In a YouTube landscape dominated by entitled teen boys, problematic jerks, Instagram models trading on sex appeal, and vloggers who will literally stage fake acid attacks for views, talented young creators are often overlooked.
But Elle Mills, a 19-year-old from Ottawa, Canada, is quickly making a name for herself as one of YouTube’s most hilarious young stars.
Her stunt comedy has led her to do things like throw herself a parade, stage a funeral, steal her brother’s identity, hide in his closet overnight, surprise her mom with tattoos, and more. Her videos have garnered over 75 million views and she recently surpassed 1 million subscribers on YouTube.
But one thing Mills thinks a lot about as she scales her channel is the ethics of prank culture.
When growing an audience on YouTube there’s a natural tension between what will get you raw views and what content will grow your brand responsibly, and Mills said she often toes that line.
“Where you draw the line is something that’s been on my mind a lot for the past month or two,” Mills said. “The thing about prank culture on YouTube is that it’s so driven by numbers and views. It’s something where you can understand why people do stuff that gets them in trouble.”
Mills said she has wanted to become a famous YouTuber since before she can remember.
Growing up in Canada, she chased her family around with a video camera, produced webcam skits with her friends, and eventually got her own first camera and a laptop with video editing software. She idolized early YouTube stars like Grace Helbig and Kian Lawley.
Mills spent hours teaching herself to shoot and cut videos, but it wasn’t until shortly after she graduated high school in 2016 that she decided to try to do it full time.
At the time, she didn’t put herself on camera much. Instead, she spliced together TV show and movie trailers into short comedic remixes. Her first viral hit came in the fall of 2016 when she recut the Stranger Things trailer to look like a romantic comedy. The video raked in hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube and Twitter.
The hit was enough to convince Mills that she could pursue YouTube full time. She dropped out of college at the end of that semester in order to start a regular vlogging schedule.
She said the decision was tough. Her family had expected her to follow in her father’s footsteps and pursue a career in business. But Mills said she knew that it just wasn’t a fit.
Eventually, her parents got on board with her decision and just a couple months later, in March of 2017, she had her first video go viral. It featured her interviewing her friend’s Tinder dates.
Nearly a year later, she has become a top YouTuber in her category, developed a network of famous influencer friends, come out as bisexual in a headline-making video, and lives a hectic life full of weekly adventures. In June 2017 Mills signed with Fullscreen, a social-first entertainment network for digital influencers and rising talent.
As Mills has grown, she’s tried to steer clear of the type of dangerous and offensive pranks vloggers have become known for. She said she aspires to set a more positive example for her fans—while still having fun.
“With pranks you always have to think bigger, better, what’s not been done,” Mills said.
But unlike many of her peers, including Logan and Jake Paul, she still lives at home with her mom and an army of friends who look out for her best interests.
“I find that sometimes I feel like I almost crossed the line for views. I come up with ideas like, ‘This is insane! No one has ever done this before!’ But I’m lucky to have family and friends who say, ‘Hey, that crosses the line. You shouldn’t do that,’” she said.
“The people you see on the news, they don’t have people in their lives telling them what’s up.”
Still, Mills said there are definitely pranks on her channel she wouldn’t do again.
Her biggest regret was flying to Vegas and legally marrying her sister’s boyfriend for a vlog. She’s still technically married to him. Dealing with the fallout has been challenging.
“I’m trying to get it annulled,” she said, “but it’s a lot harder than it seems. I did it for a joke. I’ve always been the person in my friend group where it was like, ‘Oh, Elle will be the last to get married,’ so the joke was like, haha I’m gonna be first.
“But divorce sucks. It’s a lot of money,” she said. “My sister is still dating him. I was thinking, I need to top myself, I need to top everything I’ve ever done. But I’m dealing with consequences.”
Mills said she’s also held to different standards than men on YouTube. She said it can be easier for young men to succeed in comedy on YouTube because a lot of the audience is comprised of teen girls, who idolize their teen vlogger crushes, and young teen boys, who want to emulate them.
Mills said she hopes to follow in the footsteps of other successful female creators like Liza Koshy, Lilly Singh, and Colleen Ballinger, who are judged more on their comedic skill than appearance.
“These are people who don’t do the beauty guru thing but have great online presence and are doing wonderful things,” Mills said. “I’m seeing more and more women YouTubers rising and it’s sick. It’s nice to see a progression from how it was five to 10 years ago.”
While YouTube is Mills’ dream job, like many other vloggers, it wasn’t long before she realized that the reality of being a YouTube star is far from rainbows and sunshine.
Mills maintains a punishing schedule in order to put out her weekly videos, and often only takes off one day or less per week.
From Tuesday through Sunday she frantically pulls together video concepts, obtains props, stages her plan, and shoots.
“Saturday and Sunday I spend editing like a crazy mad person, doing voice overs and stuff. Monday, I post,” she said.
Despite the intimacy of the platform, Mills said it can be lonely sometimes and her profession has undoubtedly taken a toll on her mental health.
In a recent video titled “Dear Viewer,” Mills revealed that she struggles behind the scenes.
“My family life is very complicated. The fact that my dad and my oldest sister aren’t in my videos because we don’t get along,” she said makes her sad. “The fact that every video causes me an unhealthy amount of stress. The fact that I put so much pressure on myself that I disconnect. The fact that I think everything I make isn’t good enough and the fact that I cry every week because it’s a never-ending cycle.
“The best way I can describe what I’m going through,” Mills said, “is like having to go through kindergarten through college in one night and being expected to get straight As and not let anyone down.”
Mills took three weeks off last month and has already seen changes. During her time away, she visited several other well-known vlogger friends in Los Angeles and found the trip restorative.
“I finally realized that not everything I make is going to be perfect, and that’s OK,” she said.
Mills said she eventually hopes to move to Los Angeles herself, but is still working out the logistics.
“It’s kind of hard because a lot of my content revolves around my family and friends in Ottawa,” she said.
Mills is undoubtedly living a movie star life, even in Ottawa. She still gets a rush when she’s recognized at the local mall.
“I haven’t been in it for long, but this is what I’ve learned so far,” she said in a video titled “If My Life Was a Movie.”
“Brands pay way too much money. Like, a ridiculous amount. It’s no joke when someone says this, but every YouTuber has slept with every YouTuber, and you know those YouTube conventions? That’s where they do it. There’s so much drama that it makes you think you’re in high school again and YouTubers love to party more than they love to promote merch.”
Still, Mills feels like it’s all been worth it.
“I’ve been a YouTube fan for so long,” she said, “it’s just cool hanging out with people I look up to, and even cooler when they make you feel like you belong.”