When breaking up is a public affair

Online stars build millions of followers by opening up their lives, including relationships, to fans. But sometimes when the romance ends, a nightmare begins.

Joan E. Solsman Former Senior Reporter
Joan E. Solsman was CNET's senior media reporter, covering the intersection of entertainment and technology. She's reported from locations spanning from Disneyland to Serbian refugee camps, and she previously wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal. She bikes to get almost everywhere and has been doored only once.
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Joan E. Solsman
6 min read

Editors' Note, June 6, 2018: Earlier this week, YouTube personalities Liza Koshy and David Dobrik broke up publicly on Dobrik's channel. Originally published in June 2017, this story looks at what some of these celebs go through when they share too much with their fans.

Charles Trippy has posted a daily video about his life on YouTube, uninterrupted, for more than eight years. He holds a Guinness World Record for it. The date he started video blogging, or vlogging, is tattooed on his arm.

Starting as a 24-year-old, he invited his now 1.5 million subscribers to watch him date and get married, contend with a cancer diagnosis, and undergo two brain surgeries. Through it all, he never wanted to quit -- until his divorce.

Charles Trippy plays bass in the band We The Kings
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Charles Trippy plays bass in the band We The Kings

Charles Trippy, bassist in the band We The Kings, has posted a vlog on YouTube daily for almost 3,000 days. 

Getty Images

"We went through a tremendous amount of hate," Trippy said. He witnessed his followers lash out at the woman who would later become his second wife, or moonlight as detectives to investigate and speculate about the backstory to the breakup, "digging and digging and digging, just trying to find something wrong."

"It was a shock that people would do that kind of thing," he said.

Call it the downside of authenticity. Online video stars on sites such as YouTube can build millions of followers, turning videos about their lives into full-fledged careers. But digital stars like these often start young, in their teens or early 20s, and they tend to build their fanbase by being open and accessible. That "realness" usually means vloggers reap the joys of early romance with their fans, only to experience followers turning on them or their loved ones when a relationship ends.

Such fan fixation can sometimes spill over into dangerous obsession. In late January, a follower of YouTubers Gavin Free and Megan Turney drove 11 hours from Albuquerque, New Mexico, to the couple's home in Austin, Texas. He reached their tree-lined block at 3:40 a.m., walked to the back of their house and shot out a glass door so he could enter, Austin police said. After the pair hid in a closet and called 911, officers exchanged fire with the fan, killing him. Court documents suggest he was infatuated and angry with the online stars.

Fans' extreme loyalty to internet celebrities can seem mystifying.

When Logan Paul, with nearly 17 million YouTube subscribers, posted a video in January showing a suicide victim, public backlash was fast and ferocious — except among his young audience. For weeks, Paul's followers continued to champion him to the point that even Paul told them to stop.

"For my fans who are defending my actions, please don't," he says in a video. "They do not deserve to be defended."

Starting Wednesday, many of those followers will descend upon Anaheim, California, to the internet's annual meet-and-greet blowout, VidCon, which last year drew 25,000 fans. To outsiders, the conference can be puzzling. My husband and our infant daughter once got caught up in a fan maelstrom over an internet-famous dog at a Hilton Starbucks, swept into a flash flood of squealing teenagers snapping selfies.

The breakup video on YouTube can be baffling for outsiders, too: Why on earth would people put themselves through this? But for the stars, fans run amok with their personal lives can make going public preferable to privacy.

The lows

YouTuber Andrea Russett poses while a fan shoots a selfie
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YouTuber Andrea Russett poses while a fan shoots a selfie

Andrea Russett, posing with a selfie-shooting fan, has 2.8 million subscribers to her YouTube channel. 


Fan obsessions with celebrity love lives aren't new, but the stakes and audience expectations are heightened for online celebrities, said Meridith Valiando Rojas, the CEO of DigiTour Media. The company organizes events presenting online stars to real-life crowds of screaming fans, putting her in a front-row seat for fan fervor.

A traditional celebrity might rise to prominence for a movie role, hit song or TV show, but for the online star, "your personality and your life are the content," she said. "The expectations will be different."

Younger influencers, excited and proud of their first boyfriend or girlfriend, don't think about the relationship as something they should hide, according to Valiando Rojas. Once an online star's relationship goes public, "I don't want to say you're doomed, but you're a hashtag at that point," she said.

Andrea Russett, a YouTuber with 2.8 million subscribers who began posting videos at 13 years old, chronicled the ups and downs of her romance with fellow YouTuber Kian Lawley, their drama playing out in front of both their fanbases.

"I don't think I knew any better," she said, about publicizing her 2013-2014 relationship. "Everything was public, from the good moments to the bad moments. When we were fighting, we were tweeting."

To followers, the pair became more than a real-life girlfriend and boyfriend. They were favorite characters who owed fans a happy ending. With the creator-fanbase relationship rooted in sharing her life, Russett felt her followers deserved details as the romance progressed.

But as the relationship turned sour, Russett was flooded with fan speculation and judgment. When the couple broke up, she realized she was stuck with an online record of their partnership, one that fueled fans' "out of control" expectations. One legion of followers would agitate over how the pair were destined to be together, while another camp accused her of never deserving him, sometimes confronting Russett in person.

"You can't do anything about it, unless you go super public, but then people expect you to keep sharing more," she said. "There's no winning."

YouTuber Joey Graceffa stands in front of a theater screening YouTube Red original "Escape the Night"
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YouTuber Joey Graceffa stands in front of a theater screening YouTube Red original "Escape the Night"

YouTuber Joey Graceffa, who stars in a subscription-only YouTube Red original "Escape the Night," kept his relationship out of the public eye for a year. 


The control

Even digital influencers who err on the side of caution find followers taking control of their personal lives.

"My fans are like FBI or CIA agents," said Joey Graceffa, a YouTuber with 7.8 million subscribers. By scouring Graceffa's social media accounts, the people he follows and unfollows, and cameos in his videos, some of his fans already knew he and his boyfriend had dated, broken up, and reunited -- all before Graceffa ever officially introduced his boyfriend to his audience at all.

Anthony Padilla attempted to manage fan involvement in his relationship by keeping anything negative out of the public eye. Padilla began vlogging about his relationship in 2013 as a side project to Smosh, a YouTube comedy powerhouse with 22.7 million channel subscribers. The vlog included his girlfriend, who later became his fiancee, who later became his ex.

"If you don't show the bad sides of the relationship on camera, when you do break up ... people feel betrayed or confused," he said, noting he and his girlfriend also dealt with backlash. "They're like, 'Why? You had the perfect relationship.'"

(Padilla also left Smosh last week after 11 years. The announcement came through a different sort of breakup video.)

Bailey and Brooklyn McKnight branched off into their own teen-coming-of-age vlog channel in 2013
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Bailey and Brooklyn McKnight branched off into their own teen-coming-of-age vlog channel in 2013

Bailey and Brooklyn McKnight branched off into their own teen-coming-of-age vlog channel in 2013.

Jason Kempin/Getty

The rules

As stars move forward after a drama, they find themselves recalibrating where to draw the line.

"You have to think of the worst thing that can happen before it happens" as a condition before taking a relationship public, Russett said. Echoing separate advice from Graceffa, she recommended waiting at least six months to a year before introducing a new partner to fans, once the relationship is more certain to last.

"Before you really dive into social media, sit down and think about boundaries," she said. "I wish somebody would have taught me that."

A second generation of online video personalities, and their parents, have the benefit of learning the lessons from the first wave of YouTubers.

Brooklyn and Bailey McKnight have been a presence on YouTube since they were nine years old, with the backs of their heads modeling braids and up-dos on their mom's hair-tutorial channel Cute Girls Hairstyles, with 5.2 million subscribers. Now teens with their own channel, the twins share coming-of-age aspects of their lives, like their first kisses.

Their father, Shaun McKnight, said the twins have a "three Ps" rule whenever they're considering what's appropriate to vlog. "If you wouldn't say it in front of your parents, pastor and principal, then don't put it out there," he said.

Charles Trippy with his wife, Allie Wesenberg
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Charles Trippy with his wife, Allie Wesenberg

Trippy with his wife, Allie Wesenberg

Desiree Navarro/Getty

Trippy, the vlogger who has posted a video for nearly 3,000 days straight, said that despite the outcry around his divorce, his experience has yielded rewarding highs, as dramatic as people confessing that watching his cancer survival gave them strength that may have saved their own lives. Still, he imparted a lesson: "You don't have share everything just because other people have."

And a lesson for fans who think they know the ins-and-outs of their stars' personal lives? Even though his second wife was the target of abuse, some don't appreciate that she convinced him to keep vlogging in spite of the backlash.  

"I got to a point where ... I thought to myself 'Fuck it, just quit.' But my current wife, she wouldn't let me," he said. "A lot of people think she came in as a home wrecker. In truth, she saved the videos."

This piece was originally published June 21, 2017, under the headline "For YouTube stars, breaking up is hard -- and epic -- to do." It has been updated with information on a fan's attack on YouTubers Gavin Free and Megan Turney, and Logan Paul.

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