YouTube is the new way to get famous; at VidCon, the tweens want to be next in line
By ABBY OHLHEISER | The Washington Post | Published: July 4, 2018
ANAHEIM, Calif. -- The fans who approached Conan Gray wanted to give their whole selves to him in a moment. He handled the crying, shaking ones with warmth and patience, the skills required to defuse this particular bomb.
"Oh no! Don’t start crying." The teenager took a deep breath, and then another one, and he waited with a hand on her shoulder until the moment felt almost normal. "How are you?" He signed her badge, they took a photo, and he brought her in "one last time" for a hug.
For two hours, Gray stood in place, in front of a blue-and-green backdrop adorned with the VidCon logo. The conference has become the biggest event of the year for people who are famous on the internet -- or for those who want to be, and those seeking their attention.
At 19, the YouTube musician was now famous enough to earn an official meet-and-greet at the conference, his movements controlled by security protocol to prevent a mob. His fans lined up in five rows, waiting their turn to stand on the white X and receive their 30 to 45 seconds with Gray.
"I’ve seen this!" he says to another fan, who handed him a piece of art. "Did you put it on Instagram?" She had. The photographer cued Gray to move faster through each fan encounter. "How about a photo?" the photographer asked. He snapped the photo and cheerily said, "We got it, we got it."
Nowhere makes you realize that being a creator is competitive more than VidCon, a convention that mixes famous online personalities, their fans and the brands who want a slice of it all. About 30,000 people show up to the annual convention these days, and not a small number of them are or want to be creators themselves. When a travel company asked 1,000 kids between the ages of 6 and 17 what they wanted to be when they grew up, 75 percent of them said they wanted to be a YouTuber or a vlogger.
Alexis Cox has written a children’s book. She is a poet, and she started her first YouTube channel in 2016. She came to VidCon to learn and to see the creators she’s been watching since she was 7, such as vlogger Alex Wassabi. She also loves the extremely popular YouTuber Ricegum, she said, "but he’s not here."
Alexis has noticed that the people who are succeeding as online content creators are getting savvier and younger. "It’s intimidating when you see younger people doing better than you," Alexis said. "You feel like you should be doing better than them."
Alexis is 12.
She might want to do YouTube as her day job, if she can get good enough. She deleted her first channel in 2017 after running it for a year. "I didn’t like what I was putting out there," she said. She’ll come back to the platform when she has learned more and can make content she is proud of.
The VidCon expo floor is swarming with kids like Alexis, who wear purple "Creator" badges around their necks. The famous ones -- the featured creators and guests -- wear yellow. Purple badges go to VidCon and sit in on panels to hear the yellow badges talk about how they made it.
Some of the purple badges already have a following: Alan and Alex Stokes, walking the floor in matching pink T-shirts and ripped white jeans, were followed by a small crowd of young girls hoping for a selfie. The 21-year-old twins are Instagram famous: combined, they have more than 2 million followers. Their Jake Paul-inspired comedy videos put them in the spotlight just a few months before the convention. Now, brands are courting the duo to stop by their VidCon booths for publicity.
Conan Gray’s first YouTube videos only showed his torso, or the art he was making -- the internet is a dangerous place for little kids, and he was 9. At around age 11, his mom gave him permission to show his face.
"I’ve been saving up for this camera for a really long time," he says in one early video, two weeks after buying one high-quality enough for vlogging. The video ends with Gray making funny faces as he struggles to reach the button to turn the camera off.
"When I first started making videos, it was just kind of my attempt to connect with someone, to connect with anyone, and I just kind of wanted to do something with my time," Gray said in an interview at VidCon.
In eighth grade, his school found out he made videos on the side. A teacher projected them onto the board for the whole class to see. He only had a small following of fans -- YouTube was a weekend project that brought him about $100 a month in ad revenue. It was mortifying: He was not ready to expose this part of himself to his real world.
At 18, Conan Gray became famous for "Idle Town," a song that paid tribute to his senior year of high school in his small Texas town. The song was an ironic turning point for Gray -- the soon-to-be viral video was the result of a decision to step back from the internet a bit and make something for himself instead of trying to make content that he thought people would like.
"Idle Town" now has more than 8 million views on YouTube and 8 million streams on Spotify. "It blew up in our faces and kind of swept us off our feet," he said.
Then he started college.
As Gray was preparing to go to UCLA, he was also gaining lawyers and managers. As you might imagine, combining brand-new stardom with freshman year of college was not something that really worked well.
"It’s really tough. My first quarter of college I was barely surviving," he said. "I was working from the second I woke up, had my 9 a.m. classes, worked all the way until like 4 in the morning. It was way too much, and it definitely, definitely had a really bad impact on my mental health."
His managers told him he needed to do something for his own sake, so there were some adjustments: Now he takes classes some days and does viral fame on the others.
There are generations of YouTube creators, which turn over every few years. There are the originals, the older ones who became famous on YouTube when the only sort of internet fame that existed was random viral stardom: Phil DeFranco, Jenna Marbles and Hannah Hart, for instance. There are the ex-Vine stars, such as Jake Paul and Liza Koshy, who took over the platform’s algorithms in 2017. Gray is slightly behind them, but he already speaks of the generation behind him -- the tweens and younger -- with the wariness of a veteran.
"When people my age started, it wasn’t a career to be on the internet or to be an influencer. So no one was trying to exploit us," he said. "No one cared.
"These days I really fear for these young kids who are becoming so big. Because there are so many people in this industry that are so exploitative and know that they can make a ton of money off these kids."
Gray has a long-term plan, and it does not involve being a famous YouTube personality. "I don’t expect to be here forever, and I don’t expect people to care forever. I love what I’m doing and this is an amazing experience and I feel so, so, so lucky," he said. "But once it’s done, I’m going to be really happy having a quiet, normal life."
"I can’t imagine, it’d be exhausting to be here forever," he said, gesturing generally to, just, everything going on around him. "I’d be so tired."
At the end of hour one, Gray took a sip of bottled water from his manager and adjusted his shirt. He does not appear to be tired; he looks excited to meet you. The next girl waiting to see him stands at the designated spot, hands pressed together in an excited prayer.
There are rules to a meet-and-greet that keep the line moving, and Gray bends most of them. He signs things, he asks his fans questions about their lives. A family greeted him with the news that they were from right near his home town. The photo shoot devolved into a discussion of local coffee shops.
A girl with blue hair is already crying as she waits. She put her feelings in a note, which she gives to him. "I’m so excited to read this," he tells her. "I read one last night, and it made me cry." He signs her shoe.
The line continues.
"You helped me so much."
"You mean the world to me."
"You inspire me."