Expat YouTubers Share the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Life Abroad

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It’s the era of the travel influencer, and the rest of us are just scrolling through it. Even in lockdown, expat influencers (most notably, “Frenchfluencers”), have reported increased engagement as people flock to their content to live vicariously through a filtered, picture-perfect fantasy.

But there’s a different breed of influencer gaining traction, one that aims to strip back the Clarendon curtain: the expat YouTuber. Far from staged, airbrushed perfection, they are here to show you that life abroad isn’t a cakewalk, and they rack up tens of thousands of subscribers sharing the nitty gritty of la vie française.

“I don’t think there are a ton of people who are really talking about what real life in Paris is, and I think that people now more than ever really just want to know what real life is like in other countries, ‘cause there are these beautiful movies and shows about different countries and cities, but what is life really like when you’re a foreigner living there?” explains Tiffanie Davis, who started making videos in December of 2019 after moving to France for an MBA, and subsequent work in the luxury beauty industry. “I think Paris has this stigma of being the dream… it’s not always fairytales and roses and beautiful French men.”

The Boston native quickly began gaining followers with videos exploring everything from the practical (breaking down the cost of living in Paris), to the personal (like getting kicked out of her apartment in Paris). Day-in-the-life videos make up a good chunk of her content, but so do specific segments, often inspired by comments on her videos, or personal experience. “I’ve gone through so much, and I feel like a lot of people could benefit from what I personally have to say about Paris,” she says. Representation is also a big deal for her, with several of her videos unpacking stereotypes about diversity in France, or practical advice for black expats. “In the media we don’t often see black Americans in Paris, we kind of see the movies built around a certain type of person who comes to Paris, so I wanted to break that mold.”

Rosie McCarthy, who grew up in rural New Zealand, found her way to Paris in a somewhat similar fashion. She followed her now-husband, a Frenchman, to Paris, where she went to business school and worked for L’Oréal before starting the channel Not Even French. Her observational videos about language (i.e. difficult French words to pronounce), culture (like a 30-day “French diet” regime), and lifestyle (what it’s like to get married in France), proved so popular that she continued making content about expat life even after returning to New Zealand in 2019. “I thought I’d lose half my subscribers, but 99% stayed,” she recalls. “I realised that I still had a decent chunk of 6 years’ worth of experiences to share and draw on, still had a French husband, and still (pre-COVID) planned to spend 1-2 months in France every single year. Plus, I am still a raging Francophile!”

Her audience is largely in their 20s and 30s, 35% based in France and 20% based in the USA, a mix of expats based in France, people in relationships with French people, Francophiles, and French people who, she says, “love hearing how they are perceived and debating my points in the comments!” Rosie takes an almost psychological approach to her videos, with her most successful ones focusing on “interesting features and quirks of French people,” allowing viewers to “people watch” by proxy.

Becoming—and staying—successful on YouTube is not easy work, especially when you’re doing it on the side. “YouTube on its own is a full-time job,” says Tiffanie. “End to end we probably average 10 hours to create, market, and engage with a basic sit down video,” explains Rosie, who “batches” videos by shooting four at a time in order to optimize her time while building her business, Badass Careers.

For Damon Dominique, travel vlogging has always been the main hustle. “I always knew I wanted to do something in design, travel, culture, and entertainment… and also be my own boss. What does all that equal? Being lucky enough to be born in the era of the internet. My entire life I wanted to be a travel show host, but never found the show that really spoke to me,” he says, explaining that rather than wait around for the perfect opportunity, he decided to make the show he’d want to watch.

Born and raised in Indiana, Damon met his frequent collaborator Jo Franco at college in New York, and the two started the channel DamonAndJo, where they geeked out on linguistics and cheap travel tips. Now that he is semi-permanently based in Paris (“I don’t focus too much on saying where I live, since, before Covid, I was never anywhere for that long, and that’s how I always imagined living.”), and Jo lives in LA, he has focused on curating his solo page (as well as, more recently, launching his own French language course online).

Videos vary in length, location, and content, with some designed almost as if they are half-hour travel shows you might watch on cable… with a classic Damon twist, of course. But there’s also a lot of focus on his adopted hometown, whether in casual “Red Wine Talks” with friends, rants about French bureaucracy, or curious romps around Paris. Above all, his style relies on an irresistible combination of humor and blunt honesty. “I think people enjoy watching some of my videos because it’s comforting to know that even if you’re living in one of the greatest cities in the world, the struggle is real…no matter where you are – and even when you’re not struggling-struggling (I’m living in a beautiful neighborhood, with the job of my dreams), you’re still struggling in some aspect. I think it’s comforting for people, not to bask in your misery, but to know that no matter how close you are to your so-called dream life, there will always be something that isn’t exactly working out. This isn’t discouraging, it’s empowering.”

This seems to be the main throughline of all these different channels. While much of the content we see on social media is deliberately exclusionary, putting up a wall between influencer and follower, these expat YouTubers are reaching out their hands through the screen to try and pull viewers to the other side. They’re saying, yes, it’s hard, but if I can do it, so can you.

“I was really keen to help any recent or soon-to-be expats in France learn from my mistakes,” mentions Rosie. “I often mentally go back through my experiences and get inspired [to make videos] by things I wish I had known at the time.” Tiffanie says many viewers have thanked her for giving  them the courage and information they needed to finally move abroad. Recently, she even published an online course on planning your move abroad, and is hoping to release more products in the summer.

In addition to YouTube, Damon, Tiffanie, and Rosie use a variety of platforms to connect with their fans. Tiffanie has found Clubhouse to be an effective way to interact directly with followers, Rosie uses Instagram polls to get feedback, and Damon uses Instagram stories to share tidbits that don’t make “the highlight reel.” But YouTube will always be home. “I am a storyteller at heart,” Damon says, “and I haven’t yet found the right way to convey an entire story in five seconds… and I don’t know if I ever will.”

Featured Image: Stock Photos from Shutterstock / Wachiwit

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