Emma Chamberlain is never speechless, but ensconced at a giant corner table at Carbone, the retro Italian-American restaurant in Greenwich Village, the always caffeinated 18-year-old vlogger takes a bite of spicy rigatoni alla vodka and momentarily has no words. It’s shocking and it almost feels sacred to be witnessing her this way. But just as quickly as it happens, it's over. Chamberlain instinctively whips out her portable video camera and zooms in, rather comically, on the plate of pasta in front of her and then records her own bug-eyed response. Soon enough, her 7,840,175 YouTube subscribers (and counting) will also be part of this intimate moment.
The day started early for Chamberlain. She had flown in from Los Angeles the afternoon before to attend the Louis Vuitton resort show and arrived on set for her W shoot the next morning promptly at 9 a.m. As soon as she walked in the door, she was in top gear, charming everyone around her. She zoomed over to a rack filled with brightly colored clothes from every major designer imaginable. “This is so dope,” she declared of a mint green, logo-covered Gucci skirt set. There’s an infectious enthusiasm to Chamberlain. As she plopped herself in the hair-and-makeup chair, she informed the stylists buzzing around her, some of whom were more than twice her age, all about Snapchat’s newest filters. She ran about Lower Manhattan posing in strappy sandals, pausing every so often to capture behind-the-scenes content on the camera that she wields so naturally that it’s almost a third arm. When the shoot wrapped, eight hours later, she already had plans for a 7:30 p.m. SoulCycle class, which were eventually scrapped for her reservation at Carbone. It’s her 18th-birthday dinner, after all.
“My eyes are watering,” she says at the restaurant, biting into a piece of bread. “I’m emotional. This is like my dream come true.” Then she reaches for her camera again. Welcome to Emma Chamberlain's channel.
YouTube was founded in San Mateo, California, on February 14, 2005. Four years earlier, Emma Chamberlain was also born in the Bay Area.
Chamberlain is an only child—“Explains a lot, I know,” she jokes—and, to hear her tell it, had a pretty normal childhood. “I liked playing with dolls, of course,” she says. “I liked Polly Pockets, I liked Legos, I liked building stuff. I liked being outside a lot and swimming in the ocean. I used to build fairy houses—that shit was crazy.” It wasn’t until high school, where she was a cheerleader and gymnast, that she first began playing around with the notion of filming herself. “During the middle of sophomore year, my friends and I would get bored at lunch, so we would film videos on my computer webcam of us dancing in the gym to Christmas music,” she explains. “We would make up routines every single day at lunch, and I would edit them in my fourth-period class and post them on my Instagram. People loved it. I would edit them very specifically and zoom in on things that were funny, add commentary on the screen. We probably made 15 or 20 of those, and once school got hard again, we kind of stopped and never did it again. But that was my first vlogging thing—and I didn’t even realize in the moment that’s what it was.”
That was 2015. A year and a half later, Chamberlain launched her first YouTube page, employing the same zany, freewheeling editing style from her first videos. While many YouTubers try to keep their videos as streamlined and glossy as possible, Chamberlain’s vlogs are distinctive because of her stream-of-consciousness, hyperreal style—intercutting passages with outtakes, dropping in footage of herself editing (usually in an oversize hoodie in the middle of the night, by the glow of her screen), and adding unexpected filters, zooms, and sound cues. Since then, plenty of vloggers, both new and old, have adopted Chamberlain’s techniques. “I had never seen anyone edit the way that I edit before I did it, and it’s just what felt right to me,” she says. “It’s definitely become a popular style now, which is super cool. But I had never seen anyone else do it, and that’s why I was scared to put it out there. I was like, Is this even going to resonate?”
At first, it didn’t. Chamberlain recalls her first few videos—a failed attempt to be a serious beauty vlogger; something with fidget spinners—with a laugh. “Honestly, I was posting videos just to have something to do,” she says. “At the time, yes, it felt like it was for nothing.” The videos got “50 views, max,” she says. “I literally started from zero; I had zero subscribers. I remember my first subscriber—I was so excited, and then I looked, and it was my dad.”
Then one video changed everything. Inspired by the YouTube trend of “hauls”—aka going on something of a shopping spree and then revealing, one by one, every item that you purchased—Chamberlain posted her own haul from a dollar store in what would become known as her signature style. ”The videos weren’t taking off yet, but I was enjoying what I was doing, and I got lost in that,” she recalls. “And the second I started doing that, I made that video going to the dollar store. That was apparently a YouTube trend at the time, and it ended up working in my favor. It was a very searchable topic, and my video ended up blowing up. I got 500,000 views at a time when I was getting a thousand views on a video, max.”
Her subscriber number immediately jumped from 100 to 4,000. Within a few weeks, it had hit 100,000. Today, just under two years later, it’s at nearly 8 million. “I think because everything happened to me so fast, I had no time to process it,” she says. “I still have no idea what’s going on. I’m very confused on a daily basis. I’m riding the wave, but I don’t think I’ve had one second to comprehend what’s going on.”
YouTube was initially started to make sharing videos easier and more accessible. Incidents like Janet Jackson’s Super Bowl wardrobe malfunction and the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, both cases in which footage was not widely available, in part led to YouTube’s founding. An early—and illegal—upload of the Saturday Night Live sketch “Lazy Sunday,” which got over 5 million views before NBC had it pulled down, is largely credited with the popularization of the platform, before it became the go-to place for artists to host their music videos and the arrival of short-form viral videos (remember “David After Dentist” and “Charlie Bit My Finger”?).
Today, YouTube’s most popular content are longer, nearly sitcom-length videos with titles like “Putting My Cat in a Backpack and Going Outside” and “I Photoshopped My TINDER Pictures for a WEEK!”—someone, anyone, talking to the camera for 20-plus minutes. Where millennials had Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake, 2019’s tweens and teens have Liza Koshy and David Dobrik. And some of these stars have already begun to transcend YouTube: Lilly Singh was recently announced as Carson Daly’s replacement on Last Call With Carson Daly; MTV just green-lit a reality show starring Tana Mongeau (who also recently dated Bella Thorne); Jenna Marbles even has her own wax figure at Madame Tussauds in New York.
As she developed her core audience and her subscriber count grew, Chamberlain made the decision, with the support of her parents, to leave school (she’s since gotten her G.E.D.) and focus full-time on vlogging. But without a place to go every day to interact with peers, and with old so-called friends turning on her, it was not the life that she expected. “I was very lonely and, honestly, in an awful mental state there,” she says. So she reached out to her online community. “I basically had no friends and was doing YouTube out of my bedroom at home. It was very dark, and dreary, and boring,” she recalls. “I didn’t have anyone. That was why I wanted to be a part of the YouTube community so badly. Not because I was like, Oh, my God, I want to be famous and hang out with this famous YouTuber. I wanted a social structure.”
She went to VidCon, in Anaheim, near Los Angeles, in 2018, and got her first real taste of what it was like to be a YouTube star. “That was the first time that people were coming up to me and knowing who I was and saying, ‘Your videos are great,’” she says. In June 2018, at 17 years old, she moved out of her mom’s home in the Bay Area and into her own apartment in L.A. “That’s when I met all of my best friends that I currently have,” she says. “They are all genuine friends. We have each other’s back, and there’s nothing suspicious about it.”
In 2019, YouTube’s most famous stars—often teenagers with a self-facing video camera and a lot of positive reinforcement from their followers—can quickly become infamous. There was Logan Paul’s suicide-forest controversy, Olivia Jade’s involvement in Operation Varsity Blues, and the recent Tati Westbrook–James Charles feud. Chamberlain, however, has managed to stay mostly above it all. Which is not to say she’s been immune to negativity on the Internet.
“I’ve dealt with a lot of people with bad intentions,” she says. “Just because somebody has a following does not mean that they are a good person or a good friend. And I should have known that. I’ve fucked myself over a few times believing that. I don’t know why I thought there was a correlation—if anything, I prefer to have friends who are maybe not even YouTubers. Four of my best friends are YouTubers, but that’s just a coincidence. I’ve been backstabbed multiple times—literally, at least 10, just off the top of my head—by other YouTubers, and it’s awful.”
While other YouTubers might turn such aggressions into vlog ammo (and means toward higher viewer counts), Chamberlain has never publicly gone low. “I don’t need to bash,” she says, point-blank. “It’s unnecessary. What does it do for me? If I have something not positive to say, I’ll keep it to myself. Yeah, everyone thinks things, but you don’t have to say it. You just don’t. I don’t understand why people have to say everything on their mind. I say 99.9 percent of the things on my mind, as long as they are respectful and aren’t going to hurt anyone else’s feelings. I have enough people talking shit about me, and I know how that feels. The last thing I want to do is put that out into the universe.
“Let’s say another YouTuber rates my outfit from Coachella, right?” she continues. “They are completely entitled to their opinion, and I actually really loved my Coachella outfit. If they say, ‘This is ugly,’ and even if I don’t think it’s true, it’s a mood killer. And you would never say that to my face. I don’t like to say things that I wouldn’t want to say to someone’s face. Those are my morals for life.”
Watching Chamberlain’s vlogs, in which she’ll gleefully zoom in on a blossoming zit or detail the nitty-gritty of a recent illness, it seems like there’s not much she’s not willing to film when it comes to her everyday happenings. Where she draws the line, however, is at the other people in her life. “[I don’t show] very personal details of my life that are rapidly changing,” she says. “For example, I don’t like to give too many details on very, very personal aspects of my relationships with my family or friends. I don’t like to show too much of that. There’s a line for me, and I like to keep things very light, nothing serious.”
Romantic relationships, she continues, fall under this category, though the rest of the Internet is more than willing to mine her social media and videos for any signs of a potential beau. (Are she and a certain fellow YouTuber dating? Emma will never tell.) “I don’t know if I would ever have a public relationship, ever,” she says. “And this is not coming from experience in any way; this is coming from morals. I’m speaking from what would feel right. Breakups alone are absolutely the most fucking awful thing that exist. Why would you want other people to be heartbroken with you? I can’t imagine that. And also, I don’t like seeing other people’s relationships. It’s boring and it’s gross.”
An hour after the rigatoni has been devoured, a swarm of waiters descend upon Chamberlain’s table with an entire cheesecake lit with candles, crooning “Happy Birthday.”
On May 22, Chamberlain turned 18, making her officially an adult in the United States. Of course, for someone who already lives alone and runs an immensely successful business on her own, the milestone is perhaps not as momentous as it is to your average teen. “I already feel 18 because I have that freedom, and I am very grateful for that,” she says at dinner. “It’s one of those things where it’s not going to change much for me, because I already live by myself. I think if anything it’s going to be nice to go to the doctor by myself. It’ll be nice to do activities with my friends, like go zip-lining, and not need a parent there.”
Still, 18 is shaping up to be Chamberlain’s biggest year yet, as she gears up to move her influence beyond YouTube. Recently, for example, she’s begun to arrive in the world of fashion, sitting front row at Louis Vuitton’s show during Paris Fashion Week in March. It was her first fashion show. “I don’t think I’ve ever had goosebumps that big. I’m surprised they didn’t touch the people sitting next to me. That’s disgusting,” she says. “I’d never experienced a fashion show, period, so that was pretty overwhelming—and it takes a lot to overwhelm me. I’m pretty underwhelmed by most things because I’m so insane that everything else doesn’t seem that crazy. I never really understood what the appeal of watching a fashion show was, but there is so much more than just seeing the outfits. It’s the ambiance in the room, the music, the hair and makeup. It encapsulates a whole mood, and I didn’t realize that until I sat at one. As stupid and corny as it sounds, it completely opened my third eye, my third fashion eye. She was there, she just wasn’t open yet.”
Earlier in the week before her birthday, James Charles turned up on the red carpet at the Met Gala, where Liza Koshy hosted official video interviews for Vogue. YouTubers, it seems, are moving into fashion. “I think it’s really, really great,” Chamberlain says. “I think there’s an element of realness with YouTubers that can be a turnoff, depending on how it’s done. I get it. There’s a lot more risk when you’re taking on someone who is edgy. And YouTubers are edgy. But I also think it’s cool that they are beginning to realize that the edgy element is what makes us so appealing. Me being blatantly obvious about not knowing about fashion resonates with people and ended up being a positive thing. Because I was nervous…. I’m very new to all of this, and I’m just going with it. YouTubers can make the designer brands seem a little more attainable and relatable. I’m glad that they are taking a risk.”
Outside of her newfound entree into high fashion, Chamberlain already has her own line of merch, featuring tongue-in-cheek designs of emoji Emma crying coffee or as a centaur. She’s has a partnership with Hollister. And Chamberlain recently launched her own podcast, Stupid Genius. Each episode, she takes on a question she doesn’t know the answer to—”Why Do Onions Make Us Cry?” was the first—and makes her best guesses before attempting to find the real answer. “It went a lot better than I expected it to,” she says. “I love making and recording them, and so far it’s been received pretty well. It’s been a cool thing to experiment with that was different from anything I’d done before.”
Vlogging, however, still comes first for Chamberlain. “If two people watch a video and enjoy it, that’s enough,” she says. “I think of the connection as one-to-one. No matter what scale it’s at, it’s me and one other person having an interaction, even though there is a screen. It’s a connection with me and the person watching.”
And that connection takes a lot of work. After filming, each video takes 20 to 30 hours to edit (down from the 30 to 40 when she first started), which Chamberlain does by herself, without the help of an assistant or editor. “I don’t think that they take [vlogging] for granted, I just don’t think they know what goes into it,” Chamberlain says. “People see me posting about once a week, and other YouTubers that they watch are posting three times a week. So you’re like, ‘Why are you only uploading once a week?’ Or if I need to miss a week, it’s like, ‘This other YouTuber never misses a week. You’re lazy.’ But that other YouTuber probably has a team, has an editor, has a filmer, has a writer. All they have to do is appear—which, trust me, is a challenge all its own. If I’m not as consistent, it’s because I’m a machine on my own. I do get hate occasionally for not being as consistent as other YouTubers, but it’s just kind of ignorant. They don’t know that I have a completely different business model. I let them say what they want to say, and at the end of the day, my videos are my children, and I don’t care if you want me to be having more children.
“I’ve cried multiple times after posting a video,” she continues. “It’s like giving birth. Like, Oh, my God, that’s my masterpiece. And every single video is like that for me. So much work goes into each video that I don’t know how I’m still alive.”
Thank goodness, then, that Chamberlain never stops long enough to learn the answer. As we talk, she is already thinking about the next video, the next project, and the next iteration of what Emma Chamberlain has to offer. “I’m always thinking of how to take it to the next level,” she says. “But those are all secrets.”