“If you asked me 10 years ago, I would have said, ‘Yes, of course.’ That was my dream, to be on Broadway. But now I don’t think I would,” Colleen Ballinger (rhymes with Jolene) told IndieWire in a recent interview. “I love what I’m doing so much.”
What she’s doing is playing Miranda Sings, a character she created for her wildly popular YouTube channel, the first of its kind to make the jump to Netflix with “Haters Back Off,” which explores Miranda’s home life. It follows Miranda on her quest for Internet stardom, shrieking out “Defying Gravity” and uploading it with the title “My Fist Video,” (typo included). The only problem is, she can’t sing (though Ballinger can, and well.) She howls and mewls flatly and loudly, sporting her signature shade of glossy red lipstick far beyond the contours of her lips. The effect is a clownish one, and it’s entirely intentional.
Ballinger has been performing as Miranda since 2007, slogging away in comedy club basements and peddling fliers to fill seats. “That taught me a really good work ethic and dedication,” she said, wearing a sensible amount of lipstick. “I was working around the clock for literally nothing. I never expected it to blow up and become anything, I was doing it for fun. When the viral video happened, I didn’t have high expectations of anything.”
How could she have predicted the upwards of 7 million fans subscribed to her YouTube page, a New York Times bestselling book, and a Netflix series a decade later? Though Miranda was initially a parody and critique of Internet culture and “the me generation,” Ballinger has changed her tune in the wake of her success. “I started out poking fun at this YouTube thing. It didn’t make any sense to me at the time. I couldn’t comprehend why someone would film themselves alone in their bedroom and put it online. I thought that was so bizarre,” said Ballinger. “Now I can’t imagine not putting my life online and talking to a camera alone in my bedroom; it’s become my life.”
Unlike traditional YouTube fare, much of Ballinger’s success is due to the fact she plays a character, though she does vlog as herself on Miranda’s sister channel, PsychoSoprano. That made Miranda ripe for crossover into long-form content, which is why Netflix jumped at the chance to make “Haters Back Off.” Ballinger writes bits for her live show, but her comedy is heavily improv-based (she is a massive Christopher Guest fan.) Though she had fleshed out Miranda’s world in her mind, after years of working alone, Ballinger was apprehensive about working with a writing team.
“For me, Miranda has always been a much deeper character than the three-minute videos I put online,” she said, adding that she caters her YouTube videos to her fans, reading the comments and writing for whatever might be trending that day. “With ‘Haters Back Off,’ I’m creating something that I want to make, and I’m not focused on, ‘Is this gonna trend, is this gonna be popular?’ I’m just focused on telling the story.”
Ballinger wrote the pilot with her brother, Chris Ballinger, and shopped it around to networks. They were thrilled when their top choice went for it, and were pleasantly surprised Netflix gave them a huge amount of creative control. “They just wanted to make sure we were happy and that my creative vision was coming to fruition. They’re incredibly collaborative,” said Ballinger. As the first traditional YouTube star to ink a Netflix deal, (“Broad City” put their first sketches on YouTube, but certainly weren’t “YouTubers.”), Ballinger has witnessed firsthand Hollywood’s shifting attitudes toward digital influencers.
“I used to get scoffed at when I went into meetings. People would be like, ‘Maybe you can be an extra.’ They’re starting to embrace digital stars a little more, but there’s still a stigma,” she said. Ballinger sees the unique fan connection as a crucial reason for Hollywood to take note. “There’s power behind numbers. We’re opening up our lives in a certain way that people have wanted from celebrities for so long. Our fans feel that much more connected to us because they feel like our friend and not just a fan,” said the comedian.
Though the Netflix deal is exciting, Ballinger has no plans to slow down with her YouTube videos. “I’ll always be on YouTube. That’s my home and that’s my family. I definitely don’t think of it as moving on or getting bigger, it’s just expanding Miranda’s world.”
“Haters Back Off” is streaming now on Netflix.