their playlist, the talent on air, the scale of it and budget they had to make amazing content.”
“It just felt like this glitzy glamorous radio brand that I was always reaching for but most likely never going to get,” he continues. “When I got the call that I was going to become a BBC Radio 1 presenter, it was just like the last decade of working in radio flashed before my eyes and all of a sudden, I had made it. Like, ‘well done Riyadh you fucking did it!’”
Riyadh is slowly but surely taking over the UK media across multiple platforms. Conquering online abuse and his own insecurities, we asked what he would say to his younger self. “Stop worrying about other people’s opinions. They don’t matter and they will suffocate your happiness and creativity,” he assets. “Chase your dream, be unapologetic about it, and don’t let anyone stand in your way.”
Photos by Rebecca Need-Menear.
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