Zoella, Girl Online and the "wrong" kind of success
This week, the British media have been in a feeding frenzy over Zoella, the popular Youtuber whose debut novel Girl Online sold a record-breaking 78,000 copies in its first week. In news that shouldn’t really surprise anyone, the book was revealed to have been ghostwritten by YA author Siobhan Curham, and Zoella took a temporary break from the internet in face of the ensuing furor.
I’m writing this as seemingly quite a rare specimen — someone over the age of 20 who knows who Zoella is and has seen her videos. Even though I wouldn’t call myself a fan, I am one of her much-mentioned 6 million subscribers, and I do watch her uploads on occasion. So take that as you will here.
In my opinion, the way that Zoella handled this situation was wrong. But it is nowhere near as wrong as the way that the media have handled their response. Zoella presents herself as a “big sister” figure for her pre-teen and early teen fans, and many of them look up to her as a role model. Her brand is built around authenticity, and the fact that she not only used a ghostwriter, but also lied to her viewers about her writing in her vlogs, is something that would understandably confuse and dismay young viewers who thought she could do no wrong. They certainly have a right to complain. But the media at large are not making this point. Most of the people writing about her had no idea who she was before this week, and as they criticize her and spread exaggerated stories about her crimes, they’re using her as a way to unfairly tear down yet another successful young woman and attack teen culture, as well as the publishing industry at large.
Whether you like her brand or not, Zoella is a self-made celebrity and successful businesswoman at 24. She’s rich enough to own a mansion when simple property ownership is a massive daydream for many 24 year olds, she was invited to sing in the newest BandAid, she’s been named vlogger of the year twice, she has her own beauty range in high street stores, she sold 79,000+ books in the UK in a single week… and the only help she had in the beginning was the existence of Youtube. She’s built a brand around being herself, and although people might not understand her popularity, her business savvy is undeniable.
But her success did not come through “approved” channels, and it’s a rather “feminine” success, talking about yourself and your feelings to a camera in your bedroom and offering beauty advice to that most maligned of audiences, teenage girls. And although young fans may be disappointed by the existence of her ghost writer, celebrity ghost writers are extremely common, both for autobiographies and for forays into fiction. The celebrity name is a brand, and although they may have the general plot ideas, the words are someone else’s. By focussing on Zoella’s use of a ghostwriter as though it is a shocking, unacceptable thing, the media are handily avoiding the fact that a self-made young vlogger has the power to break records with her brand, and instead turning her into a teen girl stereotype of vapidness and inauthenticity. The book sold because of her name and her name alone, but she doesn’t deserve her success, because unlike other celebrities with ghostwriters, she isn’t the right sort of successful.
And many media outlets are spreading misinformation as a way to hype up the backlash even further. They say that her ghostwritten book outsold JK Rowling (it didn’t), and that she has “quit the internet” in response to the backlash (she hasn’t) in order to simultaneously magnify her success and show how little she deserves it. Her need to take a step back in the face of a massive backlash is presented as a melodramatic flounce. Her ability to sell more copies than JK Rowling as a debut novelist in her first week of sales is presented as a statement of literary popularity, rather than the simple fact that Zoella’s name sells debut novels, and JK Rowling’s didn’t, because no one knew who JK Rowling was in Harry Potter’s first week on the shelves. And so understandable things, and laudable success, are used to malign her more and more.
Yes, there is an issue with the ghostwriter element, in terms of payment and in terms of credit, but that is not necessarily Zoella’s fault. And although the ghostwriter may have been ripped off, this doesn’t harm the publishing industry, as some people seem to think. If her books rakes in money, that money can be invested into other, riskier authors. The literary and the uncertain have to be supported somehow.
In the end, Zoella’s success show that teenage girls are an audience who demand content, demand role models, are a huge driver of popular culture, and have the power to make someone into a massive success. It shows that these girls are not just screaming over attractive boyband singers, but that they’re looking for young women to look up to and emulate, and that their influence can’t be ignored. The way that Zoella handles her branding should not set her up to be the media pariah of the week. But her popularity with teenage girls, her own gender and her personality and her audience, the idea that a young woman who is unknown to most adults could have such a powerful name and be such a powerful market force… that, it seems, is definitely worth tearing apart.