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When YouTubers Leave the Nest: Tracking the Success of the Internet’s Biggest Stars

For years, YouTube has been a haven for both millennial content creators and consumers. The video-sharing hub has helped to redefine what it means to be a celebrity as it’s facilitated the launch of countless digital stars’ careers; stars born not out of the Hollywood machine, but simply out of user-generated video content. There is no middleman, no gatekeeper standing guard to tell the audience who is worthy of being on their screen and who isn’t.

Rather, these stars, many of whom you may not be even be all that familiar with (but your younger siblings or nieces and nephews most certainly are), have cultivated the sort of relationships with their fans that traditional celebrities might only ever dream of. According to a 2015 Google-commissioned survey, 70 percent of teenage subscribers admitted that they relate to YouTube creators more than traditional celebs, while the six in 10 subscribers said they would follow advice on what to buy from their favorite creator over even their favorite film or TV celeb. And at a time when more and more millennials are avoiding watching TV altogether, networks and studios are hungry to poach some of that talent in hopes of poaching those eyeballs. 

But does the YouTuber influence transcend mediums? Is that intense bond between creator and consumer one that can survive the transition to traditional avenues? As more creators have found themselves unable to resist Hollywood’s siren call, we’re starting to find out.

Miranda Sings is an intentionally off-putting character, a satire of the countless YouTube wannabes, lacking in talent, but not in ego, who had infected the streaming site. She sings off-key, has her own unique way of saying just about everything, and is defiantly self-righteous. And she’s made the woman who brought her to life, comedian Colleen Ballinger, one of YouTube’s biggest success stories. Since her debut on the website in 2008, her combined Youtube channels have surpassed 2.5 billion total views, while the character has more than 6 million Instagram followers. By 2009, Ballinger had taken her show on the road, performing a one-woman Miranda Sings act in theaters across the globe. Jerry Seinfeld had tapped her for an episode of his Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee series, she appeared on The Tonight Show, she released a New York Times Best Seller. It was only a matter of time before someone offered her a TV show. Enter: Netflix.

Developed by Ballinger and her brother Chris, Haters Back Off launched on the streaming giant in 2016, making her one of the first YouTube personalities to launch a scripted series. The move to Netflix made sense, as millennials are certainly more comfortable with the streaming service (itself a traditional TV model “disrupter,” much like YouTube). “[Netflix] can also leverage the audiences of these online stars, and their marketing reach, to drive the fans to new properties (which also happen to be online, where their fans already routinely seek entertainment),” TechCrunch wrote when the show was announced. And they were right. 

Traditional critics may not have known what to make of the show, earning it only mixed reviews, but clearly Ballinger’s fans followed her. The show debuted as the second most popular digital original series for the week of October 14, 2016, earning it a second season, which dropped on Friday. 

Ballinger’s transition to a more traditional medium may seem like the beginning of a successful sea change, but you’ll not we didn’t call her the first YouTube personality to launch a scripted series. That’s because there are a few who came before. You may be surprised to know that two of TV’s currently most celebrated comedies got their humble beginnings as on the website.

Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson met as students at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater in 2007, honing their skills and sharpening their relationship dynamic on the same practice improv team. “We got to play onstage for two years as friends and find our voice,” Jacobson told Paper in 2013. “A Web series is now known as a vehicle to get something bigger, but when we started, it wasn’t. We just said, ‘Let’s make something.'”

That something turned into Broad City, which the comedians debuted on YouTube in 2009. During its two-season run on the video hub, Broad City didn’t exactly spread like wildfire in the way Ballinger’s creation had, but it did manage to draw in exactly the right sort of viewer to further its success. “During the web series, we were never viral. It was always just the quality of viewers,” Glazer told Fast Company in 2014. “We just started to get a response from our community–the comedy community in New York–and that was enough to make us feel like it was something good and relatable and that we should keep making them.”

One of those in the comedy community who caught on? Amy Poehler, who agreed to appear in the web series’ final episode as she subsequently helped the pair shop a pilot script based on the series. “We just sort of went out on a limb and told her that we were planning to pitch the show for TV, and would she ever consider being an executive producer on the project, and she said yes,” Glazer said. Broad City debuted on Comedy Central in 2014 and is currently in its fourth season on the cable network. Since the launch, the duo have become bona fide stars, landing roles in movies like Rough Night (Glazer) and The Lego Ninjago Movie (Jacobson). They even held their first-ever panel at entertainment mecca, San Diego Comic Con, in 2017.

While Glazer and Jacobson were just getting their web series off the ground in 2009, Issa Rae was an L.A. transplant living in New York City, working at the prestigious Public Theater on a fellowship. That fish-out-of-water situation is where her successful YouTube series, The Mis-Adventures of Awkward Black Girl, was born. “I was just thinking about how hard it was to meet people. And how just interacting with new people is so awkward,” she told BET in 2011. “And I couldn’t be the only one thinking these things and wouldn’t it be funny to see these interactions played out on screen.”

After sitting on the idea for two years, and returning to L.A., Rae was finally ready to launch Awkward Black Girl in 2011. “I wanted to tell this story and I thought, ‘If I don’t start it myself, I’ll never get it done,’ ” she told The Root that year. “We’re not all ugly. We’re not all desperate. We’re just normal, awkward girls trying to find ourselves.” It quickly proved to be a viral hit. A Kickstarter campaign to fund the rest of the season garnered over $56,000 from nearly 2,000 donations. It caught the eye of Pharrell Williams who signed on as an executive producer for season two, which aired on his iamOTHER channel. By 2013, she was working on a pilot script partially based on Awkward Black Girl with comedian, producer and The Daily Show correspondent Larry Wilmore.

The pilot, which was eventually named Insecure, was bought by HBO in 2015 and ordered to series for a fall 2016 launch. The critically acclaimed series, which stars Rae and Yvonne Orji, recently finished airing its second season and has already received an order for a third. “I still very much feel like I’m ‘that Internet girl,'” Rae told Rolling Stone ahead of the show’s launch. “I still feel an allegiance there, but I don’t know that I’ll ever feel like I’m a part of Hollywood. It just feels like I’m getting the chance of a lifetime to make something that’s pure and authentic to me. To have more people watch it is the coolest ever, but I don’t feel much different other than that.” With a role in the upcoming film The Hate U Give and a standout appearance in Jay-Z‘s instantly iconic, Friends-recreating music video for “Moonlight” (seriously, if you haven’t seen this video, fix your life here), something tells us she’s feeling like a part of Hollywood now.

Tyler Oakley

Jeff Vespa/WireImage

Of course, there are plenty of YouTube personalities who aren’t characters ready to be spun off into their own scripted series. But that hasn’t stopped those wildly popular individuals from finding avenues into take their massive fanbases down avenues leading to traditional media. For those who’ve made their fame just by being themselves, they’ve found the Hollywood machine is ready to try almost anything with them. Take Tyler Oakley, for example.

The internet’s unofficial best friend, Oakley began posting videos on YouTube in 2007 as a way of keeping in touch with friends and family while he was away in college. When an upload of his gained more views than he had friends, he knew he might be on to something. “The first time was when I had 100 views on a single video and I was like, ‘Uhhh… I don’t have 100 friends???’ so it definitely opened my eyes and I quickly realized that strangers could find me on the Internet,” he told Forbes of the first time he realized he’d made it as an internet celebrity. “I also remember once in college I was at a university football game, and I looked around, knowing that the packed stadium could fit 75,000 people, and I had more subscribers than that.

With videos on topics ranging from queer politics (Oakley is gay), pop culture and humor, Oakley’s managed to connect with his audience in a way that Ballinger or Rae never could with their characters. As they tuned in for each new video, it was as if he was speaking directly to them, giving them a window into his real life. Remember that stat above about millennials trusting YouTube personalities so much more than traditional celebrities? Oakley is the prime example of that. As a result, he’s parlayed that trust into a sold-out live show tour (2014’s “Tyler Oakley’s Slumber Party”), a video with then-First Lady Michelle Obama discussing education issues, the 2015 release of his first book, a collection of humorous personal essays entitled Binge, and a 2016 stint on The Amazing Race (he and BFF Korey Kuhl finished in third place).

Soon after his race around the world, he inked a development deal with Ellen DeGeneres that began with original digital content (The Tyler Oakley Show premiered on DeGeneres’ ellentube platform in 2016.) with the aim to develop traditional TV projects, as well. Those TV projects haven’t come to fruition just yet, but for Oakley, working with the comedian is a real unlocked achievement. “She’s somebody I said, ‘If I ever did TV, I wouldn’t want to do it with anyone but her,'” he told Variety in 2016. “Now, making it happen, it’s a dream come true. It’s what I wanted all along… It feels like a brand-new job.”

Following in Oakley’s footsteps are fellow personalities Hannah Hart, Cameron Dallas and Gigi Gogeous. Each rose to prominence on the video hub for very different reasons (drunken cooking, playful pranks and a very public transition, respectively), but they’ve all been given opportunities to parlay their very popular personalities to traditional media. Hart recently launched a travelogue cooking series I Hart Food on Food Network, Dallas took his entourage to Network to give fans a further glimpse into his life with reality series Chasing Cameron, and Gorgeous took a documentary, This Is Everything, to Sundance before landing a gig as one of the social media correspondents on MTV’s revived TRL

While some have played into the cult of personality as they transition from YouTube to the great beyond, others have used the site to bounce back from disappointing runs on reality shows meant to launch them to stardom. After stalling out in the semi-finals of American Idol season nine, Todrick Hall turned to YouTube, releasing viral video after viral video. By fall of 2013, he landed a gig writing the song and lyrics for Virgin America’s musical safety video, which he also starred in. A year later, Todrick debuted on MTV, with each episode showing Hall and his team create a new music video from start to finish. By 2016, he was a full-time judge on RuPaul’s Drag Race All-Stars 2, had self-released his third album, a visual conceptual album called Straight Outta Oz, and landed on Broadway in the lead role of Lola in Kinky Boots. Oh, and he appeared in a little music video that only broke the internet. ‘Look What You Made Me Do” by Taylor Swift ever heard of it?

Lindsey Stirling, 2017 Billboard Music Awards, Arrivals

Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP

Like Hall, violinist Lindsey Stirling turned to YouTube to recover from a particularly painful reality TV elimination. After making the semi-finals in season five of America’s Got Talent, judges Piers Morgan and Sharon Osbourne told the musician that her unique style of performance art (which involves some impressive dancing while playing her instrument) wasn’t good enough. Within two years, she had the No. 8 top viewed YouTube video of 2012 with her song “Crystallize.” Since then, she’s toured the world, performed with Cirque du Soleil, released four albums and one autobiography and is currently competing for the mirrorball trophy in season 25 of Dancing With the Stars. So take that, Piers.

PewDiePie

Chris Jackson/Getty Images

Of course, it hasn’t exactly been smooth sailing for everyone as they attempt to turn their YouTube fame into traditional success in Hollywood. PewDiePie, who currently ranks as the No. 1 most subscribed user on the website with an astonishing 57 million subscribers, has found himself in several controversies in recent years. As the Swedish comedian, whose real name is Felix Kjellberg, signed a deal with Disney-owned Maker Studios to create content, he came under fire for using anti-Semitic imagery and language in his videos. The multi-channel YouTube network quickly cut ties with him and YouTube themselves canceled the second season of his series, Scare PewDiePie. And just this fall, he was met with backlash yet again when use a racial slur during a livestream. While the incidents certainly haven’t slowed his content creation or caused his subscriber count to drop, it’s safe to say Hollywood won’t come calling any time soon. 

Another fairy tale-turned-cautionary one is the story of Jake Paul, who shot to fame with his particular brand of prank videos. His digital fame landed him a role on the Disney Channel comedy Bizaardvark, playing a character that was loosely inspired by Paul’s own YouTube history. But when it hit the news earlier this year that his neighbors in the Beverly Grove neighborhood of L.A. were considering a class-action lawsuit against him after he made his home address public, causing massive hordes of fans to clog the street, creating a fire hazard on top of the noise generated from his wild parties and pranks, Disney got uncomfortable. The way he came across in the local news segment didn’t help. (He ambushed the reporter with a t-shirt cannon, climbed on top of the news van, and made fun of the reporters shoes.)

With relations already strained over content in his YouTube videos that the network deemed inappropriate, Disney swiftly released Paul from his contract. “Looking back, I see why everyone was like, ‘Yo, this kid sucks,'” he told The Hollywood Reporter in August. ” ‘Cause I look super immature.” He may have earned two Teen Choice Awards that same month (one for Choice YouTuber), but his chances of bouncing back into traditional media quickly are likely slim.

While it’s clear where the perils of the self-made star lie, it’s also clear that Hollywood will be turning to these personalities more and more as their target demos continue to shun traditional content. But YouTube has grown wise to the game, locking down their biggest stars with development deals for original content on the subscription service, YouTube Red.

Though they’re certainly using Google’s $86 billion in resources to lure high-profile traditional content creators to the website in an attempt to give Hulu and Netflix a run for their money, they can’t risk alienating the digital stars who’ve risen to fame on—and helped make plenty of money for—the site.

So while this generation of YouTube personalities continues to consider Hollywood’s offers, it’s very likely the generation just uploading their first videos now will never have a reason to go elsewhere. And we can’t think of anything more successful than that.

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