LOS ANGELES — In the corner of YouTube star Grace Helbig’s bungalow on a hillside in East Los Angeles, a camera sits on a tripod waiting to be turned on.
It’s a high-level Canon 60D with a flattering lens, a step up from the built-in webcam of Helbig’s Mac that she used for her videos in the early years. When she records here, the lens faces down so that she has to look up at it, like a peephole. She has also shot videos on floors and on couches and standing in hotel elevators. Really, she says, a video can happen anywhere.
On a typically warm, sunny afternoon last week, she sits down at her desk and presses record, then waves her arms around.
“Now we’re in a Grace video!” she says in the same lilting, half-asleep tone that’s become her hallmark delivery. “Yay, videos!”
Sometimes Helbig, 28, surprisingly tall and often laughing, uses professional lights to record, but they had been left at her friend and fellow YouTube personality Mamrie Hart’s place, so she has been shooting in the natural light coming in through her window. She also owns a high-quality microphone but hasn’t been using that recently either.
“I’ve just been using the camera mike,” she says. “I guess people don’t seem to mind.”
No, they don’t mind. In fact, Helbig’s fans — predominantly teenagers, mostly girls — probably wouldn’t care if she recorded her videos on a camcorder from 1986; they just want to hang out with her. She sees herself as an “awkward older sister” to her fans, she says, one who “just wants to tell them about the world, even though she has no idea herself.”
In the next six months she’ll see how far her fans are willing to follow their awkward big sis as she sets out on a variety of new ventures, including a risky split from her longtime Internet home, My Damn Channel, a potential pilot for the E! Network, a book and a film.
Helbig is trying to make the leap from YouTube popularity to international “brand” — a trajectory she admits is a primary goal — and she’s banking on her young fans to propel her there.
So far, the numbers are encouraging. In the more than five years Helbig has been making videos, she has amassed more than 210 million views, half a million Twitter followers, a devoted Tumblr audience and more than 2 million subscribers on the DailyGrace YouTube page, which, up until the beginning of this year, was her primary online presence.
Helbig was initially hired by the online network My Damn Channel in 2008 as a sort of spokesperson for the site, she says, guiding visitors through its content. Then, in 2010, DailyGrace moved to YouTube and together Helbig and My Damn Channel originated the template that has since become Helbig’s bread-and-butter: funny, pop-culture-friendly and irreverent videos from a female, Internet-savvy point-of-view.
A recent video, in typical Grace style, runs around three minutes and revolves around the question, “Will I put this on my face?” She considers this as she removes items from her refrigerator — Hummus? Almond butter? Yes to both — and smears them on her face.
In full DailyGrace swing, she’d write, shoot, edit and upload five videos a week, each with a daily theme and most of which have been viewed hundreds of thousands of times.
That’s a big audience for an aspiring performer. It’s just not the audience Helbig ever expected to have. Earlier in her career, Helbig’s “YouTube thing” was always a hobby, secondary to her aspirations as a more mainstream comedian.
When she was launching her career, Helbig, a New Jersey native who studied screenwriting and contemporary arts at Ramapo College, performed at the Peoples Improv Theater in New York (known as the PIT, where I also perform and met Helbig five years ago). She considered her Internet life a sort of “guilty pleasure” on the side. Once, she spotted a young audience member after an improv show wearing a T-shirt with the words “you’ve been hazed” on it — a DailyGrace catch phrase.
“I was like, ‘Oo no, my private world!’ ” she said. But it wasn’t private. It was online for everyone to see — and it was catching on.
Marshall York, a fellow PIT performer, remembers meeting two very eager fans in Providence, R.I., while they were at a comedy festival together.
“Grace was too nice to tell them to leave, but they just kept following us around for three hours,” York says. “To them it was like they won the lottery, hanging out with their hero.”
Helbig never assumed she would be drawing the large, overwhelmingly young audience she has today.
“When I started DailyGrace, I was dating a 26-year-old guy I thought was the funniest person in the world,” she remembers. “My creation process every day was imagining him watching my videos and wondering, will he laugh at this? But somehow that’s turned into an audience that’s mostly 15-year-old girls.”
“I still try to make videos for the funniest person in my life, because I think that’s a great way to create anything,” she added. “That said, I do know that if I talk about ‘One Direction’ it’s going to be more relatable than if I talk about ‘Waiting for Godot.’ “
For many performers, Web videos are a jumping-off point: make something funny, get an agent, audition for TV and film, join the masses of other actors looking to book roles. But for Helbig, several years ago it became feasible to make a living entirely online, creating her own content.
Toward the end of 2012, Helbig remembers, she realized she was more beholden to My Damn Channel, both financially and conceptually, than she had assumed.
My Damn Channel owned “DailyGrace” as intellectual property, meaning that if she ever left, the name DailyGrace, along with her 2.1 million subscribers, themed days and catchphrases she’d built up over the years would no longer be hers.
“I thought, ‘Oh no, I don’t own any of my content, I’m in a really s——- deal, and I don’t know what to do about this,’ ” said Helbig, acknowledging her earlier naivete. “I need to figure this out.”
Helbig said the split, which took effect at the end of 2013, was the result of months of negotiations. She wouldn’t comment specifically on the financial benefit she’s set to reap from it. Apart from potential for direct YouTube ad revenue, Helbig also has partnerships with corporate sponsors, including Ford Fiesta and the Windows Phone.
My Damn Channel noted its disappointment with Helbig’s decision in a statement released Dec. 31, but acknowledged her many creative contributions to the site over the years.
“While we were hoping to continue our formal relationship, [Helbig] has decided to move on to other ventures,” the statement from the channel said. “She is one of the most talented and hardest-working artists we know, and we are excited to see what’s next.”
What’s next for her is “ItsGrace,” which launched Jan. 6 and has more than 1 million subscribers. It’s a YouTube channel where she will continue to provide regular video doses of her “awkward older sister” charm.
Next month, she will star in a full-length feature film with fellow YouTube personalities “My Drunk Kitchen” creator Hannah Hart and (no relation) Mamrie Hart. “Camp Takota,” which was developed and financed by Rockstream Studios, focuses on a young woman who goes back to her old summer camp and reunites with her closest friends. The film, which Helbig co-produced, will be released online Feb. 14, with fans able to purchase “packages” that include merchandise, behind-the-scenes footage and “Google hangouts” with the stars. It will be another collaboration for the three friends; they have recently been performing — and selling out — a series of live shows at mid-size theaters across the country and they also often appear in each other’s videos.
Michael Goldfine, president of Rockstream, said Helbig’s appeal and her ability to communicate directly to an audience, will be integral to the film’s success.
Helbig has decided that she wants to keep doing what she’s doing, staying in control of the content she produces and eschewing acting and commercial auditions almost entirely.
“I hate auditioning; it makes me more nervous than anything ever, and I always feel like I wasted my time and I could have been creating my own thing,” she says. “With the Internet you have so much freedom that ‘gatekeepers’ make me terrified.”
The pilot Helbig is developing with E! is under wraps, but she says it will ideally “bring the Internet to TV” and appeal to her fans’ sensibilities. She’s also writing a book of essays and advice. Her goal is to be a curator of projects, she says, producing and developing new media with her “stamp of approval,” and she doesn’t see herself staying in front of the camera for much longer.
“At the end of my videos I used to say, ‘Byeeee,’ but now I say, ‘I don’t know,’ ” she said, holding her arms out wide. “That’s my mantra now: I have no idea, but I’m going with it.”
Kavner is a freelance writer and performer in New York.