Any time I find myself writing about YouTube celebrities or the site’s entangled ecosystem of fame, profits, scandals and community, I almost always end up feeling hopelessly lost and achingly old. It’s clear that YouTube has its benefits - it’s a democratisation of ideas and entertainment, accessible to anyone with an internet connection and a good enough camera - but most of those upsides seem rooted in the abstract these days. Between the increasing toxicity of the comments section, coupled with a festering subset of channels specializing and profiting from hate speech, and the site’s seeming disinterest in dealing with the rot, an act as simple as looking for a video to watch has become treacherous. There was a point where I couldn’t watch an innocent clip of a person or piece of pop culture I liked without the site instantly recommending me Tolstoy-length screeds from screeching men on why the thing I liked was wrong, a feminist conspiracy or a tool of the liberal media. While I stress that yes, Not All YouTubers, it’s still a site that, like Twitter, I have a complicated relationship with. I spend way too much time on both, find immense pleasure in each platform, then feel tired and dirty when inevitably confronted with the chaos that’s been allowed to breed unchallenged, front and centre.
Yet I can’t deny my fascination with the very thing that makes me feel so bemused and cranky. The concept of instant fame is equal parts alluring and repulsive, and now it seems more accessible than ever. Andy Warhol talked of those elusive 15 minutes of fame, but even he probably couldn’t have envisioned something like Vine cutting that down to 7 seconds. YouTube has also commodified banality in a way even the most committed reality TV couldn’t. There are people who make their living by playing video games or unboxing toys or showing off their recent shopping hauls or even whispering sweet nothings into the microphone. Something literally anyone can do is now a marketable skill that can be mined for millions if the stars align.
In the UK, the biggest YouTube star is easily Zoe Sugg, best known to the world as Zoella. It’s the nickname-turned-brand that can be found on various lines of beauty and bathing products, the moniker on the shelf above a pile of pretty bestselling paperbacks, and even the official title of her Wikipedia page. The 27 year old vlogger has over 11.9m subscribers with views totalling over 1bn. Her debut novel had the highest first-week sales of any debut author in the UK since Neilsen began keeping records in 1998. She sang on Band Aid 30’s re-release of Do They Know It’s Christmas? in aid of raising money to fight the West African ebola epidemic. She was a guest contestant on the Comic Relief edition of The Great British Bake Off, and when YouTube began major print and TV advertising in the UK, Zoella was the biggest solo star of the campaign, her smiling visage on billboards across the country.
The chances are many of you will have gotten to this paragraph and asked yourself ‘Who the hell is Zoella?’ That list of impressive achievements will mean very little to most people, even many Brits who primarily use YouTube for listening to music and indulging in cat videos. YouTube celebrity is fascinating in that regard - you can be known to tens of millions of people, make 7 figures a year and have your face on an array of products but it’ll be the job of someone’s ten year old niece to explain who you are and why you’re famous. Despite its growing power and increasing influence over traditional media, to large swaths of the population, the internet remains separate from real life. Zoella’s managed to break through into the mainstream to a certain extent, but for most, especially those over the age of 21, her acclaim and appeal may forever remain elusive. It’s strange how someone three months my senior can make me feel so old.
Sugg started her online career with a beauty and lifestyle blog in February 2009, which was the kind of scrappy blog of youthful enthusiasm you would expect from any 19 year old. Encouraged by her rapidly increasing follower count, she made the jump to vlogging, which was beginning to make a real impact on YouTube, well beyond the mystic days of lonelygirl15 and experiments with Mentos and Diet Coke. It took her two years for her vlogging to become a full-time career, then another year after that to reach 1 million subscribers.
Watching a Zoella video is invitingly normal, if somewhat repetitive. Vogue referred to her appeal as being rooted in her ‘extraordinary ordinariness’, and that’s evident in her most popular videos, which tend to follow the same patterns. Hanging out and performing wacky challenges with her fellow vlogger friends (including her boyfriend Alfie Deyes and brother Joe Sugg); simple make-up, hair and baking tutorials; shopping hauls from the High Street and glimpses into her handbag; and the occasional moment of sincere confessional. A video of Zoella showing off some clothes she bought from Primark got 4.1m views. There are over 11m views on a 5 minute tutorial on how to do a messy bun hairstyle.
Search for any YouTube channel involving a pretty white 27 year old woman and you’ll probably find dozens of videos exactly like the ones on Zoella’s channel. Searches for ‘Primark Haul’ alone bring up about 1.37m results. Shopping at Primark isn’t an unusual or dazzling experience for most of us, so the idea of taking 15 minutes out of my day to watch someone else show off their purchases from a shop I visit regularly is somewhat baffling to me. Yet Zoella’s made a career out of the everyday routine turned relatable treat. It makes sense that her biggest audience demographic is young girls because watching her channel is a little like your big sister, or that super cool babysitter, telling you about her cool and very adult day, or at least the greatest level of adulthood you can imagine at the age of 11. There’s no pretension to a Primark haul, nor is there any illusion of grandeur to showing off the make-up you bought in Boots. That’s the charm. Anyone can do it. Zoella just happens to do it best, somehow. That ‘100 per cent wholesome, attainable and approachable’ image as Vogue called it, one that newspapers cannot help but compare favourably to women like the Kardashians (the perpetual forced catfight continues), has made her equal parts agony aunt, style guru and cultural zeitgeist, but never to the point of losing that relatable edge.
This simplicity has made Zoella a lot of money and opened the door to immense opportunities. Her body and beauty line, packaged for Instagram perfection and affordable to all, regularly sells out and has proven popular even among those for whom the name ‘Zoella’ is but a brand. Her YA novel Girl, Online smashed sales records too. However, she’s not without controversy. That book, the one that headlines giddily proclaimed sold more in its first week than the first Harry Potter novel, came with its own issues of authorship. I was a book blogger when the novel was released and it never seemed in doubt to me that a ghostwriter had actually done most of the legwork. The timing just didn’t match up otherwise, nor did the idea that a major publisher like Penguin would let a guaranteed cash cow like Girl Online make it to the
shelves without a little guidance.
Most YouTubers don’t write their own books, and nobody really expects them to either. It’s not literature, it’s just more branding. The difference here was that Zoella’s book was a novel and not a pseudo-memoir or picture-filled activity guide like her contemporaries, and no ghostwriter was ever fully credited unless you knew where to look (generally, the first paragraph of the acknowledgements, just search for the name who isn’t a friend or family member and may be credited as having ‘helped’ in the process). I don’t think anyone really would have minded if Zoella and Penguin had been honest from the beginning, but when your entire brand is built on the foundations of supposed relatability, that iron-clad authenticity that makes you just one of the girls, an omission like that means more than a business decision, particularly when your audience are teenage girls who hang on your every word. Being a millionaire with a book deal is one thing; outsourcing the actual writing of the book is just a step too far from being a normal gal.
Zoella and Penguin eventually admitted they had ‘worked with an expert editorial team to help her bring to life her characters and experiences in a heart-warming and compelling story’, and sales were never impacted by the news. Both sequels sold well and her brand was reinforced (the novel isn’t autobiographical but the parallels are obvious and intended). It pushed forward Zoella’s next literary venture - a nationwide book club, in conjunction with WH Smith, who had previously partnered with former daytime talk show hosts Richard and Judy for their own book club (think Oprah’s Book Club but a bit boozier). Her choices are all YA, in keeping with her audience, and now she’s ‘invited’ prominent writers like Juno Dawson to recommend their own choices for readers. The Zoella magic even worked on other people’s books: One recommendation, The Potion Diaries by Amy Alward, saw its sales increased by more than 11,000% (Alward is Zoella’s editor).
On top of scandal, Zoella’s literary influence has come under fire for not challenging children enough. According to a University of Dundee study, a decline in reading age has taken over secondary schools, where Zoella’s books remain a favourite, and this led to yet another tiff over whether a rather fizzy rom-com for teens that’s not unlike the wish fulfillment stories of many a fan-fiction was somehow destroying the fragile little minds of children everywhere. For those of you wondering, the answer is obviously no.
Undoubtedly, Zoella is an influencer of immense power. She recommends a product, people buy it. Her name appears on a book or bottle of body wash and the shelves are cleared. When Zoella is named ambassador for mental health charity Mind, people take notice. Having suffered from panic attacks since her early teens, Zoella has spoken extensively about her anxiety and how it affects her life, particularly as it intersects with her fame. In many ways, vlogging is probably the worst career to have for someone living with a panic disorder. It’s a job that requires endless levels of emotional labour and forces you to engage with millions of judgemental ciphers whose names and faces you’ll never know. Countless people will want more from you, will demand more of your time and energy and you’ll feel obliged to give it because that hunger drives your ad revenue. Others will spend hours of their life harassing and abusing you, to which plenty of rolling eyes will tell you to just get over it because it’s not that big of a deal. Your life and personality become a commodity that advertisers will dictate changes to, and throughout all of this, you must remain relatable. You can’t stop being the thing that people want, even at the cost of your own personal evolution.
That’s one of the things that fascinates me about Zoella. We are separated in age by three months but when I watch videos of her, I often forget I’m the younger one. Her persona has been made softer and sweeter and bouncier over the years as the subscriber numbers go up. She’s perennially peppy and each video shows her smiling big or small, eyes wide and make-up impeccable. Her accent has lessened over the years but her voice is clear, casual and appealing to kids. The life she presents nowadays is one of more evident glamour than her earlier days - she’s got money and she spends it - but she still feels so achingly young. She’s closer to 30 than 20 now but her videos are a cloud of youthful frivolity for the most part, and that fascinates me. Would her viewers revolt if she decided to start swearing and talking about politics or she clothed herself head to toe in Versace and read Pynchon novels?
An interesting contrast to Zoella is Louise Pentland, best known to her fans as SprinkleofGlitter. Last year, the vlogger, UK based like Zoella and part of her circle of friends, announced she’d be ‘quitting’ her YouTube channel as it was and changing it to something more suited to her interests and desires. In short, she wanted it to be more ‘adult’. In the video, she admitted to being tired of having to tailor her personality to its most sparkly and easily digested form, and wanted to make content that reflected how she actually lived her life. Living for other people, for girls half her age who loved the pastel fairytale, had left her infantilized and exhausted, so she started afresh. Now, her videos are decidedly more adult but no less relatable. She talks of her faith, her experiences with the morning after pill, her current pregnancy, and struggling with body confidence as a plus size woman. Sometimes, she even swears. She’s a 32 year old mother and you get to see her be that. Making that confession easily could have killed her career. Bigger names than her have tried to shift into new content or styles and found themselves flung violently back into place by their fans who saw change as a betrayal. There were probably advertisers or agents who asked Pentland to think twice about dropping the glitter for fear of lost financial opportunities, and she doesn’t have anywhere near the pressure on her shoulders Zoella does.
Zoella’s life and personality isn’t the only commodified element of her being. Her relationship has become the stuff of idealized fantasy to many of her fans. Alfie Deyes, the man behind PointlessBlog, has over 11m subscribers across three channels, is responsible for three best-selling activity journals named after his site, and has done his fair share of internet influencing. The pair have been together for over three years and are essentially the Posh and Becks of YouTube celebrity. Together, their brands are unstoppable, and that domestic bliss is another excellent selling point on their respective channels - Deyes with spontaneous insights into their lives, Zoella with her excitement for homeware hauls. For their fans, their story is the stuff of true romance. You can even read Zalfie fanfiction, or buy some from Amazon if you prefer. Their videos together are some of their most popular content. Fans have waited for the engagement video, but both have promised they won’t get engaged online. If you thought being relatable for a living was hard enough on your psyche, imagine having your love life become the dreams of millions. The pair have had to repeatedly deal with fans trying to visit them at their home in Brighton, often accompanied by their parents, who never seem to see such things as a bad idea. According to Deyes, the house has so much security and tech in this house. It’s insane… We have panic buttons hidden all over the house. If you press it at any time, 24/7 365 days a year, every single police car in the area that’s available will come to the house.’
I’m sure there are some of you who made it this far into the piece - and I thank you for that - who are still wondering, ‘But seriously, why am I supposed to care about her?’ Fair enough, you do you, but when a 27 year old woman has close to 12m people at her beck and call, and can wield that support to immeasurable personal and business clout, that’s something worth discussing. Ignoring the internet doesn’t make it or its problems go away, and dismissing the growing impact of YouTube celebrity won’t make them disappear into the ether either. Zoella is a symbol for a particular brand of feminine stardom, one that’s become a power player in the online age: She’s not as intimidating as a Gigi Hadid or quietly tragic as a Kylie Jenner. She’s a girl next door whose house is full of panic buttons, a High Street shopper with her own beauty line, an adult woman who may be the most powerful adolescent in the UK. More teenage girls care about her than they do the most dazzling of A-List movie-stars. Zoella has made being herself the brand of a lifetime, but how does one sustain that when you’ll never truly be yourself forever, certainly not in front of millions? YouTube is the most toxic popularity contest in the world. Zoella’s on top now but can Zoe Sugg stay there?