The idea seems to be one from some dystopian novel: a world where every celebrity has their own internet channel, exhaustively promoting their brand to eager fans, who pay to tune in and watch their favourite stars selling themselves online.
In truth, that future is already upon us. This month, four of the five Kardashian/Jenner sisters – Kim, Khloé, Kendall and Kylie – launched their own subscription-based digital hubs through media company Whalerock Industries. Fifth sister Kourtney’s hub is in the pipeline.
The Kardashian channels, which are stuffed full of beauty advice (Kim), clothes and accessories to try (Kylie), fitness tips (Khloé) and travel and lifestyle inspiration (Kendall), are available online and as mobile apps, charging subscribers just under $3 a month. More than a million fans have signed up in the two weeks since their launch, with Kylie’s app, which features the 18-year-old goofing around and recommending her favourite snacks (Oreos, Lucky Charms, Diet Coke and Strawberry Twizzlers, if you’re interested) proving particularly popular: it topped the Apple app store within hours of launching.
That Kylie is the most adept at this new format should come as no surprise. As the youngest Kardashian-Jenner, she is a digital native who has grown up online and regularly talks to fans on Instagram and Twitter, on which she has 36.4 million and 11.5 million fans respectively. As she told technology site Wired when her site launched: “[The app] is by far my favourite thing… I’m way more comfortable on [it] and I can just share what I want to share.”
That last point is a particularly salient one in terms of what Whalerock Industries appears to be offering celebrities – the chance to cut out the middle man of old media and curate their own content. When the Kardashian/Jenners rose to fame, it was on the back of reality television, a genre now in freefall with ratings declining and a dearth of new hits coming through.
Yet while Keeping Up With the Kardashians presented the illusion of life – with the family, tantrums, troubled love lives and all – it was, as is every scripted reality-TV show, driven by ratings and stage-managed by executives. The new digital hubs offer something different – after all, if your fans are paying to see your carefully chosen content, do you need a big splash in a celebrity magazine such as People or even the higher-end brands such as Vogue, Elle or Vanity Fair?
“Celebrities are definitely extending their own brands online as a result of having the freedom to play with so many more platforms and to express themselves,” says digital journalist Emma Gannon, who founded popular blog girllostinthecity.com. “Most famous people still do ‘mainstream’ work via big companies, but there is a lot to gain from having their own platform: whether that’s a blog, a newsletter or a YouTube channel, stars can have direct access to their audience like never before.”
And for those who are prepared to offer the right mix of relatable “normality” and glamorous aspiration, the rewards could be huge. This is uncharted territory – a world in which the celebrity controls the content and the fans pay for the illusion of access and an insight in to their “real” world.
Put another way, it’s the YouTube-isation of celebrity culture. When YouTubers such as Zoe Sugg, PewDiePie and Alfie Deyes first rose to prominence, there was a lot of talk among branding and marketing companies about how to utilise their growing power, but the reality is that these new stars reach their fans without the need for huge campaigns and promotion. Earlier this month, Username: Evie, by Joe Sugg (Zoe’s brother and fellow YouTube star), which is described as being “created with help from writer Matt Whyman and illustrator Amrit Birdi”, became the fastest-selling graphic novel in the UK, entering the charts at number four.
Anna Valentine, publishing director at Orion, believes that the current phenomenon is only scratching the surface. She is currently on tour with controversial YouTuber Olajide Olatunji, better known as KSI, promoting his book I Am A Bellend, and says the tour has benefited from a strong interactive element, which included developing an app with exclusive content. “I do think an increasing number of celebrities will make the transition to YouTube,” she says. “YouTubers are generating more revenue through advertising and securing more lucrative brand partnerships than their counterparts in TV space.”
Certainly, for a generation of teenagers, the likes of Jennie Jenkins, Patricia Bright and Hazel Hayes are more famous than any A-List star. They relate to their “availability”, the way in which they are just like them, albeit with better hair and makeup skills and their own channels online. Last August, US magazine Variety commissioned a survey on the popularity of various stars, only to discover the five most influential figures among Americans aged 13 to 18 were all YouTube stars, with the teenagers singling out the YouTubers’ “candid sense of humour, lack of filter and risk-taking spirit” as the reason for their appeal.
Small wonder, then, that other celebrities are dipping cautious toes in these sparkling new waters. A report in the New York Times suggested that Whalerock hopes to “create app-based channels for 12-to-20 performers and brands by 2018”. It has already launched an app with rapper Tyler, the Creator, and is working on one with veteran shock jock Howard Stern. As the Wired piece about the Kardashians noted: “Social media has made it easier for [stars] to promote their causes on Twitter, but what if they no longer needed Vanity Fair for photoshoots? Or a production company for their films? So far, the internet remains complementary – one part of the Hollywood PR machine, not the main distributor – but that could change.”
Leading that change are the younger stars, who truly feel at home with the medium. While the likes of Cara Delevingne have long used social media to share intimate details of their lives with fans, increasingly a more vocal presence is called for. Thus model Karlie Kloss has a YouTube channel, Klossy, which aims to take fans backstage in her life “to the things you didn’t get to see before”, something which, in reality, translates to goofy videos made backstage during various fashion weeks and quick trawls through Kloss’s world travels. Meanwhile, this month Game of Thrones’ star Maisie Williams launched her own channel, the winningly titled Random Moments of Madness With Maisie Williams, saying in her opening post: “I have a lot of friends who are in YouTube and I just find it really, really interesting what they do and thought I’d give it a shot myself.” Williams’s channel, in contrast to the slick Kardashian sites, is promoted as an irregular slot on which she’ll post “videos and sketches, stuff that pops into my mind”. Yet it’s as much about the brand as Kylie Jenner’s more polished hub.
“Personal branding can be dismissed as a negative thing, due to all the corporate jargon surrounding it,” says Gannon. “But having your own personal brand is the way the world is going. Internet profiles have meant we’re all building online personas; you are selling yourself as a brand every day, even if you’re not aware of it through your cover photo, your opinions, your photos, your friends, your Instagram feed.”
The erosion of traditional media is beginning to open the doors for talented artists who might have struggled to be heard. More than 200,000 people subscribe to actor and writer Issa Rae’s YouTube channel and her videos, including her hugely acclaimed web series Awkward Black Girl, have been viewed more than 2 million times. Rae landed a TV deal with HBO on the back of that success. Insecure, about a woman on the verge of turning 30, was approved for development last December, although Rae has talked of her frustration at the time it has taken to turn this project around compared with making shows in her bedroom.
It’s this sense that you’re almost in the bedroom with the person you’re watching that companies are so keen to pin down, not least because it’s a potentially lucrative source of advertising and money. The Kardashian hubs are filled with their recommendations for all kinds of products, and the hope is, presumably, that fans will jump on those suggestions and buy them.
“I often think the Kardashians are the queens of native advertising,” says Gannon. “They are seamless at selling themselves, and selling while they do it. They sell without you noticing and no one minds because they are so interesting to follow, apparently. It’s just an extension of their brand and their personality.”
However, celebrities eager to sign up to this revolution should be wary. “A note of caution,” says Valentine. “The reason YouTubers are building such huge audiences is that they’re wholly authentic. They’re producing content they love, content they know subscribers will engage with. It’s a genuine transaction. Viewers can see through videos that are thinly veiled adverts … only those who produce brilliant content will rise to the top.”