At only 21, Emma Chamberlain is already a veteran of YouTube fame. Starting at 16, Chamberlain began making and sharing videos of herself doing things like showing off her dollar-store haul or making a late-night burrito. Thanks to her sardonic humor, her quirky, quick-paced and ultimately highly influential editing style and her approachable on-camera charm, she made the mundane into something magical. Her videos became frequent viral smashes and turned her into one of the platform’s most popular personalities. As you can imagine, opportunities have arisen. Chamberlain recently signed a deal with Spotify, for which, as of this month, she is exclusively producing her often-philosophical “Anything Goes” podcast. She has also just become one of the global faces of Lancôme cosmetics, and that’s in addition to having started her own coffee brand, Chamberlain Coffee. The world of YouTube, where she now posts only infrequently, is not, as it turns out, big enough. “Now that I’m older,” Chamberlain says, “I’m more interested in things being more creative rather than just pure entertainment — things that feel more beautiful.”
You became famous for making these funny videos about your daily life, but since you shifted your focus toward podcasting, your material has gotten more serious. Now you’re as likely to talk about mortality or conformity as you are to be playful or share the details of your day. I’m sure some of that is just about growing up, but might your more searching attitude also be a reaction to the strangeness of getting so much attention at such a young age? So I started YouTube during a time in my life when I was depressed, like severely depressed. It gave me distraction and something to put my energy toward. But it got to a point where my depression came back, and the reason was because my whole life was on the internet. I felt so exposed. I felt so much pressure, and I was scared. My anxiety was out of control. In this moment, I’m at a good place. But maybe a year and a half, two years ago, it was challenging. Being on the internet was something I dreamed of, and everybody was like, your life must be perfect now, and I was like, no, it’s not. I felt guilty because I had what people dream of, and I was so scared and depressed and broken. But at the same time I feel like I’m meant to be doing this. When I meet people who watch my videos, listen to my podcast, even buy my coffee, and they tell me that these things bring them joy, that is worth all the pain. Because that’s what life is about! It’s about bringing joy and comfort to people. That heals the wounds that come with this career. Because as much as I hate to admit it and as much as people probably don’t like to hear it from me, this [expletive] messes with your head.
How exactly? What causes the anxiety? My physical safety. I am a young gal. I spend a lot of time by myself, and I feel like a target. It’s hard to feel safe. That’s on a physical level. But on a psychological level, the internet is constantly witch-hunting. I understand why. Seeing somebody get burned at the stake sucks you in in a way that nothing else does. I don’t blame people for having this interest, but I’m terrified because I am human and I’m not perfect and who knows what people could find about me. Somebody could make up a lie about me tomorrow and ruin my life. I feel powerless about my own identity at times, because I feel like it’s in the control of the public. Sometimes it can feel like, ugh, do I even have a voice? I do, but are people listening to me or do they just have an idea of who I am and that’s stronger? Feeling out of control in my identity has caused psychological harm. It’s caused severe perfectionism. Everything I do, I must be perfect. I must treat everyone perfectly. I must show up to everything on time. This is all behavioral, by the way. I don’t care about having perfect Instagram lips and a perfect Instagram body. It’s this fear of not being a perfect-enough person because I feel like any moment, any mistake, could be the end. I’ve seen people get destroyed on the internet. It’s a scary place to exist.
Do you think there’s a natural shelf life to being a YouTube star? Both in terms of the star’s ability to keep doing it and the audience staying interested? Yes. You can’t do YouTube forever. This schedule that YouTubers put themselves on is rigorous. You have to be uploading every week. If you upload every two weeks, it has to be a long video, and if you upload once a month, you better be making a documentary. If you’re not producing consistently, you won’t grow. That’s what drives the algorithm. There’s pressure to be producing at a level that is unrealistic. Inevitably people burn out or they become too obsessed with being consistent, and they never take time off to evolve their creative side, so it becomes stale. Right now with my video creation, I’m having fun just posting here and there. I made a bunch of videos traveling in Europe this summer because I wanted to document it for me. To be honest, I’m not ready to go back and be a regular video creator, because I don’t know what I want to do yet. I haven’t had time to grow my identity properly as a video creator because I was too caught up in the hamster wheel of it all.
Do you see the Spotify deal and the coffee business as an escape hatch from that? Well, for one thing, Spotify is integrating video on the platform. I’ve never filmed a podcast before, but we’re going to start filming some episodes. When it comes to YouTube videos or videos that are not podcasts, I don’t think I’ll ever be done with that. My first love was editing videos, taking footage that is nothing and turning it into something. I love it. So I’m not done with that, but I had a very unhealthy relationship with creating YouTube videos and I’m unlearning that right now: You must upload once a week, or else everybody will forget about you; you must make clean videos that are super click-baity, or else nobody’s going to watch; brand deals are annoying, but you need to do them, or else you will not have as much of a job. There were all these rules that I absorbed, and they became too much. It was also hard to be seeing and editing my own face all the time. So I’m pulling back on YouTube for my own well-being. I want YouTube to just be fun again, and I think it will be now that podcasting is my No. 1 focus, other than Chamberlain Coffee.
Has it become harder over time to move the cultural needle with a YouTube video? It’s gotten harder for me to find something that moves my needle. There’s definitely a formula for getting views. It’s something extreme, something eye-catching. I used to play into that a lot more, and that started to feel inorganic. The formula for growing at an exponential rate — it’s kind of always remained the same. It’s click-baity. And by the way, I did it, too! It’s a part of the business.
What’s an example of your version of a click-baity video? Titling a video like “Waking Up at Five A.M. … Is It Worth It?” When you click on the video, there is this fast-paced, funny editing style, which I loved at the time, and then there is this click-baity title and click-baity super-precise thumbnail that I thought about more deeply than you could imagine. My balance was that I might have an eye-catching title and a thumbnail that feels maybe goofy or stupid, but when you click the video, you’d be like, OK, she’s actually being normal and this wasn’t what I expected but I’m glad I’m here. I don’t want to say I was tricking people, but I was playing the game because that’s what you have to do if you want to succeed.
What’s your perspective on a guy like MrBeast? How do the underlying dynamics of what he does compare with what you were doing? I think MrBeast is looking at YouTube in the complete opposite way that I do. I look at YouTube more as a creative canvas, whereas MrBeast is a business. This is strategic. It’s not intimate. Do we really know MrBeast? What does MrBeast’s bedroom look like? What does MrBeast eat for breakfast? No one knows. He is this vehicle for entertaining content. He’s the common denominator, but all of his content is so different and it has nothing to do with him. His personal presence is not to be ignored — people know him now — but he’s business-minded, and I think I’m more emotional, creative-minded.
That emotional connection, which I think boils down to relatability, is a lot of what draws people to you. You seem like someone your fans could know. But your life is different from what it was when you started on YouTube: You’re in Lancôme campaigns. You’re at the Met Gala. Do you ever worry that the more rarefied circumstances of your life now might chip away at your relatability? I have thought about this a lot. I’ve been through phases where people were like: We lost her. There’s no way she’s going to continue to be relatable. I can’t speak to these people directly, but in my mind I was screaming, no, I promise you that’s not going to happen! Because what is relatable about a person is the way they see the world. That’s changed with age, but not because of my career. I am the same bitch I’ve always been. And guess what? People who have one follower on Instagram? There is no difference between me and those people. I think a lot of celebrities don’t feel that way. There are some who have this experience, and they feel immortal, unstoppable. I know that’s not true. I may have some life experiences that another 21-year-old girl might not, but that 21-year-old girl has experiences that I’ve never had. Also, I don’t feel like I 100 percent fit into this whole industry. I participate because I’m fascinated by the whole thing. I mean, you’d expect that something like going to the Met Gala would unlock a new emotion, or you see the world in a new way, you level up. No, you don’t. It’s the same [expletive] as going to prom.
I never went to prom. Actually, I didn’t, either. I tested out of school junior year and missed the prom. But I did go to formal and all those types of things.
I was suspended and wasn’t allowed to go. Iconic!
I guess it was iconic, now that I think about it. We turned out OK, right? [Laughs.] Yeah, neither of us missed much. We can safely say that.
Anyway, in addition to relatability, your sense of humor is something that people have pointed to as being particularly fresh or Gen Z specific. Can you talk about what shaped it? Who do you think is funny? You know, I’ve never in my life watched stand-up comedy and laughed. There’s something so inorganic about it that I don’t find it funny. You know what I just watched that I thought was funny? This series called “Yolo.” I don’t know what it is about that, but I was laughing, and I was shocked because I so rarely laugh at anything. I’m trying to think if there is anything else. Oh! “I Think You Should Leave.” So funny. The American “The Office.” I laugh at that every time.
How is it possible that a stand-up show has never made you laugh? OK, there have been, like, viral clips of stand-up shows, and I’ve been like, “Funny.” But whenever I put on a Netflix special of a comedian, I never want to watch them again. I get so angry. I’m like, why is this not funny? All the stand-up comedians are going to be so offended by me now!
Your humor obviously still comes through on the podcast, but it’s not typically in the context of the specifics of your life like it was with your YouTube videos. Is keeping your personal life a little closer to the vest something you felt like you’ve had to do for your own psychological well-being? I felt such fatigue when it came to filming my life. I was like, I make my coffee, I run errands. I’m not jumping out of airplanes! There’s nothing interesting. I got to a point where I was like, I physically can’t do it. It makes me depressed. On top of that, I like having sacred moments throughout my day that aren’t shared with the world, like when I wake up and make coffee. I felt like I didn’t have any me time before, because my me time was filmed. Now I dedicate a few hours a week to recording a podcast. It makes me feel like my life is more sacred. It allows me to share what I’ve been thinking about, but I can do the majority of the thinking in private. I know some people have said, we care about your day-to-day life and want to see it. Which is flattering, because I can’t imagine it! I’m like, why do you care? I can’t do it.
Unlike movie stars or reality-TV stars or even online influencers, the YouTube celebrity is still such a new phenomenon that we don’t have much in the way of models or templates for what a career that started in that space tends to look like. But do you have any sense of what your arc might look like or what you’d like it to be? I don’t focus too heavily on the future for the reason you just explained: We don’t know what is next. I have vague ideas of things that I might want to pursue when I’m older. I love creating videos, so maybe down the line that turns into something more serious, maybe in the documentary world. My podcast, I want to continue that for as long as I can, because there will be no shortage of things to talk about. Then I am obsessed with the visual identity of brands, the marketing strategies. I love working on Chamberlain Coffee because I get to do that nitty-gritty stuff in the background. But I could wake up one day and be like, I want to audition for a movie. Also, if I want to quit, maybe I quit! Maybe when I’m 30, I’ll be like, I’m done. I’m going to open up a tiny coffee shop and work there and get married and have babies. I don’t know. No one knows!
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity from two conversations.
David Marchese is a staff writer for the magazine and writes the Talk column. He recently interviewed Lynda Barry about the value of childlike thinking, Father Mike Schmitz about religious belief and Jerrod Carmichael on comedy and honesty.