To a generation whose years of crucial brain development were spent watching Filthy Frank bake hair into a cake, Shane Dawson attempt to be funny and gamers celebrate bloodshed and gore on the physics-based biking game Happy Wheels, the word “absurd” has lost its meaning. One can only be shocked by YouTube’s absolute worst so many times; however, the blonde-haired, vivacious Trisha Paytas continues to amuse even the most jaded of audiences. While creators on YouTube almost always fade into irrelevance, the monolith that is Trisha Paytas has yet to crumble, clinging onto popularity via her unpredictable style of content and extensive history of controversies long after her start in 2007.

In the beginning, Paytas was relatively tame, posting beauty-related content on her channel “blndsundoll4mj.” Outside of her YouTube channel, Paytas appeared on several television shows and music videos, including an episode of TLC’s “My Strange Addiction” in which she confesses her self-tanning obsession and an appearance in Eminem’s 2009 music video for “We Made You.” Her humble beginnings were unremarkable. Her character — if she had one — was that of another early-2000s California bimbo donning blonde hair and orange-tinted skin. 

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When Paytas started diversifying her YouTube content in the early 2010s, things got even more interesting. She began “trolling” viewers in 2013, appearing to dumb herself down with videos like “Why I’m Voting for Mitt Romney,” “Why Women Can’t Be Funny” and “Do Dogs Even Have Brains?” After glimpsing her somewhat typical personality in previous videos, it was not hard to tell that these titles were written with viewers’ reactions in mind; Trisha Paytas was self-aware at this point, she got so many views that it didn’t matter. 

From this point on, Paytas’s steady catalog of beauty tips and fashion hauls was interrupted by more and more of these jolting, off-topic rants until her “normal” videos were few and far between. Paytas could be praised for her savviness: She supplied some good old-fashioned not-safe-for-work shock value and, like clockwork, she always got enough attention to keep going with vast momentum.

The turbulent landscape of the internet doesn’t let popular things stay popular for long. To stay popular forever, Trisha Paytas had to find new ways to entertain. She started to post more mental health-related rants: Among the earliest were “this is what anxiety looks like,” “Opening up about my addiction…” and “crying on my kitchen floor (again).”

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Thus began the era of the kitchen floor videos. What was before a relatively lighthearted channel became complicated by the otherwise put-together Trisha’s rawest emotions, adding yet another layer to her online persona. 

Sprinkled between the tear-stained monologues are Trisha’s most controversial ramblings: a video in which she comes out as gay (after dating men in the past and before getting engaged to a man), a now-deleted video about her self-diagnosed Dissociative Identity Disorder and another now-deleted video coming out as transgender. 

Scandals of much smaller magnitudes have been cancel-worthy in the past — beauty vlogger Manny MUA was swiftly canceled for his involvement in “Dramageddon,” a series of petty disputes between high-powered figures in YouTube’s beauty community. Yet, Paytas never addressed her biggest slip-ups in apology videos or even hasty notes-app paragraphs posted to Twitter. In fact, she moves forward fast enough for us to forget about what she said or rather shift focus to her next inflammatory statement. Paytas oversaturates her online presence with increasingly heinous content, which is disorienting to the viewer; she misguides her audience to the point where she is somehow un-cancelable.

Paytas’s unhindered streams of consciousness are clearly problematic, but occasionally her kitchen floor rants inch toward something more concerning. On Dec. 14, 2016, Paytas posted a video titled “im a chicken nugget” in which she sways about on her kitchen floor in a fugue state rambling about, well, you can guess what. In her earlier days, this most likely would’ve been seen as another cheeky troll, but now that we somewhat know the unstable nature of Trisha’s emotions, the mind goes to a darker place. Whether Paytas was drugged up or in a serious mental health crisis, something about “im a chicken nugget” and similar videos that followed seem absurd and meme-worthy, but their implications are grim.

Was Paytas still the conniving troll who knew how to piss people off and start controversy, or was she lost in some mental crisis, confused and disoriented? Beyond that, Trisha has admitted to substance abuse in the past. But, by laughing at her follies and unhinged monologues, are we perpetuating the use of untreated addiction or mental illness as a subject of humor?

When I see a new video from Paytas with the mise en scene of her cold kitchen floor, I can’t guess who she is going to offend or pick a fight with, what kind of identity she’s going to claim for the day or who she’s crying over; but, I will always tune into her shameless projectile word-vomit. To some, Paytas may be a brilliant one-woman comedy act, and to others, she may be a deeply problematic abuser of her platform. 

The palpability of anything she is saying is really up to the viewer to decide. What is known for certain is that, against the unwritten set of rules that a social media influencer follows, Paytas uploads anything and everything for the world to see without second-guessing herself or stopping to think. 

Following Paytas’s life is akin to decoding The Legend of Zelda timeline or learning the history of Tolkien’s Middle-earth: The lore is buried deep within the internet, and there is still so much that needs to be excavated. 

In a way, Paytas’s erratic uploads are episodic; through bursts of impassioned monologues, we have access to whatever is going on in her head as she narrates a sort of story. As sacrilegious as it may be to compare Trisha Paytas to Don Draper or Tony Soprano, maybe she is today’s psychologically complex yet morally questionable antihero — a person so deeply troubled that we can’t peel our eyes away. 

Maybe I should feel bad for being invested in this real woman’s psychological anguish. At the same time, I cut myself some slack because, ultimately, Paytas chooses to make a show of her life.  

Ethical dilemmas aside, we keep watching her with no signs of stopping any time soon.

Daily Arts Contributor Laine Brotherton can be reached at laineb@umich.edu

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