Anna Akana says her “whole world stopped” when her 13-year-old sister committed suicide on Valentine’s Day 2007.
“I was so low. And I couldn’t see a way out if it,” she explains in the current issue of PEOPLE of the deep depression that clouded her senior year of high school and the years that followed after her sister, Kristina’s death.
But after a year and a half of barely cracking a smile, Akana, now 26, found a spark of happiness: a comedy special featuring Margaret Cho.
“It allowed me to escape for a moment, forget about everything and laugh. And I wanted to do that for someone else,” says Akana, whose sister was a victim of bullying at school. “I want to make people laugh when they feel like they can’t.”
And now she’s doing just that.
Akana quit college after her first semester and began pursuing comedy. She now entertains 1.4 million YouTube channel subscribers, recently wrapped production on the feature film You Get Me opposite Bella Thorne and Halston Sage and will launch her digital series Miss 2059 on Verizon’s go90 app June 21.
(An exclusive preview clip from Miss 2059 is below.)
For more from Akana – including how she spent her childhood traveling around the world – pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands now
But even as her professional horizons expand, Akana remains dedicated to the original mission that led her to pursue a career in entertainment.
“I was at the DMV one time and this girl came up, crying. She told me, ‘I’ve wanted to kill myself before, and seeing your videos made me stop.’ That’s when I realized how powerful YouTube can be,” says Akana, who also hosts the hit podcast Explain Things to Me with boyfriend Brad Gage.
“If my sister had had a YouTuber to watch who gave her something to look forward to, would she have killed herself?” she says. “I think about that all the time. That’s ultimately why I do what I do.”