Whether you like it or not, YouTube stars are taking over the pop culture scene. From blind items to multi-page interviews in magazines like Forbes to late night talk show guest appearances, YouTubers now hold an astonishing level of celebrity compared to past years. And with tens of millions of loyal followers watching their every move, they deserve it.
But what were these YouTube stars like before the fame? Some got their start on social media platforms like Vine, a now-defunct app that allows users to record and share six-second-long videos. Others like beauty influencer James Charles, for example, rose to fame on Instagram doing hair and makeup tutorials on his friends, only to expand into YouTube later.
Now that we’ve set the scene, let’s take a look at some of the most popular YouTube stars, and dig into who they were before breaking into the spotlight.
Shane Dawson may be one of the successful YouTubers ever, but when he first joined the site, he intended to learn how to make movies through creating short video content. “I’d wanted to be a director since I was five, and had been making videos since I was a kid. Then YouTube came around during high school. I was making videos and it was just a place to put them, like storage,” Dawson told Quartz in 2015.
Dawson, who’s been active on YouTube since 2008, has just under 20 million subscribers as of January 2019. “I wanted to make movies, and YouTube was the place for me to learn how to make movies and eventually make one,” Dawson continued. This makes sense, seeing as he’s most recently known for his stellar documentary-style videos centered on the secret lives of other famous YouTubers like Jeffree Star and Jake Paul.
You may have heard the name Jeffree Star in a controversial context, but this beauty guru has been through enough to warrant a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Jeffree started out exploring makeup in his mother’s bathroom at 12 years old, but he kept his makeup exploration a secret until his sophomore year of high school. “I went to school wearing eyeliner and eye shadow and they called my mom, telling her it was a distraction. My mom fought the school and I got to wear makeup every day,” Star told Nylon Magazine in 2016.
Before even starting his YouTube channel, Star had a popular Myspace page and was creating music. “In 2007 I put out an EP of songs I made — I was rapping and talking really filthy and all of a sudden it had 100 million plays on Myspace. I never dreamt of being a pop star or being on stage — makeup was always my true passion,” detailed Star. His short-lived music career even led him to perform at Vans Warped Tour in 2008, 2009 and 2016.
You may know James Charles for his exceptionally creative makeup tutorials on YouTube or for his legendary tagline, “Hey sisters!” But what you probably don’t know is that, in addition to drawing and painting, he started out experimenting with hairstyles on his friends. “I used to do hair styling before I even thought about joining the makeup world,” Charles told Cosmopolitan in 2016. Charles went on to build a client base, charging around $10 for makeovers. Three months in, he launched his own makeup-inspired Instagram page.
“People loved it, so I invested in a starter set of makeup to practice on friends and slowly began to build clientele. It wasn’t until a few weeks after that I tried makeup on myself, and the rest is history!” Besides amassing 13 million YouTube subscribers as well as 13 million Instagram followers (at the time of writing), Charles was named CoverGirl’s first “CoverBoy” in 2016. “The fact that I am the first boy is so cool. It shows that this industry is actually becoming genderless, and we’re really making the push toward equal opportunities for everybody, regardless of race, sexuality, gender,” Charles told the New York Times in 2016.
Emma Chamberlain may be one of the most relatable teenage girls on YouTube. And despite being 17, she’s incredibly mature. Before gaining 6.5 million YouTube subscribers in the span of a year (and a 25% engagement rate on Instagram), Chamberlain was living a normal life in San Francisco simply watching her favorite YouTubers as a fan.
“I didn’t know any YouTubers (in the beginning) and I wanted them to know about me. When I was younger and used to watch people like Tana Mongeau, The Dolan Twins and James Charles, I would think that it would be so cool to be friends with them. Now it’s so cool to have them in my life. They’re some of the best friends I’ve ever had,” Chamberlain told Forbes in 2018.
Another tidbit of information you might not have known? She didn’t grow up wealthy, despite being raised in San Francisco, and referenced times she couldn’t even afford to go to the movies. “I’ve always been the one who struggled financially, so now it’s so cool that I can make my own money and do whatever I want with it,” said Chamberlain.
Liza Koshy, YouTube sensation and skit queen, didn’t imagine that a few short videos on Vine would lead to nailing a spot on Forbes’ 2019 30 Under 30 list. Her Vine career, which started when she was in high school, led her to gain millions of followers on the app. “It was just me, with my phone, in my car, dancing along, talking or making a really bad joke,” Koshy told Forbes. “Which is why Vine died. Sorry about that.”
Her 16 million YouTube subscribers would beg to differ. In fact, her fans would be appalled to learn that she was once advised not to join YouTube at all. “The worst advice I’ve ever received was ‘Don’t post on YouTube, it’s dying,'” said Koshy. Now, in addition to her normal videos, Koshy has her own YouTube Originals series consisting of eight episodes and titled Liza on Demand. Oh, and her net worth? It’s been estimated that she’s worth $4 million.
It’s not a stretch to say Trisha Paytas is one of the most iconic YouTubers ever. She moved to Los Angeles as a teenager in hopes of starting a career in acting, through which she’s had a couple of small roles. But Paytas transitioned into YouTube for a relatable enough reason. “I got into vlogging because everyone else was doing it. I think my life is quite boring, but apparently people like watching me eat takeout, and crying about my love life,” Paytas told MTV in 2015.
In a 2015 interview with Business Insider, Paytas gave a little insight into what it was like growing up in the early 2000s, and how celebrity tabloid culture shaped her opinion of herself. “I grew up thinking ‘The Hills’ was real life and it made me feel terrible about my own,” said Paytas. “Like, why wasn’t I perfect and pretty like them? Well, because I didn’t have a 20-person crew lighting me at all times. I just like to be real and just express real emotions and talk about real life.”
Before joining YouTube and raking up 8.6 million subscribers, Jojo Siwa was just a girl with a love for dance. Siwa rose to fame on Abby’s Ultimate Dance Competition and Dance Moms, a reality TV series on Lifetime. But she later went on to join YouTube where her bubbly brand truly grew.
“The greatest thing about it is she literally was doing [YouTube] all herself, from filming to editing to thumbnails to producing,” mother Jessalynn Siwa told USA Today. And in 2016, Siwa signed a licensing deal with Nickelodeon and currently sells enough “JoJo Siwa” branded consumer products to make your head spin — according to a 2018 Viacom interview, she’s sold 35 million hair bows.
“Creating the fanbase is my job. I ask [Nickelodeon], ‘How are we going to promote this? How are we going to get the word out?’ That’s where my creative expertise comes in,” said Siwa.
Colleen Ballinger, otherwise known as the goofy, red-lipped phenomena Miranda Sings, is no newbie to the world of entertainment. The star began posting YouTube videos in 2006, but mainly of her singing different covers as her Miranda character. Fast forward a decade and Ballinger not only has two giant YouTube channels (one as herself and one as Miranda), but also two seasons of her own Netflix show titled Haters Back Off.
But what you maybe didn’t know is that Ballinger first wanted to go into musical theatre — which led to more than a few instances of sexual harassment. According to a 2017 Variety article, Ballinger was asked by a musical director to perform a private rehearsal for him, including costume fittings in front of him. Needless to say, she said no. “The fact that women are brave enough to come forward is amazing,” said Ballinger.
Despite her success, Ballinger still faces criticism towards the way in which she rose to fame. “There are a lot of people who don’t respect what I do,” Ballinger told Elle in 2016. All we have to say is: haters, back off.
Within the first minute of a podcast interview with NoJumperHighlights, YouTube sensation Tana Mongeau states, “I literally called my first-grade teacher a b*tch on my first day of school.” Mongeau, who has 3.7 million YouTube subscribers and 2.9 Instagram followers as of early 2019, says: “I’ve always been a nonconformist type of person. I really don’t like authority, I really don’t like doing things I don’t want to do. I think life is way too short to do things you’re not passionate about.”
Mongeau, who’s only 20 years old at the time of writing, is originally from Las Vegas. Growing up, her father owned a pool business and her mother didn’t work — meaning Mongeau occasionally provided her with money. When asked why she stopped forking over cash to her mother, Mongeau responded, “Because [my mom] didn’t do anything. She was lazy. I was over it.” Now, Mongeau lives in Los Angeles with an estimated net worth of $1 million (as of July 2018).
Jake Paul might be one of the most controversial YouTubers on the planet — but that hasn’t stopped him from garnering a following of just under 18 million subscribers. Paul, who’s originally from Ohio, started out on the app Vine with his older (and equally famous) brother, Logan Paul. “There was real-life opportunity to make a career for ourselves, for the rest of our lives. We were working with brands and advertisers. I was, like, 17 years old, making more money than my parents,” Paul told the New York Times of his meteoric rise on Vine.
But before Vine was even a blip on their radar, the brothers were focused on their football careers. In elementary school, their father gifted them a video camera to tape their football practices. “One day we decided to pick up the camera and film whatever we were doing,” Paul told Harper’s Bazaar in 2017. From there, the brothers’ love for video making took off.
In a December 2018 video interview with Wired, David Dobrik informed viewers on why he can’t tour outside of the United States: he’s a citizen of Slovakia. “If I leave [the United States], I can’t re-enter for another 10 years,” Dobrik told the site, referring to his current DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) status. He also revealed that he’s fluent in Slovak, despite being too shy to speak it on camera.
Dobrik hasn’t been able to travel outside of the United States since 2017. In September of that year, he tweeted, “I’m sorry to say I cannot attend Vidcon Australia, as of yesterday Trump has taken away all my travel privileges #DefendDACA.”
In the video, Dobrik also dishes on his epic celebrity crush on none other than global pop sensation Ariana Grande. “I liked her when she was on Victorious. Now everyone likes her, it’s just not fair,” said Dobrik. The YouTuber even tweeted at the pop star in 2013 to declare his love for her. Luckily for Dobrik, his ex-girlfriend Liza Koshy didn’t seem to mind the crush.
The Dolan Twins
Originally known for their (seemingly) identical good looks and popularity on Vine, Grayson and Ethan Dolan are now big-time YouTubers. The pair boasts just under 9 million subscribers on YouTube at the time of writing, and are part of the illustrious “Sister Squad”, which includes both Emma Chamberlain and James Charles.
The brothers may be twins, but that doesn’t mean they don’t get into a little friendly competition — especially concerning who’s the oldest. “I think I got stuck,” Ethan said of being born 20 minutes later than his twin brother, Grayson. Besides getting questions on who’s the older twin, they’ve also been asked what type of twins they are. The answer? They don’t know. “One thing that people don’t know about us is that we do not know if we are fraternal or identical. We’ve asked doctors and have received different answers but we’ve never been formally tested to see,” the twins told Glamoholic.
Gabbie Hanna first rose to fame on Vine under the pseudonym The Gabbie Show. The YouTube star now has about 6.5 million subscribers and has even written, produced and released her own music. Life may seem glamorous for Hanna, but it hasn’t always been that way. Growing up, her family dealt with financial troubles and were at times unable to pay bills.
“I always wanted to be a YouTuber but I couldn’t because I was poor and didn’t have a computer. My first YouTube videos were shot and edited by a friend because I didn’t have the equipment,” Hanna told Forbes in November 2018. But by rising to fame on Vine, a platform which requires no equipment besides a cellphone, Hanna was able to establish a following and transition to YouTube. “I didn’t start a YouTube channel from scratch. And for anyone that did, like Emma Chamberlain and Shane Dawson, I don’t know how they did it,” said Hanna.
Niki and Gabi DeMartino
Niki and Gabi DeMartino, who run the popular Niki and Gabi YouTube channel, are twins — but there’s more to their family than you might know. The twins have an older sister who’s into acting and a younger brother who’s, well, pretty dang smart. “Our younger brother is no way into the arts like us. He’s a division 1 wrestler pulling a 3.6 GPA at Duke,” Niki told Ferrvor in 2018.
Niki and Gabi posted their first video in September of 2012 titled “Demi Lovato Inspired Curls Tutorial”. And, while the twins were busy building their YouTube empire of 7 million subscribers, their parents worried about their wellbeing. “They thought we were putting out too much of our lives and that it could be dangerous, as any parent would worry about,” said Niki.
Fortunately, their parents’ worries never came to fruition. “Sometimes when you’re in the spotlight it’s hard to stay true to yourself,” said Gabi. “[My friend’s] advice is stating ‘What would the Gabi I know do?’. And to this day, it keeps me who I was from the start!”
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