Never before in my career has my daughter begged me to obtain the autograph of anyone I have interviewed. Prime ministers, generals, business chiefs? They’ve all been greeted with blank stares. But when she heard I was meeting Zoella, my 13-year-old was immediately thrown into a veritable froth of excitement. “You mustn’t forget, dad,” she texted me firmly as I headed off to Brighton for my lunch with the 24-year-old fashion and beauty blogger.
Before leaving she’d given me the full benefit of her wisdom on the subject of my lunch companion. There were tips on how to handle the interview; even suggestions for questions that I might like to ask – albeit of the favourite music and food variety.
Which is why, when I arrive at Modelo Lounge, a slightly desolate café near the seafront in nearby Hove, I am feeling pretty well briefed. Not only do I know quite a lot about Zoella herself – online big sister, agony aunt, ultimate style guru and key to the hearts and minds of millions of avid, not yet cynical, young shoppers, I am also tolerably well informed about Alfie Deyes, PewDiePie, Tanya Burr and the rest of the YouTube vlogging (video blogging) “Brit crew”.
If you don’t have children of a certain age, these names may mean nothing to you. But they are small-screen catnip to teenagers, in much the same way that BBC television stars such as John Noakes and Tom Baker were in my 1970s childhood.
True, the content is rather different to the fare served up on Blue Peter or Doctor Who: the production values are languid; the subject matter focused principally on video games, pranks and that all encompassing teen obsession: stuff. But these videos draw vast audiences. Millions of children and young adults devour them every day.
Of this group, perhaps the biggest star to emerge is Zoella herself. The mainstay of her channel features her sitting on her bed dispensing beauty advice, doing her hair or delivering one of her so-called shopping “hauls” – in which she and her friends show off products they have just bought.
There’s also a regular slot called “ChummyChatter”, which involves Zoella and her “bestie” Louise exchanging tips about key issues such as friendship, body image, boys, and whether to go to university. You can get a flavour of the robust, parent-friendly common sense that’s on offer from some recent titles. These include “Why are you so skinny?” and “Boundaries and saying no”.
It’s hard to explain to the uninitiated the hold she has on the minds of those aged between 13 and 20. But her appeal is undeniable. Since launching her YouTube career in 2009, Zoella has managed to draw 5.3m subscribers to her channel – 2.3m since January alone – through a weird osmotic form of public acclamation.
Awards have duly followed. Last year, she was crowned Best British Vlogger at the BBC Radio 1’s Teen Awards and this year she has already picked up the Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice Award. An offline career is now beckoning. She recently signed a book deal with Penguin and her first novel, Girl Online, comes out in November.
Zoella – or Zoe Elizabeth Sugg as she is IRL (in real life) – is the first to admit that hers has been an unexpected rise to fame. “It’s weird because none of us ever intended that this would turn into our jobs,” she says. “When we started exploring these exciting new things, none of us knew where it would lead.”
A slight, delicate figure with doll-like photogenic features and dip-dyed hair that has been pulled back into a ponytail, Zoella arrives with her manager, Maddie, who is there for reassurance but agrees to be banished to a distant table, where she taps at her laptop.
Our original idea had been to have lunch outside but bad weather has forced a change of plan. Modelo Lounge, selected (slightly ominously) by Zoella for its quietness, is almost deserted. A few business types look up from their burgers or steak and chips and I wonder what they make of this rumpled middle-aged man greeting a petite twentysomething, elegantly dressed in a grey shirt dress set off by a tartan scarf. Do they think I’m her godfather? Or someone interviewing an au pair?
Zoella has lived in Brighton since last year. She rents a “fabulous” penthouse apartment on the seafront where she lives in Ikea-furnished splendour with two guinea pigs – Percy and Pippin – who feature frequently in her videos. A recent one was all about them having a bath.
She moved here mainly because it’s where her boyfriend lives. Alfie Deyes also has a successful vlog, called Pointless, in which he and his pals do dares and silly impressions. In fact, Brighton turns out to be YouTube city. It’s also home to PewDiePie – a Swedish hipster whose films of himself and friends playing video games draw vast audiences – and video diary maestro Marcus Butler. “I don’t know what it is about this place,” Zoella says with a giggle. “It’s become like the centre of the universe. Whenever I meet anyone who’s moving, it’s like, ‘Right, I’m coming to Brighton.’”
She grew up in the pretty village of Lacock in Wiltshire, the daughter of a property developer father and a beautician mother. After leaving the local state school with A levels in art, photography and textiles, she considered going to university but rejected the idea, partly because she wasn’t sure what she wanted to study but mainly because of anxiety. Afflicted by acute shyness as a child, Zoella still suffers from occasional panic attacks. “I didn’t want to go away from my family, from any comfort that I had.”
Instead, she took a job as an apprentice in an interior design company near home and started a blog. Conceived as a hobby, it was never her intention to do much more than record a few whimsical observations about her life.
“I never had any structure, I never thought this is where I want it to go. It was literally like my little space on the internet, where I just used to write about the things I loved, or things that I thought other people would love as well.”
The formula certainly worked – not least the inspired focus on shopping. Having enjoyed other blogs where writers described their clothing and make-up purchases, Zoella decided to try something similar. “It started off with me going to car-boot sales with my mum and finding all these little make-up bits for 50p and then writing about them.”
Pretty soon she had moved upmarket, filleting the racks at Top Shop, Superdrug and Primark and reviewing the best of what she saw.
There is a brief pause while we order lunch from the bar. Zoella has made no secret of her partiality for junk food so I brace myself for the worst as I scan the menu. But Modelo Lounge, whose proudest boast seems to be that its cuisine is gluten-free, turns out to be inoffensive rather than toxic. Zoella orders a panino filled with halloumi and muhammara dip and a sherbet lemonade. I have the chicken and a beer.
As I munch through my chicken and Zoella picks listlessly at an admittedly uninspiring looking panino, we return to the story. Her pleasant appearance, quirky manner and shrewd appreciation of teen tastes quickly drew readers, and it wasn’t long before her growing band of followers was urging her to make videos. She plucked up the courage – largely because she knew there would be an audience. “Because I already had people reading my blog that went straight away over to the video, I thought at least someone would be watching.”
By then, thanks to the post-crisis meltdown, she had been made redundant from her interior design job but her nascent vlogging career was nearly derailed by her anxious parents. “My dad was really confused by it. He kept telling me to get out of my bedroom and go and get a proper job.”
I say I would have had been with him on this. But, in fact, sitting in her bedroom with a laptop turned out to be just about the best place for Zoella to be. She may not have been the first teenager to try her hand at vlogging, but she was starting at a fortuitous moment: just as YouTube, bought by Google in 2006, was transmogrifying from an online venue for amusing videos of cats falling off skateboards into something more like a TV network.
Google wanted to encourage “creators” to produce more professional and appealing content. This would allow the US internet giant to grab a chunk of the estimated $250bn spent each year on TV advertising.
Google’s take would come through a 45 per cent revenue share with creators on advertising in return for hosting and publishing their videos. Though Google does not reveal specific ad revenues, investment banking analysts think it brought in about $5bn in ad sales last year.
The key thing was to encourage content that would appeal to hard-to-reach consumers – such as those in their teens and early twenties who are less wedded to conventional TV. (Zoella herself barely watches TV: “My generation, at least the ones I know, are like 70-30 YouTube”) Thus was the stage set for the current group of YouTubers to emerge.
Zoella’s focus on the 13-20 market put her right in the sweet spot of this revolution, although she surprises me by telling me that the age range of her viewers is much wider. “Nine per cent of my viewers are men, of which the majority is, I think, 45 to 50.” Noticing my eyebrows are rising fast, she adds: “I like to tell myself it’s just my dad watching.”
Zoella and the rest of the “Brit crew” may be relative novices at stardom, but they have a keen sense of the value of their franchise. It is only a few years since she cashed her first cheque – for £60 – from Google. But Zoella is now a member of YouTube’s “Style Haul” network, which promotes fashion and beauty content for “millennial women” (roughly those aged between 13 and 30) and connects its content creators with “big brands and lucrative deals”.
She has also taken on a “social talent” agency to manage her increasingly complex affairs, in the form of Gleam Futures, an organisation that seems to represent almost everyone on the UK YouTubing scene. “It’s just, like, ‘You sort it,’” she says, adding: “If I didn’t have them helping me, I’d sort of combust.”
The leading vloggers are a close-knit bunch, often appearing on each other’s channels. This cross-promotion helps to pool audiences. Zoella’s gang includes her boyfriend, her brother Joe (whose blog, now with 2m subscribers, started after hers, she insists) and Marcus Butler. There’s also Louise (aka Sprinkle of Glitter) and Tanya Burr, a make-up artist who beams advice from her Norwich bedroom, and whose diffusion line of cosmetics Zoella has recently recommended on her own vlog. “We all want to help each other so we can bring all our channels up together,” she says. “That’s absolutely what social media is all about: sharing.”
I tell Zoella she is known to the advertising world as a “crowd-sourced people’s champion” and she laughs. “That’s cool. I hadn’t heard that one before.” But she acknowledges that big brands are lining up to cash in on her popularity. “They know that there’s a way that YouTubers can connect with an audience that they can’t, even though they’ve got all the money in the world.” An example of her reach is that she has a deal with Unilever, marketing their skincare range to younger users.
Advertisers are said to be willing to pay £20,000 a month for banners on well-known vloggers’ YouTube channels, while £4,000 can change hands for each mention of their product in the video itself (it costs roughly the same for a shout-out on Twitter). Zoella doesn’t like to talk about how much she earns. But, based on the rates commanded by the most successful vloggers, her income from advertising alone could now be running at a rate of several hundred thousand pounds a year.
This opportunity, of course, brings with it conflicts. And it is these that we contemplate over the debris of lunch. I chide Zoella for not finishing her panino, and she promises to take it home in a doggy bag. (In fact, when we leave, it remains on the table, abandoned.)
The essence of Zoella’s Vulcan-like grip on her adherents is the existence of a trusting, even intimate, relationship between vlogger and vlogee. How, I ask, can she preserve this while taking money from advertisers to recommend their products?
Basically, she says, it’s a question of judgment. She aims to pick “partners” whose products she respects and thinks would make good content. “There isn’t any amount of money that could tempt me to promote something that I didn’t believe in,” she avers. “I’ve built this community of people that trust my opinion and I value that far more than a fat cheque.”
She claims to turn down 90 per cent of deals that she is offered. Some products, such as alcohol, are rejected outright. Her anxiety means she’s never been much of a drinker – “I hate the loss of self-control” and she gave up a few years ago. With cosmetics and clothes, she operates a simple rule of thumb. “If it’s something I wouldn’t wear or don’t like, I won’t consider it,” she says. Those she does accept are disclosed to users in a description box on the site.
As the lunch winds to a close, we talk about the opportunities Zoella has to build an offline career.
She is excited about her book, which touches on themes that are important to her such as anxiety, online relationships and cyberbullying, saying that talking about her own anxiety has actually helped her. “It’s good for me to do things outside my comfort zone and push myself.” As to other ideas, Zoella is open to suggestions. But she would quite like to have her own diffusion range of homeware.
What is most striking is her happy-go-lucky attitude to her own newfound celebrity. “I never expected any of this to happen so I’m just going to go with it and make the most of it,” she says. “Who knows what will happen in five years’ time.”
We rise to leave and I remember my promise. Would Zoella mind sending a message to one of her younger fans? She agrees to record a greeting on my iPhone (signatures being so yesterday) and I leave in a high humour.
It’s only when I view the recording on the train going home that I discover I had put my thumb over the microphone at the crucial moment of filming. The face smiles and the hands wave characteristically. But not a word of Zoella’s message can be heard.
Jonathan Ford is the FT’s chief leader writer
Illustration by Patrick Morgan
Letter in response to this article: