Zoe Sugg, known to her fans as Zoella, was one of the media phenomena of 2014 and has recently been listed in the new media section of Debrett’s list of the 500 most influential people in Britain.
Unhappy in her job and suffering from panic attacks, Zoe distracted herself by setting up a beauty and fashion blog called Zoella. She soon began creating accompanying videos for YouTube. Sitting in her bedroom and speaking directly to the camera, she offered young girls advice about the best blushers, techniques for achieving the perfect high ponytail and showed her hauls from her shopping trips in Topshop and Primark. Her down-to-earth approach and near-perfect appearance were a winning combination.
She is now, arguably, the most successful of the new brand of celebrities: ‘Youtubers’. Her YouTube channel has over seven million subscribers and reportedly earns her up to £20,000 a month in ad revenue. Thousands of screaming fans attend her ‘meet ups’. She has a beauty range in Superdrug, a weekly Radio 1 show and a two-book deal with Penguin. Her debut novel, the ghost-written title Girl Online, broke the record for the highest first-week sales when it was released in November 2014. She has also been awarded the Radio 1 Teen Choice Award for Best British Vlogger for two years in a row. Perhaps most surprisingly of all, she appeared in Bob Geldof’s Band Aid 30 single alongside her brother and her boyfriend, both fellow vloggers and none of them singers.
Since becoming a bedroom superstar, her blog posts have become both more superficial and more serious. She flits between playing with her guinea pigs, Pippin and Percy, and sharing empowering messages like: ‘Just say yes’, which has become her mantra. In 2012 she set up a second YouTube channel on which she could share more of this personal content. It includes videos of her snuggled up in bed with her boyfriend Alfie, goofing around with her friends and even some videos in which she spoke about her struggle with anxiety. In one video she sits with unbrushed hair and undisguised spots, crying. “I’m not too sure why I’m filming this,” she says, “I think maybe because this is part of my day and I want you guys to know that I’m a real person and I’m not perfect and my life isn’t perfect.”
Increasingly, her videos deal with these deeper, more personal themes. As a sufferer of anxiety and panic attacks, she is open about her experiences and discusses how to recognise panic attacks and effectively deal with them. The comments on her original 2011 blog post about panic attacks are overwhelmingly positive, with girls saying Zoe’s post has reassured and helped them deal with their own anxieties. This led her to start a series of videos with fellow blogger Louise Watson, AKA Sprinkle of Glitter, called ‘ChummyChatter’. In these posts the two girls discuss a range of more sensitive topics such as eating disorders, relationships, boundaries and depression. All of this has allowed the petite 24-year-old from Brighton to become the digital ambassador for the mental health organisation MIND.
Whether she is talking about lipgloss or life’s ups and downs, thousands of tweenage girls hang off Zoella’s every word. She speaks to them as though she were a cute, savvy, beautiful older sister who can offer them advice on everything that seems to matter in life. So, here comes the inevitable question: is Zoella a good role model?
She’s sweet, safe and sometimes saccharine. She seems somehow innocent; her anxiety prevents her from going out clubbing and so she’s unlikely to be caught tumbling out of a taxi in a state of disrepair. Telegraph writer Daisy Buchanan has even describes her as the ‘anti-Miley’ – her harmless videos about makeup, hairstyles and guinea pigs are a certainly far cry from the twerking, drunken antics of other celebrities of her age. She’s also clearly a talented entrepreneur who had single-handedly developed a highly successful brand.
However, as a woman in the media spotlight it seems impossible for her to avoid criticism. She’s been called vain, materialistic and ungrateful. Various newspaper columnists have complained that they’d rather their daughters were not so obsessed with a girl who encourages them to spend their time worrying about the perfect concealer. There is indeed a certain irony to her advice. She has repeatedly told the press that the most important piece of advice that she can offer to her followers is to worry less about their appearances, and yet she continues to deliver tutorials on how to look better, all the while looking infuriatingly perfect.
The argument that Zoe never asked to be a role model simply won’t cut it. Love her or not, we certainly all need to get savvy about the messages floating around in the seemingly harmless corners of cyberspace. And we need to do it before we all start ombré-ing our hair and adopting guinea pigs.
Rachel Smith wrote this article in conjunction with her sister, Emily Thorpe: an administrator at a drama centre in London, where she attends St Peter’s Harold Wood. Together, they share a love of cheese, living-room discos and bargain hunting.