ANAHEIM — What happened to Joana Ceddia could happen to you — if you’re young and funny, and if you can edit in iMovie, and if you have the foresight to film yourself when you decide to chop off your own hair with crafting scissors, and if you can sew and paint, and if you are blessed with the divine intervention of YouTube’s algorithms.
The Canadian teenager, then 17, became suddenly famous last year, after YouTube recommended two of her videos, filmed months earlier, to a ton of viewers. In the first video, she gave herself a haircut. In the second, she attempted to re-create a famous YouTube personality’s clothing line.
Joana still doesn’t know why these videos catapulted her to fame. Maybe it was the fact that one of them mentioned popular YouTuber Emma Chamberlain in the title; or maybe it was because they felt like Old YouTube, the chaotic playground that existed before creators began performing “relatability” like dancers in a professional ballet. Joana was more like the kid waving her arms like a dork and dancing along to the music with her friends. Her adventures in DIY fashion were goofy but weirdly good. Viewers loved it.
“It was the most exciting thing that ever happened to me,” she said in an interview.
It happened 10 months and 2.4 million followers ago. Now, Joana was sitting in the lobby of the Hyatt Regency in Orange County, in a large, powder-blue booth, with her parents. They’d just landed in Los Angeles for VidCon, the annual gathering of famous online creators, their fans and the industries that court them. The convention, now in its 10th year, was both chaotic and tightly organized — a symbol for how online stardom is no longer quite what it once was. Whether millennials and Gen X and boomers are ready for it, getting famous online is something that could happen to their kids.
Generation Z has calibrated its aim accordingly, and so has the entertainment industry. Middle-schoolers who a generation ago might have said they wanted to be an actor or musician now want to become the next David Dobrik. In that sense, Joana Ceddia’s story was a dream come true.
There is a dark side of YouTube fame, though, and over the course of a decade, VidCon has attempted to catch up with that, too. There were panels on burnout, harassment and mental-health struggles. YouTube fame is a gift that can become a burden.
Joana is glad YouTube catapulted her out of the oblivion of normal teen-dom, but she is determined not to become a casualty of her own good fortune.
The Hyatt was a secure zone, where famous YouTubers like her could stay without worrying about mobs of fans, where shuttles escorted them to and from the convention hall. At the time of last year’s VidCon, Joana hadn’t even started her YouTube channel.
It started as a way to keep from going insane from boredom after an injury stalled her competitive running career. Joana posted a painting video, a thrift store haul. Last July, she made a video thanking, and apologizing to, her first subscriber. (That person then unsubscribed.)
Later that month, while her mom was out, Joana sat in the bathroom and lopped off several inches of her hair using a dubious method she’d seen on YouTube tutorials. She finished the video by showing her new ‘do to her mom, who wasn’t thrilled. That video was one of the two that YouTube eventually promoted, resulting in Joana’s sudden surge in viewers.
“I didn’t think it was going to last,” said Denilce Campos, Joana’s mom. “I told her, ‘When school starts, it’s over.’ ”
The opposite ended up coming true. When her senior year began, last September, Joana’s channel had 500 subscribers. That was the week things got crazy. By the end of the first week of classes, she had topped 100,000.
Joana kept making videos, and that October, her subscriber count passed the 1 million mark.
The algorithmic mechanism that launched her to idol status is a black box, but Joana’s appeal is no mystery: She has Relatable Girl Energy, the kind of natural charisma that makes other girls her age want to watch how she lives her life. Her earliest videos were the standard fare of the genre: funny slice-of-life videos, filled with quick-fire editing, emphatic face-zooms and lots of self-deprecation.
But as she gained subscribers, Joana started watching her early videos and wasn’t happy with them. “I’m relying on the editing to make me funny and not on my personality or my jokes,” she remembered thinking. “What’s going to happen when I go in public and I’m talking to someone?”
Eventually, Joana found her own style: a kind of narrative vlog, shaped by her daily life and grounded by her insistence on using cheap supplies and equipment as much as possible. She shared her strange favored breakfast of an avocado wrapped in a tortilla. She DIY’d a convincing version of Prince’s cloud suit — the one the singer wore in the music video for “Raspberry Beret” — using fabric-store felt. She posted a hairstyling “tutorial” in which she stacked hair ties on top of each other to make a ponytail stand straight up, the edges of her hair fanning out like palm leaves.
Her parents became secondary characters. Her mom is now known to her daughter’s fans as “Mother Goose.”
Online fame isn’t something Denilce had expected, let alone sought, and at first, she was skeptical. “I would say Mom was very reluctant,” said Joana’s dad, Rolando Ceddia, a health professor at a Canadian university. “She didn’t want to —”
“Talk about it!” Joana interrupted, laughing, “it” being her increasingly popular channel.
But Mother Goose realized YouTube was making her daughter happy. They’d all figure it out together.
Joana has full control of her channel, her parents say, but they do what they can to support her. Now, they had flown from their home in Toronto to Los Angeles on an improbable family vacation-slash-work trip. As Joana walked through the steps of being a famous YouTuber at VidCon, Rolando carried her camera and filmed, simultaneously a proud dad and a production hand.
During Joana’s interview at the Hyatt, Rolando said they were still figuring out exactly how to help their daughter balance the demands of fame and the need to prepare for a future that may have nothing to do with YouTube. “The questions you have,” he said of The Washington Post’s questions about balance, “as a parent, we have the same questions.”
One big question: Could the Ceddias manage Joana’s newfound fame well enough to keep the dark side at bay?
“A lot of people want this,” Joana says into the camera. “And yet they have no idea what it’s really like. And I say that because I didn’t know what it’s really like, either.”
She had decided to celebrate her first year on YouTube by re-creating her very first video, in which she sat in front of a canvas and painted a scene of a woman’s face emerging from a pool of water. As she painted, she talked about her plans to go to university and about how being famous on the Internet transformed her life. She was never able to get back to running, she said. She no longer had the time.
But Joana stands out for how she consistently sets and reinforces boundaries — between her and her fans and between YouTube and the other things that matter to her. Many YouTubers who succeed in converting sudden fame into a sustained viewership follow a pattern that Joana attributes to pressure from “YouTube culture itself”: drop out of school, move to L.A., and ride the wave as far as it will carry them.
Joana’s family has taken a different approach, treating YouTube like any other extracurricular activity. During her senior year, Joana limited herself to posting one new video per week, taking about two days to film and edit each one. Her grades dipped, she says, but only a little. She plans to go to college this fall to study physics and astronomy, but she isn’t telling her fans where.
But the dark side creeps up on anybody who gets as famous as Joana has become, no matter how vigilant they are about protecting themselves. People online, including other YouTube celebrities, have criticized her videos, accusing her of being a clone of other YouTubers and suggesting that she doesn’t deserve her popularity or that she somehow bought it.
“I didn’t think it was possible to be that mean,” she said at the Hyatt. “The things that people write on the Internet really shocked me.” In the one-year-later video, Joana describes walking into a high school physics test minutes after reading a river of hateful comments directed at her.
It wasn’t just that the time it takes to churn out content can distract a famous online teen from the rest of her life. It’s the obsessive refreshing of the feed, the learning when to look and when to not.
“To put yourself out on the Internet takes a lot of courage,” Joana said. “You have to be careful with what you’re putting out there, because people can twist it.”
For instance: If she gets into a relationship, she says, she wouldn’t be comfortable putting it online. She’s seen what’s happened to other YouTubers, whose personal relationships are dissected, criticized and debated on drama channels and Twitter.
“When the fans get involved, they almost blame you for the choices you make,” she said. “If they disagree with you, they take personal offense to it. That can be really detrimental to your sanity.”
So far, Joana has managed to cultivate a relatively positive relationship with her fans. Her announcement that she was going to college rather than making YouTube her top priority went over surprisingly well. “I think I could count on one hand the amount of people who said, ‘Oh, I disagree with you, school is toxic,’ ” she said. “The majority of people were like, ‘Thank God.’ ”
But aside from the odd random encounter around Toronto, she had never come face to face with the strangers who had buoyed her celebrity. Coming to VidCon meant participating in a famous YouTuber’s rite of passage: meeting your fans in person.
VidCon’s meet-and-greets are the only sanctioned way for the protected featured creators to meet their fans. (Joana, one of about a quarter of invitees who had enough demand for two meet-and-greets, had unwittingly broken convention rules earlier by wandering around the halls meeting fans unguarded.) The official version is all about boundaries. Fans line up in a pen about 10 feet away from the star. One by one, they place their bags in a taped-off box and approach her for a hug and a photo. They get anywhere from 30 seconds to a couple of minutes with famous YouTubers, depending on the length of the line.
Many of the people who lined up to meet Joana were teen girls like her, with cool glasses and masterfully casual outfits. Some brought gifts: their own paintings, often of Joana. One fan brought her an avocado. Others showed up with “palm tree hair” from Joana’s tutorial.
McKenzie Donahue, 15, said she was there because she loves how Joana “stays true to herself.”
Elyssa Olmedo, 12, showed up to meet Joana in a handmade shirt showing the professional wrestler John Cena (it’s a whole thing, but for starters, “John Cena” sounds like “Joana Ceddia” if you try to say it with marbles in your mouth). Elyssa said she watches a lot of YouTubers whose lives seem “too perfect” but that Joana seemed real.
Joana was excited to meet her fans, but she knows being “relatable” is not the same as having a relationship with the people who fall in love with her online persona. The screen is a portal that connects them, but it’s also a boundary.
“As much as they’d like to know that they know me,” she said later, “they don’t actually know me.”
Denilce and Rolando stood off to the side, watching when they could. As supporting characters in Joana’s videos, Mother and Father Goose were also fielding fans and photo requests. Strangers greeted their daughter as if they were old friends. Some approached Joana crying, shaking, whispering to her.
“I don’t know if this is too much or too little,” Denilce said. “Everything is new to me.”