E lle Mills’s camera was perched on its flexible tripod legs recording her every move from a nearby table. Sharpie in hand, she drew a copy of one of her own purposely misspelled tattoos on a young fan’s arm: “no ragrets.”
Mills is famous on YouTube. But to the fan being fake-tattooed, and the dozens of others there to meet her at Playlist Live, a fan convention in New Jersey, she is just plain famous.
Five years ago, Mills might have been waiting in a similar line. But now, having just turned 20, she headlines events like this one with her former idols.
“I’ve been on the other side,” Mills said. “I’ve been the fan girl. But I am the person now.”
Hidden behind a tablecloth was Mills’s half-eaten lunch. She’d finish her meal later, exhausted in her hotel room. Hours before, she sat in that same room staring at her computer, putting the final touches on a video.
At the event, Mills picked up her camera to show off her handiwork. She stared directly into the lens. “Kids,” she said. “Don’t get dumb tattoos.”
Mills, by the way, has four dumb tattoos. The origin stories of two of them were documented on YouTube. In one, she and her brother each get an Instagram comment from their mother permanently inked on their thighs.
“SURPRISING OUR MOM WITH DUMB MATCHING TATTOOS” has 1.8 million views.
The titles on Mills’s channel are reminiscent of other prank videos on YouTube: “I LEGALLY MARRIED MY SISTER’S BOYFRIEND.” “I THREW MYSELF A GRADUATION CEREMONY.” And like many others on the platform, she has a set, familiar introduction to each of her videos: “Hi. I’m Elle Mills.”
But her content is not like anything other YouTubers make.
She is YouTube’s version of an auteur — one who has learned from watching the previous generation of online stars. She is both the Ferris Bueller and John Hughes of her own world: Each video feels like an entire movie, written, directed, edited and marketed by and starring Mills. Taken together, the videos also tell a coming-of-age story, one that parallels her own life.
The YouTube version of Mills is much like the real one, according to her friends. Both are spontaneous, funny and just a bit awkward. But Mills is aware that she has to be “on” when she meets her fans — an authentic yet heightened version of her persona.
For her, meet-and-greets are a form of roulette. Some approach with a smile and easy request. Others hesitate with tears and visibly shaking hands.
One girl, who began her encounter with a joke, suddenly spilled out a story about how she hasn’t yet come out as gay to her family. “No, no, you’re doing good,” Mills reassured the crying ones.
A regular at her meet-and-greets berated her for ignoring direct messages on social media. Mills suspected that another fan was trying to scam her with a tragic tale. In between difficult or emotional encounters, Mills spins in a circle, as if to reset herself for the next person.
Mills does like meeting her followers. Most of them. But a few want more from her than she is able to give.
Finally, after 2
“Let’s go,” Mills said, her face tired and blank. I asked how she was feeling, but her answer was not a complete sentence. Though we were walking next to each other, her mind was somewhere else.
Mills got her first camera, small and pink, at age 8.
“ ‘I want to be famous.’ She’d always say that,” her mom, Janette Prejola, said. “She wanted to perform in front of everybody.”
Mills’s dreams came true, but at a price.
The dark secret of online fame is that it eats you up and burns you out. Once she became YouTube’s next big thing, the weight of living up to that bore down on her.
As Mills walked away from the event in New Jersey, she could feel it happening again.
“That was not a good meet-and-greet,” she confessed. “It felt like I was on autopilot.”
Mills and I were sitting in her hotel room as her friends texted to see if everything was okay. Some of them, she admitted, warned her not to go to this convention.
“I say yes because I forget this feeling,” Mills said.
After graduating from high school, Mills decided to put all of her effort into becoming a famous YouTuber. This time last year, she had about 500,000 subscribers. She celebrated that relatively modest accomplishment by building a parade float for herself.
But everything changed in November 2017, when she decided to come out as bisexual.
Coming-out videos are part of an established YouTube genre in which creators often mark major life milestones — marriage, divorce, pregnancy, deaths — using confessional titles.
Mills’s video was different. “COMING OUT (ELLE MILLS STYLE)” was “not a love story,” she told her audience. But she treated her self-discovery with the emotional heft of the best romantic comedy.