I want to spend a moment to discuss Jennelle Eliana, a YouTuber that has recently risen to fame by amassing over 1.3 million subscribers in a three-week span, and with only two published videos. Due to the anomaly of this, news sources outside of YouTube commentators have covered her fast track to success, the majority focusing on a conspiracy that she could be an industry-plant groomed to create quality, advertiser friendly content that will increase YouTube’s corporate image and profit.
Now, whether she is an industry plant or not isn’t what I want to discuss. What I want to discuss is the detriment that is done to the self-esteem of young audiences when you make a persona like Jennelle’s seem natural and relatable: as if such success can happen to you in the same period of time despite a lack of knowledge in video creation, editing, marketing, and charismatic techniques. As someone who is now building a digital presence, I can say that behind her astounding results lies a substantial amount of effort, work, risk, dedication, and preparation. For even if the algorithm favored her, it did so because she created captivating content, made a clickbait title and thumbnail, researched well thought out tags[i], generated a catchy slogan for the start of all her videos, and had previously cultivated her camera presence, style, and editing skills. Furthermore, before her debut, she had been promoting that she would start her YouTube channel on an Instagram profile with less than 40 posts that only displayed images of her and her van- a brilliant marketing tactic that insinuates that she was cultivating her brand for quite some time before actively publishing and promoting herself.
This amount of implied preparation does not conclude that Jennelle is a professional or an industry plant. It may just mean that she is a remarkable person. At only 21, her style is remarkable. Her ease in front of the camera is remarkable. Her hair, skin, body, and nails are remarkable. Her style is remarkable. Her makeup is remarkable. Her filming and editing skills are remarkable for a new creator. Her sense of timing is remarkable (van life is currently a trending topic). Even her name is unique and remarkable. She has made herself into an amazing persona, a persona that seems to have been cultivated with precision. And I agree with the fact that she should be rewarded for her hard work and discipline, especially if she is a solo creator as she claims. But I don’t think she should be rewarded for covering up what it took to get her to fast fame with a pretense of natural talent and unique relatability.
I wish that instead of focusing on the conspiracy theories about her being an industry plant, we would focus more on the flawlessness behind her image. Up until now, she has shown herself to be perfectly imperfect. Even her blunders, slip-ups, trips, camera drops, and unpreparedness isn’t awkward like it usually is with new creators. It can- to be honest- feel staged.[ii] But her impeccable exterior has to be due in part to immense grit and confidence. How else can you put in the time and effort to figure out how to market and create engaging, well-edited videos alongside maintaining an impeccable image, a charming personality, and remarkably holding yourself together while embarking on a risky and fear-based adventure with little guarantee of financial and creative support.
But let’s get back to her natural relatability. She is- as she says- an inspiration for young people to live the life they want. And- in a world that prioritizes comfort and stability- perhaps being relatably unique can encourage our youth to explore, have fun, and experience the world and their desires. But the fact remains that Jennelle is not relatable to your average individual in their early twenties. And making young viewers believe so is not only a detriment to their already tenuous sense of self and lacking confidence in their body image (Jennelle is beautiful, but from her appearance it does seem that she works hard on improving upon her already natural beauty. She has an overflowing wardrobe despite the fact she lives in a van and we have yet to see her without makeup, polished nails, and impeccable hair. Even in the water, we don’t see her fully natural look) but it also allows them to fall prey to comparing their own less-exciting lives to hers. Which can make them feel inferior, depressed, and unfulfilled with their personal circumstances and achievements, especially if they believe that all they have to do become successful and live the life of their dreams is record two ‘simple’ videos and post a few-dozen ‘candid’ photos on Instagram.
To me, it seems that Jennelle- in another show of remarkability- used her cunning intelligence to place herself in the unique position she is in today. Moreover, she understood that hiding the sheer amount of effort and time she has put in to get to where she is will help her relatability factor with her impressionable young audience. For its better for views and media coverage to play out that she is a natural overnight sensation.
The fact is that many of us play the same game. We downplay the work we do and what we are given to make our strengths and positive traits seem even more remarkable. As if we were born with it (like the superheroes and Disney characters we grow up with) or we just happened to wake up like it (like Queen B herself). In a culture that gives external rewards mainly to the exceptional, up-playing our talent and beauty and downplaying the effort it takes to become talented and beautiful is a surefire way to maintain a network, gain friends, be recognized, and survive well in the cut-throat-world modern society has become.
We need to understand that there is no easy way to gaining long-term overnight success for the majority of us. Jennelle had to take the risky endeavor to live in a van and forgo career stability while also maintaining a polished appearance, working on her camera, filming, and editing skills, and learning how to market in an oversaturated and competitive platform such as YouTube.
Or she had to have immense help. In which case, she had to put the work in to network or be deemed qualified by an individual on the lookout for young talent.
Whatever the case, let’s admire her for the incredible work she had done to be where she is today. But let’s not paint her to be a mere laid-back, relaxed, relatable girl who wakes up one day and finds herself to be living in a van with over a million subscribers without much preparation (and in only two tries).
That, to me, seems near superhuman. Or impeccably lucky.
And- you know what- perhaps she is.
[i] She claims that she hasn’t watched many YouTube videos, which is likely the case if she spent most of her time researching rather than consuming. In any case, she does know how to create and market like one.
[ii] This is why some people speculate that she has acting skills. Which could be possible, as it’s not the first time a blogging channel turned out to be scripted and acted out by professionals. Lonelygirl15– started in June of 2006- was one of the first of these undercover channels.
Some introspection and preparation can get you far
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Nice essay, Sonia. It is unfortunate that our society is one in which reliability is (must be?) questioned at every turn. Experiencing the world as a young person, it must be daunting that a mere do-it-yourself video gets over-analyzed, and then viewers accuse the video presenter as a “fake.” It is even more daunting, perhaps, that the possibility that it is fake is high, given the opportunities for making serious amounts of money on YouTube. That situation creates an overall distrust in basic experiences in life for young people. That’s a dangerous psychological expedient, one which circumvents truth, and threatens to create a blank culture, one that accepts deception as status quo. Of course this is nothing new, really (TV culture has been around a long time, and morphing in to reality TV was affirmation of just how bad it was for us), but the extent to which it dominates culture is even more-so on the rise.
I like how you pointed out that this trend is not new. It’s something that comes from even before television. It’s just been taken to different heights with the internet and social media.