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Zoella Sugg, online queen: followed by millions but ‘cripplingly shy’

The internet has brought a great many things into this world, from social networking, email and memes to online dating and even arguably revolution. It has also given us Zoella. Zoella, or Zoe Sugg as she is known offline, is one of a new breed of online celebrities, an expanding group of video bloggers – or vloggers as they are more formally known – who, thanks to their YouTube channels, have developed a worldwide following to rival that of Beyoncé or even Taylor Swift.

The 24-year-old, who has emerged at the head of the pack (she was recently described by Vogue as the queen of the internet), has had almost 307m views of her intimate videos dispensing beauty and life advice; 6.6 million people subscribe to her channel. And now, her first book, Girl Online, the fictional tale of a blogger, has become the fastest selling debut novel ever – selling 78,000 copies in its first week and eclipsing the debuts of JK Rowling and EL James.

Sugg is a phenomenon who, for some, has come from nowhere. But to a younger generation aged between 11 and 18, many of whom have avidly devoured videos produced by Sugg and her fellow bedroom vloggers for the past five years, the world is simply catching up.

Certainly she is now almost unavoidable, be it as the face of YouTube adverts, singing in the Band Aid 30 supergroup or interviewed in publications from Vogue to the Financial Times.

YouTube fashion and beauty blogger Zoella has sent her teen fans into a frenzy at signings of her debut novel.
Photograph: Bluewater/Rex Features

Just how a fashion student from a small village in Wiltshire has come to define the zeitgeist is a testament to the DIY spirit that online platforms such as YouTube promote. The daughter of a property developer father and a beautician mother, Sugg studied at Corsham school, a visual arts college in Wiltshire, and left with three As in art, photography and textiles. She decided to forgo university in favour of an internship at an interior design company and then, in search of a creative outlet, she ventured into the world of blogging.

She is adamant that she never saw vlogging as a potential avenue for fame, and that her success has taken her completely by surprise. “I never had any structure, I never thought this is where I want it to go,” she told the FT. “It was literally like my little space on the internet, where I just used to write about the things I loved, or things that I thought other people would love as well.”

Her videos, which always open with a beaming “Hellooo, everybody!”, demonstrate everything from the perfect way to apply liquid eyeliner and makeup tips for weddings to taking her audience through her recent shopping haul and bathing her two pet guinea pigs, Pippin and Percy.

Sugg operates within a close-knit community of video bloggers, known as the vlogging Britpack, who often make appearances in each other’s blogs, including her boyfriend Alfie Deys and her younger brother Joe.

In an era of overexposed, over-glamorised celebrity, Sugg is uncompromisingly wholesome – the happy-go-lucky antithesis of Miley Cyrus or Rihanna.
Photograph: Rex Features

In an era of overexposed, over-glamorised celebrity, Sugg is uncompromisingly wholesome – the happy-go-lucky antithesis of Miley Cyrus or Rihanna. “Oh, I don’t drink. Or take drugs – I can’t even take paracetamol,” she said in a recent interview.

Adam King, head of development at Diagonal View, which manages high profile YouTube channels, says much of Sugg’s success lies in her accessibility.

“What is unique about YouTube as a platform is that it strips away a lot of the artifice. The one thing people really respond to on YouTube is people being personable, and so when have that kind of connection with your audience people who are watching Zoella feel like she’s a friend, she feels accessible.”

King adds: “The thing with YouTube is it is not didactic, it is not a one-way street of content and she’s really good at using that to her advantage. She often responds to comments, she does QAs, she answers fans’ questions, she takes fans’ suggestions on what her next video should be and that keeps people feeling they are actually friends with her.

“So they really trust her, unlike most celebrities who they see on traditional media, which is built on inaccessibility. The millions of people who watch Zoella feel like they know her and most importantly people want to keep watching her. And the key thing is that she makes consistently good content for her particular audience.”

King emphasises that Sugg is not unique in making the transition from YouTube to traditional media and books, a move already made by fellow beauty vloggers such as Michelle Phan, though he says her decision to write fiction makes her distinct from the rest.

YouTube channel experts suggest Zoe Sugg’s secret to success is her accessibility and her dialogue with her audience.
Photograph: Rex Features

Sugg is not all lightness and cosmetics: her own severe anxiety has been dealt with openly in numerous videos, and perhaps surprisingly for someone who has opened her life to the watching eyes of millions of strangers, she admits to being “cripplingly shy”.

In one video that garnered praise from viewers and mental health charities, she openly discussed her own experiences with panic attacks.

“A lot of people get the assumption that because someone is able to sit here in front of a camera and speak for 10 to 20 minutes and broadcast it in front of hundreds and thousands, potentially millions of people, on the internet, that must mean they are 100% confident, have no self-esteem issues, have no real life problems,” said Sugg, speaking on camera. “That is so wrong. What a lot of you might not know is that I have suffered with anxiety and panic attacks really, really badly since I was 14 … I just thought even though it’s absolutely terrifying to sit here and talk about it, it might help people. It’s not something that I really enjoy discussing with hundreds and thousands of people but I am going to do it anyway.”

For figures of such popularity as Sugg, vlogging is is undeniably lucrative. As well as her generous two-book deal with Penguin, one YouTube statistics website estimates she has potential earnings of over £300,000, with brands willing to pay up to £4,000 for a single mention or endorsement on a vlog.

As such exposure usually dictates, Sugg has not escaped criticism. In one recent comment piece she was deemed “intimidatingly perfect and infuriatingly bland”, while others have accused her of simply promoting vanity and materialism for focusing many of her videos on shopping and beauty.

Yet those voices are few and far between, and with the follow-up to Girl Online due out next year, Sugg and her band of YouTubers look set to continue their reign over the internet for the foreseeable future.

Zoella Sugg

Born 28 March 1990.

Age 24.

Career Studied at a visual arts college before joining an interior design company as an intern. She started her blog in 2009.

High point Her first book, Girl Online, has become the fastest-selling debut novel in history.

Low point She has been very vocal about her struggles with anxiety and panic attacks, which she has suffered from since she was 14.

What she says “If you’re having fun, being yourself and filming something that you would watch yourself, it becomes contagious for other people to watch too.”

This headline on this article was amended on 6 December 2014 to correct a spelling mistake

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