When fashion, beauty, and lifestyle vlogger Zoe Sugg was 11 years old, she was an extra in “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.”
Earlier this month, Sugg launched into literary notoriety right past “Harry Potter” author J.K. Rowling. Her book, “Girl Online,” sold more than 78,000 copies in its first week on shelves, besting Rowling, Dan Brown (“The Da Vinci Code”) and even E.L. James (“Fifty Shades of Grey”) for the honor of fastest-selling British debut novel ever.
But just as quickly, fans turned on Sugg once news broke the YouTube star, now 24, hadn’t actually written “Girl Online,” which was described as a modern “Notting Hill” for teenagers. Rather, it was ghostwritten by YA novelist Siobhan Curham.
This was a problem.
After Sugg’s publisher, Penguin, confirmed she hadn’t written the book, Sugg was deluged with messages. Her fans were disappointed. Some called her a fraud. After all, the appeal of Sugg and the crux of her YouTube stardom — she has more than 6.7 million subscribers — lies in the premise that she is an organic, self-made celebrity.
“I’m taking a few days out and off the internet because it’s clouding up my brain. Thanks for understanding,” she tweeted.
Since she began posting YouTube videos in 2009, Sugg, who vlogs under the name Zoella, has racked up fans with her lifestyle videos. She posts hair and makeup tutorials and details about her life. She’s pretty, peppy, she doesn’t drink or do drugs, and teenage girls in Britain adore her. Earlier this year she won a Teen Choice Award this year in the Fashion/Beauty Web Star category, beating out Michelle Phan.
So why was the news she didn’t write her novel entirely on her own so jarring?
“Maybe it’s because people think that either she or her publishers have been manipulative and cynical,” said the BBC’s Will Gompertz. “But if that’s the case, they join a very long line of artists who claim to do work that others have actually done on their behalf, from the baroque master Rubens to the rap band Milli Vanilli. I wonder if the problem is with us and not the artist and his or her collaborator. Maybe we are the fakes. We’re happy to love the work if we think it’s by the person we admire, but if it proves not to be, then we suddenly dismiss it. … Ever since the Renaissance, we’ve lived in an age of the individual, a philosophical change that’s become an obsession nowadays. Artists, for example, who can’t even paint ask their mates to do so and call themselves ‘creative directors.'”
Okay, so Sugg didn’t write her book so much as she “creatively directed” it. Sugg thanked Curham in the acknowledgements, but the name on the jacket is Sugg’s and Sugg’s alone, which seems all the more disingenuous if Curham worked like mad to write an 80,000-word novel in six weeks, a claim she made on her blog in August. Sugg’s deal with Penguin is for two books. No word on whether the house is sticking with Penguin for the sequel.
Many touted the fact celebrities using ghostwriters for their novels has become de rigueur in the publishing world — an accepted practice and open secret. Come on, does anyone think the Kardashians really wrote “Dollhouse?” But the standards are a little different for YouTube stars compared with traditional celebrities such as Lauren Conrad or Snooki Polizzi.
There’s fake reality, and there’s real reality, which is the YouTube star’s stock in trade.
People were disappointed in Sugg because her entire brand revolves around her life and the bits and pieces she elects to broadcast to the world. She’s been very honest about her battles with anxiety and body image and cultivated a reputation for openness, which makes it all the more explosive when some deceit or collusion is revealed.
In August, Variety reported the results of a survey by celebrity brand strategist Jeetendr Sehdev. Sehdev found YouTube stars are more popular among American teens than traditional mainstream celebrities.
“If YouTube stars are swallowed by Hollywood, they are in danger of becoming less authentic versions of themselves, and teenagers will be able to pick up on that,” Sehdev said. “That could take away the one thing that makes YouTube stars so appealing.”
This is the tension that comes with a certain level of success with YouTube stars. They attract huge audiences based on the fact that their fans relate to them as real people. They’re not detached from the world in the same way as the biggest movie stars, but they are helped by the invisible hand of companies such as Big Frame, which represents Tyler Oakley or, in Sugg’s case, Daily Mix.
Daily Mix is a YouTube channel aimed at the 13-to-24 crowd. AwesomenessTV, a teen YouTube network that bought Big Frame this year, has a deal with Nickelodeon. It plans to use its stars as a “farm team” for television, the New York Times reported. That’s not a huge surprise — Awesomeness was gobbled up by Dreamworks for $33 million last year, and then Dreamworks sold a 25 percent stake in the company to Hearst this month for more than $80 million.
YouTube stars in particular are the ultimate embodiment of “Stars — They’re just like us!”
In her vlogs, Sugg talks about her relationship with Alfie Deyes, another Daily Mix star. They moved in together in October, they upload dispatches from bed and their relationship has even spawned a celebrity portmanteau: “Zalfie.” Unlike say, Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson, there’s little doubt about whether their relationship is actually real or a studio-manipulated performance used to promote or, worse yet, hide something. No Rock Hudsons here.
Her brother, Joe Sugg, and her best friend Louise are YouTube stars as well. Zoella’s universe is the Internet. Like her cohorts, Sugg has kept mum about how much money she makes as a vlogger, especially from advertising and endorsements. She told the Financial Times she turns down 99 percent of the deals she’s offered.
“If it’s something I wouldn’t wear or don’t like, I won’t consider it,” Sugg said. Britain’s Express estimated her yearly income to be more than $450,000. FT estimated her income from advertising was “several hundred thousand pounds a year.”