A nagging mother, an overprotective brother and a nosy neighbour. Hayla Ghazal transitions between these characters with such ease on her channel Hayla TV that it feels like she has known them all her life.
But the 20-year-old Syrian YouTube star, who was appointed as a Change Ambassador to the United Nations in March, is quick to clarify that her caricatures bear no resemblance to her own family.
“I always get asked whether the people I make up for my videos are based on my family,” says Ghazal, who is one of the most influential young YouTubers in the Middle East.
Her recent foray into Arabic comedy sketches have caused subscriptions to her channel to soar to more than one million this year.
“The ‘mum’ character is not my mother,” she says with a giggle. “It’s all about keeping it light and funny – these sketches portray an exaggerated version of an Arab family.”
For Ramadan, the Dubai resident has started a special Arabic comedy series, A Teenage Girl's Diary, in which she plays all the characters from a hysterical mother to a coarse-voiced teenage boy. Ghazal writes all the episodes, which are uploaded twice a week and subtitled in English. It takes a full day to shoot an episode around the house.
One recent episode is about conflicting advice given by family members on how to conduct herself on the first day at university. The episode has almost 1 million views.
“It takes you into the day-to-day life of a teenage girl. She writes in her diary what happened to her,” says Ghazal. “And it always involves her mother.”
Ghazal says her YouTube channel was born out of a tenacious attempt to get her foot in the door of the media industry in 2013.
“I found that nobody was accepting of the idea of women working in the media within my family circle,” she says. “This is a common issue in the Middle East. I’ve always wanted to be a TV presenter, but was faced with reactions like: ‘Don’t even think about it.’”
She says her family was initially reluctant about her career choice. “They never differentiated between me and my brothers at home, but they were worried about the negative feedback I would receive.”
Ghazal says she turned to YouTube to find her voice and began making lifestyle videos for teenage girls in English. “In the beginning I didn’t know what to talk about, so by default began producing fashion and beauty videos,” says the young entrepreneur, who also owns a bridal- wear boutique, Hayla Couture, in Dubai.
“But I wasn’t enjoying them. It was only a few months ago that I really found my direction, which is comedy. I wasn’t getting much feedback on my English videos, so I moved to Arabic. There is more demand there.” The idea for her Ramadan series came during a meet-up with fans at her store.
“I was expecting only young girls to be there, but was surprised when I saw them with their mothers and aunts – they all follow my channel. They told me that the girls were more encouraged to play with their sibling after watching the videos where I challenge my brother,” she says. “So that gave me the idea to make something that not only spreads positivity, but also brings families together.”
Ghazal finds inspiration for her sketches in “random settings”.
"I reluctantly attended a wedding with my mother once, and that resulted in a video on different types of wedding dances. This video has more than five million views. You know, the great thing about YouTube as a platform is that you have the freedom to create your content as you like and anywhere. You have the freedom to express yourself, and anyone can be a part of it."
• Episodes of A Teenage Girl’s Diary are uploaded on Mondays and Thursdays at 9pm on Hayla TV