The first YouTube comment Colleen Ballinger ever received made her LOL.
It came just after she posted her first video as Miranda Sings in February of 2008. Still a student at Azusa Pacific University, an evangelical Christian college east of Los Angeles, Ballinger watched as the words “you suck at singing” appeared on her screen. She couldn’t believe that anyone thought this character she had created in her dorm room was a real person.
This scene is repeated in the pilot for Ballinger’s new show Haters Back Off!, which started streaming on Netflix Friday. But Miranda, a home-schooled teenager who lives with her mother, sister and uncle, takes everything way too seriously to laugh. When one commenter writes, “Keep trying,” she completely misses the sarcasm and replies, “I will.” The next comment infuriates her. “You suck. Don’t make any more videos,” it says, causing Miranda to exclaim, “What?! What is that supposed to mean?”
In real life, it was these interactions with “haters” that helped turn Ballinger, as Miranda Sings, into one of the most popular “creators” on YouTube with more than seven million subscribers and over 1.1 billion views. “I would do whatever the haters said they didn’t like,” she says now. “They’d say, ‘I don’t like your lipstick,’ so I’d put on more. That’s how the character has evolved, based on whatever the haters said they didn’t like.”
When I meet the 29-year-old Ballinger in the cozy backyard of the Aroma café on a hot October day in Studio City, the bright red smear of lipstick that has become Miranda’s signature is nowhere to be seen. Wearing black skinny jeans and tall black heels, with her hair pulled back in a tight ponytail, Ballinger looks nothing like her famous creation. Another major change from her early days on YouTube: She now has both a manager and a publicist in tow.
“The thought of someone just filming themselves alone in their bedroom and uploading it online for a lot of people to see was very bizarre,” Ballinger says of those early days of YouTube. Instead of broadcasting her real self, as so many people were starting to do, she decided to create a character based on the “mean girls” at her college. “I was studying music there and the girls were just so rude,” she says. “It was a total inside joke with my friends. I sent it to my friends to make them laugh. And my mom actually cried when I made the first video and begged me to take it down. I was like, ‘Mom, you have nothing to worry about. No one will ever see this video.’ But then more people saw it.”
The first Miranda video to go “viral” was titled “free voice lesson.” Uploaded on March 10, 2009, it now stands at just over one million views and has production values that are just about as poor as anything you might stumble across on YouTube (Her most popular video, an intentionally terrible Taylor Swift cover, has 54 million). The description under the video reads, “if you want a voice lesson please email me. I am a professional teacher.”
“I was really adamant about making sure no one knew my true identity when I first started doing the character,” Ballinger says. After the first video took off, she decided she wanted the world to believe Miranda was real. “That was my goal, to make sure everyone believed she was a real person.” She would even book herself gigs as Miranda, and show up to the venue in character. “I never broke.”
At that point, Ballinger had been making videos as Miranda for about a year and a half. “I think the thing that made that one so popular is the fact that people didn’t know if Miranda was real or not,” she explains. “People watched it thinking this is a real girl and she’s kind of insane. And they were spreading it to find out if I was real or not. So everyone’s Facebook walls were full of my video and them saying, ‘Do you think this girl’s real? Is she fake? Is she a troll?”
One of the many viewers who did not know what to make of Miranda Sings, but found himself laughing out loud when his daughter showed him one of her videos years later was Jerry Seinfeld. When Ballinger’s agent reached out to tell her the comedian wanted to do something with her for his web series Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, she just assumed it was some kind of promo, not that she would be an actual guest on a show that up until that point had only featured household names like Chris Rock and Tina Fey. President Obama’s episode was still a year away.
“Jerry Seinfeld is a legend, so I certainly did not assume he wanted me on the show,” Ballinger says. But then she got a personal phone call from Seinfeld who told her he wanted her to be a guest — as Miranda. “I could not believe it,” she says. “He is the kindest, most generous man in the world.” When they went out to dinner the night before the shoot, Seinfeld told her, “I want you to be so mean to me. My favorite Miranda is angry Miranda.”
“I called him old, I called him ugly,” Ballinger says of the “intimidating” experience. “I went to town on him in that episode and he was such a good sport. He loved it.” But more than just a personal high point in her career, the appearance helped expose Ballinger to an entirely new audience. Basically, she says fans under 25 knows her from YouTube and everyone else recognizes her from Comedians in Cars.
It also helped set the stage of Haters Back Off!, which she had been developing with her brother, Chris Ballinger, as a movie project for years. They started pitching it as a series when they realized they “had way too much story to tell” about Miranda’s life beyond the confines of the YouTube frame.
She calls Netflix her “dream home” for the project, but there is something inherently ironic about someone who got their start on YouTube ending up there. While both are major powerhouses in digital distribution, they have one major difference. YouTube has always been fully transparent about numbers, whereas Netflix doesn’t even tell its creators how many people are watching their shows. For Ballinger, who has spent nearly a decade obsessing over how many subscribers her channels have and how many views her videos are getting, the secrecy surrounding Netflix’s ratings can be unnerving.
“I know!” Ballinger exclaims, laughing. “It’s terrifying. It’s so different from what I’m used to. My whole life has been based on the views and the numbers and the likes,” she says. But she’s looking on the bright side, hoping that it will be “refreshing” to be kept in the dark about how many people she’s reaching. “This time I just get to be creative and make what I’m passionate about and hope people like it and I don’t have to stress as much about how many views it got.”
The Netflix show may be the final step in erasing any doubts as to whether or not Miranda Sings is a fictional character. But the decision to “come out” as Colleen Ballinger actually happened years ago when she started appearing as herself on a separate YouTube channel under the name PsychoSoprano. “I’m still really hesitant about it,” she says.
But that hasn’t stopped her from sharing nearly every intimate detail of her life with that channel’s 4.5 million subscribers, including, just this past week, the news that she is divorcing her husband, fellow YouTube star Joshua Evans.
On the same day, both Ballinger and Evans posted long, tearful videos informing fans about their split. The apparent transparency stood in sharp contrast to the intense secrecy surrounding the divorce of the more traditionally famous Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt just a couple of weeks earlier. Like the Miranda Sings videos that open each episode of Haters Back Off!, Ballinger’s “Life update” opens with the word “Hey,” but the similarities end there. Over the course of nearly 12 minutes, she goes into excruciating detail about what went wrong in her marriage and sincerely begs her fans not to turn on her soon-to-be ex-husband.
“I share more than most people probably do online,” Ballinger says when I ask how she decides what, if anything, to keep private in her life. “I don’t regret it. And I know that that comes with a lot of backlash from a lot of people. That means a lot of people are going to judge me and tell me how I should like my life and what I’m doing wrong. But that’s what I chose when I chose to be a YouTuber. I chose to share my life online, so I can’t really complain about it. There’s not much that’s off limits.”
The connection and closeness she feels with her fans is not just apparent in the almost entirely positive “stay strong” comments that have risen to the top of her divorce announcement on YouTube. As we leave the café, a young woman who looks to be in her early 20s stops Ballinger to tell her how much she loves her and asks for a picture.
This happens all the time, her assistant tells me. When you spend your life speaking directly to millions of people on YouTube, they feel like they know you and don’t hesitate to approach you IRL.
That’s why, whatever happens with the Netflix show, Ballinger is not about to stop making YouTube videos anytime soon. “No way, YouTube is my home,” she says. “The only reason I’m doing anything right now, the only reason I’m talking to you is because of YouTube. So for me to abandon it would just be insane.”