The path of the British YouTube starlet has not run smooth. If we compare the phenomenon’s route to that taken by most youth-driven subcultures, it’s actually gone in the wrong direction. Pop music movements from rock‘n’roll to grime have tended to move from good honest artistry to commercialised populism.
YouTube celebrity has had a different trajectory. Early pioneers like make-up expert Zoella, her vlogger brother Joe Sugg, and pin-up Alfie Deyes somehow attracted millions of followers through friendly beauty sessions and zany chatter, making fortunes from bubble bath, calendars (£50 for Zoella’s latest), Christmas jumpers and stocking-filler books hastily released in the wake of their online success.
I used to be a compulsive liar. I’d make up stupid things to make people think I was cool and interesting
Rising more slowly and with less fanfare, however, are some credible young YouTubers with genuine talent and something of note to say. The connections stars like Emma Blackery, and vlogger, writer and singer/songwriter dodie are forging with their young followers are profound, a crucial antidote to the artificial, oppressive world the same demographic is lured into by the Pied Pipers of Instagram and Facebook.
dodie is one of the stand-outs of the new YouTube generation (generations last about three years in the superfast broadband social media universe). Like many of her peers, her fiercely devoted million-plus fanbase consists almost exclusively of teenage girls and young women, an emotionally intense and fragile set (“Rule one,” she says. “Never lie to them. Never ever.”)
Listen up, mums and dads of anxious young girls – through her disarmingly honest online posts, her soul-searching torch songs and now, her autobiographical new book Secrets for the Mad, 22-year-old dodie is getting to the parts of your daughters other people can’t reach.
When we meet in the bowels of the Glasgow venue she’s playing later she is as warmly welcoming as her big-hearted book would suggest. Elegantly pretty, with delicate features and big expressive eyes, she also has the air of nervous self-consciousness one might expect from someone who has written with no-holds-barred clarity about her history of eating disorders, panic attacks and depression.
Bearing in mind how sensitive she is to the prevailing culture of judgment and peer-pressure, it’s impressive just how generously dodie has laid bare the intimate, potentially embarrassing details of every problem area of her life. She’s put everything out there, from her crushing romantic rejections to her ‘broken family’, flailing friendships and the curses of female puberty.
“I think I do it because I’m so desperate for people to understand me,” she says in her soft, mellifluous Epping brogue. “And maybe also that way I can learn to understand myself. I used to be a compulsive liar. I’d make up stupid things – oh, I’m allergic to bees, I go to school on Sundays – just dumb things to make people think I was cool and interesting.
“It didn’t work. But I had friends who were really nice and kind and truthful about themselves and I loved that about them. So I thought, that’s interesting, I’m going to try that out.”
The result of her experiment with heart-on-sleeve frankness was remarkable. The hundreds of YouTube devotees watching her talk and sing about her life multiplied into thousands, then over a million. They wrote long, yearning love letters to her, sent beautiful, intricate drawings, and posted their own songs inspired by her confessionals.
“It’s difficult when their letters are so familiar,” she says. “So many of their messages tell me, you’re the only person in my life who gets me, you’re the only one who understands. But as much as I would love to, I cannot hug a million people.
“So I always tell them to reach out to people who know them and really love them. But I get it – when I was that age I was always looking for unattainable things, in places I would never find them. When I should have just focused on the present.”
Writing this book, it’s been easier to go back to that time, before this thing happened to my mental health
When Clark talks about focusing on the present, she’s referring to a deeper, more taxing endeavour than that rather trite phrase often suggests. She nods emphatically when I tell her I’m envious of the detailed memories she has of her childhood, not having logged mine to anything like the same degree.
“When I was younger I was determined I was not going to grow up. I’d never forget anything, I’d always be this person. So I made a real effort to keep every detail in my head. Writing this book, it’s been easier to go back to that time, before this thing happened to my mental health.”
This ‘thing’ is the diagnosis of a condition called Depersonalisation. It means Clark is perpetually struggling to stay tuned in to what’s going on around her, experiencing every moment almost like she’s underwater, drunk or dreaming. It has badly affected her memory of events since she was 18, as well as numbing her to the sights, smells and textures of her day-to-day life.
Last year, 27,000 people worldwide earned an income selling street papers, making a total of £23.4 million.
“It’s kind of like your existence has been turned down, like you’re half asleep all the time and you can’t find your feelings. I wrote in the book about when I went sky-diving and I just didn’t feel anything. I feel like life is just passing me by and that’s hard because I used to be so good at taking a mental screenshot of every moment.
”I remember warm summer evenings where we’d all be sitting on a field – damp grass, doing cartwheels, drinking cider. Maybe I’d borrow someone’s jumper. I can even remember the smell. And I told myself, drink this in, because it was just so much fun. There was no longing for the time that was passing, like I have now. It was just glorious as it happened, and I was truly, purely happy. Now, every time I wake up I think, am I back? Then it’s… no.”
No one can say what caused this affliction, though Clark has her own ideas. “When I was 16 I felt sure I was on this very clear path, for the rest of my life. Then suddenly it just blew up. I found out my family was probably going to split up, I was in a bad unhealthy relationship, I left school and moved away from home.
“An awful lot happened at the same time and I guess my brain just shouted, I can’t deal with all of this. And it packed up and it’s never come back.”
I want to feel the bad stuff, even when it really hurts, because it proves to me I’m still here
She’s tried a number of treatments, but nothing has had any impact yet, and she is wary of anti-depressants. “All those chemicals to stop me feeling things – not great if you’re a writer. So I look for ways to really take in and process even the most unhappy experiences. I want to feel the bad stuff, even when it really hurts, because it proves to me I’m still here.”
Watching her enchant a room full of dodie devotees a few hours later, it’s touching to think of her struggling to savour the feverish thrill in the air. It’s a cruel affliction for a performer to bear. But thank goodness she keeps doing it, because the reluctant role model is making a real difference to thousands of young lives, and that makes her worth her feather-weight in gold.
Secrets for the Mad: Obsessions, Confessions and Life Lessons is out now in hardback (Ebury Press, £16.99)