MSU grads in the final stretch on ‘Amazing Race’

Stephanie Steinberg
The Detroit News

Tyler Oakley and Korey Kuhl’s family and friends are confident the internet stars will emerge the victors in season 28 of CBS’s “The Amazing Race.”

The best friends and Jackson natives made it to the next round on Friday’s episode and are one of three remaining teams. They are competing in the TV show that has sent contestants on races around the world — competing for a $1 million prize — since 2001. The last episode airs next Friday at 8 p.m.

“When I found out Tyler was on a reality show, I was like, ‘He’s going to win,’” says Anna Zielinski, who was Oakley’s Okemos High School prom date.

This season, each of the 11 “Amazing Race” teams features at least one internet celebrity, such as a YouTube, Vine or Instagram star. The two other teams left include engaged dancers Dana Borriello and Matt Steffanina and Viner Cole LaBrant and his mother, Sheri LaBrant. Oakley and Kuhl are considered among the most famous.

Oakley, now 27, started making YouTube videos in college as a way to stay in touch with high school friends. He uploaded his first video as a Michigan State freshman — a 1-minute-29-second clip of him rambling about rain on his way to class, which has received over 439,000 hits — and that spiraled into a career.

That year, he met Kuhl, a resident assistant in his dorm building.

“We bonded over Mario Kart and soon became inseparable through our mutual love of YouTube and vlogging,” Oakley says in a 2013 vlog “Draw My Life.”

After graduation, the two friends moved to California, where they made videos together and ramped up their online presence. Oakley now has over 8 million YouTube subscribers and 5.2 million Twitter followers; Kuhl, now 30, has 83,880 YouTube subscribers and 168,000 Twitter followers. For an idea of what they post, their McDonald’s chicken nugget challenge — attempting to eat 100 nuggets in 20 minutes — is one of their infamous videos.

As far as that prom date, Oakley, Zielinski said, asked her to prom by leaving a tub of butter with spoons on her front porch.

“In the butter he wrote ‘DIG,’ but I thought it said ‘DIE.’ I thought I was receiving a death threat,” Zielinski said, laughing. “There was a note in there that told me to go the back porch, and he was there.”

Good-natured guy

Despite turning into an internet and reality TV star, longtime friend Matt Green says Oakley is the same person he was in high school — “this fun, effervescent kind of person.”

Green, 25, met Oakley in the drama club. The two later became co-presidents and started dating.

“When I heard he was on ‘The Amazing Race,’ I was like, ‘Of course he’s on it. It just makes so much sense,’ ” Green says. “Thinking about where he was 10 years ago, he was very into reality shows.”

Green, a rabbinical student in New York City, says he’s not watching “The Amazing Race” because he wants to “distance himself from the buzz” around Oakley, who he catches up with whenever they’re in the same city.

“I’m trying to maintain a sense that he’s a normal human being,” he says.

However, Green admits things have changed a bit from their theater days.

“I once walked out of a building in New York City, and I saw his face on a side of a bus,” he says. “He’s that level of famous, and it’s so weird.”

Tyler’s mom, Jackie Fields, a 51-year-old DeWitt resident, says it took some getting used to the fact her son was an internet sensation.

“When he first told us what he was doing, I was like, ‘What are you doing? What? As long as you’re happy, OK!’ ”

Now seeing her grandchildren watch YouTube instead of TV, she gets it.

“The way I look at it, we had stars on TV,” she says, “and the kids don’t watch TV, they watch YouTube.”

When Oakley told his parents he wanted to venture to LA and make this a full-time job, Fields was 100 percent supportive.

“His dad and I were like, ‘Go for it, if this is what you want to do. Find something that you love,’ ” she says.

Oakley has since published a memoir, “Binge,” that became a New York Times best-seller when it was released last year. He and Kuhl also co-host the weekly podcast “Psychobabble,” which entails a “half hour of unfiltered gossip sessions, pop culture scrutiny and stories never told before.” A few recent podcast titles: “Kitty Litter & Pinched Hotdogs” and “Minors on Grindr.”

While their humor and unfiltered thoughts are laugh-out-loud funny, they’re liberal use of “you guys” and “we” forms a connection with their young audience that signals everyone’s on the same team.

Fields says she thinks her son and Kuhl have bonded with their peers online because “what you see is who they are.”

“They care about each other — you can see that on the show — and they genuinely care about people, and I think people feel that,” she says. “I’m proud of the fact that people look up to Ty and Korey, and I hope they show their fans what it’s like to be a good human being.”

Addressing issues

The YouTube sensations have used their platforms to address issues teens face, like eating disorders (Oakley talks freely about his middle school eating disorder and body image issues). They also highlight subjects like the importance of higher education, which Oakley discussed in a segment with Michelle Obama in 2014.

Mostly, Oakley uses his stardom to show other LGBT teens and young adults that it’s OK to be open about their identities and love themselves for who they are. Through his following and campaigns with The Trevor Project, he’s raised over $1 million for suicide prevention.

“He has been a positive gay role model for probably a generation of young LGBT people,” Green says. “That was a side effect (of his fame) that has had this amazing outcome.”

Each Friday night when “The Amazing Race” airs, Oakley’s family gathers in his mother’s living room for a viewing party and picnic. Fields says she doesn’t know if her son and Kuhl will be eliminated because she goes into the show as blind as the audience.

“Every time he wins a trip, I’m just as excited as they are,” she says. “Everybody keeps asking me, ‘Are you sure you don’t know?’ And I say, ‘No, and I don’t want to know.’ I want to be just as excited as everyone else.”

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