YouTube's "Guru of Cute" has gone AWOL. Venus Angelic, the "human doll" known for her high-pitched voice and serene smile, eloped to Tokyo earlier this year with an older husband, triggering a storm of comments and a very public, ugly feud with the person who might be her biggest troll: her own mother.
You might remember the early "living dolls," modelled less on Barbie than on Victorian porcelain figures and involving none of the extreme plastic surgery and overt sexuality the look has lately became known for. Venus Palermo (aka Venus Angelic) was perhaps the most famous of their first wave, appearing on the UK's Daybreak and My Strange Addiction dressed in full skirts and Mary Janes, accessorised with a preternaturally placid smile.
At 15, Venus Angelic had 28,000 subscribers and over 8 million YouTube views. At 19, her subscribers broke one million. Lately, however, her videos have taken a turn for the dramatic.
According to her accounts, in 2014 Venus started seeing Manaki Okado, a fan six years her senior from Japan. They met online, then in real life when he travelled to meet her and her mother, Margaret Palermo. The pair got married late last year, and Venus left to join Manaki in Japan.
This triggered a public feud between Venus and her mother, unfolding even now through back-and-forth videos with titles like "How I Ran Away From Home" and "Hacked By My Mom," where Venus alleges Margaret has access to her accounts and is using them against her by posting false comments.
I reached out to both Venus and Margaret Palermo, and Venus agreed to comment (through a new email address, different to the one her mother is now supposedly using). I asked what made her decide to address the conflict head-on in her videos. She replied:
I actually didn't really decide to go public with my story, since my life was actually already quite public over the past few years. Viewers will definitely notice if I post videos and take pictures from another location. So that is why I had to talk about it, otherwise my viewers will be confused, worry too much or cause a knot of confusing rumours if I don't explain the current situation.
Even among online celebrities, Venus Angelic has always attracted controversy. Swiss-German by birth and living in London, she started out on YouTube aged 13 and rose to fame with a succession of weird and wonderful, occasionally questionable beauty tutorials. Venus's style, especially in early videos, draws heavily on the Lolita subculture, a look originating largely in Japanese street fashion and popularised by the Gothic & Lolita Bible (scans of old editions are on Tumblr here) and brands like Angelic Pretty and Baby, The Stars Shine Bright.
Worn by a teenaged Venus, the style elicited the kind of reaction punk did decades ago: The Daily Mail labelled her "freakish," and in her Daybreak interview presenter Helen Fospero says she would be "horrified" if her daughter dressed this way.
Over the years, Venus and her mother have appeared on camera working as a team: Margaret speaks frankly about protecting Venus from creepy older men, and about how the videos earn money. She mentions that Venus is homeschooled and can speak five languages, and dreams of living in Japan.
But since Venus ran away, the mother-daughter relationship has turned bitter. The conflict is timelined in different places, none of them completely reliable—see the forum Pretty Ugly Little Liars, the Instagram hashtag "PrayforVenus," and Encyclopaedia Dramatica. Venus and her fans accuse Margaret of posting as Venus to Instagram, where Margaret has in turn accused Manaki of stalking and hacking her accounts. Earlier this year, Venus made a series of Instagram posts responding to further accusations: one reads "I'M NOT AN ANIMAL ABUSER," while another dispels claims of an eating disorder, Asperger's Syndrome, and alcoholism.
The claims become more extreme: In videos, Venus talks about her mother threatening suicide and hitting her on occasions.
Margaret, meanwhile, has posted "VenusAngelic Marriage Story" to her own YouTube channel, along with "Responding to Horrible Accusations and the Runaway of VenusAngelic," in which she takes credit for Venus's online fame ("She didn't go viral, it was my photo I arranged and shot, and make up that went viral"). Later, she captions an Instagram picture of an airport breakfast with a message to Venus: "You had obviously all freedom of the world… But I see, rebellious teenagers have to believe: there's something to fight FOR and AGAINST—even if there isn't."
Is this what it's about—teenage rebellion? Or is this a profitable online business, falling apart in the public eye?
YouTubers have made multiple response videos about the fracas, and Instagram followers have sent hundreds of messages in support of Venus. Pretty Ugly Little Liars (PULL), a forum dedicated to discussing (and bitching about) Japanophile bloggers labelled "weeaboos," depicts Venus in its banner as tearful, wearing a collar marked "MOM" with a chain attached.
Venus Angelic's section has by far the most posts of any single character on the forum, standing currently at 17,049, and members have set rules specifically around discussing the "Margaret versus Venus" issue. Some claim that Margaret has joined the forum under sock puppet accounts. Members are unified in taking Venus's side: To come into this thread and defend Margo is just downright stupid, and frankly disgusting… if you for some reason choose to side with her than take it elsewhere.
In her email to me, Venus said that she's looking forward to having more time to make videos, many of which will include Okado, and that speaking publicly has brought her some solace:
I do feel better. I don't really have a family, a mom, dad, siblings, grandfather, grandmother… but I have found a person whose brain works just like mine, not to mention my incredible fans!
Venus is still YouTube's self-described "Guru of Cute" but is moving beyond her world of Purikura photo booths and pink clouds and further towards reality.
In one sense Venus is adrift now, left to sift through unfiltered comments without support, wholly responsible for herself. But on another level she's prepared: She's grown up in a very specific kind of public eye, one built on access and interaction, and her fandom has transformed itself into a support network. In Venus's own words:
Making the videos was somewhat difficult, but at that time it had a surprisingly therapeutic effect to me…just by talking to the camera! As for my fans, without their words of support I couldn't have so much confidence, as they, unlike me, have the ability to watch and judge the situation objectively.
While the human doll phenomenon has progressed into increasingly bizarre territory, Venus has gently moved away from the scene. Her Instagram remains a riot of kawaii, but lately she appears more and more in plain, non-Loli clothes and minimal makeup. She continues to make videos to a schedule, and is still YouTube's self-described "Guru of Cute," but is moving beyond her world of Purikura photo booths and pink clouds and further towards reality.
Growing up in the public eye could never be easy, not least when your family members start becoming trolls and your commenters family. But negotiating this world is proof of a certain maturity: Even if she continues to look like a living doll, perhaps all this is Venus Palermo acting like a grown-up.
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