If this whole “internet sensation” thing doesn’t work out, Michelle Khare has a long list of Plan Bs to fall back on: FBI agent, chef, model, astronaut, firefighter. She’s learned it all as part of her popular YouTube series, Challenge Accepted. Sometimes at great pains. During her fire academy stint she conducted underwater rescue drills in 10-degree weather and fought a 1,700-degree structure fire—from inside. And after way too many pushups followed by a gas chamber exercise at the Marine Corps boot camp at Parris Island, she fell to the ground and vomited. But the toughest challenge Khare (pronounced kar-ray) has faced since starting her channel two years ago is convincing people that her own job is a legitimate one. “There’s this huge divide. People see traditional media as this epitome of visual arts and YouTube as its trashy second cousin,” says Khare. “I’m always trying to dispel the stereotype that we’re all loud, disrespectful vloggers pulling pranks or something. When people come to my channel, I want them to be blown away by the high quality.”
With 2 million subscribers and counting, Khare is no one-click pony. The average view count for her Top 10 uploads is 5.4 million. To give a “real TV” comparison, about that many viewers tuned into weekly episodes of ABC’s hit comedy Modern Family last season. And the production value is network-worthy, too. “You always want your next video to be better than your last, and hers are. They’re these cinematic masterpieces,” says comedian and fellow YouTuber Kelsey Darragh, who has known Khare since 2015, when they worked together at BuzzFeed. “She’s always pushing herself past her limits in everything she does. Her work ethic is f***ing crazy.”
Khare has a lot to show for it. Since posting her first Challenge Accepted video in 2018, in which she spent five weeks training like a Victoria’s Secret model to see what it takes to prepare for a swimsuit shoot, Khare has hired four full-time employees, partnered with brands such as Clinique, Hyundai, Smartfood, and Playtex, and is now in the process of launching her own line of athletic wear. Her fan appeal also helped her get cast as the host of Karma, a reality series now streaming on HBO Max.
Whoa, you might be thinking. I thought YouTube was just for learning to program my thermostat and watching guinea pigs play basketball. Okay, boomer, here are some facts: YouTube is the second most trafficked website after Google. More than a billion hours of content are watched per day. While TV viewership is declining by double digit rates each year, YouTube viewing is increasing by double digits. Half of 18- to 49-year-olds don’t even have a cable package anymore, but 90 percent of those people watch YouTube. And the platform is a dream for advertisers. Ads on YouTube are 84 percent more likely to hold a viewer’s attention than those on TV.
This translates into the channel owners making a killing. You know that dopamine buzz all of us get when the little hearts and likes begin adding up on our social media posts? Imagine the thrill if those hearts were dollar signs. Now add some zeros—a lot of zeros. YouTube’s top earner last year made $26 million. He’s 8 years old.
Today, wearing black leggings, a red sequin tailcoat, and rhinestone-studded lashes, Khare (who prefers to not divulge her own earnings) is at a small theater in Santa Monica, California, with a 35-member cast and crew to film the grand finale of her latest challenge: training like a Broadway star. In the preceding six weeks she not only learned to sing and dance, but, with the help of a choreographer, lyricist, and composer, she also wrote and produced the mini revue they’re performing.
YouTube Rewind, the Musical takes a tongue-in-cheek look back at some of the salacious moments (or, as some would say, “the tea”) that aired on the platform in 2019. Lyricist and actor Steve Greist wasn’t sure they could pull it off in time for the release date, but Khare came in so prepared they had time to spare. “Somehow she made the rehearsal process incredibly efficient but also personal and warm and very playful and collaborative,” says Greist. “Working with her was such a positive experience.”
Getting glammed up to do some musical theater doesn’t seem a bad way to spend a Thursday afternoon, but Khare doesn’t have the luxury of basking in the limelight. Whenever she’s not needed on stage, she travels up the aisles in her tap shoes (which add only an inch of height to her 5-foot-2 frame) to review footage with her camera crew and director. In other spare moments between takes, she replies to emails and text messages, schedules meetings in her Google calendar, and uploads snippets of the musical as teasers for her 300,000 Instagram followers.
“I’m always trying to grow my business, so that is constantly on my mind,” says Khare, sitting down for a moment to chat. “I run my channel like a production company, so it’s expensive and it’s a lot to manage. And I have people working for me, so I’m responsible for their financial security. Keeping everyone happy is something I take pride in, but I do have this feeling of being a mom sometimes, and I don’t even have kids.” At that, she hops up to make sure that the lunch catering order she placed includes vegetarian and gluten-free options for the cast and crew members who may have dietary restrictions.
“I’m always trying to grow my business, so that is constantly on my mind.”
The next morning at Khare’s modern loft in Studio City, her three editors are already at work, cutting, color-correcting, and mixing sound from the many hours of camera footage from the day before. They sit in AKRacing gaming chairs (a cooler, younger counterpart to the Herman Miller Aeron) at a room-length desk, facing massive panoramic monitors. This particular project requires extra work because in addition to readying the upload of the production itself, there is also six weeks of rehearsal footage to curate into the Challenge Accepted episode about the making of the musical. “My team is amazing,” says Khare. “Paring down so much footage into a compelling, exciting-to-watch, 30-minute story is no easy task.”
Much in the way that traditional TV networks make money, YouTube content providers rake in revenue through advertising. Some is calculated through Google AdSense, which pays a “revenue per thousand impressions” rate, and additional earnings are made from ad click-throughs. (YouTube ad revenue for fiscal 2019: $15.1 billion.) Brand deals are the biggest source of revenue, though. You’ll often see Khare thank a company for sponsoring the video and make a quick plug for its product. She’ll also partner with companies to do videos directly tied to their brands. In a recent 10-minute spot paid for by Target, for instance, she and a chef have a timed cook-off using only ingredients from the store’s grocery department. In another, Khare gets her DNA tested by 23andMe to learn more about her ancestry. (She’s half Indian and half European, for anyone wondering.)
Khare’s most popular video (more than 9 million views) was her boot camp episode, and the U.S. Marine Corps paid all the expenses of that production. That’s a rare case. Khare pays for most projects herself, and with the Challenge Accepted videos costing $7,000 to $20,000 to produce, she uses considerable revenue to finance them and cover the overhead costs of equipment, payroll, travel, and other expenditures. There are also multiple agents and managers who represent Khare, and they all get a cut.
Another popular series on Khare’s channel is Extreme Body Makeover, in which she and a nutritionist and trainer crack a diet and fitness whip on a friend or subscriber for six weeks. Khare often experiments with new exercise routines and eating plans herself for her channel. She also goes on a lot of “only in L.A.” type adventures. She tries an infrared sauna, a cryotherapy chamber, a professional back scratch, extreme acupuncture, and something called a yoni steaming, which may not be everyone’s cup of tea but is certainly worth looking up. While she doesn’t have a live stream of her every move, completely unplugging is a tough concept. Even a getaway to Belize turned into an episode about going without the internet for a week. “It’s the hardest thing for me to say, ‘Okay, I’m not going to work today,’ ” says Khare.
She didn’t even let a global pandemic slow her down. She and fiancé Garrett Kennell, 27, her channel’s creative director, used the time to convert the loft’s editing office into a soundproof and professionally lit filming studio. They also launched a podcast called Mission Accomplished, in which Khare and Kennell riff on what went into shooting some of the YouTube episodes, as well as talk about everyday topics, such as getting through the challenges of quarantine life. It already has 30,000 subscribers.
“Just like everyone else we’re concerned and disappointed and frustrated at the Covid-19 situation, as well as sad and scared,” says Khare, who credits frequent video chats with her therapist for keeping her outlook positive. She’s also found solace in hunkering down with Kennell to watch movies and indulge in some good ol’ fashioned comfort food. “Trust me, I’ve had my share of pasta dinners.”
The couple, who met four years ago and started dating in late 2018, got engaged on Valentine’s Day in Bora Bora. It was a quick between-gigs trip that Khare booked as a surprise for Kennell. Then he one-upped her by proposing on the beach. The whole scene—Kennell on one knee in the sand, the hugs and kisses that followed—was shot by a photographer he hired to capture the memory. And it all went up on Instagram, of course, because social media engagement is something to be cherished, too.
Khare’s high-achievement habits go back to her childhood in Shreveport, Louisiana, a small town 180 miles east of Dallas. “Anything Michelle did, she wanted to be the best at,” says her sister, Madeline, 23, who also lives in Los Angeles and works as a script coordinator for Ellen DeGeneres’ new animation series, Little Ellen. “When she did a play she was always the star, she won every science fair ever, and she was at the top of her class from eighth grade on. She was destined for greatness.”
At Dartmouth Khare created a custom major in digital media and technology under the guidance of computer science professor Lorie Loeb, and she used the quarter system to her advantage by getting hot-ticket internships at NBC Universal, DreamWorks Animation, and Google in non-summer terms. She also met as many people in the entertainment industry as she could. “I avidly used the alumni network to set up coffee meetings just to learn from them,” she says. “Being able to directly email alumni is an amazing resource.”
A stranger to L.A. when she arrived for her first internship, Khare joined a recreational cycling group to make friends. She ended up excelling in the sport. When she returned to Hanover, she joined the cycling team and helped Dartmouth win the 2013 Ivy championship. She rode professionally after graduation, even when she got a junior producer job at BuzzFeed. On top of long hours writing, directing, casting, and often acting in videos for the website, she woke up at 5 a.m. each day to train and competed most weekends.
“That’s Michelle. She’ll say something like, ‘I think I’ll try bike riding.’ Then she turns pro,” says one of her best friends from Dartmouth, Eliana Piper ’14, director of strategy and innovation at the ACLU. “She puts 100 percent of herself into everything she does.”
Growing up, Khare thought she’d be a doctor or lawyer or work in finance. Her father, a skin pathologist who came to the United States from New Delhi with his family when he was 10, and her mother, a Louisiana native who studied biology, built a stable life for themselves. Their daughter thought she should do the same. Although they never discouraged her from following her dreams, “I don’t think any parent wants to hear, ‘I’m going to L.A. to be an actress!’ ” she says. “There’s no set path for that. My dad probably still wants me to get an M.B.A—just in case.”
Acting is also one of Khare’s endeavors. Although audition opportunities are scarce for now, she remains dedicated to learning the craft and attends classes three times a week via Zoom. She’s putting as much effort into this challenge as any of her others. “There’s nothing I’m naturally talented at,” she insists. “The only way I’ve succeeded at anything is by working my ass off.”
Khare’s drive is one of the reasons producer J.D. Roth hired her to host his new reality series, Karma, which started airing June 18. The show puts a group of young teens in the woods to compete in challenges, but it’s really their characters being put to the test. “I gave her the job right in the room. I have never done that before,” says Roth, who co-produced NBC’s The Biggest Loser among other hit reality shows before creating Karma. “Her IQ is off the charts and there’s such authenticity to her and a willingness to learn. She was a dream to work with.”
What’s Khare’s next challenge? One goal that continues to elude her is meeting producer-writer-director-actor-star alum Mindy Kaling ’01. “I’m so embarrassed to admit this, but I used to have a Mindy Kaling fan account on Twitter. Every day I’d tweet a link or say something I liked about her. It was the cringiest, most old school internet thing I’ve ever done,” says Khare, nervously wondering if Kaling will read this. “She is such a trailblazer and meeting her is one of my biggest dreams. It should happen naturally, though, when I’ve done enough to deserve to meet her. I’m not worthy yet!”
Jennifer Wulff is a contributing editor to DAM. She lives in Connecticut.