In the summer of 2009, a shy 13-year-old named Bethany Mota decided to put herself out there. Alone in her room, she stacked up a pile of books to serve as a makeshift tripod for her flipcam, opened some windows to let the light in, and filmed her first haul video: a rundown of products bought on a recent shopping trip to M.A.C. and Sephora. “I’m basically whispering, because I didn’t want anyone in my house to know that I was recording,” says Mota, who turns 20 this November and now freely projects her voice.
Over the past six years, that inaugural video has garnered more than 4 million views, propelling Mota to YouTube stardom—and way beyond. She guest judged Project Runway and competed on Dancing With the Starslast year. (She and partner Derek Hough didn’t fare too badly, either: they finished in fourth place.) At the time of this writing, Mota’s YouTube channel boasts more than 8.6 million subscribers. Instagram, 4.5 million. Twitter, 2.48 million. To give those numbers some context: She is a big enough deal to be invited to the 2015 White House Correspondents Dinner, where she took selfies with fellow YouTubers and Instagrammed an impromptu photo shoot with Arianna Huffington.
When she’s not recording videos—some of which garner more than 10 million hits—Mota spends her time traveling the world, promoting various projects like her ongoing collection with Aeropostale or her first-ever single, “I Need You Right Now,” which was released in 2014. “It made the iTunes Top 20 in two hours and was above Meghan Trainor and Taylor Swift, which is was crazy,” she humblebrags.
So, how did this once-timid teen transform into a budding mogul? Like many of her fellow online superstars, Mota was first a fan of the form. Cyber bullied in middle school, she took comfort in watching other people’s videos. “[The bullying] made me close up,” she says. “With YouTube, there was this online community of girls who had their own voices. A lot of them were young, but their opinions still mattered. I thought that was really cool.”
Mota, who grew up in Central California and now lives in Los Angeles, switched to home schooling around the same time she began shooting videos. Her old friends, maybe not surprisingly, were unimpressed with her new hobby. “No one really got it,” she says. “Making videos was not the popular thing to do.”
But Mota pressed on with a friendly, glossy demeanor that proved an ideal fit for YouTube, a world full of welcoming and inclusive characters. The most successful YouTubers are the ones who become the viewers’ best friend, and “Beth” has millions of best friends, many of whom came out to meet her last year for the "Motavatour," a series of events that took place at various Aeropostales around the country. The Motavatour – along with her ongoing collection for Aeropostale – were both born out of a 2013 appearance at the teen retailer’s midtown Manhattan location. More than 3,000 fans showed up: but maybe more importantly, they also spent money. “The girls had to walk through the store to get to me, and some of them ended up buying the same outfit I was wearing and putting it on,” she says. “We were basically twins.”
And while many of her followers, who call themselves “Motavators,” see Mota as their virtual BFF, they’ve also forged friendships amongst themselves. Some have met in the comments section of her YouTube videos, others have connected IRL at meetups. “That’s the thing about online videos, the viewers have this ownership in it,” Mota says. “They’re a part of it. We’re all kind of on the same level.”
While haul videos launched her career, Mota has moved away from the medium, focusing more on DIY and service-driven spots, as well as straightforward confessionals. “Society tells girls how they need to look, and dress. I like to tell people that it’s about whatever you’re comfortable with,” she says. “I always say that while my channel might be about beauty and fashion, I just want to put out a message of self-love and positivity.” A second channel, called Bethany’s Life, offers a more intimate look into her daily activity; she talks to the camera about big events like presenting at the Kid’s Choice Awards. (“I kind of freaked out,” she says.) She also documents her travel, like a recent trip to Mumbai for a YouTube FanFest. Mota spends a good chunk of time promoting projects and connecting with fans through these sorts of YouTube-sponsored events. The video-sharing service—which cast Mota is a television commercial last year—is betting big that the star is enchanting enough to capture hearts of the mainstream culture. Like Sarah Jessica Parker carried HBO for a spate, and Kerry Washington is one of ABC’s greatest assets, YouTube very much needs Bethany Mota.
It’s a lot of pressure, no matter how badly one wants to be a star. Yet Mota seems to enjoy gunning for the spotlight. She just recorded another song and is dabbling in songwriting. And of course there’s her next round of videos, something she never plans on giving up. After all, YouTube allowed her to become famous on her own terms, a privilege that this savvy entertainer doesn’t take for granted. “YouTube is where it started for me, and that’s the one place that I can constantly be creative,” she says. “I’m my boss, which I think is amazing. I really appreciate that.”
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