Elle 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’ 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 1/2 hours on her feet, locked in constant conversation, Playlist Live is over.
“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’ 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 OK. 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’ 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.
“I can tell when someone is doing something different but also powerfully good.”
YouTube personality Hank Green on Mills’s coming-out video
Mills showed the hugs and joy from her friends after she revealed to each of them a picture – and therefore, the gender – of her crush. She filmed herself crying, three days before telling her family, anxious about how they would respond. Mills went big for the moment itself: She and her friends covered the garage of the home she shared with her mother and brother in rainbow wrapping paper.
Mills stood at the end of her driveway in Ottawa, nervously watching as her mom took in the display.
“I accept you for who you are. You know that, right? I asked you so many times,” Prejola cried. They hugged.
The video went viral, and Mills’ life changed in an instant. Famed YouTuber Casey Neistat called her content “brilliant.” (In YouTube land, this is like Meryl Streep complimenting your acting.)
Hank Green, one of the original generation of YouTube celebrities, said that the video was the first time he had seen her work, and it made him cry.
“I can tell when someone is doing something different but also powerfully good,” he said.
Suddenly, the fans who would once tell Mills that they thought her content was funny were talking about how the video made them emotional, or how she helped them come out. And there were many more admirers of her work: In a year, she gained a million more subscribers, each waiting to see what she will do next.
And that was what Mills wanted. She was overjoyed. But she quickly began to feel something else: an intense pressure.
Once a week, she went through the entire process of making a video, from creation to posting on the platform. By the time she finished one, the cycle began again.
In January, she took a three-week break, emerging at the end of the month with the video “Dear Viewer.”
“The best way I can describe what I’m going through right now is like going through kindergarten to college in one night,” Mills said in the video, “but still being expected to get straight A’s, and not letting anyone down.”
But it ended on a happy note: Mills was back, better and ready to keep going. “I’ve got a bunch of fun stuff planned for us,” she told her viewers. “Are you ready?”
The conclusion wasn’t entirely honest. “I’m a sucker for happy endings,” she said months later.
What Mills was going through privately couldn’t be contained in a four-minute message. The pressure continued to build, even as she lived publicly as a successful YouTuber riding the wave of fame. She announced her first tour; she became a mainstay at fan conventions.
Then, in May, Mills posted “Burnt Out At 19.”
Mills had her first panic attack in the spring, on the second stop of her tour. She went to the Shorty Awards, which honor the best of social media, but cried in the bathroom of her hotel.
The pressure – the unrelenting travel, the need to outdo herself, the constant stream of content – was too much.
“I couldn’t do it anymore,” Mills said. She came back from the Shortys and left days later for Playlist Live in Orlando. Playlist was the breaking point.
The meetup drained her. She felt like she felt after New Jersey. To cope, Mills said, “I would drink, a lot.” She wanted to feel something different. “Throughout the month,” Mills said, “I had suicidal thoughts.” She didn’t tell anyone. She still hasn’t told most.
When she returned home from Orlando, she didn’t get better. She posted a raw, profanity-laden video of herself to her Twitter account.
“It’s not normal for a person to have all this f—ing power, all this f—ing pressure,” she said into the camera.
“This is all I’ve ever wanted,” she said. So why was she so unhappy?
That night, she locked herself in her room with her darkest thoughts.
“I saw the tweet,” her mother said. “It broke my heart. She’d always say she was just busy.”
Everyone called Mills. “My friends were texting, ‘If you don’t answer me I’m coming down right now,’ ” she said.
Mills finished “Burnt Out At 19” weeks after that night. The first time she watched the final version of the deeply personal video was at a festival for online creators, displayed on a screen to an audience of hundreds of people.
As we sat in her room in Ottawa, she put the final touches on the vlog of her time the week prior at the fan convention. She was still in the same clothes as the day before; she had stayed up all night editing.
The vlog walked her fans through what it’s like to be a creator at an event like that – something she had never shown them.
“I then wrapped up my day with a meet-and-greet,” Mills narrated on-screen. “And what a perfect way to end my day.”
I looked at Mills. “This is a happy video,” she said. “People need to know what happened, not how I was feeling.”
“I’ve been on the other side. I’ve been the fan girl. But I am the person now.”
She’s better than she was in April, but not cured. In the weeks after her breakdown, she sought counseling started working out and trying to take better care of herself. She updated her fans on her mental health last month. With her manager’s help, her schedule has become more reasonable. Tours are out for the time being. She’s more selective about meet-and-greets. She abandoned her grueling schedule of posting weekly videos. And she’s beginning to think about the future.
In October 2018, Mills will launch a page on Patreon, a membership site for online creators that allows her fans to pay her to support her work. Because she became famous so quickly, her popularity outpaced her knowledge of how to make a living as a YouTuber. Some of her videos earn her revenue through ads and sponsorships; on others, she makes nothing.
“I’m thinking in the next year or two, I need something bigger in the works. I need it or else I feel stuck,” she said. “I don’t want to be only a YouTuber for the rest of my life.”
But for now, it was time to upload.
“This is what I mean,” Mills said as looked over the footage. “I forget.” After the meet-and-greet, Mills had decided that New Jersey would be her last Playlist Live appearance. The reasons were starting to slip from her grasp.
“I see this footage, and I think about how I got a free flight to New York to spend time with my friends. I don’t remember the bad parts.”
She posted the vlog on her second, smaller channel, the one devoted to a more diary-style form of videos. It’s another way of coping with the pressure: Vlogs are a little less demanding than her other productions.
Soon after the video went live, Mills started to look at the comments about it on social media. One tweet in particular caught her eye.
“Elle Mills made Playlist Live look so fun.”