YouTube Stars: Our Way or the Highway
You won’t see many of the megastars of Internet video splashed across marquees, billboards, TV or the covers of supermarket tabs. In the past few years, YouTube has spawned a cadre of digital-native celebrities — do-it-yourselfers who have bootstrapped themselves into a next-generation kind of fame. Though largely invisible to the mainstream media, they’re hugely popular with millennials. And they may serve as a model for how some of tomorrow’s entertainment icons will ascend into the spotlight.
Top YouTubers — like comedy duo Ian Hecox and Anthony Padilla of Smosh, one of the Google site’s most popular channels — convey personas styled on authenticity, with flash-cut humor another typical hallmark. What’s more, they have a direct relationship with their fans, who treat them as peers rather than screen idols to be admired or gawked at from afar.
“Most of the time, we’re just making fun of each other,” Padilla says. “We have been doing this for seven-plus years, and we’re still not totally sure what will work.”
First-generation YouTube celebs all say there’s a guiding principle for attracting viewers: Be genuine.
“People online just want to see a real person,” says Michelle Phan, 26, who started her beauty and fashion video-blog on YouTube in 2007 while she was waitressing at a Florida sushi restaurant. Her YouTube channel now has 4.5 million subscribers.
YouTube stars — call them “channelrunners” — work fast, hard and on a shoestring budget. Universally, they say they love the creative freedom of the website: There’s no studio boss or network exec issuing marching orders or script rewrites. Smosh and others have teamed up with production partners, and they’re now looking to parlay YouTube stardom into more lucrative TV deals, but others are happy doing their own thing.
Hecox and Padilla, both 25, met at Albert Schweitzer Elementary School in Carmichael, Calif., a suburb of Sacramento. After graduating from high school, they kicked around in various jobs. Then one day in late 2005, they posted a video of themselves lip-synching to the theme from kidvid show “Power Rangers” — and continued making goofy clips as a labor of love before they started getting paid for their creations through YouTube’s revenue-sharing program. “I was like, now I don’t have to work at Chuck E. Cheese,” Hecox says.
Smosh is now a small empire, run by digital media company Alloy Digital. The flagship channel has more than 12 million YouTube subscribers and the brand now includes a fast-growing videogame channel, Smosh Games; Shut Up! Cartoons (based on its catchphrase, “Shut up!”); and a Spanish-language channel (El Smosh). Alloy has even launched merchandise, mobile apps — including Super Head Esploder X on iTunes — and Smosh Magazine, distributing a run of 40,000 copies with a $5.99 cover price in late July. On the mag’s cover, Hecox is knocking out one of Padilla’s teeth.
These days, the Smosh guys shoot two episodes every two weeks, typically over two days. The filming is done on one of Alloy’s five stages in L.A. or from Sacramento, depending on where they are at the time. The instant feedback on YouTube fuels the creative process, Padilla says: “If people really, really like what we make, 10 minutes after we upload it we start thinking about new videos.”