It was early February, and the Santa Ana winds were quiet at the moment Chase Icon joined me poolside in her private cabana at the secluded Beverly Hills hotel she’d chosen as the location for our interview. She was tall and lithe, cucumbers covering her eyes as she was guided into her chair, escaping the mid-day sun. Surrounded by a team of assistants—one fanning her with a giant palm leaf, another applying sunscreen to her shimmering skin—she had been spending the previous few weeks at the hotel recovering from surgery. A hundred feet away, kept at bay by the hotel’s security, paparazzi swarmed in the hopes of getting the first post-procedure pictures of the social media star; if you craned your neck from inside the soundproof cabana, you could faintly hear them pleading with her to come out for a catwalk, but their cries fell on deaf ears.
Her phone, encased in gold, occasionally lit up with text messages from her famous friends, a Brat Pack for the new millennium, a who’s who of WeHo. Glamorously bandaged and wearing a self-described “seashell bikini with a garden panty” (a reference to “Venus,” a song by her favorite pop star, Lady Gaga), Chase was every bit the Los Angeles ingenue as she signaled to an attendant, who brought her a tray. She lifted the spotless silver cloche and wafted the hot air toward her nose, letting her olfactory nerves absorb the oils and spices of the Taco Bell nacho fries sitting beside her. “I’m here for that,” she said with a laugh.
Too fragile to walk, she was gently lifted and deposited into a wheelchair. She pointed toward nearby Rodeo Drive, and we were on our way, soaking up the California sunshine as we strolled. We were mere steps away from the city’s shopping mecca when tragedy struck. Mid-fantasy, the light from Chase’s laptop shut off before she could finish narrating and setting the scene for our (fake) interview location. Shrouded in darkness and putting a temporary halt to our traditional magazine profile opening dream sequence, the moment brought us back to reality there in the star’s Orange County bedroom. “I feel like a Sith Lord,” she said, tapping her keyboard to keep the computer and its harsh white light alive. Cloaked in a black hoodie on yet another Wednesday in quarantine, the 20-year-old is well-versed in illusion and character work—after all, it’s what has made her one of Twitter’s most beloved and revered young stars over the past two years.
Two weeks earlier, in our first one-on-one, she was swaddled in an oversize gray blanket in her older sister’s Riverside home, recovering from surgery (“I just had a boob job!” she said cheerily within the first 30 seconds of meeting me). It’s a strange sensation to know that people know you but to not be able to experience that in your day to day, she said; when she’s unplugged, it’s easy for her to forget that tens of thousands of devoted followers hang on her every word. A winning post, tweeted days after her most recent procedure: “feeling blessed to have been born with Double D all natural big titties.”
Those followers first flocked after Chase’s star began rising, in 2019, with a series of beloved parody videos—delicious and dangerously accurate impersonations of A-listers like Kylie Jenner and Lady Gaga. Then came the pivot, as all empire-building celebrities are known to do once they’ve seen a sliver of success; for Chase, as with Gwyneth and her acting, voiceovers were the gateway to her own impending Goop. In 2020, she launched a music career that pop fans have taken quite seriously, and followed that up with a foray into television as the host and narrator of Slag Wars, the Cock Destroyers’ delightfully unhinged British reality competition series.
She’s set to return to her 9 to 5 soon (she prefers to keep her place of work a secret for fear of being doxxed), but in her spare time, Chase has been learning to navigate the increasingly blurry line between fame and fandom, her success born of parodying the lives of Hollywood’s elite. Hers is a burgeoning stardom (“I honestly have never really made money off of doing any of this,” she said with a hollow laugh) rooted in a nation’s collective disdain for those who hold pop culture’s purse strings. Only in America could you spin mockery of celebrities into actual celebrity. As she put it recently on Twitter, “God I love being hot & stannable.”
“She’s very immersed in everything that’s going on in pop culture, in Twitter culture, in meme culture,” said the Drag Race winner and Race Chaser host Alaska Thunderfuck, who had Chase on her podcast last summer. “She’s very, very knowledgeable and smart and funny and not afraid to be self-deprecating.”
“I would say something that people don’t know about me is that I’m a genius,” Chase said with the world’s slightest trace of sarcasm. Take the revelatory “I might actually make it in this world” moment she had years ago, the spark that lit the whole powder keg: When she was a kid, she remembers, she once whispered a joke to her best friend, who screamed it to the rest of the class, which was followed by peals of laughter. “That was the moment,” Chase said. “I was like, [one day,] ‘everyone’s going to be copying me.’”
Normally, this is the section of a glossy celebrity cover story where I’d tell you how Chase used to watch her idols on TV, wishing to one day walk in their shoes; how her parents would take her to the movies and she’d leave skipping and daydreaming about her name being on the marquee; how, when she’d sing along to the Top 40 radio stations in her car, her friends would say, “Wow, that could be you someday.”
But Chase’s passions took form only eight years ago, as a rebellion against her upbringing. She was born into a strict religious household in Southern California. The youngest child, she wasn’t allowed to engage with secular music or pop culture; her diet consisted of Christian hymns and the Trinity Broadcasting Network, a service “committed to sending the message of hope and grace of Jesus to the world via live streaming,” according to its website. In her free time, she was to go to church, often six nights a week; in school, she took music and art classes because she loved drawing and painting, but when the other kids would discuss their favorite songs and shows, she didn’t have the language to participate.
When she was nine, Chase got caught by her mother with the Trey Songz and Nicki Minaj song “Bottom’s Up” on her iPod (sample lyrics: “If a bitch tryna get cute I’ma stomp her / Throw a lot of money at her then yell / “Fuck her! Fuck her! Fuck her!,” then yell, “Fuck her!”). She got a “good spanking” and had her iPod confiscated for the offense, but the door had been opened to the other side, and Chase would do everything she could to keep it ajar. At 13, she had a reverse come to Jesus moment about Christianity and her upbringing that found her abandoning all that she had been taught to believe about the dangers of Hollywood and pop culture. “I was like, ‘This is a load of barnacles, I don’t know what I’m doing here,’” she said. “‘Am I really going to go to hell for listening to Lady Gaga? Is she really doing the devil’s work?’ I didn’t think so,” she recalled, adding with a smirk, “and now I realize that she is.”
At one time, Chase thought she might find fame in musical theater, having done (by her count) “40-something” local shows since she started acting at age five. She abandoned those plans when she had to move out of her family home to “fend for myself and try to make what I could of my situation,” she said. She was 15, and moved in with her sister, who became her legal guardian for the remainder of her high school years.
“I saw other people getting fame on the internet, and it just seemed like something that I could totally do myself—probably better.”
In 2013, she started a stan Twitter account “pretty much just tweeting at Lady Gaga and all the celebrities that I liked.” Not yet showing her face, the young trans woman was quickly able to find community with people who shared her newfound fascination with celebrity and pop stardom. “I don’t have a whole lot of friends in my real life, so the fact that I made a bunch of internet friends all at once made it a lot easier,” she said. “I’m like, ‘Maybe I’m
not so unlikable.’” Back home, her family rejected her transition, except for her sister (according to Chase, the rest remain “very in denial”); online, she could be whoever she wanted. “I always just wanted to be normal,” she said.
After four years of running the account anonymously, a 17-year-old Chase decided to step out from behind the curtain and begin posting more content. Up to that point, she’d developed a following but anonymity made it hard to make her own content stand out from the thousands of other similar stan accounts out there. She still wanted to be normal, she said, but she also wanted to taste all that she thought success had to offer. “I saw other people getting fame on the internet, and it just seemed like something that I could totally do myself—probably better,” she said. Two years of “doing stupid videos of myself talking in my car, throwing things, being an idiot,” followed, though she’s since scrubbed those social media postings from the internet.
At 19, though, she tried something new. Honing her experience tracking her favorite celebrities’ every move, she posted a video impersonating Kylie Jenner in December 2019. Overnight, she went from an anonymous Twitter user to the name on thousands of lips.
It was her voice that grabbed me first—aerated and sticky, stringing words together like Christmas lights, each syllable splashing into the next. Her voice is equal parts disaffected and disarming, an instrument Chase has spent the past several years refining. She’s able to modify it depending on the day; on her recent debut solo single, she’s quick-tongued and sneering, a Valley Girl with a hint of venom. When narrating Slag Wars, she lovingly dismisses the contestants and their performances with a cheeky wink. In all mediums, she’s mastered the art of feigning interest while dripping with disdain; in every way, her voice appears the product of years of Hollywood fame and fortune, just minus the years, the fame, and the fortune.
But it’s her impressions that changed her life. In the Kylie Jenner video, Chase provides a voiceover as Kylie gives a tour of her office. It’s Chase’s own take on the reality star—elongated syllables and a dead-behind-the-eyes listlessness—that sells it. “That’s my name,” she drawls, pointing to a pink neon KYLIE sign behind her. “We have it printed on the wall in neon, so we don’t... forget.”
People ate it up. On Twitter, the Kylie clip has been watched over a million times. “Humor is so important right now because there’s so much vitriol and there’s such an urge to be on the attack,” said Alaska. “Someone like Chase is able to analyze things that are going on in pop culture but come at it with a level of kindness and humor that I think is really refreshing and important.”
“When I posted the first Kylie Jenner video, I was like, ‘Oh, shit. People really want more of this, and there’s so much I can do with it,’” Chase said, crediting the comedian Deven Green and her beloved voiceover videos as the kernel of inspiration. “I’m a very creative person and I always like to milk things for all they’re worth. That’s when I realized: ‘People are paying attention to me now, and I have an opportunity to turn this into something.’”
As viewers caught on and started sharing her videos, Chase kept the impressions coming. She did a spot-on Lady Gaga impersonation that lovingly parodied the singer’s then years-long musical drought. Later, she tried her hand at Paris Hilton in a manic cooking video (“I wore this sweater today in support of the LGB...T...Q...ISSIPPI community,” she deadpans). Last summer, she brought us a bone-chilling, only barely parodic Ivanka Trump, with cutting lines like “I don’t think the coronavirus is real,” which segues into a slurping noise and is followed by the simple, explanatory, “Sorry, my veneers are slipping.”
“I loved the idea of just parodying and mocking the rich,” Chase said. “I was a mean kid—I loved to mock people. I definitely learned [the power of my voice] from just being a little bitch.”
It wasn’t surprising to her that it was that same voice that drew people in; after all, she’d been working on it since puberty, practicing, trying to sound feminine driving home from work alone in her car. “Being trans, so much relies on your voice being able to sound a certain way,” she said. “That’s a huge part of why I have voice control, because I’m basically forced by society to be able to sound a certain way in order to pass, to gain respect, to be able to just exist comfortably.”
Chase recognized early on that viral moments could only take her so far; her voice could be just one piece of the puzzle. Today, the admission fee to “fame” is cheaper than ever, with countless entryways through which to achieve it. And in the absence of the red carpets and paparazzi of the mid to late 2000s, it’s become easier to sustain your 15 minutes if you play your cards right.
She’s walking in the footsteps of fellow pop culture fanatics who were able to turn their deep knowledge and fandom of fame into fame of their own. They make up a generation of nouveau stars who’ve studied the game and learned its shortcuts, springboarding from obscurity into full-fledged celebrity. Lil Nas X turned shitposting on SoundCloud and running a Nicki Minaj stan account on Twitter into a pair of Grammys. The Cock Destroyers rode a viral video that made their porn career secondary to their new public image as Britain’s lovably raunchy aunts.
Fame is no longer about just one moment—your Antoine Dodsons (“Bed Intruder”) and Tay Zondays (“Chocolate Rain”) of the world who came and went in a flash. In 2021, real fame comes after the initial bump. For Chase, one-off success wouldn’t do. She’s in this for the long haul.
Even before Twitter, Chase knew she wanted to be famous; she just didn’t know what it would be for. She’s always known she was bitingly funny; throughout our interview, she deadpanned and dished out zingers and one-liners that were so precise and effortless that I was often left wheezing with laughter. “I think that a certain part of my confidence comes from being beautiful,” she said at one point, staring directly into the camera and pausing for emphasis. “Nobody can really say shit about me if I’m beautiful.”
But fame as a concept still feels foreign to her—especially, she thinks, because it was fame gained primarily in quarantine. “I always forget that [people might recognize me], and then I go anywhere gay people work, and I’m like, ‘Oh, wait, yeah, I am a celebrity,’” she said, batting her eyes.
Last year, as her videos picked up steam, Chase’s Twitter account ballooned from its more niche following to, now, a slightly-less-niche nearly 70,000 followers hanging on her every word. Hers is now the level of fame that would score her free drinks in West Hollywood, the option to cut the line at gay bars in any major city, and craned necks from queer passersby. She’s not Lady Gaga, but she’s not a stan account anymore, either. Were circumstances different, she thinks, she might’ve already climbed to a higher rung on the ladder. “Sometimes you’ve got to do what you can to grab people’s attention,” she said of sustaining her success. “If you’re doing what you like to do, and you’re honing in on your talents, people are going to continue to pay attention. I’ve been really lucky to be able to transition my career into whatever I want to do, whatever I feel creative about that day.”
Lately, that transition has meant dipping a toe into the music pond, with features on songs like “Stain On Me” (a raunchy parody of Lady Gaga’s “Rain On Me”). In January, she dropped her debut solo single, “SRS,” which begins—in a nod to her origins—with an impression, as Chase recites a Lady Gaga quote lifted from an interview between the singer and Anderson Cooper, about some rumors that had been circulating: “Why the hell am I gonna waste my time and give a press release about whether or not I have a penis? My fans don’t care, and neither do I.” She laughs, then whispers her own name before a strobing beat kicks in. “Pussy custom-made,” she purrs on one verse. “Chase Icon,” one fan wrote, “literally didn’t have to snap so hard.”
“I’ve been trying to push my energy into something that I actually like doing,” she said. “I realized that I could make music without having to necessarily be a singer. It’s pretty obvious that I’m well-versed in internet culture and I know how people like to react to things. I always like to have that in mind when I’m making music. It’s not always going to be a joke. But I think that everything is kind of a joke.”
As with her parody videos, fans have already flooded her comments and DMs with well wishes for her burgeoning and quite serious music career. On Reddit, the PC Music and PopHeads communities (true arbiters of taste who know what’s what about pop) had only kind words for “SRS”; on Spotify, the song racked up 100,000 streams in just under a month—not bad for someone who says she can’t sing. Though only 20 at the time of our two interviews (she turned 21 in late February), Chase has already won the support of cultural gatekeepers. She’s already revered in queer circles the way our favorite pop stars and drag queens are. “I have to remind myself that I’m a part of this now, and not necessarily another audience member just watching,” she said.
More than anything, she’s thrilled by how she’s been able to consciously bridge the gap rich, between Chase the woman and Chase the icon. “At the end of the day, nobody really knows who I actually am,” she said. “If they’re judging me off of just being Chase Icon, they can go ahead and run with it, because you’re not getting the real me. I like having a little bit of a separation. It makes me feel like they’re not necessarily judging me. They’re judging their idea of me.”
Though success has meant increased stability for Chase, it’s important to remember she’s not actual, IRL, “Oh my God, that’s Chase Icon!!!!” famous yet. For starters, the pandemic hasn’t allowed her to cash in on her fruitful 2020 at all. Her voice has gotten her recognized when she’s picked up coffee at a nearby drive-thru, but if the world were safer, she imagines, she’d be getting paid to do... something. To host drag shows in West Hollywood, for starters; to fly out to the UK to host Slag Wars in person, maybe; even to perform her small but growing collection of songs live and in person. She’d be able, she said, to be famous in the flesh.
“I feel like it was kind of timely, as frustrating it is,” she said. “Like, I wish I could just go out and host every drag show and go perform my silly songs on a silly stage, but also, I can’t imagine how overwhelmed I would be if I had real-life bookings while balancing my job and my own life things.”
She’s ready for the next—speaking in pop stan parlance—Chase Icon era, though. More music is coming first, and after that? Well... frankly, she’s not sure yet, but if there’s anyone to trust to take things to the next level, it’s Chase. She knows firsthand how the trappings of fame, by default, necessitate peaks and valleys; one day you’re up, and the next, you’re canceled.
That knowledge is what sets Chase and fame’s new class apart from the old guard: She’s fan first and famous second. She’s without a manager, agent, or publicist—Chase Icon is, in every sense, a one-woman operation held together by sheer willpower and perseverance. She’s done her time in the Twitter trenches, learning what happens to celebrities who fuck it all up. She’s watched as idols like Britney Spears—for whom she marched in a recent #FreeBritney demonstration, she appears briefly in the new FX documentary Framing Britney Spears—have had their success controlled and their freedoms wrenched away. And she came to pop culture late enough to be merely enamored with it, rather than enraptured.
Fame, to the extent she could achieve it, meant a better life. The adoring fans were nice; the stability and options success has brought her are nicer. “Fame is really fleeting and it’s surreal,” Alaska said of Chase’s journey. “To any of the kids out there who are striving to be famous, they should just wish to be rich, because that’s the goal.”
“They can’t scare me, because I’m one of them,” Chase said of her followers. “I know what they do. I’m very much a part of it. And I like to play the game a little bit. I could probably have a viral tweet every day if I put my mind to it. But now I’m at a point where I’d rather put out what I want and not spend a bunch of energy on doing things that aren’t necessarily fulfilling to me.”
“I have to remind myself that I’m a part of this now, and not necessarily another audience member just watching.”
Though she’s not yet being asked to hawk tummy-flattening teas or hair-restoring gummy bears on her Instagram, Chase says she’s already starting to see some payoff. Not only is her music career taking off, her part on Slag Wars—a show for which her role went beyond simple vocal narration, incorporating her own writing and snap takes into the mix—was beloved by fans and celebrities alike, including Drag Race alumni and pop stars like Allie X. Fans might have come for the voiceovers, but they certainly stayed for the full package.
Never did her reach become clearer than in December 2020, when Chase launched a GoFundMe campaign to help finance her gender confirmation surgery after she was told the procedure would be more expensive than she’d originally budgeted for; it raised the necessary $5,500 (and then some) in only days. “For me, it was a tragic, hard-hitting moment in my life, where suddenly what I had put so much work into and sacrificed so much for was going to be taken away from me in an instant,” she said. “I had to do what I could to make sure that I was going to be able to get the surgery that I needed. Crowdfunding isn’t ideal. Nobody wants to put themselves out there. It’s hard to feel like a bad bitch when you need help. But sometimes bad bitches need help.”
Now that she’s recovered from surgery, she’s beginning to allow herself to imagine a future beyond the confines of COVID-19. Most self-made icons have a five-year plan, and Chase said even though she barely has the next two weeks plotted, she knows she’s ready to invest in herself first. “It’s a never-ending cycle,” she said. “I need to be able to focus more time on Chase Icon, but you have to work in order to be able to do that so you can make money so you can not work. But now that things are speeding up a little bit, I’m really hopeful that I’ll be able to just be an icon full-time.”
“The fun of it for me is not really knowing how I’m going to turn something into something that relates to my brand,” she added. “But I always figure out a way.”
A few days after our second interview, Chase popped up on Zoom in front of hundreds of rapt fans for a short Friday night DJ set in support of the trans musician SOPHIE, who’d tragically passed away at age 34 just a month earlier.
“She was a trans woman who really didn’t give a fuck, and was herself, and her work spoke for itself,” Chase had told me earlier. “I always really looked up to that. It just felt cool to have somebody like that as a North Star.”
As viewers danced around their bedrooms to the sugary sweet pop songs Chase had queued up, the chat flooded with demands for those in the audience unacquainted with Chase to stream “SRS”; one fan quickly changed their Zoom backdrop to the “SRS” single cover, delighting Chase, whose face lit up upon seeing it. Days after its 10-year anniversary, Rebecca Black’s viral hit “Friday” blasted from the speakers, a meta moment of full-circle self-awareness.
All the while, Chase commanded the virtual space. In the set’s opening moments, she puckered her lips and applied a dewy-looking Fenty gloss while an Ariana Grande and Britney Spears mashup played. When the track transitioned to Lady Gaga’s thundering “Heavy Metal Lover,” she quietly held up a fresh Chromatica Oreo and took bird-sized nibbles out of the hot-pink-and-green-hued cookie. It was iconic for reasons both inherent and inexplicable, and it was just a taste of what she has to offer as a newfound superstar. Just imagine the kind of hell Hollywood’s next starlet will raise when she can leave her home again.
Follow Brennan Carley on Twitter.
BEHIND THE COVER
An interview with portrait photographer Lindsay Ellary, who shot Chase Icon for this story and the cover of The Fame Issue.
VICE: You photographed social media star Chase Icon for this issue’s cover. Can you give us some background on the inspiration behind the shoot?
Lindsay Ellary: Well, I knew the theme of the issue was fame, and that Chase is also interested in the ideas surrounding fame, so a paparazzi-motivated shoot just made sense. I had just watched the Framing Britney Spears documentary and the notion of a paparazzo feasting on a woman trying to live her life felt like something I wanted to explore further. I also just really wanted to shoot an early 00s whale tail on a Segway.
In hindsight, we really should have filmed Chase riding around on that Segway. Do you have any funny anecdotes from the shoot?
Watching the sweet Segway man very patiently teach Chase how to ride was pretty cute. Also, we bought Chromatica Oreos at the Newport Pier from a random dude on Craigslist.
Where do you get your day-to-day inspiration?
I’m inspired by little puddles of light, and women, and generally anything that crushes my heart a bit.
Lindsay Ellary lives in Los Angeles, and her work has been published in Vogue, W Magazine, The New Yorker, and TIME.