Before there was Rebecca Black, Justin Bieber, or David After Dentist, there was Chris Crocker, one of YouTube's original "ceWebrities." Back in September 2007, the bleached-blonde Tennessee teen found instant and unlikely fame when a camcorder rant he shot at his grandparents' house, "Leave Britney Alone!"--a sobbing defense of his fallen idol Britney Spears, after she caught flak for her disastrous VMAs performance--went superviral. (The clip racked up more than four million views in just two days, and as of this writing, it has been watched almost 44 million times.) But there is more to Chris Crocker than just those two minutes and 12 seconds of online infamy, as a surprising new documentary that premiered at Sundance earlier this year and aired on HBO this week, Me @ The Zoo, now reveals.
The film, which was executive-produced by R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe, co-directed by Scissor Sisters frontman Jake Shears's husband Chris Moukarbel, and scored by Bjork/Usher/Philip Glass collaborator Nico Muhly, chronicles Chris's troubled upbringing as the effeminate, frequently bullied son of a meth-addicted teen mom. (His mother was only 14 when she gave birth to him, and Chris says, "I think I saw some of my younger mom in Britney when I was a kid.") Chris--who stopped going to school during his junior high years to avoid daily bullying for being "overtly gay," and basically became a teenage shut-in from that point on, living with his paternal grandparents--explains in one of the film's scenes that he posted his flipcam videos on MySpace and later YouTube as a "way of defending myself against the people in my hometown without having to fight back physically."
But of course, Chris also reveals that the bullying he endured for most of his young life hardly went away once he became an overnight Internet sensation; in some ways, it just became more high-profile. In one of Me @ The Zoo's many sad scenes, a "Glenn Beck" television clip shows the notoriously conservative cable news host stating, "I'll leave [Britney] alone, if I can target this guy for a while."
Chris, who has pursued an electropop music career and reportedly even once considered doing porn after his YouTube star started to fade, has clearly matured a great deal since he uploaded "Leave Britney Alone!" (which, he explains in the film, was shot from "a child's perspective"). He continues to post personal videos on his YouTube channel, which still boasts about 355,000 subscribers and a to-date total of more than 255 million views. But long gone are his trademark peroxided emo-bob and tear-smeared eyeliner (with his new clean-cut, masculine look, he is nearly unrecognizable), and his videos are much more serious and thoughtful in tone. In one recent angry commentary he posted about Rihanna's controversial decision to record a duet with her former abuser Chris Brown, titled "Rihanna, WHY?," Crocker surprisingly eloquently discusses his mother's own abusive past, and questions Rihanna's ability to be a role model for other female domestic abuse victims. This is obviously a far cry from the sniffling, screeching viral video that made Chris Crocker famous five years ago.
"I was 19 years old at the time. I'm 24, going to be 25 now, and my priorities have changed," Chris, who actually lived as a girl for several years in his teens, says in the film. "I'm not obsessed with pop culture, pop music, or anything the way I once was as a teenager, for sure....I'm into poetry. I'm reading my Sylvia Plath."
Some naysayers may question why any documentarian would want to create an entire film about a "D-list" Web star years after most YouTubers have likely forgotten all about him and moved on to the latest fleeting Internet meme. But in a Twitter/Facebook/Tumblr/Foursquare/Pinterest age when almost everyone lives online, bullying is a hotter topic than ever, and Britney is enjoying her own comeback, Chris's story truly resonates. The film's co-director, Valerie Veatch, explains to HBO: "In some ways [Chris is] the first gay person online to express an aggressive, confident persona that I think so many young kids look to and model themselves after. On one level, he's extremely entertaining and has a great aesthetic. And on another level, he's a very brave person. And I think his bravery and his honesty are what people are drawn to."