On friendly voyeurism, part one

Nov. 28, 2021, 10:02 p.m.

New York, September 2021. Suspense for the Met Gala drifts through the limp, humid air, down the city’s grimy railroad-stitched basement and up its pigeon-crowned gangly buildings. Glamour’s favorite night is here. Folded into the cacophonic wail of Honda Civics and Hyundai Tucsons are the silence-preserving walls of Emma Chamberlain’s hotel room. She sets up her camera before climbing into the bathtub. “I’m totally in denial,” she confesses to her 10.9 million subscribers. “I don’t know what to say or think about this. Why am I not nervous?” She pauses and you hear the wet flickers of bathtub water skidding against itself. Quietness booms about the walls in a panic. The marble wall behind her stares back at you from your screen. “Throughout my experience being on the internet and doing the whole thing, there’s been so many parts of it that I just cannot comprehend. And this is obviously one of them.” She looks away from the camera. “The entire concept of my life I sometimes struggle to comprehend.” 

As the video progresses, you watch her through the disbelieving dreaminess of being fitted into a glittering golden Louis Vuitton dress while followed around by a Vogue camera crew. “This is literally my marriage,” Emma announces to the room after hair and makeup. “I’m marrying myself tonight.” She steps into the crowd of paparazzi when her car rolls into the Met Gala. And just so, almost like Henry Higgins and Hugh Pickering watching Eliza at the embassy ball, you see her off. And just so, she transforms. The nausea and docility of anxious denial rearranges into the face that launched a thousand ships, version Gen Z. (Think: Instagram followers with higher engagement than that of Selena Gomez and Kim Kardashian.) 

Once uploaded to YouTube, Emma’s footage is received with sonorous streams of adoring comments. To an outsider, these comment sections of quasi-anonymous, faceless YouTube accounts expressing pride and support may seem absurd. Surely this is some giant delusion of parasocial intimacy, some amusing spectacle of histrionic internet absurdity? Emma herself seems visibly disoriented by it. But this sort of parasocial friendship, both comical and touching to witness, is earnest in all its saccharine extravagance. Obvious inquiry automatically wafts in: what delicate architecture of human connection moves over 11 million people to love you? 

Zoomed in, it’s not that complicated or interesting. Of course you’re proud of Emma for hosting the Met. This is a friendship that began in 2017. Today, a Google search introduces her as an “American Internet personality” accompanied by a string of awards and business ventures. But you were there before all these commercial pyrotechnics lined her life. You first met her as an irreverent high school junior from San Mateo uploading videos to YouTube for fun. She recounted anecdotes while taking you along on trips to Target or the beach or San Francisco or her school — her monologues were seething with sarcasm, refreshingly disrespectful of etiquette and witheringly self-deprecating. This was your reliable pasttime, your ASMR while Mom and Dad and their yelling reckoned with life in the living room: Emma’s bumpy, jagged, home video-quality footage. A lot of these were filmed in her Subaru, where she retreated throughout the day to report to you how her day was progressing. The walls of her room became as familiar as those of a best friend whose place you go over to after school everyday — white bed frames, drawers and lamps mixed with blue bed sheets and curtains; a Beatles print hung above her chest of drawers. 

Behind the scenes, Emma was a Normal Human Being. Only child. Parents divorced when she was five. Parents nice. Academically ambitious — class schedule riddled with honors and AP courses; competitive cheerleading; attended expensive private Catholic school (on financial aid). In all this time spent together, screen in the middle and everything, her existence became so familiar. The little sounds of her life were now comforting input — just that eternal, private conversation that took place between her and her tasks when it was almost as though she was alone and unobserved. Almost, but not quite (think: vlog camera).

It took Emma a while to find her footing in this friendship. You spent up or held on to your feelings in harmonious ways. What one had to give, the other was pleased to take. She began on YouTube by uploading a few awkward attempts at fashion and lifestyle videos. As she settled down in front of the camera and on your screen, though, her content mutated into the kind she’s fabled for — vlogs (video blogs), which are usually simply recordings of her activities within a day accompanied by her polemical chatter: agitated rambling that switches between anxious and indignant and pure potent funny. These are interspersed with somewhat scripted and planned “challenge” videos that are more intentionally poised for entertainment. What distinguished her was her notorious editing style and lack of inhibition or etiquette — she was defiant, determined to cross as many traditional boundaries of internet presence as possible. Honestly, she was just being herself (a steeply risky move for a female teenager to make on the Internet). Jump cuts, zoom-ins, distorted filters and aggressive sound effects added up to her “Vine-esque” energy. She dared you to feel uncomfortable every time she swore furiously or overshared or simply didn’t care. Her spunk kickstarted an entire genre of content, and in many ways, an entire genre of person-on-the-internet (often, both unironically and ironically, referred to as the VSCO girl). 

Soon approaching, her fame came in a hurry and stayed for three years, but her content remained essentially similar. In an interview with V Magazine, Emma summarized, “I kind of just share everything about my life on the Internet. That’s basically me.” 

The stern voice of the district nurse in Hitchcock’s “Rear Window” grumbles at all this: “We’ve grown to be a race of peeping Toms. What people should do is stand outside their own houses and look in once in a while.” The district nurse’s chiding aside, granting people a window into her life, has worked out extraordinarily well.  As an article by The New York Times declares, Emma is “the funniest person on YouTube,” and The Atlantic calls her “the most important YouTuber today.” She has featured in Vogue, Variety and Cosmopolitan, worked with Louis Vuitton, Calvin Klein, Adidas and Levi’s and attended Paris Fashion Week multiple times in co-sponsorships between YouTube and Louis Vuitton. She has a successful podcast and coffee company. She purchased her first home, a West Hollywood mansion, in Los Angeles for nearly 4 million dollars, and has already moved on to a 4.3 million dollar Benedict Canyon home — all while still a teenager. Social Blade estimates that her estimated yearly earning is $88.2K – $1.4M. And this year, of course, she attended and hosted her first Met Gala.

When you lay out the facts and numbers like this, her career admits its own strangeness. Emma said in an interview with Vogue magazine, “My life is really bizarre, you know? I have a very weird reality. And whenever I think about it too much I get so overwhelmed and I’m like, ‘God, I have this massive responsibility, why the fuck am I here? Why am I the one doing this?’”

In the following series, I’m going to try to answer these questions. It’s sort of dehumanizing to study Emma as a cultural phenomenon, but to the extent that she is one, it’s worth unravelling what series of upturned expectations make her life feel so surreal. And what makes her so addictive to 11 million people. And why one of my friends swears by Emma’s Trader Joe’s recommendations. And why I dress like her. And why I know some people who get Emma’s exact coffee order at Philz. And why I watched all her videos three times over and maybe some more during the pandemic. And why one of my friends got through multiple breakups by binge-listening to Emma’s podcasts. And why I’m writing this. And why —

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