A YouTube Star Is All In, Professionally and Personally

The Netflix series “Haters Back Off” (which begins streaming on Friday) opens with the YouTube character Miranda Sings — an aggressively awful aspiring entertainer played by the writer and comedian Colleen Ballinger — looking into a camera and saying, “Hey, guys.” She’s seated, centered in the screen, with an overstuffed closet open behind her. It’s a note-perfect evocation of the handmade, homemade YouTube aesthetic by an artist who has forged a successful career from affectionately parodying the medium that has brought her fame.

On Sept. 30, Ms. Ballinger posted a video titled “Life Update” on one of her YouTube channels, PsychoSoprano, that looked much the same, minus the uglifying Miranda Sings makeup. It even began with the same word, “Hey.” But then, across an excruciating 11-plus minutes punctuated by sobs and deep sighs, the real-life Colleen Ballinger informed her fans that she and her husband, the YouTube personality Joshua Evans, were divorcing.

Released on a weekend when the divorce battle between Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt was playing out in classic Hollywood fashion, with the stars out of sight while proxies leaked competing stories, Ms. Ballinger’s intensely personal video was a vivid demonstration of how a performer handles setbacks in an age when fans demand intimate access to her life. And while the celebrity-fan relationship is radically different in the online world, some aspects of it haven’t changed all that much.

Ms. Ballinger began posting her satirical Miranda Sings music videos in 2008, and her main YouTube channel now has nearly seven million subscribers; her most successful Miranda Sings video, a parody of Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off,” has accumulated 54 million views in two years. (PsychoSoprano, with 4.5 million subscribers, is a personal channel for comedy and behind-the-scenes videos.) She married Mr. Evans, a singer whose JoshuaDTV channel has 1.4 million subscribers, in 2015, and in the share-everything spirit of YouTube the couple posted videos from every stage of their relationship — dating, engagement, wedding, married life. “Colleen and Joshua’s Wedding,” published on July 5, 2015, has been viewed 12 million times.

Colleen Ballinger on her YouTube channel PsychoSoprano.
Colleen Ballinger on her YouTube channel PsychoSoprano.

When performers with that kind of reach hit rocky patches in their lives, we’re accustomed to hearing complaints about intrusiveness and requests for privacy. In “Life Update” what we hear is anguish — and apology. Ms. Ballinger says four times that she’s sorry, and she says it not in a general sense, or to Mr. Evans, but directly to her fans. “You’ve lived with us at our house, it’s almost like you’re our kids and we have to tell you that we’re divorcing,” she said.

The notion of the YouTube audience as the children of divorce — a dependent, personally involved group whose feelings must be taken into account — may exasperate some people, but Ms. Ballinger doesn’t see it that way. Or at least she doesn’t say so. She takes her responsibility to her viewers seriously — her divorce is “something I need to share with you, obviously,” emphasis on the last word. She presents herself in time-honored guilty-parent fashion: “I’ve disappointed myself. I totally failed.”

At the same time — and this is the most interesting thing about “Life Update” — she acknowledges that while she and Mr. Evans shared generously, there were limits: “But you know, we chose to not share with you the bad parts of our relationship.”

This admission might sound like simple reticence or common sense, but it’s in conflict with a central tenet of YouTube celebrity. What she’s done is a modern take on traditional celebrity image management, presenting an airbrushed version of a turbulent life. (“We’ve always butted heads and we’ve always fought.”) The difference is that she has acted as her own press agent.

Ms. Ballinger may seem to contradict herself, but the contradictions are built into the YouTube model, in which revealing yourself attracts a larger audience and an ever-greater demand for revelation. That was true, on a less intense and personal level, for pre-internet celebrities. What’s new is how upfront Ms. Ballinger is about her mixed feelings. “I hate that I can’t control” the reaction, she says, even as she invites it. The imperative to share doesn’t take away the need for privacy, and she sums up her dilemma nicely when she wishes for the impossible — that she could send “Life Update” individually to her true fans, “so no one else would see it.”

One obvious way in which she tries to exercise some control over the fallout is by repeatedly extolling Mr. Evans (who posted his own contrite, amicable video, “Heartbroken,” later the same day). It’s an attempt to forestall what she claims would be unfair suspicions about him, though it’s also in her own interest — with the Netflix series about to have its debut — to avoid perceptions of ugliness in the relationship.

It’s fair to wonder whether, or to what extent, “Life Update” is another performance for Ms. Ballinger, and how authentic the choked sobs and determined nods are, just as we wondered in the past when stars in sunglasses held emotional news conferences. (She looks to her left throughout the video, as if a script might be positioned there.) Perhaps it’s an irrelevant distinction for the YouTube performer who thoroughly integrates life and work. One thing is clear: If it’s a performance, it’s a good one.

Toward the end of the video, Ms. Ballinger says she’s executing the modern equivalent of the old-time star’s retreat into seclusion. “I’m going to take a break from the internet for a little bit,” she says. But it’s hard to break up with YouTube, even when you’ve moved up to a full-fledged Netflix series that fleshes out your online character’s back story.

On Sunday a new video appeared on PsychoSoprano titled “An Amazing Kitten Surprise!,” documenting her joy when her sister and mother present her with a cuddly feline companion. No mention is made of Mr. Evans (but there’s a plug for “Haters Back Off”). Having shared dating, engagement, wedding and divorce, Ms. Ballinger — whatever qualms she might have — is ready to share her rebound.

A YouTube Star Is All In, Professionally and Personally

A YouTube Star Is All In, Professionally and Personally