The Teen Stephen King of YouTube
Paige McKenzie is one of YouTube’s most venerable stars, and now with a new YA novel starring her heroine, Sunshine Griffith, she’s about to conquer publishing, too.
Five years after introducing her peppy, semi-supernatural teenage character Sunshine Griffith to the screens of close to 250,000 subscribers around the world, YouTube star Paige McKenzie is bringing the same Sunshine to life—in print.
The Haunting of Sunshine Girl arrived on bookstore shelves in March, and McKenzie will soon be swept up in a whirlwind of book signings and book tours for the next several months. Fortunately for the 20-year-old author, her book and her YouTube channel are now her full-time job, and for a book that’s only just hit the shelves from a first-time author, she’s pulling in impressive praise from the likes of R.L. Stine and Wes Craven.
“It’s crazy, I did not expect that,” McKenzie told The Daily Beast. “I was told, like, ‘Oh, R.L. Stine likes it! And Wes Craven likes it!’ And I was like whoa whoa whoa, are we talking about the same Wes Craven and R.L. Stine??”
The Haunting of Sunshine Girl is a brisk and breezy novel that calls to mind a 21st-century, iPhone-enabled Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Protagonist Sunshine Griffith and her mother, Katharine, move from the sun-baked South of Austin, Texas, to the musty Northwest of Ridgemont, Washington, and into a house where there may or may not be some demonic activity and a few world-altering consequences should Sunshine fail to vanquish her foe.
Just for the record, McKenzie denies that setting her book in the same region of the U.S. as blockbusters Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey had anything to do with a desire to emulate those series. “That’s like saying every book that’s set in California is the same,” McKenzie said. “It’s where I live, and we make the videos both in Washington and in Oregon. I was born and raised in Portland, so it was just logical. I know what the weather’s like, I can write about it.”
A second book in the series has already been purchased by the Weinstein company and is due out in 2016. For now, McKenzie said, two books looks like to be all for Sunshine Girl.
The plot of the book tracks closely to the plot of the first YouTube playlist, or “season” of the show, that McKenzie, her mother, actress Mercedes Rose, and their producer Nick Hagen posted in 2010. McKenzie was 16 when the series debuted and gives most of the credit for the innovation of the YouTube channel to Hagen. At the time when the Sunshine Girl channel was beginning, “ghosts” was the No. 2 search term on YouTube, behind “Lil Wayne,” McKenzie said, laughing.
“Nick Hagen had worked with my mother on a project, and he thought she was funny, and he did some research on YouTube, and he found that all of the ghost channels were 30-year-old bald men,” McKenzie recalled. “So he thought, ‘That’s already on there, let’s do something new.’ And he approached my mom and said, ‘I bet you have a funny daughter, and she might be maybe attractive, so that would work on YouTube.’”
The story of Sunshine Girl now has 12 seasons, or playlists, and over 131 million views.
“When we started, we hoped it would do well,” McKenzie said. “We think big, we have 1,000-plus videos, but I don’t know if we thought this big.”
Now, this is what the three of them, McKenzie, Rose and Hagen, do full time. “All day every day,” McKenzie said. “We do book stuff or video stuff. It’s a lot of work and planning.”
The video-to-book progression might seem like the reverse of how storytelling in normally happens in the modern world where someone usually pens a novel first, which then eventually gets a screen treatment. But McKenzie says the idea to write a novel never would have occurred to her had she not worked for so long on the “Haunting of Sunshine Girl Network” YouTube channel.
“I did a contest for Seventeen magazine,” McKenzie recalled, “and was picked as one of the five finalists, and there was another girl called Paige, and I thought that was very weird. They couldn’t have picked a Laura or a Stacey or anything else?”
It was the other Paige—Paige Rawl, an HIV activist who had written a memoir about the experience growing up with HIV—who suggested to McKenzie that she write a book.
“I said, ‘What? Nothing cool has happened in my life!’ Because her book is about her life, it’s not fiction. I’ve just done YouTube and that’s boring, no one wants to read about that,” McKenzie recalled. “And she said, ‘How about a fictional book then?’”
Writing a book was a hugely different process than putting up one- to two-minute YouTube videos, especially when the material is so near and dear. McKenzie teamed up with veteran Young Adult author Alyssa Sheinmel for this effort.
“I didn’t know anything about writing, so it was difficult process in that way, taking something that I act all the time, and that I essentially am,” McKenzie said. “I wanted to be very accurate and such. The co-author wrote sections of it and we edited it together. And there was one section she wrote and I didn’t like the way she portrayed me, and so we changed it.
“I say I’m 99.8 percent Sunshine. We’re pretty similar,” McKenzie continued. “It was hard to let that go, and figure out what was important and what wasn’t, but it was interesting to see what my mind was thinking in writing about these characters.”
One great part about the whole experience, McKenzie said, is being able to try on different hats. “I wouldn’t say I had aspirations to be an actress [before the series],” she said. “I’ve been able to stand behind the camera, and produce, and do set design, and makeup, so I’ve just been able to do a lot of different things, which is fun, and I’ve kind of figured out that I really do enjoy acting. But I would also like to do a lot more.”