Digerati darlin’ Shira Lazar’s media dance card is truly something to marvel at.
An early adopter of web technology and platforms, Lazar has been fully immersed in online culture since 2004. In 2011 she was named one of Fast Company’s “Most Influential Women in Technology” and that’s just a thread of her overwhelming list of credentials. She speaks at conferences around the world (TEDx most recently) is a regular contributor on The Huffington Post and appears frequently on Bloomberg TV, CNN and Fox News Channel discussing Internet culture and digital trends.
Her daily interactive YouTube show What’s Trending, is head and shoulders above the competition—covering + curating the most viral content across the web. Part 24/7 news hub, part online talk show, her Emmy-nominated brand is a pop culture hot bed for trending personalities, videos, musical guests and celebrities alike. With a mammoth growth spurt since 2012, What’s Trending has had partnerships and syndication with mainstream publications like USA Today, Virgin America, iHeartRadio and Gas Station TV. On October 13th it was announced that Culture Machine, a digital video company will launch a What’s Trending net in India.
We tracked down the busy writer, producer and host in Los Angeles for an impromptu Pop Culture Rainman™ ‘Pop-Up’ Q+A.
Pop Culture Rainman: I remember seeing you for the 1st time when you were a young student at Montreal’s St George’s High School. I was hired to choreograph scenes in the annual fashion show. My 1st thought when I saw you was, ‘who is this overly fashionable, cool kid?” You definitely exuded an ahead-of-the-curve *vibe*. Who were your style influences at such a young age, and how did Montreal play a part in that as well?
Shira Lazar: “I had a modern-day family with siblings that were 5-15 years older than me. It was a fun and diverse upbringing with so many different personalities around me. Fashion and style were always a [huge] thing in my household from step-sister and my step-mother who worked in fashion. Growing up in Montreal had a huge influence on my style and mentality—the overall chic and European influence!”
PCR: Tell me about your start as a writer and as a journalist. I truly think it should be the marrow of anyone who is in a creative field—to be able to write well
SL: “I guess I always looked at myself as a connector and storyteller. I’ve used new mediums to do what I love doing whether it be writing an article or blog, tweeting, interviewing someone on YouTube, or even for a TV broadcast. It happens that my ability and care for writing has only helped push me to a better product and has allowed me to create something special. I think this day in age you need to do it all.”
PCR: You attended Emerson University in Boston and majored in TV and Video Production. Tell me about what you learned in University (and your program) that prepared you for the real world?
SL: “Emerson is very well-known for media and communications, as well as their extra curricular programs. It was also very small, so it was an intimate and hands on setting. I wouldn’t be where I am if I hadn’t taken this path and gone to Emerson. They also have an LA internship program, which I participated in my last semester. I interned at The Ellen Degeneres Show and a local LA radio station. My first job and mentors came from that experience. The Emerson alumni community also has a strong presence in LA, so I’ve never felt alone here. It definitely set me up for a career not just gigs.”
PCR: Your early work leading up to whatstrending.com was largely web content based. You were really a pioneer in creating an entire brand which focussed around the web—and all of the opportunities and channels within that. How did you have the foresight to follow the thread of digital platforms when it was still in its infancy stage? What were your interests that brought you to this area of engagement?
SL: “I followed the thread of the web because it was the only path that was allowing me to do what I loved and work on my craft. I was still meeting and auditioning for high-profile traditional media jobs but I didn’t want to sit on the sidelines. There were so many exciting things happening in digital and the people I was meeting were pioneers themselves—it was hard not to be inspired by the founders, platform and communities being built. Having come from a family of entrepreneurs, I was completely drawn to it and it happened that I had something to offer them too. What started off as a possible stepping stone, became my niche. The digital game is constantly evolving, you need to have a curiosity and a spark in you to want to stay ahead of the curve.”
PCR: In 2011, you made the shift from a daily blog/vlog (On the Scene) to turning whatstrending.com into a television series—tell me about that experience.
SL: “In 2011, we launched with a traditional media partner [CBSNews.com] and we streamed on Ustream and Livestream as well as posted on demand clips up on YouTube—but at the time we weren’t programming for the YouTube specific audience. We were still first to really put out a broadcast quality live week then daily show for the digital generation. It got many awards and even an Emmy nomination but even that model now has changed. Audiences are more mobile now, we’ve transitioned towards shorter pieces of content and we tend to program content to each platform differently. What goes on our .com is different from what goes on YouTube VS Facebook and Twitter.”
PCR: This is a business that is rife with struggle and that demands perseverance. Tell me what you have learned so far about being a public media figure? Tell me about a how you recovered or bounced back from obstacles and what it has taught you? (*NB: On September 9, 2011, someone at “What’s Trending” erroneously posted that Apple CEO Steve Jobs had died on the official “What’s Trending” Twitter account and it was soon trending. The tweet was removed shortly thereafter, with Lazar apologizing, saying Jobs death was “completely unconfirmed“. Later from her own Twitter account, Lazar apologized again for the inaccuracy. Hours after the first tweet was posted, CBSNews.com severed ties with “What’s Trending” and Lazar.)
SL: “Whenever I’ve been through dark times, the process I go through is I let myself *feel it* for a moment. Acknowledge the pain or emotion you have and then sit down and figure out actionable positive steps to move forward. For me, when What’s Trending went independent in 2011 we just put our heads down and worked our asses off. We left no stone unturned and hard work persevered. In the end, the story of that year wasn’t how we had split from a major network partner, but how we built our audience on our own and that was the new name of the game. I like seeing a problem or a gap and finding a solution and thinking big. Don’t sit and stare at what you don’t have, but what you do and move forward with that to build something bigger. That gratitude mixed in with committed hard work is what has helped me push forward. Also, you are never better than anyone. Be confident in who you are and own your power, but leave your ego at the door. Collaboration is key and not just taking from people but bringing value to them.”
PCR: American Apparel CEO Dov Charney is your step brother. Do you find yourself having to defend or protect him on a regular basis and how do you navigate that?
SL: “Surprisingly no, no one ever brings it up and they’re surprised when they find it out! I’m like it’s on my Wikipedia page! [Laughter] But seriously—he’s a brilliant pioneer that I’ve always looked up to. He’s the consummate entrepreneur—and at every point has hustled, never gives up, fights for what he believes in and continues to work with that bullish excitement like he’s just starting out. You have to admire that.” (*N.B. the above interview still from LX TV was taken in 2008 and there was no mention in the interview that Charney and Lazar were step-siblings—way to keep it all covert + pro!)
PCR: Tell me why you think social media platforms for your brand are important and which ones do you use that are the most effective for your brand? Also What are some tips on building ones online portfolio?
SL: “It really depends on who your audience is and what story you’re trying to tell. Instagram might be more visual and behind the scenes for us, vs Facebook where we also hit on the Facebook trends of the day. Figure out your audience, where they’re hanging out and program your social platform for them there. Follow people in the community, show love and don’t just broadcast your own stuff. Comment, RT and be part of the conversations.”
PCR: Is there a new tool, app, or social media platform that you really digging lately?
PCR: Lastly, do you have a personal quote or maxim that you live by?
SL: “Spend less time being interesting and more time being interested in people and the world”