Ariel Vera had one more routine delivery to make in the day, and he was running late.
Some 24 hours before, the co-owner of Fiesta Ottawa, a balloon and event rental shop, had received a last-minute order for 350 balloons to be delivered the next day to a dead-end road, deep in Barrhaven. Vera’s crew scrambled to place an order for helium, then stayed at the store until midnight trying to finish the balloons.
Now his car was stuck in rush-hour traffic on a hot afternoon in June, inching along Hunt Club Road and then Fallowfield Road. A typical 20-minute drive from Ottawa South was taking more than an hour, and Vera warned his client he’d be late.
Finally, five minutes to 6 p.m., his truck turned toward his destination, a long, narrow road with no houses, just trees and telephone wires.
Before Vera was a surreal scene: 200 people, energetic and festive, flanked by three cars on either side and two school buses. Dancing Queen was blasting on repeat from two loudspeakers.
“As I was driving, I see two girls running to the truck and moving their arms and I said, ‘Oh my God, it has to be there’,” said Vera. “And then I see a big group of people and I said, ‘OK, perfect, this is what they’re going to do. A parade’.”
Vera started unloading the balloons, which were rainbow-coloured. So was the clothing of everyone else at the parade.
As he was backing up his truck to leave, Vera stuck his phone out the window and took a picture of the unusual scene. “It was so beautiful,” he said.
When he returned to work and told his employees the name of his client, they were shocked.
“They jumped and everybody said, ‘Oh, so crazy!’ And I’m like, ‘Uh oh, I don’t know. The old person doesn’t know.’
“I talked to my 14-year-old daughter and she said, ‘Yes, I follow her! Everybody knows Elle Mills’.”
Her name is not yet household in Ottawa, in the same way Alanis Morissette or Sandra Oh’s is. But to a not-insignificant part of the younger population, Mills is a queen. In a few short years, the Ottawa-raised YouTuber has gone from making fake movie trailers for a couple thousand followers to producing, filming, editing and starring in bite-sized John Hughes-esque videos for her 1.6 million YouTube subscribers, 700,000 Instagram followers, and 460,000 Twitter followers.
Her creative, humorous and thoughtful mini-films centre around the life of Mills and her family and friends, and have captured attention from the likes of musician Halsey and YouTube mogul Casey Neistat.
Mills, a five-foot-four Filipino-Canadian, enlivens many of her videos with a natural sense of comedic timing and her self-deprecating personality. In one video, for example, Mills sets out on a Valentine’s Day mission to find someone for her first kiss. After landing a willing participant, her brother Jay and his friends give her some light-hearted coaching. Problematic traits of Mills outlined on a whiteboard include “visuals” (“you’re ugly,” says one friend); “hygiene” (“you smell,” advises another); and “technique” (“you have none”).
Mills is part of a new generation of celebrity — one that’s dramatically different from a previous era of stars.
Almost all of a YouTuber’s audience is on the internet and only a small minority of creators break from the platform to land TV or movie gigs. Their audiences skew much younger, with content that caters to people who grew up online — something that illuminates the strange star power of YouTubers.
Mills, for example, broadcasts to an audience of millions, but in the wide silo that is social media; if you were the type to only read mainstream news and watch cable and movies, the 20-year-old would hardly register on your radar.
This odd phenomenon means Mills can walk down a city street in Ottawa without anyone batting an eye, only to be mobbed by hundreds of fans screaming her name at an impromptu meet-up at Bayshore Shopping Centre the next day.
The same is true for others in Ottawa’s small but mighty YouTube community. Their names are some of the biggest in the country, even if their number can be counted on two hands. Simply Nailogical (a Statistics Canada crime analyst by day and nail art YouTuber by night) has amassed seven million subscribers; Team ALBOE, a group of male YouTubers who live together in a big house in Greely, combines for more than 12 million subscribers; and Joey Kidney, a YouTuber who focuses on mental health and self-love, counts 750,000 subscribers.
Canadian YouTubers get so big, Mills said, that they often move to L.A. for more opportunities. In fact, Mills was recently approved for a work visa in the States — “my canadian skin is ready for more of that LA SUN BABY,” she tweeted after the acceptance — but her home remains in the national capital.
“I need Ottawa. It’s like my cleanse,” said Mills, as she sat on her bed in the Kanata house she shares with her brother Jay and mom Janette, who through their dead-pan responses to Mills’ shenanigans have gained small followings of their own. “If I get too in YouTube world, having no place to escape from it, that seems like a nightmare for me.”
YouTube world is a world close to what a young celebrity like Shawn Mendes or Selena Gomez might experience — fame, money, cavorting with other celebrities, and above all, constant, gruelling work — but the distance between fan and star is closer.
YouTubers actually reply to the comments you make on their social media posts. They hold meet-and-greets where you can give them a hug and scream your love for their work in person. You might see them at a coffee shop editing a video on their laptop.
“YouTube stars are more appealing than traditional celebrities because they are more authentic,” said Jeetendr Sehdev, a celebrity brand specialist in California who, in 2014, conducted a survey revealing that YouTube stars were more popular than mainstream celebrities among U.S. teens.
Vloggers appeal to a wide range of people through the sheer variety of topics they cover — including gaming, beauty, sketch comedy, pranks, travel, and kids content. Instead of limiting their public appearances, they make themselves available to fans through impromptu meet-ups and social media.
“They do not wait to be told what to do,” said Sehdev. “Audiences aren’t looking for old-school glamazons anymore. They’re looking for more authentic celebrities that are relatable, humorous and have no filter.”
Mills has met not one, but two fans who have gotten her name tattooed on their bodies. A long-time superfan in Texas has the initials “EM” on his leg . Then there was a shy girl at a meet-and-greet in 2018 who had Mills’ full name tattooed on her ankle.
“I’m like, props,” Mills said with a laugh. “Because all my tattoos are dumb.” (She has the words “You peaked in high school — Mom” on her thigh, her friend’s Twitter handle on her ankle, and the words “tattoo” and “no ragrets” on her arms.)
“I appreciate the same mentality of just like, pardon my language, f–k it. The f–k it mentality. But no, it’s insane. I’m like, you’re going to regret it, ha, but I appreciate it now.”
When she’s travelling, people have found out the location of Mills’ hotel and sent up gifts. And she’s unable to attend Bluesfest unless she has security (“because it’s, like, all my demographic in one area”).
“I find I get the most recognized here in Ottawa,” she said. “It’s one of those things where not a lot of people are ‘famous'” — she used air quotes — “in Ottawa. There’s, like, five YouTubers here. Everyone knows who they are.
“When I go to L.A. or London or New York, usually it’s at a convention and it’s mayhem and security. I was telling my friends here, it’s so crazy, you guys don’t see that. It’s like I live in two different universes: YouTube world and then my home life.”
Joey Kidney, another Ottawa YouTuber (and friend of Mills), connects with fans through intimate videos about issues such as mental health, anxiety and relationships.
The 23-year-old’s open temperament and engaging message have attracted more than a few passionate fans. Some, for example, used to spy clues about where Kidney lived via his Instagram, then wait outside of his building on the off-chance he’d see them.
“I didn’t see it as a negative,” said Kidney, who has since moved to a sun-filled condo in Westboro. “ I would get a wave or two (of people), usually a couple waves every day. They would literally just wait there, sit and wave. And then they’d freak out and I’d be like, aw, that’s cool.”
Only once did he have to draw a line.
“One time somebody actually knocked on my door. I was like, hi, I love the support, but please understand you are breaching a privacy. And not only mine, but the other residents in this building. That was my main concern. Like, you’re walking into somebody’s home.”
Kidney is used to being monitored — and the feeling is both comforting (at least the fans care, he says) but also wearisome.
“If I go to the mall right now, I’m getting stopped,” he said. “Someone’s always watching whenever I go to the mall, eat, everything. Sometimes it’s awesome, somebody coming up to you and saying, ‘I love your videos, they really helped me.’ But there’s a lot of times where I want to go out and be alone and have my own personal space, and somebody’s watching.”
When it comes to YouTubers in Ottawa, or even in general, you’d be hard-pressed to find a Kim Kardashian or Paris Hilton-type of origin story where fame is gifted at birth, and money comes easily. Many YouTube careers began because the creators were passionate about a cause, or loved making videos, and hustled to get their message or art out to as many people as possible.
Those doing it on a full- or part-time basis can attract anything from just a couple hundred subscribers, to millions. The lucky few break into the mainstream media — Toronto YouTuber Lilly Singh, for example, recently landed a high-profile gig hosting a new late night talk show on NBC, while vlogger David Dobrik voiced the character Axel in the latest Angry Birds movie.
Others catch the attention of mainstream news for more controversial reasons: YouTuber Logan Paul — whose channel boasts 19 million subscribers — made headlines in 2017 for posting a provocative video of a man who had recently killed himself in Japan’s “suicide forest.”
But many operate with minimal or no mainstream media coverage — and still thrive commercially.
Creators with huge followings — T-Series, a Bollywood music channel, has the most subscribers with 103 million, followed by Swede PewDiePie, with 96 million — regularly rake in six figures a year.
The biggest money a creator can make is through lucrative brand endorsement deals and advertising revenue. To a lesser extent, they can also make money through merchandise, touring and guest speaking. However, the job isn’t without costs.
“I don’t go shop at Gucci or anything like that. I reinvest all my money in myself,” said Kidney. “I’ve probably spent $100,000 just on camera equipment. Last year was like $20,000 to $30,000 on flights. A YouTuber may make $100,000 a year, but really they’re only making probably around $30,000, because they’re hustling.”
Many are not in it for the money when they first start off.
Kidney’s journey began when he was 16 and in high school, during which time kids were making silent videos with cue cards that shared their stories of struggle or depression.
Kidney, who also had depression, didn’t like it. He felt the stories needed to be heard out loud, not just read. So he made a video and started it off by saying, “Hi, my name is Joey Kidney, and I’m just as f–ked up as you are.” The honesty of his message resonated among his peers, and blew up at school.
The first person to watch was his high school bully. “And he said thank you. It changed my perspective of everything, that one message from somebody who I thought just wanted to see me burn was burning himself.
“I thought I had to keep going for my friends … because every single person I’ve ever met goes through something, somewhere. Every single person.”
Kidney’s first video to go viral was called “10 things guys love about girls.” Relationship-centred posts gained him thousands of subscribers. Nowadays, he tries to balance that type of popular video — “that’s going to keep the business up and running” — with other videos that focus on mental health, like when he filmed his anxiety attacks for a week.
“I like that Joey is so open about mental health because it’s something that needs to be talked about,” said 18-year-old fan Shaleigh Chapman, who also suffers from anxiety. “Knowing that there’s someone out there who feels the same way, it’s very helpful and you don’t feel so alone anymore. He just connects in a really good way to his followers.”
Cristine Rotenberg had a completely different path to popularity. The 30-year-old vlogger, known as Simply Nailogical, wields the highest subscriber count of any YouTuber in Ottawa, and she does it all on a part-time basis.
Rotenberg works as a crime statistics analyst at StatCan. During the week, she’ll be researching for reports on topics such as sexual assault, while on the weekend she’ll be dipping into one of her almost 2,000 bottles of nail polish to film comedic videos such as “polish mountain” (100-plus coats of nail polish at once), which garnered an eye-popping 24 million views.
Her side career started simply because she loved nail art, and wanted to share tutorials on Instagram, where her popularity grew and eventually spilled over onto her YouTube channel.
“There’s no way I’d believe you if you told me five years ago I’d have millions of people who wanted to take selfies with me,” said Rotenberg in an email. “I have always been, and still feel like, a pretty average person, a homebody.
“I’m pretty shy and reserved at the office. Some of my co-workers have seen my videos or heard of my channel … but I don’t think many of them follow YouTube culture or see YouTubers as celebrities anyway.”
Then there’s Mills who, unlike Rotenberg’s colleagues, grew up well-aware of YouTube celebrities, and was even voted “most likely to become a YouTube star” in high school because of her talent for filming and editing.
After graduating high school, Mills enrolled at the University of Ottawa for marketing while at the same time posting videos to her channel every week. By the end of 2016, she thought she’d have 1,000 subscribers. But it turned out to be more like 15,000.
To her parents’ shock, Mills dropped out of school. She wanted to prove she could make YouTube a full-time gig.
“It was a huge leap of faith. I think it’s so crazy because I would never recommend doing that now. I don’t know, I was feeling ballsy that day! I don’t know what happened.”
Mills made genre-swapping trailers at first (such as a thriller edited to look like a romantic comedy), then started making videos about different parts of her life she found interesting — interviewing her friend’s Tinder dates, for example, or throwing a slumber party with her brother and all of his exes.
“I had always said growing up, like yeah, I’m going to make it some day,” she said. “For it to have happened and have people who come back every time I make a new video and actually enjoy it, it’s so rewarding, because I feel like for so long I was making videos and only my mom would watch.”
Then on Nov. 27, 2017, Mills posted a video that would shoot her to the next level of stardom, eliciting the highest of highs but also the darkest day of her life: “Coming out: Elle Mills style.”
The mental health of YouTubers was not something often discussed in public before Mills.
That’s odd, considering the strain of the YouTube life is unusually high, even compared to other entertainment professions. There is constant pressure to upload new videos. Those doing it on a full-time basis give themselves no weekends or extended breaks. And they’re active with their fans on social media every day, if not on YouTube, then on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, or Snapchat.
For younger YouTubers, this may be their first real job. And when what you’re selling is yourself, rejection can feel deeply personal.
Mills came out as bisexual in the most public way possible — in a video posted for her thousands of followers online. In the emotional video, Mills comes out to her friends first, then to her mother who arrives home only to see her house wrapped in rainbow-coloured paper, and Mills standing anxiously out front.
Millions watched, and accolades from some of YouTube’s top stars came pouring in.
“That’s when it really, really blew up. I was getting opportunity after opportunity,” said Mills. “I was stressed. Right after the coming out video, I was like, I can’t just post any other video next because now everyone’s watching. So I started pushing myself to the limit.”
In her next video, to prove she wouldn’t be the last in the family to wed, Mills legally married her sister’s boyfriend in Las Vegas. The act angered her mother and resulted in a months-long annulment process. “That was me in the mentality of like, I need to go bigger or else this is going to fall on my face,” said Mills.
“So I started saying yes to everything. I was doing magazine shoots, interviews, a tour, meetings. It was four to five months of never being home and still trying to pump out videos.” During that time, Mills gained hundreds of thousands of subscribers, and hit the one million mark. She landed on newscasts. She won a Shorty Award for “Breakout YouTuber” of the year.
Then in the spring of 2018, Mills hit a traumatic breaking point. It was 9 a.m., and she had just returned from a convention in Florida. Stressed out and panicking, she started drinking, and uploaded a video tirade to Twitter.
“This is all I ever wanted. And why the f–k am I so f–king unhappy?” Mills yelled. “It doesn’t make any f–king sense, you know what I mean? Because this is literally my f–king dream.”
Everyone rushed home. Mills’ brother left school. Her mom left work. Kidney, who in the month leading up to her breakdown answered Mills’ calls as she bawled from hotel rooms, hopped in his car immediately and came to see her.
“I truly blacked out. It was the darkest day of my life and I just remember having the biggest panic attack. At the end of the day, I looked in the mirror and the blood vessels in my eyes had popped and there were rashes all over my face. Physically, I just don’t remember that day.”
On the advice of her manager and loved ones, Mills cancelled tour shows and several appearances. She took a two-week, no-social media break, then released a video called Burnt Out at 19, divulging how she was “constantly alone, always unhealthily stressed and always feeling this overwhelming pressure.”
“A lot of times when Elle and I talk, she’s going through something,” said Kidney. “I get a FaceTime call and she’s crying and that’s a world not a lot of people see. She’s this very, very happy person but just dealing with a lot of pressure. She’s a girl. She’s still young.
“But she’s the strongest person I know.”
Mental health and YouTube suddenly became the topic everyone in the community was talking about after Burnt Out was released last May. Vloggers were coming out with their own stories of struggle, and media outlets took notice. It was an important conversation to get started, Mills said.
“Almost every YouTube friend I know reached out and was like, same,” said Mills. “It’s so prominent in the YouTube community and I find it’s just very hard to talk about. To the people watching, sometimes it’s hard for them to truly grasp how much it takes out of you.”
While some have blamed the stress creators face because of YouTube’s algorithm , which they say penalizes vloggers who take breaks from posting, YouTube in a statement to this newspaper says “ creating engaging content should always take priority over producing a certain volume of content.
“We want to reassure creators that our systems do not take upload frequency or past video performance into account when recommending new videos to users,” said YouTube Canada spokeswoman Nicole Bell, who also pointed to a free YouTube “creator academy” where mental health resources could be found.
“We want our creators to make their videos in a healthy, sustainable way that allows them to feel creatively fulfilled, not burned out.”
Mills now sees a therapist, and has cut her upload schedule drastically from once a week to whenever she has an idea.
“I enjoy the pace a lot more. I wish I could upload more, it’s just that videos take so much out of me. I’m feeling good now. I always have to do comparisons. It’s better (than before).”
No one really knows where the majority of YouTube talent will move on to after YouTube — the platform, created in 2005, is still too new for predictions. Only in the past half-decade or so have the biggest YouTubers really hit their strides.
In the future, Kidney sees himself perhaps opening a mental health organization, working on documentaries, writing books and music, or doing talks at schools.
“I never envisioned myself as a YouTuber,” he said. “It was just the start of my path and I’m ready to see what’s next.”
Mills has fulfilled her lifelong dream of becoming a YouTube star. Now she has a new goal.
“I want to star in, film, direct and write a movie,” she said. “It’d definitely be a teen movie. It’d have to be. We don’t have enough of those. That’s the ultimate dream.”
Back at the dead-end street in Barrhaven, on a hot spring day, Mills wore a rainbow-feathered carnival headdress as she marshalled the crowd with a megaphone, an entourage of videographers whirling around her.
The 20-year-old was throwing a pride parade for an upcoming video. Ottawa’s official pride parade isn’t until August, but Mills was going to miss it and wanted to pull one off for Pride Month in June. She loved the idea of doing it in Barrhaven. “There’s more of a relatability. A good majority of the world lives in the suburbs. I always like doing my videos there … it’s so much more homey. It’s heartwarming.”
As we waited for the balloons to arrive, fans gathered in a nearby park. Breanna Eyre, an 18-year-old who just graduated from high school, said this was her first time meeting Mills.
“I like that she’s real, that she actually talks to her fans,” said Eyre. “I find YouTubers actually care about their fans. You get to see a part of their lives and it’s more personal. They’re real people, versus (traditional) celebrities, who just seem greater than thou.”
It was Mills’ first video in three months — practically a lifetime compared to her previously rigorous schedule. The balloons arrived and the parade started. Mills smiled from ear to ear, beckoning to a crowd that looked like they were having the time of their lives.
“Dance, scream, wave your flags, go full out, put Ottawa on the map, alright!” she told them.
Before her, a 200-strong crowd of her closest friends, family and fans bellowed. YouTube world had hit Ottawa. Elle Mills raised her megaphone, turned to face the camera and roared with the loudest of them.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019