Ah, the early days of YouTube. A time when DIY pop culture commentary rubbed shoulders with cover songs filmed in basements. Sixteen years after the video platform launched, vlogging is now a legitimate career, game streamers are the new celebrities, and more children are dreaming of becoming YouTubers than astronauts. Of course, none of this would have been possible without the preliminary stars, most of whom stumbled upon virality in a sort of happy accident. But where are they now? What happens after internet fame?
VICE spoke with three of the aughts’ biggest YouTubers about what it was like to realize they were famous, what they think of today’s online celebrities, and where internet culture is all going.
Jodie-Amy Messaline, Venetian Princess
Once the No. 1 most subscribed YouTuber, Jodie-Amy Messaline (aka Venetian Princess), made her mark on the platform with self-directed parody music videos and original songs. Between an outer space version of Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face” and a Miley Cyrus spoof, Messaline’s creations now have over 380,000,000 views, and they’ve likely been stuck in many people's heads at some point over the past decade.
VICE: Hey Jodie, how did you get started on YouTube so early?
Jodie: I started doing YouTube back in 2006. It was just for fun, but I did a bunch of different skits—I made a fantasy series and played all the characters. I also did a sci-fi one where I played a cyborg, battling all the appliances in my house, like the vacuum. That was funny.
What propelled you into internet virality?
I started doing parodies because I used to sing. I thought it would be funny to do covers, but change the lyrics to fit different themes. My first big one was the Miley Cyrus “7 Things” spoof, and that went viral, so then I started getting tons of subscribers. After that, I did an outer space version of Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face.” I actually just checked and it has 60 million views as of today.
I remember those videos!
Thank you for watching them! That’s the coolest thing ever about all of this. I get a lot of people who still write to me saying that my videos were their childhood, and that it brings back such nostalgia for them. It’s really an honor, so thank you.
“I get a lot of people who still write to me saying that my videos were their childhood, and that it brings back such nostalgia for them. It’s really an honor.”
What happened after you went viral?
I was working at a college at the time, but when my videos started going viral, the income was drastically more than what I would make in a whole year at my position. I loved working there, but it became pretty obvious that it was time to quit. I was able to purchase a huge house and renovate it. The house was even in magazines. I love interior design!
I was able to do so many things I wouldn’t have been able to if YouTube didn’t exist. It was my job until the end of 2013, when my mom started getting sick. I stopped posting and focused on her. Since I was still making money from all the videos that were already up, I was able to live off that while I focused on other parts of my life. I’m so incredibly grateful for that.
What are your thoughts on the early days of YouTube versus now?
I constantly think to myself: Wow, it is so different now. My friends on YouTube—we all used to cheer each other on. The top channels were so close knit, even calling and texting each other. There was no drama and it was intimate since there weren’t as many people. That’s what I miss most. It’s so oversaturated and competitive now, but I mean, it’s great if I need a tutorial to put a bed together or something; I can definitely find it (laughs).
My favorite years were probably 2010 and 2011 when I could just create and enjoy myself. Now, so many serious things are going on; people have to be really careful about what they say. This cancel culture—that’s a whole other thing. Of course, some people who have been cancelled definitely deserve it. I’m just saying they didn’t have anything like this back when I was doing YouTube.
So, what’s life like now?
Well, two weeks after my mom passed away back in 2014, I found out I was pregnant. Ever since then, I haven’t really been doing YouTube anymore. I’ve been totally enveloped in this world of being a mom. I still do videos here and there just for fun, but it’s very seldom. Months go by before I post anything nowadays. So now, my life is just my daughter.
My daughter is actually so into YouTube. She keeps saying she wants to be YouTube-famous with her own channel, but her dad’s not really into the idea. If he’d let her, I would totally help her with the channel. I think it could be a great creative outlet, especially since they’re implementing more safety measures for kids. It’s awesome that they’re finally doing that.
Do you think she wants to be like you when she grows up?
Actually, I tried to show her some of my videos once and she was like, “Mom, I don’t want to see this, it’s dorky.” She’s a little diva. I think it’s hilarious (laughs).
Got anything specific planned for the future?
I don’t really know what the future holds! Maybe I would like to do some original music. But for now, my life is wrapped around my daughter and making sure she’s happy. Regarding YouTube, I’m excited to see what the new generations come up with. I’m cheering on all the YouTubers of today.
Michael Buckley, What the Buck Show
Celebrity gossip and pop culture commentary made Michael Buckley’s What the Buck Show an iconic staple in the early days of YouTube, delivering the tea we all needed. By 2008, the channel was among the top most subscribed on YouTube. Today, his videos have amassed staggering views, some of them upwards of 15 million.
Hey Michael. How did the What the Buck Show come to life?
Michael: I was doing a public access show in my hometown back in summer 2005. The purpose was to get clips of me being funny and doing pop culture commentary, so I could send it to casting people and maybe book some TV gigs. I had no idea what YouTube was, but my cousin started uploading clips of the show. So I definitely accidentally became a YouTuber during that time.
My first hit video was in November 2006, when I got over 200,000 views on a video making commentary on [the film] Dreamgirls. That really kick-started my brain, making me think, “Oh there’s something here.” So I started posting five days a week and actually structuring the What the Buck program. In 2007, YouTube featured my “LonelyGirl15 is Dead” video on their homepage, and I got like 3 million views and almost 20,000 new subscribers, which at the time was like, a lot of subscribers.
I was surprised to now see “life coach” when I Googled your name.
Yeah! I’ve been a certified life coach since 2017, and I’m also the product of life coaching. I hired a coach to help me transition out of my YouTube career and it was so powerful. It changed my life. I knew when I was being coached, I was like, oh this is what I wanna do.
It totally fulfills me and helps me live in-line with my purpose. I’m still so grateful for my time on YouTube. It was a very happy and successful 10 years, and now I’m happy to be doing something else.
Was there anything specific that made you want to move on?
It was time to do something else. I always tell people, I was done with YouTube and YouTube was done with me. Towards the end of my career, I wasn’t making any money—or, certainly not the type of money that was going to keep me as a full-time YouTuber. I really wasn’t enjoying it anymore, either. I had created an online persona that I didn’t wish to maintain. So after years of doing it, I just wasn’t interested in pop culture anymore. That’s it; it was just time to do something else! YouTube had evolved, I had evolved.
“It was time to do something else. I always tell people, I was done with YouTube and YouTube was done with me.”
Do you miss those early days of the internet at all?
I’m not at all nostalgic for the old days. I love what it is and I love what it was. I really don’t pay attention to current YouTube so I’m not sure what’s going on. I mean, if you had gotten me towards the end of my career, I was probably a little disenchanted about what it had become. But you know, it wasn’t meant to be forever, what it was back in 2007.
I still love YouTube, and I’m grateful, but too busy enjoying the present to be looking back at the past. I have such fondness for that time and nothing but gratitude for those 10 years. I think I have a nice legacy and it’s nice to be remembered fondly.
I love that attitude. Any thoughts on what’s next for you?
I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed life so much, so I’m going to keep enjoying life. I love this chapter. The interesting thing about my time on YouTube is that I don’t know if I ever enjoyed it as much as I could have because I was always looking too far ahead. I was always waiting for it to go away, or thinking “What’s next?” and I missed out on a lot of amazing moments.
Tay Zonday, singer of “Chocolate Rain”
It’s 2007, and the sweet sounds of “Chocolate Rain” are all the rage. Adam Nyerere Bahner, who goes by the pseudonym of Tay Zonday, graced computer screens with this DIY music video and smash hit during these early years of YouTube. The song catapulted him into internet fame, winning a music award from YouTube in 2008 and holding over 130,000,000 views today.
Hey Tay, I remember listening to Chocolate Rain when I was 11. How did it all happen?
Tay: I was a PhD student on a career path to teach college history. I decided to make up a name (Tay Zonday) and post experimental music on YouTube. The “Chocolate Rain” video was one of many. After a few months, it caught attention at Digg.com, a predecessor to Reddit. Then it caught attention on 4chan. As time continued, I got parodied on South Park, won a Webby Award, and worked with brands like Dr Pepper, Turbo Tax, Vizio, Hostess, and Hasbro.
Did life change a lot after you went viral?
Yes. There were no prior examples of going viral on YouTube that I could learn from. I couldn't ask “What did Rebecca Black do?” YouTube liked “Chocolate Rain” because thousands of people made parody versions, including celebrities like John Mayer and Tré Cool. These parodies were often filmed in front of bed sheets with different lyrics. People copied moving away from the mic to breathe.
I had no experience being a public figure. The whole world tried to contact me for every reason imaginable. Major music labels wanted to sign me. Literary agents wanted me to write books. Parents wanted me to come sing at their kids’ bar mitzvahs. I was totally overwhelmed. I could only reply to a fraction of the interest.
“I had no experience being a public figure. The whole world tried to contact me for every reason imaginable.”
And how’s 2021 treating you?
I’ve recorded thousands of personalized video greetings on Cameo. Cameo is great at monetizing nostalgia. It's wonderful to see how people experience me in their own words. I also do voice work. I continue to be discovered by new fans and have been lucky to trend on Reddit periodically.
Do people still randomly recognize you as “the guy who sang ‘Chocolate Rain’?”
I am randomly recognized in every country I visit as “Tay Zonday,” “That guy who was on Tosh.0,” “That YouTube guy,” “The guy who did that video,” and sometimes “Chocolate Rain” or “The ‘Chocolate Rain’ guy.”
Any thoughts on the massive ways YouTube and social media have changed since then?
Social media in 2007 was about novelty. Social media since 2012 has been about loyalty; 2012 was roughly when mobile phone viewing became dominant and recommendation engines took over feeds.
The definition of social media success changed. When “Chocolate Rain” went viral, social media was about creating a highly shareable, infectious, and new experience. Today, social media is about securing devoted audience behavior on each platform. This is measured by provoking repeat watching, sharing, rating, and commenting over months and years.
Any ideas on what the future might hold for you?
About 2 percent of my life has been in the public eye. The other 98 percent has been a silent struggle with debilitating autism spectrum disorder and related anxiety. I hope to make music again. Some memes have done well as NFTs and I may list “Chocolate Rain” as an NFT.
Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.