I met Charlie Hides in a John Lewis café to talk about his hit YouTube channel a few hours before the video ‘Sh*t Madonna Says’ went live and was featured on AOL Music and Perez Hilton. The Blue Rinse Brigade shuffled by as we talked drag, make-up, and celebrity. Charlie has lived in the UK since 2000, and regularly performs live at The Shadow Lounge, The Black Cap and The Two Brewers. His characters Kandi Kane – “an Anna Nicole Smith type character, married to an 89 year-old multi-millionaire with an oxygen mask” – and Laquisha Jonz are immensely popular. And now with Charlie Hides TV this exceptional comedian showcases his talents to audiences that would fill the O2 stadium every day of the week. And one of his fans is Cher.
When did Charlie Hides TV start?
It was March 2011. I’d always used videos in my live show. I’d had videos on YouTube as Kandi Kane and Laquisha Jonz since 2005, but the size of file used to be really small. It would be pixelated and really poor quality so I stopped uploading. And a friend of mine in LA told me it had changed, that you could upload HD. Once I saw how high res it was I thought I’d put up the videos I use in my live show.
How long did it take for the viewing figures to start picking up?
For the first couple of months I would upload a video every Wednesday and they’d get a couple thousand views in the first week. That was down to a lot of posting on friends walls on social networks.
On July 13 – my birthday’s July 12 – I said I wanted it to take the day off. We’d shot the first ‘Madonna’s Lady Gaga Nightmare’ video, uploaded it, went to lunch, and I just happened to check my phone. I turned to my partner James and said, “Have you been promoting this?” He said no, and I asked, “why are there 9000 views already?”
It just went crazy. It was viral, the way social media works. Then people do the work for you; they post, they share the link, they tweet. It went from a 100s a day to about 15,000 a day.
And it was Madonna vs Gaga that tipped it over?
That’s what did it.
The business side of show business has changed. Before the Internet Age you’d have a star, a producer, a manager, a make-up artist, but with a YouTube channel one person can do all those things. Do you do the job of 10 people?
Yeah, there are a lot of hats. Costume design, graphic design; I direct, edit, write, then promote. There are also the business decisions, the management decisions. A manager would say to an artist like Jude Law, “do a blockbuster, then do an art film for credibility, then do a blockbuster, then do a West End run for 8 weeks”. I’m wearing that hat, because even though Laquisha and Maureen get less views, for me they are the original characters that TV would love. If you’re going to do a Little Britain style TV show you can’t just do it all with celebrity impersonations, you need original characters. I have to make those decisions. I could get a lot more views than I get just doing Madonna videos.
Is that one of the reasons you did the video where Laquisha calls you up and complains that she isn’t on CHTV enough?
I was noticing that I’d been working my ass off for months and all of a sudden I’m getting hundreds of thousands of views after the Madonna-Gaga video whereas before I was getting thousands. I originally started the channel thinking I was going to do a lot with Laquisha, but that didn’t happen.
Do you see YouTube as a stepping-stone to television?
The first thing I’d say is that I’m enjoying the process each week. That for me is more important than any destination, or goal. I know it sounds new-agey, but this is the thing I do, this is the thing I get satisfaction from. When I’m making a costume, that’s 2 hours that I’m sewing, and I love it. I’m not thinking about 2 weeks from now. I’m just there in the moment having fun.
I have a career performing live that is fun and pays the mortgage and then the YouTube channel that’s getting me recognised around the world. About 30% of my views come from the States, 20% from England, the other 50% is Germany, Spain, Brazil, Australia, France. To me that’s just amazing. I’m enjoying the here and now. If it leads to something else, great.
The make-up alone is outstanding. It’s award-winning. How long does it take to get ready for, say, a Cher video?
If I know I have to do Cher, then probably about 2 hours before I’m going to press record I start to get ready. Sometimes I’ll have a few scripts prepared, and I’ll spend a day shooting different Cher segments. If I have to be Cher, Liza, and Madonna it can be a lot of time in front of a make-up mirror.
How long did it take to do the Diva Christmas Special? There were so many characters.
I have a week, so I started on the Thursday and uploaded it on the Wednesday.
What I did was crazy. I was biting off way more than I could chew. So I started filming on Thursday, went to Birmingham to perform a gig, started again on Friday, did another gig, came home at 3 in the morning and filmed, and I did that straight through. I think Monday and Tuesday night I slept for an hour – sometimes in full face. But I had this bee in my bonnet, I wanted to do it, so I was up and down the stairs, throwing on another costume.
Which characters do you most like to perform?
Characters like Laquisha, Loretta Lee Jackson, Maureen. The original characters. Then Cher, Liza.
What happens with me as a writer and a comedy performer somwetimes a character will just come. I’ll try on hats, costumes, I looking the mirror and something clicks, and I know this person. Maureen happened that way, and Laquisha. In the video ‘Shit that straight people say’ the Jewish mother, the one who says “you’ll never stick with it, it’s just like those piano lessons,” I don’t know where she came from.
I prefer the original characters. There’s not a level of expectation – you don’t have to say, ‘would Madonna say that, or would Cher say that?” There’s more freedom and there’s more reward. I’ve got an ego, I prefer people to like my original material more than the celebrity impersonations.
How often in the writing and recording process do you say something, and think “no, I can’t say that, I can’t say that”?
A lot. I’ve got a very dark sense of humour. It’s very politically incorrect. My live show is completely different from what I do on YouTube. And also I have advertisers.
I want to appeal to a broad number of people. I do censor myself. As a comedian you learn early on that there’s the things you say backstage to make other comedians laugh. I censor myself because I think, “is that nice?” The challenge is, can I be funny without being mean?
Did you think about that when writing the Elton John-Madonna Golden Globes feud video?
No, I didn’t. I’ve performed at Elton John’s birthday party, and it was for a room full of celebrities. I do a lot of celebrity parties. That’s another reason I don’t want to be too mean. With Elton, I’d say it to his face. We all say things that we sometimes regret. He was mean, he didn’t censor himself, he was unnecessarily bitchy. Be gracious, smile applause, wish her well, and say to David back in the Limo, “that fucking cunt!!!”
When things like that happen do you think, “that’s a gift”, and just go with it?
Yes. What I’m doing is holding up a mirror to buffoonery, to silliness, and with that one it was a case that Elton said something that was inadvisable – if I’m being diplomatic. His manager off screen was probably kicking himself. That’s what that joke was, that was “you regret saying that, don’t you?” I’m commenting on the controversy, on the gossip.
Normally I’d do a video on a Wednesday, and was on Monday. I’d watched it at 2 in the morning. I had twelve hours to make the costume, write the script, shoot it, edit and upload it, and it was up within 24 hours of the event happening.
Do you remember that video with Rick Perry, his homophobic one, I was a bit behind the ball on that, but I did think “what would Loretta Lee Jackson say about that?”
Where did you get the idea for Loretta Lee Jackson?
Being an American, and being part of a minority, and seeing Bible thumping bigots hate spewing vile creatures who almost invariably turn out to be hypocrites. I’m familiar with that kind of preachy character. It was more that I was making a comment about that hypocrisy.
Having a cast of characters, when something happens in the news, I think that’s something Loretta can talk about but it’s not something Cher would talk about.
Where did the catch phrase of Cher saying “who?” to everyone who calls her on the phone come from?
I just answered the phone as Cher. It was just the most bizarre thing. It was just one of those things. It’s all in the back of the throat. “Hello? Who?” People just commented on. Once that started I repeated it. And once I’d isolated and replayed it a catch phrase was born.
Cher is saying that now, too. The real Cher. I’ve had it confirmed by a couple different people.
What are your plans for the future?
I have a new video out next Wednesday. That’s my future. It’s a cycle. One video goes up on Wednesday, I go to the movies, and I start thinking about the next one, as well as my gigs. For the time being I’m enjoying that. But I am thinking about what to do for the one-year anniversary of the channel.
Beyond that I’ve been asked to put together a live show based on the videos, based on the Madonna-Gaga series. I’ve agreed to perform in Rome at the Gay Village – it’s a big festival at the end of June. I’m in the process of writing and devising that. I mean, how am I going to do that on stage? I don’t know. I’m putting together ideas. I’m trying them out in my live show. That’s a future plan.