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Culture

Kyra TV Was a YouTube Phenomenon. Then Its Black Creators Started Speaking Out

The youth media company closed a $7.3 million round of investment in 2019. Now it's facing a Black Lives Matter reckoning.
25 August 2020, 4:19pm

Kyra TV started out with big intentions. With the motto “recreating TV for the YouTube generation”, the youth media company bet hard on YouTube shows being the next big thing. For a while, they actually managed it. Then Black Lives Matter happened, and it became another casualty of the industry-wide cancellations that have appeared in the wake of the movement for racial justice.

The company began in 2017 after three of the four co-founders – James Cadwallader, Devran Karaca, Robbie Shimmin and Nick Dart – tried and failed to start a recommendations app for activities in London. Until this summer, Kyra was on the up. Their YouTube shows – including men’s fashion show PAQ, its female counterpart Navya and food show Bad Canteen – had amassed over two million subscribers collectively, and it had just signed TikTok star Noen Eubanks.

Kyra claim to reach 60 million young people every month with their content, nabbing brand deals with Gucci, Netflix, Converse, Fila, Nike, Spotify – you name it, they landed collabs with pretty much any brand that Gen Z cared about. Their shows featured appearances from big names like Doja Cat, AJ Tracey, Maya Jama, Ovie Soko of Love Island fame and Billie Eilish (twice). At the end of 2019, Kyra closed a $7.3 million round of investment and announced plans to launch 10 new shows. They were set to make $10 million in 2019, and planned to go even bigger in 2020.

But the end of May saw Kyra axing all but two of their preexisting shows, including every programme fronted by non-white presenters. The company managed to keep these developments under the radar until it posted about Black Lives Matter at the beginning of June. For some former Kyra employees, this was the last straw.

PAQ presenter Shaquille-Aaron Keith tweeted in response: “When my stepdad died, I literally still had to film the next day and on that day. When I said I was being targeted, I’ve been given the narrative of the angry black boy because I was complaining about the lack of care, nobody listened. That pain I still carry to this day bro.

“There were literal days where I would film and I was told to smile on camera even though I was going through what I was going through, once even told ‘stop looking like you want to kill yourself’.”

Days later, four former Kyra hosts – including Keith, PAQ co-host Dexter Black and Bad Canteen host Caleb Kumiko – went on an Instagram livestream that was eventually uploaded to YouTube and titled Surviving Kyra. One by one, they detailed their experiences of mistreatment: the dodgy contracts, the lack of mental health support, how presenters were pitted against each other and made to feel afraid to speak out. “What they did is sickening,” one presenter concluded on the video. (The video has since been made private.)

Fans that once clamored for Kyra tote bags and socks have now turned on the company. One YouTube comment on the Surviving Kyra livestream reads: “Kyra is beyond disgusting. Y’all deserved way better. They literally exploited you.” Another adds: “Kyra literally exploited and profited off British BIPOC/youth culture and creativity then refused to invest in the talent that gave them a name.”

PAQ was Kyra’s first real success and was one of the shows to get axed this year, along with Nayva. Both are fashion shows that involve challenges (see: “We Styled Aitch” or “Recreating Iconic Doja Cat Fits”), competitions and thrifting clothes from charity shops. Both shows were led by presenters of colour – three-quarters of the PAQ host roster and all of Nayva respectively.

According to the ex-employees that VICE UK spoke to, this casting was no accident. “It’s completely curated,” says former presenter Hélène Selam Kleih. She was one of the hosts for Bad Canteen, a cooking show that attempted to upscale a takeaway into a fashionable restaurant. “It’s Black culture. In the Bad Canteen group, I’m mixed race, Caleb’s Black, Shaq is Black, Jordan’s Black. Tia and Scott are the only white people. At the time I loved that we were all from different backgrounds and naively it seemed like a community project, redoing this chicken shop in Woolwich.

“It seemed genuine and like a way for us to set a narrative – but seeing how things were behind the scenes and how quickly the show was axed… whilst I had some amazing times with the cast, it was a completely curated experience, with Black culture for profit.” Bad Canteen was cancelled after only one season in August 2018, but Hélène made one last appearance on a PAQ episode in October that year.

A former Nayva director, who asked not to be named as they are currently in conversations with Kyra over their treatment, agrees: “They definitely commodify Black culture. Maybe they don’t even know they’re doing it, maybe it’s subconscious, but it’s done.” All of _Nayva_’s hosts (a fourth, Jasmine Gaziza Müller, left when the show relocated to LA) are women of colour.

Once, former Kyra presenter Clare* tells VICE, she overheard a casting director say: “We want no white girls, we want not one white girl in it. If you're white, you're not getting the show.”

“They’re culture vultures,” Clare, who requested anonymity, explains. “They bank off of the creativity and the talent of Black youth […] They'd love to do stuff that had to do with Esme being Mexican, Faith being Black, Jasmine to being Indian – all of the parts of ourselves that involved culture.” In perhaps the most egregious example of this, host Esme Esamadixy was given her own taco truck in one episode to make tacos for a guest presenter.

Then there were the racial microaggressions. “There were editors saying that Black presenters shouldn’t be put on thumbnails as often because they don’t perform as well,” Clare says. A director told VICE that a white creative director once referred to a Black presenter’s hair as a “bad weave”.

Kyra co-founder and CEO Devran Amaratunga Karaca told VICE: “We take the allegations that we did not prioritise the wellbeing of our people very seriously. As we have set out previously, we have launched an independent review into our business and how we treat our people and we will implement any recommendations.”

All this was why Clare was furious when she saw Kyra post about Black Lives Matter. “How I was treated made me really wanna die for a long time,” she says. “They fucked me up so bad and now they want to talk about how Black Lives Matter. How they’re here for Black people – but only for Black people to be cool and trendy.”

In its quest to dominate Gen Z media, Kyra didn’t just cast presenters of colour. They also cast very young talent. Clare was only 19 when she was cast by Kyra. Nayva hosts, Esme and Faith Harper, were only 17. Most presenters were signed when were just in their teens. Danny Lomas and Elias Riadi were both 20 when PAQ started filming. Noen Eubanks, Kyra’s latest signing, is 19 years old.

According to Clare, Faith and Esme’s parents had to look over their contracts, but the girls were told Kyra would find another person to replace them if they didn’t sign. Eventually these contracts were taken to a lawyer, who, Clare says, “told us it was like a contract written by a crooked music label from the 80s”.

According to a copy of the contract shared with VICE, presenters were compelled to delete all their pre-existing social media accounts – minus Instagram – and hand over total control to Kyra. The contract allowed Kyra to “create, maintain, control and own” all social media for their talent, giving the company “complete and unfettered access”, including “any and all data” related to the accounts, like access to Google AdSense, the programme that typically allows creators to monetise their own content.

Kyra founder Dev Karaca told Digiday that brand deals make up 80 per cent of Kyra’s revenue and brands typically pay six figures to Kyra for an affiliate episode. Twenty to 30 percent of Nayva episodes, for instance, were sponsored by brands.

Clare says Kyra presenters saw precious little of these six-figure sums. She says she and her co-hosts on their show were initially paid £1,200 every two weeks, which was eventually raised to £1,700, despite regularly filming from 9AM to 7PM, five days a week. Their contract obliged them to work weekends and bank holidays, and one director confirmed that they would regularly forfeit their weekends to edit or film.

Despite this, most of the presenters were in the dark about the treatment of their fellow hosts. Ex-employees say that Kyra deliberately kept presenters of separate shows apart. Clare says that when she spoke with Noen, she quickly realised he was on substantially higher salary than all of her co-hosts combined. She says that when Kyra found out, he was told not to speak to her again.

On the Surviving Kyra video, Dexter and Shaquille allege that managers planted distrust between their TV shows and forbade them from speaking to each other. “We were already close to PAQ but when things with Bad Canteen started going downhill, they started telling the PAQ boys not to speak to us,” Bad Canteen host Caleb said in the video.

This might explain why fans never got the crossovers they were begging for. “It’s because if we did a crossover episode we’d all be linking up like ‘what do you get?’, ‘Oh you get free Ubers? We don’t’,” Clare tells VICE.

All this had emotional and psychological repercussions for the young people hired by Kyra. Hélène says that her mental health suffered while she worked for the company. “I was doing the show while my brother was sectioned – he still is sectioned,” she says. “But that was the height of it all. Being under that stress and being on that show was crazy for my mental health.” At the time of filming, she says she was only being paid as little as £100 a day to present the show and was discouraged from doing any modelling or work outside it.

After the show, Hélène went on to write an anthology on men and mental health, which she said received no support from Kyra. “I received backing from everyone I’d worked with – from Vogue even – but very little support from them. The head guy [one of the founders] might have put in a tenner to the crowdfund.”

This stems from Kyra’s belief that everyone who worked with them had to be “all Kyra, all the time”, as one director told VICE. Its presenters were heavily discouraged against seeking out any work outside of Kyra – Clare says that when she agreed to her first modelling photoshoot after signing with Kyra, a manager told her she would be fired and have to pay a fine to the company. The contract she signed says that Kyra are entitled “any and all remedies” should they breach the exclusivity clause of their contract.

“Obviously,” she tells VICE, “I was like ‘No, I'm not doing that’. So I did the shoot. And then they told me ‘Oh, it's okay. We know that you didn't mean anything bad by it. So, like, we're gonna let you pass. You don't have to pay anything.’ As if I would pay them shit. Like, you guys owe me money, not the other way around.”

The Kyra employees that VICE spoke to say that this treatment is enabled by those at the very top of the company. In interviews with ex-staffers, its four founders were described as “manipulative” people who “play with others like they’re playing chess”. Clare suggested to VICE that they follow a book titled The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene “like it’s their Bible – it’s all about how to exploit people and gain power”. (Kyra co-founder and CEO Devran told VICE: “There is no truth in the suggestion that our business decisions were guided by the book.”)

The self-help book once described by CNN as “amoral” and “ruthless” sets up 48 maxims that must be followed to gain influence and power, including: mask your intentions, create a cult-like following and let others work and take the credit. It comes up again in the Surviving Kyra YouTube video, with former PAQ host Dexter Black saying of the book: “It’s basically manipulation techniques. It’s ways to convince you to do things... like reverse psychology.”

The comments on Kyra’s original Black Lives Matter post on Instagram are on the side of ex-hosts like Clare and Hélène. “Embarrassing,” says one commenter, with another saying the company should “practice what they preach”. One comment simply reads: “The trauma you have caused is disgusting.”

The growing public discontent over Kyra hasn’t gone unnoticed by the company. On 12th June, the four founders posted an apology on Instagram, admitting that they had got “lost on [their] journey”.

“Since day one we have been committed to hiring a workforce and talent full of diversity, but by being ignorant to the specific experiences and needs of our black and POC workforce, we failed to be an ally and fight against the ongoing systemic racism that exists in the creative industries,” the statement reads.

Co-founder and CEO Devran Amaratunga Karaca told VICE: “We know that what matters going forward is the action we are taking to support our diverse workforce. We have established a Diversity and Inclusion Board, which meets for the first time this week and we have also appointed our first Head of People and our first Head of Talent. In addition, we are working with an external HR consultancy to help us improve our practices so that we can ensure all of our people are well supported.”

The founders have also committed to an independent third party review of the business and to reviewing talent contracts and increasing junior pay and mental health support.

But that doesn’t change the fact that all their POC-fronted shows are now gone. Its remaining programmes – Field Trip, The Zac and Jay Show, Eric’s World and the Noen Show – mainly feature white presenters. Was this pivot the plan all along? And will the recent BLM allegations dent Kyra’s ambitions? Only time will tell. In the meantime, many of its original fans have already switched off. As one Instagram commenter on Kyra’s apology post puts it: “Just stop. You already did enough harm.”

@midmaddo