It is December 2014, and if you hadn’t encountered vlogger phenomenon at the beginning of the year, then you have most likely stumbled upon it by now, whether you realise it or not. 2014 has seen the YouTuber troupe move from niche conventions and PR events to infiltrating radio, TV and even red carpets. Ever heard Dan and Phil on Radio 1? They used to be known as Danisnotonfire and Amazing Phil, and hail more than 6.3million YouTube channel subscribers between them. The likes of Tanya Burr have released capsule collections of cosmetics, Lauren Luke of Pixiwoo has launched brushes, whilst others such as Alfie Deyes have released books.
At the forefront of everything though, is YouTube queen Zoella. Real name Zoe Sugg, Zoella has been active on YouTube since 2009 and has spent the past 5 years building up an audience of approximately 6.8 million between her channel and her blog, which – in anyone’s opinion – is pretty crazy. Children and teenagers all know her face thanks to laptops and iPads, and events which she attends holler with cries of her name. It is everything a budding X-Factor contestant could ever wish for, but how has Zoella ever managed to garner such? The answer is deceivingly simple. All she ever did, was be herself.
Sugg was (and still is) the friendly elder sister that every teen desires. She has a warm nature onscreen, she interacts with her followers, she addresses her own struggles (most notably with anxiety and depression) without patronising her viewers. She shows them how to do make-up, or how to do their hair in a different way, and her genuine friendships with her YouTube peers permeates through all the fluff, fun and games and, ultimately, welcomes youngsters to be ‘friends’ with people who are accessible and on their level.
All of this is – of course – a breeding ground of marketability, and one which has seen YouTubers (and more traditional bloggers) traverse into legitimate careers as TV presenters (Stephen Byrne of 3sixty5days) and radio show hosts (the aforementioned Dan and Phil). Others, such as Claire Marshall or Cassey Ho (Blogilates) juggle their original occupations (make-up artist and pilates instructor, respectively) with YouTube and have had their careers flourish further thanks to the wealth of opportunities that having a worldwide audience presents. Ho, for example, has this year alone designed and created a full pilates clothing range called Bodypop – alongside her already popular Blogilates workout range and oGorgeous gym bags – a new fitness journal, pilates equipment and DVDs as well as curating her YouTube channel. As a woman who took a biology degree to please her family, her journey to achieving incredible success in something that she truly revels in is inspiring to everyone.
Zoella’s current YouTube stats are at approximately 6.8 million subscribers and her videos have over 310 million views, whilst she also boasts 2.6 million followers on le Tweeter*. The past year has seen her release a Zoella line courtesy of Superdrug featuring soaps and lotions, make-up bags and perfume, win a Teen Choice Award*, appear in British Vogue*, sing on Band Aid 30* and, most recently, release that cyber-hubbub-inducing, bestselling book. Girl Online, Sugg’s debut novel, sold 78,000 copies* in the first week, thanks of course to her loyal fan base. However, she has recently come under attack for having what she described as ‘help’ from her publisher in writing her book which included working with an ‘expert editorial team’*, with the speculated ghost-writer, Siobhan Curham, is thanked in the book’s acknowledgements.
All of this begs the question of what fans, critics and casual spectators were really expecting from Zoella and her management. As a young woman who has previously never explicitly expressed a desire to pen literature, it is an immediate presumption that, in announcing the swift release of a book in time for Christmas, that a ghostwriter would be involved to help flesh out the gaps. As someone who has a vested interest in writing since childhood, I have, myself, yet to complete a novel, having written short stories, one-shots and chapters for a planned novel successfully. Novels are something which takes years of commitment to plan, let alone write, and therefore one announced in June* and published in November was never going to be a literary masterpiece. As Sugg states, ‘the story and the characters of Girl Online are [hers]’* even if the writing is not.
The ghostwriting of Girl Online can be considered Zoella’s first, if only, ‘scandal’. After all, Sugg is merely making the most of the unprecedented opportunities that have been presented to her thanks to a little project that began in her bedroom. Let’s face it, if someone were offered a two book deal with Penguin*, who would really refuse? Many have criticised the book for paralleling Sugg’s own life closer than is ideal, but what else is Sugg to write about when her career is to be an idealised version of herself? In many ways, she – as an individual – was set up for a fail, whilst the publisher, her management and the Zoella brand (because her identity is now just that), basks in the ever increasing seasonal sales.
Whilst, in many ways, I am too old (22..) to fully grasp the innate sisterly appeal of Zoella, I am loathe to take cheap punches at her for achieving success with a project that she may eventually perceive as not being wholly satisfying in the future, thanks to the use of a ghostwriter and the backlash that followed. As the Zoella brand is built on honesty and familiarity, it is ultimately the exploitation of her fans by her management and publisher in order to cash in on her marketability that is most galling. To have explicitly confirmed the ‘help’ Sugg had with Girl Online upfront or in the acknowledgements of the book would have put an entirely different spin on the situation, and would have allowed Sugg herself to rise from this hysteria more intact.
Whilst it is ridiculous to presume that owning a blog or YouTube channel is an inevitable precursor to success (hello, you’re reading this!), the internet ultimately gives the ‘Average Joe and Jane’ a platform to create something from nothing, and to achieve more than they every believed was possible for themselves. There is something between being young, from an ‘average’ background and with an ‘average’ life, and in being a British underdog holding their own with American superstar, vlogging counterparts, that has many an ‘average’ person rooting for Sugg (whether they like Zoella’s content or not). Because Zoella is all of us; she is the personification of opportunity and ambition combined with the ambiguous ‘dream’, and for that alone we should all applaud her as she goes.
* notes sources for statistics. Click indicated links for original source.