Things were looking down for Lionel Barnes in late 2018. He’d been let go from his information technology job in Plant City. A rocky relationship had ended. He was soon sleeping in his 20-year-old Mercedes with his teenage son, Lionel Jr.
He’d park in front of fast food restaurants in Tampa and use the free internet to apply for jobs.
Trying to figure out how to come up with some money, he remembered his old Google Adsense account. The platform allows YouTube video creators — something Barnes dabbled in with little success — to get paid. The more views of a video, and its corresponding ads, the more money.
“I had $38 in there, and you need at least $100 before YouTube will pay out,” Barnes said. “I thought, if I could just make another $62, I can get a whole $100.”
He recorded new videos in his car, edited them on his phone and uploaded them with that free Wi-Fi. Unlike the relationship comedy sketches he’d tried in the past, he focused on Black celebrity gossip. Steve Harvey’s divorce. Lil’ Kim’s “baby daddy.” Did Phor from VH1′s Black Ink Crew cheat on Nikki?
He called his channel The Lionel Barnes Show, and told the viewers “welcome back,” even though he’d never recorded an episode before. Soon he shortened it to the snappier Lionel B Show.
In between, he ironed his clothes in a gazebo in a public park before job interviews, including one at a Tampa Bay television station, where, he said, they worried his videos might conflict with the news work they did.
“I guess they thought I was a real-life reporter, or something,” Barnes said. He was actually winging it as an amateur and really needed the job. The videos, in which Barnes offered his own commentary and opinions over images gleaned from social media, were getting only modest views in the thousands and were far from earning him a living.
Then he uploaded “Jay-Z Runs Up on Offset About Beyonce.” In it, Barnes speculates about a beef between the men, as a video shows Jay-Z talking to the rapper Offset backstage at an arena.
It topped a million views in a day and kept growing. Barnes checked his Google Adsense account. Soon there was more than $10,000 in it.
“I was like, there’s no way they’re going to send me that much money,” Barnes said. “It has to be an error or something.”
Father and son sat in the car in a McDonald’s parking lot with fingers crossed the day it was supposed to be deposited in Barnes’ account. When it happened, Barnes said, “our lives changed in an instant.” They’d spent nearly three months on the street.
First he got a hotel room. Then he called the job that was waffling on hiring him, taking himself out of consideration.
Barnes, 41, has not looked back. A little over two years later, the Lionel B Show channel has more than 350,000 subscribers and 90 million views and counting. The videos have become more polished, as has Barnes’ presenting voice and editing. He has also grown an audience on Instagram.
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“People started saying, Lionel, I love your videos, you’re so funny,” he said. “I wasn’t even trying to be funny, but I went with it.”
Celebrity gossip is still part of the mix, but the focus has expanded. In recent videos, Barnes, who lives in Tampa, has interviewed major music stars from the 1990s and early 2000s, such as Ja Rule and Krayzie Bone, people he considers “legends” in the era of hip hop he grew up with.
Being able to pay the bills with the YouTube channel has allowed Barnes, a graduate of Bloomingdale High School, to produce and release his own music. He said he recently recorded a song with rapper E.D.I. Mean of The Outlawz, a group founded by the late Tupac Shakur.
He also recently signed on to produce several dozen songs for music libraries. The libraries amass large catalogs of songs they own and license to television production companies not wanting to pay big money for songs that are already hits.
Barnes was born in Panama City, but moved to Tampa from Italy as a teenager when his stepfather was stationed at MacDill Air Force Base.
He was cautious with the money he made from YouTube at first, he said, but when the checks became larger and remained steady, he bought himself a 1972 Chevrolet Impala, something he’d wanted for years, and began customizing it.
The car was for fun, but, even that turned into a business prospect, Barnes said.
“I always watch car shows, but I never saw a reality show with the type of car we call a ‘donk’ here in Florida,” he said. A donk is a customized 1970s or ‘80s Chevrolet Impala or Caprice, usually characterized by oversized wheels.
He began filming his own pilot footage for a car series, and recently signed a deal allowing Pictures Up Entertainment to shop the idea around to networks.
Earlier this month, his face appeared on a digital billboard above New York’s Times Square.
“The billboard was super surreal, but it came at a time in my life where it seems like every day is surreal, because the opportunities all the sudden are coming so fast,” he said. “I guess it’s like the saying, it takes 10 years to be an overnight success.”
The Lionel B show can be seen at YouTube.com/lionelbshow.
Correction: This story was updated to correct the name of Lionel Barnes Jr.