Until I installed an Apple TV, I was never into YouTube. Sure, every now and then, I turned to the platform to find an obscure song or clip of celebrity fights, but I was nowhere near familiar enough to recognize its burgeoning class of celebrity vloggers and personalities. Speaking candidly, I had no desire to. Although these YouTubers were known, in my snobbish fame traditionalist eyes, they were not real celebrities.
It wasn’t until I learned that the same YouTubers I had written off as low-brow were not only amassing legions of fans, but also raking in millions of dollars that I began to feel … behind the times. Is this how people who doubted the rise of the automobile felt? As a self-anointed pop culture connoisseur, this was unfamiliar territory. Normally, I am ahead of the tide or right on the money in predicting the rise of celebrities. I soon realized I could only track star-making along the pathways I was already familiar with: A reality show, a popular song, a breakout role in a successful movie, a promotion from recurring cast to main cast, a move from the center, human interest section of People Magazine to the cover, etc. Now, with celebrities materializing seemingly out of thin air, my proven theories couldn’t be applied the same way. I had no algorithm to explain the rise of a Vine star, or even more difficult, a former “Dance Moms” star. What was a David Dobrik? A Tana Mongeau? A Shane Dawson? A James Charles? A Hannah Meloche?
As much as I wanted to immerse myself in the culture of my contemporaries, I was too late. Alas, YouTube culture had already taken off without me. There were already eras I had not experienced, long-standing beefs I didn’t have enough context to pick a side on. I could never catch up. It was as bad as downloading Twitter post-2014.
But then … I met friends who were not puzzled by the Internet, and my whole world changed.
Through my YouTube-savvy friends, I received a crash course in the platform’s teenage subculture (Disclaimer: I am just a 19-year-old that is bad with technology, I am not a 45-year-old Breitbart employee). It did not take long for me to associate the no-filter, low-quality, high stakes drama of vlogger world with the age of early reality television — before the interfering hand of networks and producers left even the juiciest shows feeling scripted and flat. The world of YouTube provided a perfect hate-watching substitute, and I was hooked. Within a few months, I was able to detect that, like Hollywood, this world also came with clear hierarchies of clout and resultant power dynamics. I knew that A-list star David Dobrik and his “Vlog Squad” doing a video with everyone’s favorite fraud, Olivia Jade — a former C-lister — meant her come-up was drawing nigh. Falling star James Charles beginning a collaboration squad with consistent fan favorites, the Dolan Twins, meant that he was trying to salvage whatever is left of his waning popularity. Most importantly, I was able to correctly infer that the undisputed queen of teenage YouTube is Emma Chamberlain.
If the 17-year-old’s name is unfamiliar to you, you are not alone. However, as I learned the hard way, it would be naive to write off her presence simply because she is most popular with teenagers too edgy to like “Riverdale.” The scope of her influence in YouTube culture is evidenced in widespread attempts of wannabe vloggers to imitate everything about her — from her unique editing style, to her dry sense of humor and of course, her unmistakable style. Chamberlain could be considered responsible for popularizing the Urban Outfitters “aesthetic” (teddy jacket, mom jeans, scrunchie, messy ponytail) for the younger population of Generation Z. She is rumored to be one-half of a power couple with other massively popular YouTuber, Ethan Dolan. Every vlogger wants to collaborate with her, few are able to.
Despite my usual aversion towards anyone revered by eighth graders, I found myself to be endeared and entertained by Chamberlain’s videos. She’s charming. She’s effortlessly cool. She’s real. It soon became clear that I was bearing witness to the rise of a new “It” girl. Yet, I had to question: How “It” could she truly be if she did not attain fame by traditional means? She was not an actress, not a model, not a singer, not an heiress and not the spawn of someone already famous. Could she ever garner the respect of the high brow that is intrinsic to “It” girl status? Would the day ever come when Anna Wintour gives Emma Chamberlain her seal of approval?
Of all the potential moments to experience an epiphany, it seems right that I experienced mine during Chamberlain’s awkward collaboration with none other than the laughing stock/overlord of the Internet, Jojo Siwa. In the midst of an uncomfortable Jojo-themed makeover, in her signature self-deprecating manner, Chamberlain makes the joke that, in her comically oversized Jojo brand bow, she could definitely see herself being on the cover of Vogue. And although purely a joke in Emma’s eyes, when my friends and I paused the video on the doctored Vogue cover Emma inserted into the video, I could not help but see the fake cover as a premonition. A Vogue cover pretty much is the “golden ticket” to status. My friend said it best: “Give it five years.”
Initially, I had my doubts about the reality of her ascent to “It” girl status from YouTube — would enough people know who she is to concretely bestow her with this title? When you yourself are immersed in only YouTube for a while, it is easy to lose sight the scale of a YouTuber’s fame relative to established celebrity culture. The biggest YouTuber will still be smaller than the biggest name in Hollywood. To put things in perspective, consider the fact that while Emma has over seven million subscribers, she still does not have a Wikipedia page — many adults’ mental prerequisite for “real” fame. Adults are still, in many ways, gatekeepers to who can be considered a bona fide celebrity. Unlike the stars in the Nickelodeon and Disney machine, Emma does not have to bow to management and participate in synergy-motivated daytime talk show appearances wherein her name and image is dispered to a middle-aged audience.
The possibility of the hypothetical Emma Chamberlain Vogue cover began to feel all the more real when I considered the fact that Chamberlain already has begun to capitalize on her influence with a successful clothing line inspired by her own looks. From there, the possibilities for her rise are limitless. Will she continue on the path of couture a la Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen? Will she expand her vlogs into a larger lifestyle brand? With print journalism clinging onto relevancy, it is not far-fetched to predict that some struggling Conde Nast publication will bring her aboard in a titleless “creative” position in order to nab the younger generation of readers. Emma Chamberlain will be the face that legitimizes YouTube celebrity. It’s only a matter of time before her brand evolves from trendy teen to chic street style, and that dear reader, is when you can send me a letter confirming that I told you so.
It is important to remember that one does not necessarily need to be mainstream to reach “It” status. In fact, mainstream recognizability could even be considered detrimental. It makes said star “safe.” True “It” girls have always retained an aura of cutting-edge alternativity that distinguishes them from “America’s Sweethearts” — the more palatable of the women we place on pedestals. Chamberlain’s avoidance of network and corporation control has given her an edge that the network girls cannot compete with: She can curse, she can talk about sex, she can be seen publicly with no makeup, etc. There are no consequences. Even without the assistance of a larger brand, she has been able to influence an entire sub-generation. She is her own management. I must question, in a few years, when Emma makes her inevitable rise to the top, will her victory signal entry into a new era of celebrity where YouTubers have a legitimate seat at the table?