[Content warning: this story features heavy topics related to mental health and suicide.]
Growing up, Serein Wu just thought she was dramatic.
Maybe a little overly emotional.
She was a teenager, after all.
And being Chinese American, we didn’t talk about mental health.
But in college, one of her good friends started getting treatment for schizophrenia after going undiagnosed for years. But sadly, not too long after, he was lost to suicide.
I was dealing with my own anxiety and depression, but I didn't know it at the time. I still just thought I was a young woman who was emotional and dramatic.
Serein continued going to classes for her theater arts major (she’d always dreamed of being an actor) and to her private voice lessons. But when her voice teacher saw what she was going through in reaction to her friend’s death he said:
Hey, maybe you should talk to someone. And if you want to talk to someone, I have a really good referral.
Serein was terrified of getting help, thinking back then: “I'm not seeing a shrink; my friend killed himself because of it. It doesn't look good to go get help.”
Her voice teacher persisted, saying, “I don't think you're being dramatic or emotional. I think you should probably talk to someone. I don't think it would hurt.”
In the most loving and caring way, he convinced me to finally make a phone call. That phone call led to me seeing my first therapist.
Serein learned she wasn’t overly emotional or “dramatic.” She had been dealing with the ebbs and flows of anxiety and depression.
It's something you learn to live with and manage. Certain things will trigger it and make it worse, but there are things that help you manage and balance.
Those things that would help her manage would prove essential as she entered the next phase of her life: Hollywood.
“We didn’t talk about mental health.”
“I wasn't ‘Asian enough’ for certain roles.”
When Serein was 14 years old, she told her mom she wanted to be an actor. Her mom didn’t know anything about the industry – “she was the anti-stage mom” – but she supported her dream. Serein got an agent and started booking jobs by age 15.
After college, she moved to LA and auditioned constantly. In the beginning, her positive attitude and coping skills got her through.
She saw auditioning as her job and considered it a win just to be in the room.
But the industry started to wear on her, especially the unspoken racism and stereotyping she dealt with on a daily basis.
I wasn't “Asian enough” for certain roles. I wasn't the weird quirky one or I didn't have an accent.
And the commercial work she did get wasn’t satisfying.
She also got tired of all the repetition – of almost getting a role, like auditioning for How I Met Your Mother 12 times.
Once she was one of the final three being considered.
And then the role was cut at the last minute.
I'd get really, really close.
She turned to YouTube to cope.
“It was a hot mess.”
Serein thought YouTube was just for random cat videos, but one night when she couldn’t sleep she stumbled on her first makeup tutorial and was hooked.
It was young women talking about makeup, which I love, but I didn't even know anybody else loved it as much as I did.
She’d been part of a community she didn’t know existed.
And it was tips from real people. Specifically people who looked like me and had the same skin tone as me.
I was learning things and I just found it so fascinating and it kind of helped me unwind and take my mind off of another day of hoping I get to audition for a role I most likely won't get.
She binged everything she could find, including makeup hauls. Then after her own trip to Sephora one day, inspired by all she’d seen, she turned on the camera and showed it what she got.
It was a hot mess. I don't think the audio even synced with the video.
But she uploaded it anyway and sent it to two of her friends.
“I was so excited to get my first 100 views.”
They encouraged her and shared kindly that maybe she should learn to edit.
She was shocked when her first video received a comment from someone who wasn’t her friend.
It was a viewer from Greece, Dominique, and Serein couldn’t believe someone from another country was watching a “bad” makeup video she’d made.
(Dominique is still a subscriber today and Serein talks about her like a childhood friend.)
I think I was only making videos for her and three other people.
But I was hooked because it felt like I was making friends that weren't valuing what my job was or who I was married to. In LA, it can be very like, “What can I get from you?”
I could be this whole other person on YouTube.
I think I was really lonely, too. Creating beauty content and connecting with other women who enjoyed just talking about eyeshadow was simple. It was easy.
And it wasn't like, “What did you audition for?” or “What are you doing with your life?” It wasn't so serious.
Serein never officially thought “I’m going to start a YouTube channel.” It just happened. A natural part of engaging with the community, a compulsion after shopping: “I want to share what I got too.”
She didn’t actually think about it being public until she got that first comment, but it made her love it even more:
I was so excited to get my first 100 views. I would comment back and it felt like I was making friends. That's really how I look at my channel and my content. I was hooked.
“Why are you so angry?”
Serein was so hooked in fact that she came home one day after a day-long commercial shoot uncharacteristically angry.
The job paid her well and a 10-hour shoot wasn’t necessarily out of the ordinary in her business, so her husband was confused. He turned to her and asked, genuinely:
Why are you so angry?
She hadn’t thought the shoot would take all day since it was for print, not film. She was paid well and grateful, but felt like it was “bland, demeaning work:
I'm a prop.
It wasn’t creatively satisfying anymore, and when she thought about waking up the next day to audition for more jobs that didn’t fulfill her, she just felt angry.
She was also really upset that the shoot went into the evening. Since she didn’t own any lighting yet, she relied on daylight for her own videos.
When the photographer wanted to get extra shots at sunset on the beach, she thought:
This is taking forever. They don't need me. But now I'm not going to be able to go home and make my makeup video I wanted to make.
She explained everything to her husband and he kindly responded, “Maybe you should just take a break.”
But this is what she’d been doing since she was 15. It was the only way she knew how to make money, as unfulfilling as it had become. And when she did book jobs, it paid well.
This was all she knew.
“I didn't know how to make money on YouTube.”
But she also knew her anger was something to pay attention to.
When she compared it to the joy she felt filming YouTube videos, she just knew.
It was time to take a break.
She told her mom first: “Hey, I think I'm going to quit acting for a while.”
“Well, what are you going to do for work?” her mom responded.
Serein was shocked her mom now saw acting as a viable career; she hoped maybe she’d have a chance to help her mom understand her next dream. “I'm unhappy,” she explained, “and I'm going to pursue this thing called YouTube.”
She just left one tiny thing out of that first conversation:
I didn't know how to make money on YouTube.
“We didn't really have a plan.”
Making money on YouTube felt to Serein like this big secret. It seemed like once people hit 100K subscribers they could quit their jobs.
She wanted to be one of those people.
Deep down she didn’t really think it was possible, but she had to try, simply because “it just made me really happy. All I wanted to do was make videos and read comments and reply to comments. I actually made some of my best friends through those years.”
She also loved being able to be herself, choose when she could be in front of the camera, and not “have to play the quirky background person.”
She stopped going on auditions and started making lots of videos.
Her husband had a good job and was able to support their living expenses for a time. He encouraged her, “Just make YouTube videos. It makes you happy. I just want you to be happy.”
“But,” Serein remembers, “we didn't really have a plan other than I needed to get out of being so sad and angry and bitter.”
They’d figure the rest out later.
For now, she would just make videos.
And she did, engaging so deeply in the community that she heard about and applied for the 2014 Allure Beauty Blogger Awards and became a top 10 finalist.
That was when she and her husband thought maybe this could really be something.
The winner would be chosen by a combination of voter participation and guest judging, and each week a smaller and smaller number of entrants were moved to the next round.
For three weeks in a row, Serein had the most tweets, shares, and comments, and was labeled “most buzzworthy”. It was thrilling waking up each morning to check her stats.
She couldn’t wait to check the stats the morning of her birthday, the final week.
But that morning her stats dipped and she didn’t move on to round four.
That was disappointing.
It felt like the auditions all over again.
Except it didn’t.
Because she loved this process so much. And that competition got her on public relations lists which led to her very first sponsor reaching out.
I remember it was only $300, but at the time I thought this was amazing because I was getting paid to do something I truly loved.
Serein made a little money here or there for two years, and they were able to survive. It wasn’t a lot, especially for LA – about $1,000 a month – but she loved what she was doing.
She didn’t mind the slow progression.
But when something unexpected happened, she felt an urgency to make a more sustainable full-time living like she never had before.
“Once that happened, it was just never the same.”
It happened on an ordinary Monday in the fall of 2016.
Serein’s mom, a cancer survivor, went in for a routine checkup and biopsy.
Right after the biopsy, she suffered a massive stroke.
Serein never saw it coming. No one did.
We didn't know if she would ever speak again, or wake up.
Her mom was hospitalized for a while and then moved to a skilled nursing facility.
“I was depressed again.”
And in that moment, I also realized I needed to make more money.
She searched the internet and, through trial and error, learned how to seek out brand deals herself and how to ask for more money and stop doing so much for free.
Her husband also started to make less money as he took more and more time off to help support Serein and her family during such a traumatic time.
I was depressed again.
But Serein kept making videos, building brand relationships, and visiting her mom.
She was grateful for the flexibility that YouTube content creation allowed her so she could visit her mom often and get there quickly in case of emergency.
So it was just one of those things where I was like, I can either quit what I'm doing, get a job, or I can try and make this work because it will work better to spend as much time as I can with my mom.
Very slowly Serein’s channel grew and made more money. And very slowly her mom started to relearn how to swallow, how to speak, and how to talk. Seven months after the stroke, she was able to walk again with a walker.
Her mom was forever changed – her personality altered, her body weakened – but she was slowly becoming a new version of herself, and Serein was grateful. Her mom was still funny, she could still enjoy things. Serein could start to imagine their new future.
But then her mom got the flu after Thanksgiving. It turned into pneumonia, and on Christmas Eve she was rushed to the ER.
And once that happened, it was just never the same.
Her mom died that February.
Soon after Serein’s channel also reached 100K subscribers.
It was all these weird mixed emotions.
“It's very isolating when you feel like you're the only one in your circle going through something.”
Serein’s channel gained serious momentum after two successful YouTubers in the beauty community mentioned Serein’s channel on theirs. And after posting videos consistently for years, she grew by tens of thousands of subscribers overnight.
And those subscribers helped her get through the worst time in her life.
People actually reach out via email, DM, and comments sharing their own experiences because they too either lost a parent or had a parent who had a stroke and were their caregiver.
It was very helpful to hear from people who had gone through or were going through the same experiences as me because it's very isolating when you feel like you're the only one in your circle going through something.
One woman in particular reached out to tell Serein that she herself had had a stroke, and said, “Your mom would want you to further your career; do not feel guilt.”
Serein kept going, leaning on her community for support as she went through the grief that would become a part of her life, and kept doing what made her happy – making videos.
So when she heard that some YouTubers were having their channels taken away because of unknowingly violating new YouTube guidelines, she “freaked out” and focused on her email list to ensure she’d always have that direct connection with the audience who’d become her lifeline and friends.
She loved the deepened sense of community that happened when her email subscribers replied to an email and shared even more personal stories, and she loved that email allowed her to make sure all of her subscribers would be notified about all her new videos since the YouTube algorithm was constantly changing.
She tells me that many who’ve been in the YouTube community for a long time are seeing their views drop due to algorithm changes, but Serein doesn’t worry about it too much since she doesn’t rely on YouTube alone to reach her audience anymore.
That connection was way too precious to her to leave up to an algorithm.
“I don't need someone else's approval.”
Anxiety and depression still ebb and flow for Serein, but that anger she felt around her acting career dissipated. The biggest transformation of all, she says, is that “I'm just a happier person.”
And while she still has many hard days, she’s grateful for the good ones.
I get to do what I love on my terms; I don't need someone else's approval.
She loves that she makes a full-time living now, but it’s clear to me that she’d still do this even if she had to get a day job to support it.
I don't think people should ever start creating content in the hopes of making money because there are lots of friends of mine who haven't been able to figure that out.
And I don't know what to tell them because I don't know why I was able to and they weren't. You can't do this for money.
You don't know how long it's going to take and you shouldn't because in order for you to create good content you have to enjoy it.
Because as much as I enjoy it, I still get burnt out and frustrated.
You're constantly doubting and questioning yourself when you're focused on creating things. So you really have to love it and you have to truly want to create.
Serein still loves it – so much so that when she found out she was pregnant (during a global pandemic) she started a second YouTube channel to house all of her pregnancy content.
I've gotten more baby gifts from my subscribers than people in my life.
“No way?” I respond. “They're actually sending you gifts?”
Yes, she confirms. She of course doesn’t ask for them, but the people in her community have loved her for years and wanted to support her, finding her baby registry and sending her sweet things for her new baby.
But instead of telling me about the stuff they got her, Serein joyously tells me about them: their names, and where they’re from, like Mel from Australia.
Serein got Mel’s gifts on one of those really hard days. She told Mel:
I don't think you realize your gift came when I was literally having a mental breakdown, feeling defeated, and your gift was a little bit of surprise and joy in the middle of chaos.
It's connections like these that keep Serein passionate about her creative work.
My community is my everything.
If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts or mental health matters, please reach out for help where you live. If you live in the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 or visit the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.