It's surprisingly hard to get face time with Connor Franta. His publicist seemed keen, but when it got down to scheduling an interview, she started playing hardball.
"If we can guarantee a standalone piece on just Connor, I can lock this in," she said.
Franta has over 5 million subscribers to his YouTube channel, and the videos he films from his home in Los Angeles have gotten more than 270 million views. The videos detail his life and relationships, as Franta directly addresses the camera and uses lots of stylistic jump cuts. I hadn't heard of Franta until I registered to attend StreamCon, a conference in New York City dedicated to YouTube stars and all things streaming, and received a press release from the vlogger's publicist. It was my way into the world of viral video stars: a kid who's extremely popular online, though I had absolutely no idea why.
Getting close to a YouTube star, though, is harder than connecting with a world dignitary. Franta's publicist wouldn't commit to a meeting, and she seemed to speak exclusively in buzzwords. "He's trying to put out there that he's a curator and social tastemaker," she said. "Connor wants to promote all the things he's working on because he so much more than YouTube at this point."
"Uh-huh," I said. I'd only learned who he was ten minutes before.
We live in a world where anyone can have a shot at fame. Take Jiff, an adorable Pomeranian with an Instagram following of 1.9 million. (As Jiff and his owner paraded through StreamCon, crowds mobbed; "I just want to squish it," said one enamored fan.) Bethany Mota started uploading outfit ideas and hair tutorials to YouTube in 2009, and now makes $40K a month on her videos, in addition to designing her own fashion line for Aéropostale. Hannah Hart got famous filming herself cooking while drunk; it led to a cookbook and a YouTube show with celebrity guests.Michelle Phan's videos helped launch her cosmetic empire. In almost every industry—comedy, cooking, makeup application—there's an unknown who became a breakout star. And it's all thanks to YouTube.
The game changing moment was in 2006, when Google bought YouTube for $1.65 billion. Google's search algorithm increased video traffic and brought a better monetization model to the video-sharing platform. By 2014, 300 hours of videos were being uploaded to YouTube every minute, with a total of 4 billion views a day. Factor into that people now having easy access to cameras on their phones and suddenly everyone has become "a creator."
With this influx of viewership and activity, advertisers are willing to pay popular YouTube stars to endorse and feature their products in their videos. Forbes now puts out an annual list of the Top Earning YouTube Stars, most of whom earn money not only from advertising, but also from book deals, preview launches, and product lines—all stemming from their online video popularity. At the top of the list is PewDiePie, a 26-year-old Swedish comedian-slash-video game reviewer with a whopping 40 million subscribers who pulled in $12 million last year.
Viewers are the new studio bosses, and Google analytics dictate stardom. Justin Bieber, for better or worse, was discovered via his YouTube videos. So was comedian Bo Burnham, who went from making YouTube videos in his room to doing international tours and starring in his own Comedy Central special. And with the sudden fame and money comes managers, agents, and overprotective publicists, who try to mold YouTubers—many of whom are young, inexperienced, and unprepared—into something beyond the video-sharing site that made them famous.
StreamCon is where some of the top YouTube stars converge and meet their fans. It's modeled similarly to VidCon, an Anaheim-based convention for YouTube celebrities, which almost 20,000 people attended this year. At StreamCon, which launched this year (attendance numbers have not been released), tween girls shriek when they spot a girl who films cupcake videos in her basement; when another viral star walks by, they collectively screech and quickly pull out their cameras in unison.
"I'm at StreamCon and I just met iJustine," said a girl on the convention floor. She had her arm outstretched and was holding her phone, selfie-style, so she could speak directly into the camera. It wasn't clear who she was talking to.
A long line careened down a corridor where fans stood waiting to meet some of their favorite stars. The top male YouTubers looked like they'd all been snatched out of a boy band. They were, for the most part, very tiny—which doesn't shock fans, who are used to watching them on iPhones, not the big screen.
With few exceptions, everyone spoke in abstract terms. Vine star Thomas Sanders, whose YouTube compilation video has gotten 15 million views, went on stage to talk about ad blockers, all the random places he gets recognized, and what's next for him. "I'm working on a lot of auditions," he said vaguely. "I really can't talk a lot about it."
Then I met Joey Graceffa. A vlogger with a massive following, Graceffa had just finished a Q&A panel where fans asked him about his life and his YouTube channel. I had managed to secure an interview with him, so after the panel, we took the VIP route to the service elevator to avoid being mobbed by the crowd.
Graceffa started his YouTube channel in 2007, back when he was in high school. At the time he never thought of YouTube as a career track; he just wanted people to enjoy the videos that he made. Then, things suddenly clicked, and three years ago, Joey's followers went from 200,000 to 2 million in a course of a year. Now, he has an entourage, including two full-time publicists.
"It put a lot of stress on me that I now had this larger audience and I felt an obligation to keep posting to the standard of the previous videos I was doing," he told me.
By "larger audience," he means his 5,304,200 YouTube subscribers, and the 627,617,254 views on all his combined videos. Besides the videos, the 24-year old has also published a memoir, In Real Life, about his journey to YouTube stardom.
We stopped with his posse for a quick on-camera interview with People. The correspondent asked about his hair, which had recently been dyed silvery lavender. (The YouTube video of him dying it has over 1 million views.)
"This is a new look for you," said the People correspondent.
"I wanted to try a new style."
Just then, the guy in charge of the People shoot stormed toward me. He had seen me scribbling notes in my notebook and was clearly upset. "There can be no reporting on this for five days!" he snarled at me. "This is for People. This is an exclusive!"
Earlier in the day, Graceffa had done a fan event with two other YouTube stars: iJustine, who describes herself as a "lifecaster," and GloZell, a web comedienne who interviewed President Obama earlier this year. I didn't really know much about them, other than they're extremely popular in these circles. The large crowd was made up mostly of ecstatic girls, roughly ages ten to 15 years old, all of whom were armed with cell phones.
"Is anyone dressed up like their favorite YouTube star?" the moderator asked as the panel started. Numerous hands shot up.
Graceffa walked onstage to offer advice on how to be a star. "If you want to be a creator—just start," he said. Fans pulled out phones and filmed, creating content out of this talk about creating content.
"If you build it, they will come," GloZell added.
The YouTube stardom approach is kind like throwing shit at the wall and seeing what sticks. Who the fuck knows what makes a video suddenly go viral and hit 2 million views? Neither Graceffa, nor anyone else I spoke to at StreamCon, had a clear answer about how or why they became famous. And yet, everyone in the audience was there to learn how they could do it too.
"How many of you guys want to be creators or already are?" the moderator asked. All of the hands went up.
By the time I sat down with Graceffa for our one-on-one interview, his publicists had already given me the rundown on what I was allowed to ask him. They hovered closely while we spoke—and sure, I get that celebrities are closely reigned in by their publicists, but this was like having parents along on a first date. To scoop People, I asked Graceffa about his hair. Then I asked him about his fans.
"I call my fans psychopaths. Mainly because some of them actually are," he said with a nervous laugh. "I just had some crazy stories of some hiring private detectives, finding out where I live, and delivering me letters."
"Does that freak you out?" I asked.
"It does, yes. I don't like that."
And then, for just a second, perhaps his publicists momentarily looked away, I got a glimpse of the slightly overwhelmed kid behind the YouTube sensation.
Follow Harmon Leon on Twitter.