In a World Wide Web full of bizarre celebrities, from the histrionic Chris “Leave Britney alone!” Crocker to the glassy-eyed Tay “Chocolate Rain” Zonday, one YouTube sensation stands out. His name is Mike Tompkins, and he’s… rather normal.
The London, Ont., vocalist and producer garners millions of hits for videos in which he cheerily recreates the multi-layered sounds of contemporary pop songs—using only his voice and mouth, and occasionally, a tambourine. In October, über-producer Timbaland (Nelly Furtado, Justin Timberlake) invited him to Miami, saying, “You’re doing something normal, but in a really cool way.”
Tompkins, 23, is clean-cut and well-mannered—over lunch at Duggan’s Brewery in Toronto, he even says grace before tucking into his burger. He’s the kind of guy his many teen-girl fans would like to take home to their parents, if he weren’t already married.
He and wife Kayla have been together since an onstage kiss in high school drama class. Now she’s his manager, publicist and stylist, rooting for superstardom despite the fact that his fans “don’t want to know I exist,” she says. “You want Mike to be that girl’s fantasy—but at the same time, I do exist.”
According to the metrics on Tompkins’s YouTube channel, 55 per cent of his registered viewers are female, mostly teens. “If you’re trying to be a male pop icon, that’s the audience you have to shoot for,” he says, matter-of-factly. His choice of songs helps him reach them: his first video was a cover of Miley Cyrus’s Party in the USA, and he followed up with Owl City’s teen-dreamy Fireflies.
And while the artists’ original videos tend to be raunchy—Katy Perry’s Teenage Dream is one long heavy-petting session—Tompkins provides a G-rated alternative. Using split screens and special effects, he shows multiple versions of himself imitating everything from basses to synthesizers. Occasionally, he alters lyrics: in Perry’s song, for instance, “Let’s go all the way tonight” becomes “Let’s fall into each other’s arms.”
When he and Kayla have children one day, he doesn’t want them to hear their father singing about “hooking up with random girls. I’m trying to be different in a way that’s not manipulating the minds of our youth.”
Ironically, he was propelled to fame by bawdy blogger Perez Hilton, who posted Tompkins’s Teenage Dream video in August, with the headline “Pretty On The Eyes and Ears!” The resulting increase in traffic drove the video to YouTube’s front page; from there, The Ellen Degeneres Show brought Tompkins in to sing along with a pre-recorded backing “band” of Mike Tompkinses. Previously, his biggest performance had been in the talent show of a Caribbean cruise he took with his family at age 11; his singing apparently caused a crowd of 700 pensioners to “freak out.”
Performing live on Ellen, for an audience of millions, “The energy was just crazy.” Afterwards, his day got crazier: he was informed backstage that Timbaland had called and wanted to work with him.“I was jumping around, hugging the producers!” Tompkins, who has helmed records for other artists (including Shad’s Juno-nominated album, The Old Prince), was already a fan. He brought Timbaland an upbeat demo that sounded like the producer’s own tracks, with hard-hitting drums, synth pads, and a nasal, hooky lead—except that Tompkins had created all the sounds a cappella.
“As soon as I played it, his eyes widened. He goes, ‘Man, you’ve been studying me!’ ” Together, they reworked the track and devised four others; all are being considered for Timbaland’s album Shock Value III. Currently, Tompkins is in talks to sign as a solo artist on Timbaland’s label, Mosley Music Group. The plan is for him to release original pop music and come up with a way to perform live without having to clone himself.
And should Timbaland succeed in helping him progress from YouTube sensation to bona fide star, he’ll have to learn to separate his stage persona from his real life. “All of a sudden, things are starting to move in a way I’ve never imagined,” Tompkins says, going quiet for a moment. “I’m still trying to figure everything out.”