This 44-Year-Old YouTuber Got Caught in the Stan Wars

Georgina Hill-Brown made her name online reviewing pop songs as "The Honest Vocal Coach", but the fame has come at a cost.
October 28, 2020, 9:45am
Georgina Hill-Brown YouTube Pop Stan Ariana Grande Miley Cyrus Fandom
Screenshot via YouTube

“Now this is what you call a bop!” grins Georgina Hill-Brown, 44, as she rocks her head back and forth to Lady Gaga and Ariana Grande’s triumphant “Rain on Me” in a now viral reaction video. In the background are shelves lined with Cath Kidston storage boxes, some driftwood letters spelling “HOME” and a life-size figurine of a silver owl. Just out of shot, I suspect, exists a silver plaque from Youtube: her award for having passed 100,000 subscribers on the platform as The Honest Vocal Coach.

It’s not your usual influencer set-up, but from her spare room in Pontefract, West Yorkshire, Hill-Brown is fast becoming one of the most unexpected and divisive online celebrities. A few years back she mainly worked as a singing teacher for kids and young adults, but she’s now firmly in the clasp of stan Twitter, the social media shadowland manned by warring teens and zealous pop fandoms. How on earth did this happen?

It all started back in 2018, when Hill-Brown began weekly YouTube uploads reviewing performances and new music releases of all the pop favourites, from Girls Aloud to Ariana Grande to Blackpink. Views grew steadily, with a cult base of subscribers falling for her accidental charm, relatable humour and unabashed love of pop. But it wasn’t until she released her reaction video to “Rain on Me” that everything changed. The video ended up trending on UK Youtube and her catchphrases have been circulated on Twitter ever since. Within the space of a few weeks, The Honest Vocal Coach had been thrust from ringside to centre stage, acquiring a standom all of her own.

“Oh it’s all very odd!” Hill-Brown tells me over the phone. “I’m just used to being genuine me, I like to help people learn how to sing and that’s it really.” Her rise to fame was no surprise to Harrison Brocklehurst, a 24-year-old writer who was “one of the first to share her on Twitter in 2018”.

“I was instantly enamoured with her northern hun aesthetic talking about huge pop stars… she has a real maternal warmth.” It’s true, Hill-Brown gives Big English Teacher Energy – something Harrison thinks “all gays feel at home with”.

“She’s like a grandma to stans!” adds Mark*, a 14-year-old Taylor Swift stan in the US. Granted, Hill-Brown would be a fairly young grandma at 44, but she could easily be someone you know. It’s that sense of familiarity which has adorned her with instant “hun” status.

For Brocklehurst, the hun appeal lies in “her northernness, cottagecore aesthetics and constant brew drinking”. It’s this which has made The Honest Vocal Coach perfect fodder for UK gay Twitter. Here, she joins a long list of “relatable” huns (see Gemma Collins, Lorraine Kelly and Gail from Coronation Street) whose most mundane, tragicomic moments have become viral sensations.

There is a lot of love there, but it’s a culture in which idolisation can quickly veer into misogyny via the commodification of usually older or working-class women for memes or “content”. It’s a phenomenon that the Honest Vocal Coach has often fallen foul of, too.

“I don’t mind so much… I’m such a supporter of the gay community!” says Hill-Brown. That said, her allyship has been brought into question in the past.

“I believe Georgina to be a lovely lady but some of her views are… questionable,” @shirleypussy, a popular gay Twitter account tells me over DM, preferring to keep their identity anonymous. In a now-deleted tweet, for instance, Hill-Brown allegedly failed to honour Sam Smith's pronouns. Harrison tells me that she then “made comments refusing to acknowledge them,” leading to him unfollowing her.

“It was naivety on my part,” Hill-Brown confesses today. “I just thought they/them meant lots of people! But if that’s how they like to be addressed, then of course I’m good with that.” Regardless, the situation underscores the false proximity we feel towards many hyper-visible online figures (in much the same way meme-ifying them does). After all, we know nothing about these people’s offline lives, let alone the ins and outs of their supposed socio-political views. The Honest Vocal Coach is hardly West Yorkshire’s answer to Jeffree Star but, as with anybody online, she is a fallible human being.

Most people, however, are not aware of this debacle – their gripe is both entirely different and entirely unfounded. Enter stan Twitter. “Everyone on here started out loving her. Her videos were funny and we just thought she was really sweet,” Mark says.

Jess, a 21-year-old Miley stan in the West Midlands, agrees: “People naturally wanted to hear her opinions on their favourite artists and we’d take extracts from her YouTube reactions and use them as memes.”

But just as quickly as her popularity soared, it crashed. “People randomly started to troll her out of nowhere,” says VooRoo, another anonymous, US-based Ariana stan account. “Now I see tweets about her everyday.” The tweets are relentless – unhinged, even – and include pictures of Hill-Brown photoshopped into profane sex ads, fake accounts shitposting in her name and stans tricking her into saying the n-word.

“It gets really extreme," Hill-Brown says. “I’ve had inbox messages of people self harming, some of dead bodies being cut up… It is mortifying.”

It’s difficult to pinpoint when exactly the tide turned so viciously on The Honest Vocal Coach, but she tells me “it all got a little bit strange” after she released “a light-hearted vocal battle video of Mariah and J Lo”.

“I didn’t make fun of either singers,” Hill-Brown says – it’s not her style – “but oh god, the J Lo stans were so unhappy, they were like ‘how dare you compare her to Mariah’ and that’s when I started getting all sorts of inbox messages of rude pictures.”

Then, a recent retweet from Miley Cyrus seemingly added fuel to fire, after which “stans saw Georgina as someone to get help from during stan wars”, Mark admits.

Suddenly, an endorsement from The Honest Vocal Coach became another point of contention in the ongoing beef between rival fandoms, and Hill-Brown, an unwitting pawn. “This caused a lot of tension,” Mark adds. “She started to get in the way of stan issues.”

Now caught in the crossfire, The Honest Vocal Coach has become the latest target of whoever “stan Twitter chooses to harass and obsess over”, as VooRoo puts it. Tomás, a 16-year-old Ariana stan based in Spain, says a similar thing: “Stan Twitter is random like that. Gays just find particular women who innocently do nothing and turn them into an inside joke, [then] harass and troll them until no one cares anymore.”

Tomás tells me he’s even trolled Hill-Brown himself after her recent cover of “Don’t Call Me Angel”. For Hill-Brown, this is obviously deeply affecting. “It makes me think ‘Why am I even bothering?’ And when I get to that point it’s worrying,” she says. “It’s awful, I have to try and stop letting it get into my head.”

If UK Gay Twitter’s treatment of Hill-Brown borders on misogyny, then stan Twitter’s trolling can be seen as outright online abuse. “I have very little good to say about stan Twitter,” Harrison says. “It’s a vile and vicious place full of anonymous accounts and hypocrisy.”

Jess thinks that many of Hill-Brown’s trolls appear to be Ariana Grande fans. “Ariana’s fandom is notoriously problematic,” she says. “It’s like being part of a cyber army, which has its negatives – trolling, hate speech and bullying.”

Of course, passionate communities of fans have always existed. Social media, however, has emboldened these parasocial relationships and the fans, too, have hardened through easily accessible networks, anonymity and weak reporting tools.

“I’ve shouted out to Twitter many times. I’ve sent emails and all sorts asking for help, telling them how the trolling is really affecting me,” Hill-Brown says. “But I’ve got nothing back at all, no reply whatsoever.”

In this back alley of the internet, accountability seems to be a tall order. “When you troll someone, everyone knows you don’t mean any of the things you say, or so you’d hope,” Tomás argues. While this is probably a cheap excuse for bullying, it’s also the result of an environment that trades in toxic love – a culture where adoration and viciousness genuinely does coalesce into a throwaway comment of “only joking, promise!” It means that “although Georgina gets a lot of trolls online, she is actually a loved member of stan Twitter,” as Jess says.

Visibility will always breed contempt, but it seems our treatment of The Honest Vocal Coach goes beyond this. It’s symptomatic of the particular kind of overfamiliarity, or entitlement, we feel towards online personalities. In the true spirit of resilience, however, The Honest Vocal Coach shows no sign of slowing down, “because there’s probably 90 percent of people that love what I do,” as she puts it.

“I only hope she continues to thrive,” says Jess. “She’s a real giver and a light much needed in the bleak times we’re living in.”

@DanielWRodgers