Millennials may not have God—but they do have YouTube.
While baby boomers may wring their hands about what they see as oversharing and over the top vanity on social networks like YouTube and Instagram (looking at you, David Brooks), they fail to grasp the positive aspect of the digital age—solace.
For much of human existence, being different from societal norms largely made you either an outcast or a silent sufferer. In times of limited mobility, communication, and literacy, not to mention strict societal codes reinforced by a dominant faith, it was difficult to know whether or not there were other humans struggling with the same issues as you—sexuality, gender, abuse, mental health, and so on. Parents for generations have told children to be themselves, to never compromise, but that was no small task when there was nobody like you. Now, all you need to do is open up a browser to find you are not alone.
Joey Graceffa, the bubbly 24-year-old blonde YouTube star, is one of those people who have found significant success oversharing online in a way that lets millions know they are not alone.
Skin just barely kissed by the sun, distractingly white teeth, hair swept up into a perfect poof, skinny jeans, black leather jacket, and a necklace—Graceffa is just a few swollen muscles shy of a gay L.A. clone in person. The outgoing online personality is here at the Sunset Tower in Los Angeles., his new city, to chat about his new memoir, In Real Life.
“I feel like I could help so many kids out there dealing with similar situations,” he explains. “I know me, personally, growing up I didn’t feel like I had anyone to relate to. So I didn’t really talk about the issues going on.”
The book is not going to win any literary awards, but it is fun, lighthearted, and touching. Graceffa lays bare how far from perfect his life has been growing up in Marlborough, Massachusetts. His mother battles alcoholism, often with heartbreaking failure. His parents go through a tough divorce, and because of his mother’s drinking, her second partner comes and goes. Graceffa was a special ed student due to his learning disability that made it hard for him to learn to read or do math (possibly caused by eating a large amount of lead paint as an infant), and therefore was teased and called a SPED. He also struggled most of his life to make friends and was bullied for being effeminate. Graceffa also uses the book to make official what so many of his fans have long assumed—he is gay.
There is, of course, the usual roll of the eyes whenever a young celebrity publishes a memoir. Graceffa says he too, felt awkward at first about writing such a book at such a young age.
“It’s hard for me to say ‘memoir’ sometimes, because I feel like it’s a little … it’s not normal. Memoirs are supposed to be your life,” he says. But he felt that given his story, and his large audience, “I felt like I had stories that could help. I feel confident in myself for writing this.”
There is value in Graceffa’s story, not only for the experiences so many turn to him for, but also as a way into understanding a world that is so foreign to us—YouTube stardom.
“I started out doing sketches, which moved on to music video parodies,” he explains, and those were what started getting some interest. “Then I transferred into daily vlogs, which is really where it took off, and is what I’m still doing.” The vlogs, which he says can be pronounced as one word or as if it were hyphenated, are really nothing more than a camera following him around on some daily activity. They are sometimes as cringe-inducing for the unfamiliar as one could imagine—whether it’s eight minutes of him shopping with his friend or talking about pooping in public.
“It’s almost like a reality show, but with interaction in terms of responding to comments or on Twitter,” is how he puts it. He once appeared on the CBS reality show Amazing Race, which left him feeling like he could get more out of YouTube since it isn’t edited down so much.
His YouTube channel, which as of now has 4.7 million subscribers, is not just a popularity contest. There is legitimate money to be made, and this is how he makes his living.
“You get between 50 cents and ten dollars for every thousand views,” he explains, though he admitted he didn’t know a ton of detail. “It varies every month and day depending on what ads are running on your videos, how much of your video is being watched.” Sponsorships also bring in money, and then there are deals with multi-channel networks (MCNs), which he says are like record labels for YouTubers.
Graceffa didn’t just get lucky however. He writes in the book how he used to spam other people’s comment sections with links to his videos to try and get noticed.
And comments still play a part in his success.
“I do read my comments,” Graceffa says. “I read it for the first day, and then after that I’m like, nope, that’s when that the haters come.” The reason is that one of the things that differentiates YouTube is the sense of interaction with its stars, so there is a lot to be gained by maintaining a relationship.
And for those looking to replicate his path, he does actually check out stuff linked to in his comments. “If it has a lot of thumbs up and is getting attention, I think, oh, let me check this out!”
He’s even subscribed to people from his comment sections. But do watch out, because if you spam his comment section but don’t have quality content, he says he will block you.
I brought up my theory about those who are big on Instagram or YouTube or Vine—that basically, it mostly takes a complete lack of shame.
“For sure, people like to see you be real, and if you’re holding back because you’re shy, it’s not as entertaining,” he concedes. But then, he slyly confides that in his mind, the real ticket to success is less internal. “It sucks, but being a cute boy is really helpful right now. That gets people numbers because teen girls are the majority of YouTube right now.”
Of course, when I asked him how many shots he takes before he posts one of his many selfies (he says 90 percent are) on Instagram, he admits at least 10.
“I do like snap, snap, snap, snap, snap. Mostly because I’m not good at it and so they’re out of focus.”
When I first came across Graceffa’s book, I mentioned it to a friend of mine deep in the YouTube world, who immediately mentioned the comment wars on his videos over his sexuality.
“It’s been a huge controversy on my channel,” he explains, when I bring up the debate. “Teenage girls have been questioning it nonstop since I started on YouTube in the comments. That’s like their favorite thing to do.”
Graceffa is still defensive about his slow coming out, and looks back almost protectively on his former closeted self. “At first it was offensive,” he confesses. “Before I was okay with who I was, I was like, “No I’m not!” I’d be really defensive and hurt.” But later, as he came to terms with his sexuality, it became funny.
I suggest that if he wasn’t gay he might not be as successful today as he is—because he would not have been ostracized to the point where he all he had was hours to kill in his basement editing video—and he dismisses it outright.
As for his own coming out, the only real word to describe the experience portrayed in the book is awkward. He battles, as do many gay men, with coming to terms with his more feminine mannerisms. (In fact he delayed his coming out in part because he thought it would vindicate all of those who bullied him for being gay). But he also had a very slow go of it sexually, at least according to his telling. He hopes that now that he is open about it, people will look to him as a role model.
“I hope me doing this helps kids out there struggling to feel accepted with who they are. I feel like every time that I heard someone famous or someone that I looked up to come out, it became easier for me,” he says.
Graceffa’s friends from throughout his life get the Taylor Swift ex-boyfriend treatment: He details betrayals by close friends, and while he changes the name, is quite explicit about a male model who played him.
“I think that everyone was fine except for my mom,” he says. Her fear was because “she knew that there wasn’t the best moments and we didn’t have a great relationship, so she was scared for her own sake.” But he says she is proud of him for being honest to try and help others.
Some friends got a heads up. The former ones slashed by his pen, not so much. And as for the guy who broke his heart. “I don’t know if I want him to read it or not,” Joey exclaims, blushing in a sign that he’s really still marked by the experience. “It’s scary to be talking so raw about how you felt.”
He has a boyfriend now, and says he’s doing much better in the gay world than the Joey depicted in the book. As for his future ambitions, he is surprisingly content.
“I love acting and creating, so if the opportunity comes up, of course,” he claims, when asked about doing TV or film. “But I’m also happy creating my own content, that’s really why I haven’t pursued auditioning for stuff. It’s time consuming. It’s a tough industry, and if I already have the audience, why not do it myself now?”
As to whether the former three-time rejectee from Emerson College to study film turned video star will ever go to film school? “No. No, I’m done,” he declares emphatically. “I don’t want to go to school, I’m happy with what I’ve learned from being out in the field on my own.”
The online world hasn’t just offered Graceffa a chance to help others. As a college student, he too found solace in cyberspace when nothing seemed to work socially.
“In college I didn’t have anyone except my online friends,” he admits. “I would always rush back to my room after class.” People in college already seemed to have friends and had very different interests, so he struggled to connect. “It definitely helped me a lot get through that period.”
So for those who want to roll their eyes or snort derisively at those we see oversharing about their personal experience online—don’t forget that there’s probably a kid somewhere watching and getting to escape for just a few minutes the terrors of the teenage years experienced by all but a select few.