Once upon a time, you needed an empire behind you to become a celebrity. You needed an agent, contracts and record deals, movie studios lining up to cast you in their films. You needed auditions and botox, a PR manager and a stylist. You needed radio stations to play your tunes and TV sets tuned into your face.
Now, all you need is a free YouTube account, a webcam, and something interesting to say. In the past four years a whole generation of YouTubers has emerged on the scene, creating their own brand of celebrity with their content. Some of them have parlayed such web-fame to larger stardom (see: Justin Bieber, Bo Burnham). But others have stayed small, making a healthy living for themselves as minor members of the glitterati.
They’re the micro celebrities of YouTube, and this is one of their stories.
Wendy Nguyen used to be a business manager at Wells Fargo. Her boyfriend, James Lee *, was a software engineer. They hated their jobs, and decided to quit together to pursue something better. Wendy wanted to be an actress, and James wanted to be a film director.
They initially tried the traditional methods: Wendy got an agent and started auditioning for commercials, James applied –and got accepted — to USC film school. But in the middle of going for gold the boring way, they started a fashion channel in their shared bedroom. James filmed Wendy modeling different ways to pair outfits, practice for him as a filmmaker and her as an actress.
I think everyone can guess the next step in this YouTube career trajectory. Wendy and James had one hit video, which they propelled into making a name — and a mini-business — for themselves. Their video 25 Ways to Wear a Scarf went big in the Southern Hemisphere when Marie Claire Brazil reposted it. A few months later as winter approached in the Northern Hemisphere, it went viral once again, this time through the other half of the world. At this point it has had almost 20 million views.
YouTube multi-channel network StyleHaul came across their station and invited them on as early employees. They would continue filming their channel for the StyleHaul brand and get a paycheck for doing so. Thus launched James and Wendy’s foray into the micro-entrepreneurial world of mini YouTube celebrities.
“It was exciting, this new frontier. Silicon Valley wants to take over Hollywood,” James says. “Are we well positioned to be there when it happens?” At that point, James decided to turn down film school and William Morris — one of the biggest talent agencies in Hollywood — signed them.
“There’s a lot of people who are able to be very entrepreneurial about their film and photography process,” James says. “There’s a lot of opportunities for people to explore, to grow out and create a set of businesses that haven’t really existed before.”
James and Wendy wanted to challenge themselves cinematically, to push forward to see how much more they could add to the show. They experimented with techniques for presenting fashion topics, like creating a stop motion narrative video of a flat that wants to become a heel. They did themed episodes or pairing tutorials, where Wendy would talk directly into the camera explaining why she put two items together in an outfit.
YouTube acting is all about breaking that fourth wall and talking directly into the camera. “It creates a stronger bond. You can interact with a modern YouTube celebrity, you can tweet them or Instagram with them or message them directly or post on their Facebook,” James says. “They feel right there, directly in reach.” Wendy played up her personality to create a stronger bond with her fans.
Their business was small and modest in the beginning. But eventually they parlayed a YouTube fan base into a fashion blog — Wendy’s Lookbook. With James photographing and Wendy modeling, they became a two-man brand building team. When it came time to re-up their contract with StyleHaul, James and Wendy said no and struck out on their own.
“Everyone knows there’s some kind of window and shelf life on YouTube, and no one knows when that’s going to close for them,” James says. Because of that, a lot of YouTube celebrities try to branch off their channel and create something more stable, whether that’s merchandise, a website, or other means of revenue.
Wendy and James are doing exactly that. By building a fashion blog and launching a digital magazine to complement their channel, they are trying to get the advertising dollars. “If you look at luxury fashion there aren’t that many TV commercials. They’re much more focused on print,” James says.
Now, they get 2.75 million page views on their blog a month and 2 million page views on their YouTube channel. They fly around the country so Wendy can speak on panels and attend events, and they make enough money that they’re in the process of hiring staff to support the venture. Wendy gets recognized three or four times a week on the street. Not nearly as much as a Jennifer Aniston, but it’s enough fans for the couple to make a living off.
[Image via: Wendy's Lookbook]
*Lee is not James’ real last name. However, Wendy’s fans know him only as “Mystery Man,” and Lee does not want to spoil that anonymity.