Melanie Turner sits on a gold throne as she shows off the Christmas gifts she’s personalized, like a back-scratcher with “I’ll scratch your back if you…” stenciled in hot pink. With curled hair, bright lipstick, and sparkling jewelry, Turner on her YouTube channel “Living Luxuriously for Less,” is confident and at ease as a lifestyle vlogger.
But Turner, 38, who lives in Alabama, spends most of her time away from the camera. As a product manager and food quality scientist for Yum! Brands, her job involves working with the company’s suppliers and stores to ensure they meet standards — like making sure KFC franchises fry their chicken extra crispy. She may love long dangly earrings, but those don’t suit the office or off-sites.
Turner studied food science, and she has worked at Yum! for nearly eight years, she’s also passionate about gifting, event planning, and interior design. With more than 95,000 subscribers and 6.8 million views, Turner’s achieved some internet fame, and “Living Luxuriously for Less” has become a topic of conversation with coworkers and even work performance reviews — not by her choice.
"There are not a lot of women in this field, and definitely not a lot of African-Americans in this field ... So, by me being an attractive lady, and this not being a female-dominated field — they didn't take me seriously to begin with," she said.
Turner said that in one-on-one meetings, a male manager has asked her questions like: ‘How’s business going? Do you see yourself doing this full-time still? How’s your husband’s job?’
Turner responded, “Is there an area do you think I’m slacking in? Am I not meeting standards? I’m here because I need to be there. I work because I need to work. If I’m ever slacking or not doing what because I’m supposed to do, let’s address those things,” Turner said.
Navigating both a large online community and in-office workplace culture can be extra complicated for women. Many female employees find clothing, makeup, and personal conversations in offices loaded, and walk a tightrope between expressing themselves and avoiding judgement or unwanted attention.
That line blurs for online celebrities. They may appear on their channels glammed up in a cocktail dress or dressed down in sweats, but they’re probably not wearing business casual. And for Cristine Rotenberg, who flips through crime reports in a cubicle by day and paints her nails (and sometimes face) with glittery cats and rainbow stripes by night, the moment when her colleagues found her channel was jarring.
The Canadian government crime analyst, known online as “Simply Nailogical,” doesn’t talk much about her channel at her day job. In her online personality, she’s been known to spray her entire body with rainbow sparkles, gush about her two cats Menchie and Zyler, and refer to her boyfriend as “drink slave” when he brings her tea. But at work, she said, she’s rather quiet. But once one of her coworkers found her channel, the rest found out by word of mouth.
“I think a lot of my coworkers are pretty shocked at how outgoing I am online. It’s nice to still be able to live part of my life like a normal person,” said Rotenberg.
Rotenberg became obsessed with painting her nails back when she was a teenager. In 2014, she decided to share that passion with the world. Now, her income from YouTube far exceeds her work salary. She doesn’t need her 9-to-5 income, but her day job also means more than that to Rotenberg.
“I live a bit of a double life, but I like it that way,” Rotenberg said. “I hope that young girls watching me can see me as an example that you can both be taken seriously as a professional in your field but still be allowed to have fun and have a creative side, outside of that."
Turner’s coworkers discovered her YouTube fame in 2017 after a colleague came across one of her videos while researching ideas for a princess-themed birthday party, and emailed it to their team. Turner wasn’t included on that email thread.
“I really want to keep the two separate. I don’t talk about YouTube at all at work. I told the coworker [who found the video] that if you come across these again, don’t share them to the entire office,” Turner said.
At that time Turner had about 30,000 subscribers. She’s since more than doubled that, but she still asks colleagues not to talk about “Living Luxuriously for Less” at work. When YouTube invited her to a conference in October, she asked her boss for time off without giving details.
Part of Turner’s frustration is that some of her coworkers assume she’s going to quit her day job. She said that recently, when she proposed scheduling a project deadline for January, a colleague asked, “Are you still going to be here in January?'”
“I've not made any comments regarding having plans to leave work. I love what I do,” said Turner.
For Jenny Chan, who works as an office manager and digital content manager at a hedge fund in Manhattan and also shares craft tutorials on her YouTube channel “Origami Tree,” being discovered by her coworkers was less awkward than she had imagined. She said she hadn’t planned on telling her coworkers about her online life. “It’s not related. They don’t need to know,” she said. Then, she was on “The Rachael Ray Show.”
“My boss, she couldn’t hold it any longer. She was like, ‘We need to watch you on TV.’ Rachael Ray was playing at 10 a.m., so the whole office stopped what they were doing and watched. We were a tiny firm at the time,” Chan, 30, said.
Every woman who spoke to VICE News said the balancing act is worth it, pointing out that it provides the opportunity to use and develop different skill sets.
And several whose online work dovetails with their office work said they hadn’t faced uncomfortable situations with colleagues.
Mackenna Huntley, who works in public relations for tech companies in the Bay Area but loves fashion, said her colleagues are “excited” for her success on her nascent Instagram, which she started last year and has 2,300 followers. Some of her posts include discounts from the boutiques she’s wearing; others just show off her style.
“I’m not afraid that they think I’m working on it during work. I think it would be hard if you are working at a company who wouldn’t understand it; in PR, we work with influencers,” Huntley siad.
India Kieser, 28, has had a similarly positive reaction from management. She’s an installation artist who shares her work on (and has gotten brand deals through) Instagram. She’s also a producer at VaynerMedia, the ad agency led by Gary Vaynerchuk, who got his start making videos for Wine Library TV and still vlogs as GaryVee. “Everybody’s so supportive,” she said, noting that she had recently taken a week off for a solo art show in Los Angeles.
Each creator has considered quitting the 9-to-5 life and devoting more time to online creation. Kieser said her boyfriend is a full-time YouTuber, whose office is their living room, so she sees firsthand how it can be done. Huntley has thought about it but said she’s not comfortable with the potential financial instability. While Rotenberg could afford losing her 9-to-5 salary at the moment, it doesn’t interest her.
“I don’t want to give up my day job because I’m enjoying it right now and see myself doing it into my older years,” she said.
Turner, who started on YouTube in her 30s, said she might have been more willing to make videos full-time if she were a 20-something. But recently, she’s been investing in her channel. She and her husband bought another property last year where she could host workshops and record.
“For 2019, I definitely have looked at a lot of different ways to produce more videos, more content. My community is unreal. I wish I had more time to reach out to them.”
Cover: Cristine Rotenberg, on her YouTube channel “Simply Nailogical.”