“Girl, you literally didn’t do anything exciting but this was the most entertaining 27 mins of my life,” reads one comment on an Emma Chamberlain YouTube video that has amassed over five million views.
In another recent video, the YouTuber begins by making an iced matcha that she may have broken a shard of glass in, burps, then tells us that she’s headed to the toilet.
With 10.1 million YouTube subscribers and 12.8 million Instagram followers; 20-year-old Emma Chamberlain has become a Gen Z household name for a reason.
As a woman only a couple of years her senior, it feels strange fangirling over someone who legally can’t drink but has just listed her $5.26 million West Hollywood house. And yet, I’m a 22-year-old woman who regularly bonds over Emma with random teenagers in the street. I’ve also indulged in her coffee line (Chamberlain Coffee), and am the proud owner of a bunch of her merch. Not to mention that I strategically wore my Chamberlain tote bag to uni in an attempt to attract fellow fans.
Packed with fast-paced transitions, cheesy sound effects and deadpan zoom-ins, Emma Chamberlain’s signature style of filming harks back to the old-school YouTube of the noughties. Her vlogs feel like home videos that aren’t overly produced or thought out which is in direct opposition to her male peers like David Dobrik, Logan Paul and Casey Neistat, who traffic in delivering jam-packed, action-filled thrills. It’s not uncommon, for example, to take in an entire 20-minute video of Emma in the confines of her home, going from a loop of cooking to lying on her bed.
It probably doesn’t sound that groundbreaking, but Emma’s lo-fi aesthetic likely contributed to the huge cultural shift in what it means to be an influencer in 2021. What’s typically known as ‘bad’ filming is common in her videos: she eschews the hypercurated and facetuned aesthetic of the 2010s: instead, think shaky camera, unflattering lighting and crooked angles. It’s an extension (or perhaps one of the catalysts) for the rise of ‘casual’ posting. It’s cool to seem like you don’t care, like you’ve just nonchalantly snapped an average selfie or recorded a candid video. Of course, the reality is that content that feels effortless is often effortful; and while she now has an editor, Emma says she used to spend 30 to 40 hours editing one video.
Emma Chamberlain’s rise hasn’t exactly gone unnoticed by the big guns. A profile of the influencer in The New York Times notes that the now 20-year-old “changed the world of online video”, before matter-of-factly calling her “the funniest person on YouTube”.
In her short four years on YouTube, she has gained the trust of a post-millennial generation that craves authenticity, relatability and earnestness.
It’s fitting that Emma began editing her videos on Instagram. It’s this level of intimacy and friendship that she creates that makes me feel like I’m friends with her IRL. She’s led the way for other content creators to milk their accessibility and approachability for clicks. It’s become trendy to overshare or to indulge in one’s flaws, to present your life as it is: imperfect, occasionally silly and above all, human.
Emma’s ability to maintain her everyday, girl-next-door appeal while her fame and wealth skyrockets is no easy task. She’s still a young girl who learnt to skateboard to impress a boy, she still spends too much time on TikTok even though she knows it’s bad for her mental health, she uses drugstore lip balm as brow gel and she still calls her mum, “mummy.” But she’s also a multimillionaire, a serial entrepreneur and the owner of several businesses – trivialising her intelligence and power because she’s young would be ignorant and foolish.
But her power lies in an accessible and relatable persona that allows millions of subscribers to see her as her bestie. Hell, Emma even gives her viewers forehead kisses each video. This parasocial relationship – a one-sided, mediated, psychological relationship between viewer and celebrity – has well and truly made it feel like one of the world’s biggest internet personalities is still our little secret.
But of course, her celebrity factor is undeniably there. She met her celebrity crush Timothée Chalamet at a party, graced the cover of Cosmopolitan (“are you cool enough to know who our February cover star is?”, the magazine boasted), won the 2020 People's Choice Awards for Favourite Social Media Star and is a muse for none other than Louis Vuitton. But the beauty of her is this: beyond these accolades and glittery encounters, she still feels like one of us – or more importantly, that anyone of us could easily be her.
Each Monday morning, I look forward to her videos and ready myself to be consumed by another thrift haul or cooking video. Because I know for the next 20 odd minutes, I’ll be grinning widely and laughing light-heartedly. It’s escapism rooted in reality. It’s similar to my life; only better.
YouTube is fast becoming a cesspit for drama, and while many of Emma’s friends (and ex-friends) have been embroiled in drama, she has avoided the brunt of it. When James Charles made headlines with the Tati Westbrook scandal, she unfollowed and distanced herself from him. The same went for fellow YouTubers Summer McKeen and Hannah Meloche: after being called out for racism, Emma quietly left that scene.
It’s all too easy to point to her unbothered, happy-go-lucky personality as the reason she’s so beloved. Her white privilege and yes – pretty privilege – make it easy for her to be marketed as the new frontier of cool. There’s almost a vulnerability scam that’s witnessed on her YouTube. We know about her bowel movements and her embarrassing first kiss, we listen in on calls with her parents and hear her talk about her periods. But ultimately, we still don’t know much about her.
Could it be that this near-perfect blank canvas of a celebrity allows her followers to project whatever they want on to her? She’s cleverly manufactured a sustainable image of herself without technically labelling herself as such. While recent collaborations have been with brands like Allbirds, TheRealReal and Levi’s sustainability campaign, she still partners with fast fashion brands like Princess Polly and Macy’s. Emma’s also a massive thrift shopper, but counters that by promoting wasteful haul culture. Perhaps this is a positive thing – it recognises the journey of sustainability many are on; one that’s imperfect and prone to challenges.
But with Emma’s lack of voice when it comes to political and social justice issues, it makes me wonder if it’s just a strategic move to avoid confrontation and keep her shiny image intact. But do I blame her? No. Watching her YouTube contemporaries fall over like chess pieces proves to be warning enough for what happens when someone steps out of line.
And besides: I watch Emma to take a break from the big, bad, terrifying world. I don’t expect to get my political news from a YouTuber whose videos revolve around fast food taste tests and attempting TikTok dances.
Celebrities – especially stars that found fame at a young age – should be entitled to some skerrick of privacy. We’ve seen what happens when we place young female figures simultaneously on a pedestal and under a microscopic lens.
“Don’t know if I wanna be Emma or be best friends with Emma,” one commenter muses on a video that sees the YouTuber weigh in on late 2020 fashion trends.
And maybe – when it comes to what influencers should offer – that’s enough.
Written by Maggie Zhou, a Melbourne-based writer and typical Gen Z media slashie. Find her words in MTV Australia, Fashion Journal and Broadsheet, or follow her on Instagram @yemagz.