The first video ever uploaded to YouTube is 19 seconds long. In it, Jawed Karim, a co-founder of the site, stands in front of an elephant exhibit at the San Diego Zoo. “The cool thing about these guys is they have really, really, really long trunks,” Karim says. He pauses. “And that’s pretty much all there is to say.”
Not quite. That was a simpler time, before Chris Crocker came along. In 2007, the gay Tennessee native uploaded a histrionic screed against Britney Spears haters— “LEAVE BRITNEY ALONE!”—that blew up the video-sharing site for the first time, racking up millions of hits overnight. But the dialogue about the then 19-year-old Crocker quickly turned nasty. CNN, Fox News, and late-night hosts caught on, mercilessly mocking his androgynous looks and obscene sobs. He was the original Rebecca Black, except rather than a slick music video, the world was making fun of the shaky recording of a kid in his bedroom.
Crocker was put through the pop-culture wringer, with much of the attention focused on his looks; his experiments with hair extensions and make-up bordered on drag. Now he’s the subject of a new documentary, aptly titled Me @ the Zoo, premiering at Sundance on Saturday. (HBO has already snapped up U.S. broadcast rights.) He’s also barely recognizable, sporting a buzz cut and 30 extra pounds of muscle. Crocker calls it a gradual transformation and says it has nothing to do with the feedback: “I don’t give in to the pressures of society.”
Almost a third of the film is lifted straight from Crocker’s massive YouTube catalog, before and after the infamous Spears outburst. Most of the videos are silly—teasing his grandmother, cold-calling his online fans, strolling through Walmart—but all of them are honest. “A lot of YouTubers are just on there to make money and do make-up tutorials and wack shit,” Crocker says in an interview as he prepares to head to Sundance. “I feel like I have a real relationship with my audience.”
But the site, he says, feels much different now. “I think that I made YouTube sort of stand up on their toes and realize anyone can become the face of YouTube overnight. So I think that since then they’ve created roadblocks...It feels a lot more controlled now. Everything feels so Disney Channel to me.”
Chris Moukarbel, who directed Zoo with Valerie Veatch, agrees. “It probably unsettled people at YouTube…He’s not necessarily who they would want to be the face of the site.”
But Crocker has undeniable star quality; Moukarbel and Veatch didn’t even intend to make a film about him. “We were making a history of reality TV,” says Veatch. “Initially, we interviewed him for this larger film. We just kind of focused on Chris once we realized that his story was the film.”
Besides being an irresistible screen presence, Crocker exemplified—in his typical over-the-top way—the perils of making one’s life available for viewing on the Web. “He’s definitely an indicator of how people will socialize in the years to come,” Veatch says. “Chris’s experience—his immersion in the medium—is going to be the standard.” And not just for young people, she adds. “My mom has to pick out a Facebook profile photo.”
The film’s most poignant scene is, in a bizarre but heartbreaking way, tied to “Leave Britney Alone!” Moukarbel and Veatch, who filmed Crocker for more than two years, capture a day Crocker spends with his mother, an Iraq War vet who had him when she was 14. At night, they head to his car and she asks her son to just drop her off somewhere downtown; she hasn’t had a home in five years.
Crocker didn’t realize until he saw the film that his idolization of Spears was tied to his missing mother.
“When my family gave up on my mother, I was the only family member that still was rooting for her. I was very sympathetic to my mom still when everyone else was just turning their backs on her. And that was happening at the same time that Britney was going through [her own struggles]. And I felt like at that time I was the only person that was looking at Britney as a young woman who has kids, and everyone’s talking about her weight when she’s clearly on drugs.”
In this context, “Leave Britney Alone” feels less psychotic and more cathartic. Not all of Crocker’s videos have such a raw subtext, but the entire collection is grown from a dark place.
Starting from preschool, Crocker was intensely bullied. “Every single day was hell for me. I live in the dirty, dirty South,” he says. It got so bad that he was yanked out of school on the advice of his guidance counselors. “When you live in the South, they can spot it 10 miles ahead, before they even see you. They’re like, ‘That’s a gay kid.’”
Lonely and with a well of young angst, Crocker was primed for YouTube. “I had to really just own whatever I was at an early age or let that defeat me. And so I just don’t have shame in any kind of way. Not having shame, I guess, makes someone very watchable on camera.”
When Crocker says no shame, he means it. He’s been flirting with a career in porn for some time now. And he doesn’t understand why anyone would be surprised. “I’ve always photographed myself in my own—I would say privacy, but it’s not really private when I’m uploading them to the Internet…I don’t see what’s different between the porn stars and the people that watch it.”
With Zoo bringing him more attention than any time since 2007, Crocker says he’d be open to getting back into the entertainment business, but he’s wary of jumping into the wrong project. After the Britney video blew up, he moved to L.A., chasing a reality-show deal, and admittedly became a caricature of his YouTube persona. “I would flash the paparazzi and act outrageous in public to keep it going,” he says. The antics backfired, and a video in which he satirized himself by saying Britney Spears was more important than 9/11 was the final straw. He left, broke, for home.
Crocker says he turned down another reality offer just a few days ago. If all else fails, he’ll go back to school. “I dropped out of school in eighth grade and I’ve wanted to get my GED for a long time. It’s just that this Chris Crocker thing has provided me with monthly income for a while.”
“Not having shame, I guess, makes someone very watchable on camera.”
One of the most-watched clips in YouTube history is called “David After Dentist.” It’s gotten 105 million views—outpacing “Leave Britney Alone” by 60 million. In it, a young boy who got way too much nitrous oxide at the dentist’s office is acting woozy in the backseat of his dad’s SUV. “Is this real life?” he asks. “Is this going to be forever?”
In more grownup terms, Crocker and Me @ the Zoo are tackling the same questions. “My life has changed because of my online life,” Crocker says, “and people that don’t necessarily know me in person recognize me in real life. And so there’s really…the blur is kind of becoming clearer and clearer. It’s all real life.”